Now's the time for Notre Dame to be special

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – If the Notre Dame football team truly fancies itself as something special, well …, now’s its chance to prove it.

They make movies and write books about teams that overcome the odds these Irish are facing.

They create bronze statues and name a stadium gate after a coach that can convince his players that adversity can be overcome.

On the other hand, teams that wallow in the pity that comes from losing three starters on offense and two key defensive players are a forgotten bunch that drift off into the limbo of underachievers and unfulfilled expectations.

Just three weeks into the season, Notre Dame is at a crossroads.

Nobody would have dreamed this team would be an underdog at home this early.

Georgia Tech, the first of three big-time opponents frontloaded on the Irish schedule, is the third of 12 playoff elimination games. Lose once and it’s time to re-assess goals. There is no margin for error.

That’s why getting quarterback DeShone Kizer, a redshirt freshman, and his backup, true freshman Brandon Wimbush, ready to compete at the highest level is so imperative. Next week, when UMass comes to town, head coach Brian Kelly and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford can tinker with the game plan a bit.

The college football world marveled at what Urban Meyer was able to do at Ohio State last year. And, for good reason. He had two quarterbacks injured late in the season, but still found a way to win two playoff games to lock down the national title.

Kelly’s predicament has some similarities. Dating back to last June, the Irish are on quarterback No. 3. Everett Golson went to Florida State as a graduate transfer. Unlike at Ohio State, Malik Zaire had three months to prepare for his coming out party. Now that Zaire’s out with a broken ankle, Kizer is the next man in who threw a 39-yard TD pass to Will Fuller to pull out a victory over Virginia.

Another difference: Meyer had a healthy starting running back and healthy tight end.

So, even though Notre Dame has had more time to digest and deal with the personnel issues, the scope may be somewhat more significant.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that anyone in the college football world will shed a tear for the Irish.

“Any team looks at it like, ‘Boy, why us?’” said Kelly. “No one really cares. Those that do are happy that you’ve got more injuries. They’re in it for their own team.

“No excuses. Let’s go play. We’ve got players who will step up. We’ll get through it. Everybody’s gotta deal with some adversity. This is our end of it. We’ll be stronger for it.

“You won’t hear any excuses about it. We’ll find a way. That’s what I want to hear from our team. We’re going to make sure our team understands that.”

Kelly’s right, there is no room for excuses. This situation is all about opportunity.

Here’s a guy who was successful as a coach at places like Grand Valley State and Central Michigan. How did he survive and flourish? Player development. Blue-chippers don’t flock to those programs. Find some coachable raw talent and turn it into a quality player.

Kelly always talks about recruiting RKGs (right kind of guys). Well, if he has the RKGs that he thought he had during the recruiting process, if they’re coachable and focused on the immediate challenge …

No problem, right?

The mandate’s still out there. Kelly’s teams have lost five games in three of his five seasons at Notre Dame. One other was four, lest we not forget the 2012 trip to the championship game.

Right now, 12-1 seems like ancient history.

Injuries won’t give Kelly a pass for this season. Expectations haven’t changed. Neither has the schedule.

The nucleus of this team — guys like Nick Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Sheldon Day, KeiVarae Russell, probably Jaylon Smith and maybe Will Fuller — won’t be around next season. It’s time to strike.

No excuses. It’s time to be special.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly watches his team an NCAA college football game against Texas, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)