Editor’s note: The roughest of drafts of this story existed before it became clear Notre Dame would need to cancel 14 spring practices, including the Blue-Gold Game. The premise of it still holds, though it certainly is no longer the pressing concern in anyone’s mind.
A three-year starting quarterback carries many expectations with him, not the least of which is to lead all that is a college football team both on and off the field, but while Ian Book will be Notre Dame’s most prominent leader this season, presuming we are lucky enough to enjoy football this fall, he will not be the only leader.
The Irish coaching staff had only one morning to assess its team on the field this spring, but the very first thing head coach Brian Kelly had to say afterward was praise of the team’s leadership.
“I’m really pleased with the leadership of our team,” Kelly said. “That was evident today.”
That leadership — whoever provided it, a guessing game continued below — did not need to establish itself on the field this spring, a fortunate fact given Notre Dame will not hold another practice for the foreseeable future.
“A lot of it occurs outside of the practice time,” Kelly said. “A lot of it has been developed prior to when we get on this field by setting standards and expectations. They know what they want to accomplish.”
Those standards and expectations may have needed to be lightened a bit the last couple weeks, but the long-term Irish goal remains the same. Already having that identity set may be a bit of a status quo, at least for 10-15 teams in the country, but the process of achieving it generally takes a bit longer. Per Kelly — and again, this was all before everything turned upside down — Notre Dame’s roster had already come to grips with the work ahead of it to achieve that goal. That may seem like an obvious step, but it often takes longer than winter workouts to reach, sometimes extending into September, frankly.
“We had a meeting [in early March] with the staff, and this is the first team that I’ve had that has really established in their own mind who they are and who they want to be,” Kelly said. “That’s hard to have, 18-to-21-year-olds really come together and say, this is who we want to be, this is how we’re going to go to work every day.”
It is idealistic to say those players self-motivated through winter workouts so getting the work in at home should follow course. There was greater group pressure then, not to mention strength coaches taking notes. And, obviously, there was less to worry about in the bigger picture.
Nonetheless, if that roster had already focused on itself, it may be able to do so moving forward, as well. That will begin with a few players taking charge, just as they would in the locker room or on the field.
“You don’t need a lot of guys out there yelling, because they’ve set a standard on how they want things accomplished,” Kelly said.
The Irish return two captains in 2020 in Book and senior right tackle Robert Hainsey. Though both well-spoken, neither is exactly a vocal leader.
“[Book’s] presence itself has been great,” Kelly said. “He’s thoughtful.
“What’s great leadership? To me, when you battle through adversity, after the Michigan game for him to lead our football team to six consecutive wins, that’s pretty good. That shows some resilience and some leadership and all those guys know that.
“They want to follow a guy like that just because of his actions from last year. He’s got a ton of credibility and a lot of respect from his peers. He doesn’t really need to walk around and scream and yell. He’s got a presence about him.”
The thoughts of overcoming adversity could apply to Hainsey, as well, after breaking his ankle in November and working his way back into some action in the first (and only) spring practice.
Who will join them as captains in 2020 is a tougher guessing game than usual, given the lack of spring practices to sort out some of the depth chart, but a pile of fifth-year starters could make the default choices pretty clear, particularly if they lead the way in checking on teammates during these uncertain times and then holding them accountable to staying in as best of shape as possible while remaining safe.
Age-wise, Hainsey is actually behind both left tackle Liam Eichenberg and right guard Tommy Kraemer along the offensive line. Given the lack of experience anywhere else on offense, at least one of them is likely to join as a captain, if not both.
Sticking with Kelly’s thoughts of adversity, sixth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford and fifth-year defensive end Daelin Hayes are both experienced in recovering from injuries while keeping their spirits up. They also may be the most vocal of these initial thoughts.
Naming seven captains a year ago was a surprise, so Kelly may stick with only four or five of these potential six, but even recognizing six would not be outlandish. If they can keep the roster trending in the singular direction it was in the winter, then they will have earned it.