SOUTH BEND — Their careers didn’t start the way any of them imagined.
Twenty true seniors remain on AP No. 15 Notre Dame’s roster that experienced the disastrous 4-8 season in 2016 as freshmen. On Saturday, they will take the field for potentially the final time in Notre Dame Stadium.
Some will return next season with an extra year of eligibility. Others will pursue the NFL, a graduate year elsewhere or a career outside of playing football.
Regardless of what lies ahead for their future, they all were impacted by the 2016 season and were a part of getting Notre Dame’s football program back on track. The losing provided plenty of learning opportunities.
“Certainly there were some residual benefits,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “They didn’t seem to be benefits at the time, but they learned quite a bit from that season in terms of the preparation and the locker room and all the things that are necessary to continue to build on your culture.
“Some of those guys are leaders today that have been able to make sure that no one takes our process for granted, and that you continue to work on it every day. So that experience definitely benefited those guys in their senior year.”
Those seniors won each of the last 17 games played at Notre Dame, which is the third-longest winning streak in Notre Dame Stadium history. A win Saturday on Senior Day against Boston College (5-5) would complete two full seasons of undefeated play at home. The Irish (8-2) haven’t lost a home game since the 20-19 defeat to Georgia on Sept. 9, 2017. That’s the only home loss in the last three seasons.
“Our players take great pride in protecting their house, if you will,” Kelly said. “It’s been a big source of pride in terms of our summer workouts. It’s clearly a goal of ours. Winning at home is important. It sets up your schedule. You’re generally playing six, seven games at home. It sets up your year.
“We take a great deal of pride in it. We have a great student following. We love playing in front of our students and our fans. It’s a great atmosphere.”
Before the game, each of Notre Dame’s 29 seniors and graduate students will be recognized in front of the home crowd and met on the field by their family or loved ones. It can be an emotional moment, but Kelly said knowing that the players have at least two games left after Saturday will allow him to control his emotions during the pregame ceremony.
“I get emotional just leading them. I don’t know that it comes down to one day,” Kelly said. “You get emotional watching these guys succeed and struggle. It’s just not the one day. If it comes down to one day, then I don’t know what you’re doing the other days of the year.”
In the last two weeks, quarterback Ian Book has completed 32 of his 52 passes (61.5 percent) for 465 yards and nine touchdowns with two interceptions and rushed 17 times for 170 yards.
In the three previous games, Book only completed 49.1 percent of his passes (54-of-110). What’s the reason for the improvement?
Kelly said it’s less about offensive coordinator Chip Long installing or calling different plays for Book and more about how Long and quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees have adjusted the way Book practices.
“We’re not scripting as much in terms of just calling it off a script and running it from a particular area on the field,” Kelly said of the practice structure. “We’re on the sidelines, and we’re running plays much more like a scrimmage.
“So Ian is getting plays from the sideline and getting it in much more of a game-like fashion, instead of just standing there and getting it off a script and almost it being formulated for him. We wanted it to be one where he had to see it, digest it, and then we would coach it after the fact in film study.”
Book looked great in practice when plays were scripted, Kelly said, but it was like he already had the answers to the test. The new practice structure forces Book to show his work and make decisions by going through his progressions rather than throwing it where he’s expected to throw it without deciphering how the defense and play call mesh together.
“We felt like we needed to do a better job coaching, quite frankly,” Kelly said. “Too good of a player and he wasn’t playing to the level that he’s capable of playing. And so we needed to take a good, hard look at how we were coaching him. It’s benefited him and he’s playing the way he should be playing.”
Lenzy to start?
A week after Braden Lenzy didn’t make the trip to Duke for what Kelly described as fatigue concerns, the sophomore wide receiver made a splash in Notre Dame’s 52-20 win over Navy on Saturday.
Lenzy caught a 70-yard touchdown pass from Book, which he caught 46 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, in the second quarter. It was the longest reception of Lenzy’s career and longest completion of Book’s career.
Lenzy finished the game with two catches for 87 yards and one touchdown and one rush for 10 yards. The results against Navy left Kelly confident in how the Irish handled Lenzy’s availability.
“We felt like with everything that was going on with him, we just wanted to protect him a little bit,” Kelly said. “Worked out pretty good. He looked pretty fast to me.”
When healthy, speed has never been a concern for Lenzy. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Lenzy was listed as a starter on Monday’s depth chart with senior Javon McKinley’s status still in doubt after McKinley missed Saturday’s game with a mid-foot sprain in his left foot.
Kelly didn’t point to anything specific when asked what has prevented Lenzy — beyond injuries — from becoming a starter on a weekly basis.
“The workload at that position is such that it requires just a whole different day-to-day kind of preparation. I think that transition is occurring with him and (fellow sophomore wide receivers) Joe Wilkins and Lawrence Keys,” Kelly said. “Those guys are transitioning into that, and so there is going to be some days where they have to be protected, whether it’s soft tissue or whether it’s just the load of academics and football, where we have to make coaches’ decisions based upon their readiness.
“We do that by seeing how they’re practicing, how they’re handling the load from week to week. This is a natural progression that they’re going through. They’ll be bigger, they’ll be stronger, they’ll be all the things necessary for them to be much more consistent as we enter into next season.”
• The conversations on potential fifth seasons at Notre Dame have already started happening between Kelly and the 10 scholarship seniors with a year of eligibility remaining. That includes Book, who redshirted as a freshman and likely won’t have a very high NFL Draft stock in 2020 if he decides to turn pro.
Kelly was asked specifically about a potential return for Book next season, but he declined to detail specific discussions with individual players.
“We try to have some conversations with them, and then we’re obviously trying to help them make some decisions on the NFL and things of that nature,” Kelly said. “So a lot of these conversations are percolating. They’re not priorities right now, but we like to lay the groundwork right now.”
• Sophomore linebacker Shayne Simon will have surgery on his right knee on Tuesday, Kelly said. The injury, a dislocated kneecap, happened in Saturday’s game. Kelly said they’re confident Simon will be able to recover to play next season, but Simon will likely not participate in full-contact situations in the spring.
• McKinley, who suffered his mid-foot sprain in the 38-7 win at Duke, was out of a walking boot on Monday. But Kelly said the training staff would have a better sense of his availability on Tuesday and Wednesday.
• Sophomore defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola sprained his ankle on Saturday. Kelly classified Ademilola as day-to-day as they prepare him to play this weekend.