BRIDGMAN, Mich. — For a change, Brian Kelly was free to actually stress about his golf game in the days and hours leading up to the Kelly Cares Invitational Monday at Lost Dunes Golf Club.
It sure beats the alternative, acknowledging and explaining new headaches on the football front.
The closest the 10th-year Notre Dame head football coach veered in that direction Monday in a brief pre-golf meeting with the media was wading into some gray area with a few individuals.
Otherwise, he was greeted Sunday night, he said, by every returning player as the team reconvened from a short summer break for its two-week, 4-for-40 curriculum, rebranded “The Gold Standard.”
“Nobody got caught up in customs,” he said with a smile. “Nobody is in a third-world country that doesn’t want to be there.”
The 12 later-arriving scholarship freshmen and notable walk-on kicker Harrison Leonard join them in a couple of weeks when the main session of summer school gets underway.
That group does include linebacker/rover Marist Liufau from Kalihi, Hawaii, whose status for summer school and a scholarship in 2019 seemed murky last winter, when the Irish were well above the 85-scholarship cap that NCAA imposes by the start of fall-semester classes.
The Irish actually sit at 86, but freshman linebacker JD Bertand’s flexibility to earn and accept an academic scholarship gives Kelly the necessary wiggle room he needs even if no one else exits the roster.
The returning Irish players and the 10 early-enrolled freshmen cobbled together the first team grade-point average in the classroom in excess of 3.0 (3.007) since the spring of 2011.
They’ll walk into a newly renovated weight room this week and are on schedule to move into the new indoor practice facility days before training camp starts, Aug. 4 in Culver, Ind. The Irish will spend the first five days of camp at their off-campus home away from home.
Kelly addressed on Monday the status of four individuals whose presence in training camp was rumored to be in question:
• He shot down the notion that grad senior cornerback Shaun Crawford might be pondering a plunge into the transfer portal.
“Yes, I know for certain (he’ll be back with ND in 2019),” Kelly said.
In the one college season of four so far that Crawford didn’t suffer a season-ending leg injury in August or September (2017), he was a key figure in ND’s defense. That season he recorded 32 tackles — including 1.5 sacks — two interceptions, five pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.
• Kelly largely clarified senior backup wide receiver Javon McKinley’s status. McKinley ended spring practice on April 13 in limbo with Kelly because of a Feb. 10 arrest.
Initially, Kelly suspended McKinley, then conditionally reinstated him early during the 15 spring sessions, subject to re-evaluation in May.
“He’s on the roster,” Kelly said Monday. “He had a good semester academically. But given the circumstances that he was part of, as you can imagine, he’s got to do things the right way, every single day. He’s got to live up to a bar that is pretty high.”
In the court system. McKinley entered a pretrial diversion agreement on April 15 in which St. Joseph County prosecutors would dismiss the case after a year if McKinley completes the terms of the plan.
He was charged in February with illegal consumption of alcohol and two counts of battery, all misdemeanors, after he allegedly hit campus police officers who were trying to help him to his dorm.
The conditions for McKinley include 40 hours of community service, a substance-and-alcohol abuse evaluation and possible treatment, paying court fees and not committing any crimes for the one-year period.
• Kelly danced a little more ambiguously Monday when it came to addressing sophomore wide receiver Kevin Austin’s status.
Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long both hinted during the spring that there was some kind of undisclosed disciplinary action pending that took them down the road to discussing his “traits,” particularly off the field
It was much the same tactic Kelly used in the spring of 2018 when discussing Dexter Williams, who eventually was suspended for the first four games of last season.
That’s not to say Austin will start the 2019 season similarly. When asked point blank if Austin would be available to play in ND’s Sept. 2 season opener at Louisville, Kelly said, “If he continues to do the things that we want him to do, I think we can at least have a conversation about it, but we’re not at that point yet.”
Unlike McKinley, who has yet to register his first collegiate catch, Austin is a potential breakout player in 2019. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Fort Lauderdale, Fla., product had five catches for 90 yards as a freshman, though none of them came beyond the end of October.
Irish senior cornerback Troy Pride Jr., said among ND’s receivers vying to fill in around returning starters Chase Claypool and Chris Finke that Austin was the toughest cover in practice.
“He had a good semester (academically),” Kelly offered. “He’s made some progress. I could see him turning the corner, but again, we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves with Kevin. He’s made some progress, but we’re not ready to say that he’s here yet.”
• Kelly gave kind of a blanket thumbs-up to those players who were limited in spring practice because of injuries, with one exception — grad senior offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland.
Ruhland was a valuable utility player last season, starting five games and playing in nine overall.
“Ruhland is still recovering,” Kelly said of a lingering knee injury. “We’ll have to see how his volume can be. That’s something that’s going to have to play itself out. Can he train at a level that allows him to play at a level necessary if called upon? We really don’t know that right now.
“That’s going to kind of evolve as we go through the summer and then maybe into (training) camp.”
The new Gold Standard
Former Notre Dame offensive lineman Hunter Bivin has refined the ND players’ early summer curriculum in his role as associate director of player development.
The Gold Standard program includes community involvement from the Irish players. It also involves bringing in key speakers to talk to the team. Kelly notes Pro Football Hall of Famer Ed Reed and advocate Brenda Tracy as two he expects to be especially impactful.
Tracy has become the nation’s leading advocate in the fight against sexual and relationship violence in college football.
“(She’s) been very impactful to many of the NFL teams,” Kelly said. “I talked to (former Irish All-America tackle) Ronnie Stanley about her talk to the Ravens, and he was moved (by her) more than any other speaker he’s heard.”
Captains still on hold
Don’t expect a formal announcement on Notre Dame’s football captains until the start of training camp in August.
Kelly and the Irish staff are still gathering information.
“We just need no coaches around,” he said. “Let them lead their peers. That’s kind of the last piece.”
And if senior quarterback Ian Book isn’t one of the captains, it won’t be because he’s lacking in the leadership department.
“Ian Book needs to continue to grow in a leadership capacity and he needs to continue to grow as a quarterback,” Kelly said. “So which one do you want?
“I want to see continued growth as a quarterback. That wins football games. So let the other stuff naturally occur. I don’t want to put too much pressure on him.”
Kelly Ca res’ bottom line
The Kelly Cares Invitational charity golf tournament started as a joint venture with the Lou Holtz Foundation and the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Fund.
The Kelly Cares Foundation hasn’t forgotten its roots.
On Monday, the foundation wrote a $10,000 check to each of the foundations of former Irish coaches Holtz and Parseghian. Overall, the Kelly Cares Invitational raised $300,000.
“Non-profits are what they are,” said Paqui Kelly, Brian Kelly’s wife and the co-founder of Kelly Cares. “There are a lot of needs out there that need to be filled. We’re going to continue to work to make a difference.”
The recent Kelly Cares Foundation Gala in New York, May 20, raised more than $1 million. A $20,000 chunk of that went toward a Ronald McDonald House in Long Island.
Ronald McDonald houses, including the one in South Bend, provide a place for families to call home, so they can stay close by their hospitalized children at little to no cost.
“There are so many people who have supported us and been behind our foundation and the good works that we’ve done,” Brian Kelly said. “I think we’ve earned the trust of people that have allowed us to give back over $5 million in a very short period of time.”