‘Larry Bird Rule’ important to Irish football growth

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Never underestimate the impact of strong, effective leadership within the framework of a football team.

Anyone who doubts the significance of a take-charge guy only has to look as far as the last two Notre Dame teams for proof.

One was blessed. One was woefully lacking.

Linebacker Manti Te’o and defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore were consummate leaders. Didn’t matter what side of the ball, they were respected. Their energy put the pedal to the metal on a program that was being built for greatness in 2013. They willed Notre Dame to the BCS National Championship Game two years ago.

Last year, the Irish were begging for a dynamic leader to step forward. No one was capable. Solid guys and quality players like offensive lineman Zach Martin, defensive linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, and receiver TJ Jones didn’t have the charisma or the personality to be “that guy.”

The critical, but very intangible, task of finding leaders for the 2014 season starts today. Spring practice is a place where those special personalities are allowed to step forward.

“Everybody wants to talk about leaders,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “We’ve got to talk about how to get our guys to lead within their unit. They’ve gotta be able to lead within their position group. After they lead within their position group, they’ve gotta be able to lead on their side of the ball. When they can lead on their side of the ball, then they can lead the football team.

“The steps we’ve been taking the past few months (in winter conditioning), have been to put them into position to lead within those subgroups. Then we’ll have a better idea of who our leaders will be.

“That’s the lab work or the microcosm of building the team right now. We’ll take that out on the field. I’m excited about having practices so I can see that happening.”

The challenge for a coach is to be patient enough to let it happen. So many guys in the corner office are there because they’re control freaks. When they want something done, they force it to happen.

Leadership evolves. It’s not contrived or manufactured. It took three years before Te’o felt comfortable as the face of the program.

It’s not a skill that can be taught or coached. It’s a personality trait that can be cultivated and developed.

“In our conditioning, we break (the players) up into some units,” Kelly said. “Within those units, we want to hear them talking, making sure people are doing it the right way – if somebody’s bent over, not showing the right demeanor, making sure they do that.

“Those guys who are communicating that way, we reinforce that. We try to use the right buzzwords: ‘Keep competing.’ That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re trying to build that. If that unit’s not doing well, we point it out. We make sure that unit is penalized as a unit, not as an individual. That starts to get the entire unit outside of thinking just about themselves.”

So, who are the leaders for 2014?

“In an ideal world, you want your best players to be your best leaders. That’s what you’d like,” Kelly said. “Sometimes, that’s not the case. You observe daily, find out who those guys are, and try to cultivate those individuals.

“With this group, in ’14, our best players can be our best leaders. They may not all be seniors. We’ve got some great seniors. All our seniors are committed. But we may have some underclassmen who are great leaders too.”

Senior quarterback Everett Golson’s standing among his teammates will be interesting to watch. Will the Irish respond to the athlete who played a crucial role in the run to Miami two years ago, or raise a skeptical eyebrow at a student who let them down with some bad academic decisions last year?

Senior linebacker Jarrett Grace will need to be more focused on his own recovery from a devastating leg injury last season than have a broad grasp of the pulse of the entire team.

Center Nick Martin – steady, dependable, and a quality person and player – may be the best bet along the offensive line.

But the one guy who may be the face of the Irish – if not this season, then maybe next – is sophomore outside linebacker Jaylon Smith. He has the right personality. He may be the team’s best defender. But, after just one year, there’s no guarantee he “gets it” just yet.

“One of the things that makes a great leader for me is consistency,” Kelly said. “Everybody talks about the sophomore slump. One of the things with (Smith) is consistency; being able to do it again.

“You could pile a lot of work on him; you can keep piling it on; he hasn’t been able to bring anybody with him yet. That’s the next thing that we’ll be working with Jaylon, to bring some guys with him. The ‘Larry Bird Rule’ I use all the time: Make others around him better.

“He’s not there yet, but that will be the next stage for him.”

Smith may be a guy worth following.

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (13) pressures BYU quarterback Taysom Hill (4) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, at Notre Dame. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)