Brian Kelly embraces Football 101, changes with Notre Dame team
SOUTH BEND — In the darkest, least certain days following Paqui Kelly being told she had a lump on her breast that could turn out to be cancerous in December of 2002, Brian Kelly threw out the notion of stepping away from coaching football.
For as long as necessary.
That was the same month the now-Notre Dame fifth-year head coach won his first of two national titles with Division II school Grand Valley State. The official diagnosis of breast cancer followed some six months later.
“He wanted to come to all the chemo (treatments) with me,” said Paqui, whose children were ages 6, 3 and 2 at the time. “And I said, ‘Listen, here’s where I need you — I need you when they put me under for the surgeries.’ I wanted him, whatever that might be, making those calls.”
She also wanted routine over all else. That was her elixir
“Different people have different needs,” Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Some need support, care. She wanted to maintain a normalcy on a day-to-day basis.
“As she fought the battle with cancer in her own way, she wanted to try to keep things normal with the kids, with the career, with football. I said, ‘Can’t we just bring somebody here to help out?’
“She’s like, ‘No, no, I’ll take care of it.’ That was hard, but it was who she was, and I think that’s how she got through it.”
What that normalcy looks like almost 12 years later is nearly 600 women filing into Notre Dame’s Loftus Center for Football 101, the signature event for the Kelly Cares Foundation, inspired by Paqui Kelly twice beating breast cancer (her second round started in 2007).
Last year the fourth incarnation of the event at ND raised $100,000 for the foundation, which counts breast cancer awareness among its many functions.
The Football 101 event is for women 21 and over who want a tutorial session on football basics, and a chance to act them out on the field, with ND coaches and players serving as mentors.
It’s also an opportunity for the media to pick the brain of Brian Kelly on the most pressing offseason topics. Here’s a sampling, most of which fall under the theme of change.
Internal changes: Kelly and the Irish coaches are taking advantage of a new NCAA rule that allows them to work with their players face-to-face in June for the first time, up to eight hours a week.
Players have been doing voluntary, unsupervised workouts for years, but now they’re supervised and mandatory. And the first such one took place Tuesday, before the football 101 crowd arrived.
“We’ll install our core offensive plays, our core defensive structure.,” Kelly said. “We’ll get our guys running and doing football-related drill work without footballs, bags and blocking sleds (all NCAA no-nos within the news rules). And then we get in front of them, and that’s something we’ve never been able to do in June.”
Kelly said every veteran returning player, except long-convalescing middle linebacker Jarrett Grace and starting left offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley were able to participate at 100 percent. Also participating were early enrolled freshmen, wide receiver Justin Brent and defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, as well as Florida cornerback transfer Cody Riggs.
Stanley recently underwent knee surgery, Kelly reported, so the junior’s participation was limited on Tuesday.
“He had some loose impediments, some things that they just wanted to clean up — nothing major, no structural damage,” Kelly said. “It was more of a cleaning up of the joint, so it was still a little bit sore, but he’ll be full go next week.”
Grace is a tougher read, though each day appears to be more encouraging than the last for last year’s starting middle linebacker who broke his right leg in four places in a game on Oct. 5. He has undergone two surgeries to help with the healing, the latest performed on March 29.
Kelly said Grace rode an exercise bike on Tuesday while his teammates were working out.
“We’re going to be very, very aggressive with him over the next two to three weeks.” Kelly said. “We’re going full go for him to be ready for Rice (ND’s season opener, Aug. 30). And he wants to do it that way. He’s very encouraged. I think it’s the best I’ve seen from him mentally. He was in a tough spot there for a little bit before the (second) surgery.
“I think if we really went slow with him, it would probably put him in jeopardy from being ready for maybe the first three or four weeks. And that’s not what he wants.”
All but tight end Tyler Luatua among the later-arriving freshmen will have their first mandatory workout June 18, two days after they start class. Luatua is scheduled to arrive on June 18, working around his late graduation from La Mirada (Calif.) High School.
“We’ve always counted on some freshmen to be involved in what we’ve done in September — or August, in this instance,” Kelly said. “Now to actually learn some of the terminology and get to know a little bit of what we’re doing is a huge thing. That’s certainly going to be helpful in giving a guy a chance to compete as a true freshman.”
And speaking of freshmen, if there’s a sleeper in the group who Kelly is anxious to get a first-hand look at, it would be defensive end Grant Blankenship, a 6-foot-6, 264-pounder from The Colony, Texas.
“Any time you get those long, athletic defensive ends that can rush the passer, you’re always anxious to see them up close and personal, because there’s such a premium on guys that can rush the quarterback.”
External changes: The confluence of the ongoing Ed O’Bannon antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, the college sports union movement, the Power 5 Conference autonomy power play and other recent events challenging the student-athlete model as we know it has Kelly watching closely.
With trepidation? With confusion?
“I actually think it’s exciting,” he said. “I think there’s a chance here that the collegiate experience could be the best four years for these student-athletes.
“If it’s done in the right way, we could have families enjoying their student-athletes, having an incredible four-year experience and watching them play and not having the hardship of having financially not being able to have tickets or have access or getting them home during their four years to see their families.”
Kelly added that dynamic could make it more attractive for players in other parts of the country to come to Notre Dame, if those family ties could be strengthened with allowances for the families to connect more often during their careers.
“You add Notre Dame to the mix, where you’re going to get an incredible degree with an incredible network — Notre Dame’s not going anywhere,” he said of the possible changes. “So I think it could be an exciting thing.”
Recruiting changes: The prospect of an early signing period for football has been long-debated but has never been this close to reality. The only thing separating it from moving from theory to practice in the next year may be a consensus among the FBS coaches as to when that date should actually fall.
“I think I’m very flexible,” Kelly said. “I don’t want (the date) to encroach on the coaches’ need to get out of here in July. So how we can work that, for me, is the most important thing.
“I think we can get our business done in June and still have an early signing day, whether it’s September or December, but I’m in favor of an early signing day.”