Notre Dame makes bowl statement with name-dropping

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — More significant than the latest injury report, than the dark horses rising in the late periods of practice and the latest evolutions in the quarterback meeting room was a simple and profound gesture.

It was a nod to history, specifically the Lou Holtz Era, but more illuminating in the sense that this is the way the 2015 Notre Dame football team has chosen to define itself in its final act and on the big stage, its Jan. 1 BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl clash with No. 7 Ohio State (11-1).

“The seniors came to me,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday after practice No. 5 of this postseason and the first of them with “live” tackling.

“And (they) said, ‘Coach, we don’t want names on the backs of our jerseys. We’re Team 127.’ ”

The thought behind the gesture is the same elixir that’s galvanized and emboldened unsung players ascending into prominent roles when the monotonous roll of injuries could have easily rerouted this team to the Belk Bowl.

“Just little things like that, where it’s been a continuation of the same demeanor, the same thought process, the same ‘we’re about team’ focus,” Kelly said. “I’m just trying to stay out of their way at this point and not mess it up.”

That certainly doesn’t guarantee anything on the scoreboard in Glendale, Ariz., for the eighth-ranked Irish (10-2) when they meet the Buckeyes, a team teeming with talent and tradition, for just the sixth time ever and first meeting in a decade.

But Kelly has learned that the secret sauce to give a team a chance at victory in any of the bowls starts with the mental/emotional outlook.

And for both Notre Dame and Ohio State, that means Kelly and Buckeye counterpart Urban Meyer shepherding their once-playoff contending teams away from thoughts that next month’s clash in Arizona is somehow the football equivalent of the NIT.

The Irish players’ decision is a visual of what Notre Dame’s football culture has become. And what is once was.

It was Holtz, who helped sweep away the cataclysmic stench of the Gerry Faust Era (1981-85) with one of his first acts removing players’ names from the jerseys to emphasize team.

He reinstated the names for the first ND bowl game under his watch, the Cotton Bowl that capped his second season (1987). But after a 35-10 pounding from 13th-ranked Texas A&M (of the No. 12 Irish) in Dallas, Holtz reverted back to his original thought process.

Notre Dame has only worn players’ names on the backs of their jerseys six times since then — the 2008 Hawaii Bowl under former coach Charlie Weis, and the five postseason appearances under Kelly leading up to this one.

“They clearly have a direction that they want to go and how they want to play,” Kelly said of his current group.

As does Kelly.

He is pulling from his deep past these days as much as honoring the lessons learned at Notre Dame that have coaxed evolution.

That philosophical fusion is driving, shaping the way Kelly puts his fingerprints on the bowl prep, and that starts with more-physical practices.

It’s not that Kelly was necessarily against those in his earlier days at Notre Dame. The Irish didn’t have the depth at certain positions to pull that off, and Kelly lamented that in the days both leading up to and following Alabama’s defrocking of the Irish, 42-14, in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game.

“You’ve got to go out and create live opportunities for your team and tackle and bang around,” he said.

So it’s more hitting, more 1s vs. 1s, more speed vs. speed in this bowl cycle for Notre Dame.

With that comes keeping things concise but intense in practice, especially in those before the team’s Dec. 27 arrival in the Phoenix area. None of the first five sessions have exceeded 90 minutes in length.

There are lessons from Kelly’s formative days as a head coach, at Division II Grand Valley State and FBS mid-major Central Michigan, that have never gone out of style for him.

“Everybody’s got a couple of really good players,” Kelly said of part of his past that’s bled into his present. “It’s getting your average players to play above their means and developing those players.

“In the Mid-American Conference, you had a boatload of those guys, and those are the guys that you’ve got to bring up. You’ve got to fill them with confidence. You’ve got to fill them with the belief that, at times, they’re better than they really are.

“And that’s what I learned at Grand Valley State. And that’s what I learned at Central Michigan, is that you’ve got to get your middle-of-the-pack guy to play above his means.”

There is much more star power in this Jan. 1 game. No team has more players than Ohio State’s and ND’s combined 20 in ESPN Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s top 10 draft-eligible players by position. And only the Cotton Bowl (Alabama vs. Michigan State national semi) can match the Fiesta Bowl’s four consensus All-Americans.

“Maybe Ronnie Stanley and Joey Bosa play to a tie,” Kelly said, referring to two of those. “Maybe they don’t, but you hope maybe that’s the case from our perspective. And then those other guys have got to step up across the board. That’s what I’ve learned.”

Culture beats scheme?

Kelly’s little preseason catchphrase has found new life in the postseason. And the best thing about it was this time it came from his players.

Buying into Kizer

Notre Dame’s stand-in redshirt freshman quarterback, DeShone Kizer, actually finished with better pass-efficiency stats than the man who finished spring practice at least a rung and a half ahead of him on the depth chart (transfer Everett Golson, now at Florida State) as well as the two starting QBs Ohio State has used this season (Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett).

But it wasn’t exactly love at first sight for Kelly when evaluating Kizer, first in the recruiting process, then as the replacement for injured starter Malik Zaire.

“We weren’t totally sold on his physical skills,” Kelly said of Kizer’s high school days at Toledo Central Catholic. “Like in combines, he was OK. He wasn’t great. Threw the ball a bit inconsistently. He was a bit off at times, a bit of a long-lever kid.

“So we had to go see him play a couple of times. And every time he played, he mounted fourth-quarter drives. I mean, he just had a way about him. And so when we offered him, we offered him on that premise, that he had that kind of ‘I can’t put my finger on it,’ but the guy just gets it done late.”

As Kizer did in his first significant college action, a 34-27 come-from-behind victory at Virginia on Sept. 12, a game in which Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury.

“Now he had all this physical ability that hadn’t shown itself yet,” Kelly said. “And then when we put him in the game against Virginia and I looked at him, I was obviously feeling at that time, ‘We’ve got to put this kid in the game. This doesn’t look good.’

“He looked a lot more confident than I did, and that’s when I knew we had a kid who was going to be OK.”

Personnel matters

Senior running back C.J. Prosise (high ankle sprain) continues to ease his way back into physical activity, but Kelly says ND’s leading rusher has yet to take meaningful practice reps yet.

“We’re hopeful, as we continue to move through next week, that we get closer and closer,” Kelly said.

• Sophomore cornerback Nick Watkins has found a second wind in postseason and is challenging both starters, juniors Devin Butler and Cole Luke, per Kelly.

“I think that’s just confidence, and I think it’s starting to come on,” Kelly said of the difference in Watkins. “I’m looking forward to seeing him really grow.

“All three of them, we’ve put in a competitive situation. And I think we’re going to continue to keep the heat on them, so to speak, to keep competing, because I think it brings out the best of them.”

• Kelly said bowl practices haven’t been structured as in years past, where young players can make a big impression, but redshirting freshman Miles Boykin has managed to do so this postseason anyway.

“He’s long. He’s athletic. He attacks the football,” Kelly said. “You could see where he’s going to be a really, really prominent player in our offense. Like what he’s doing.”

A together Notre Dame football team, that refused to get pulled apart by injuries, continues to pass the chemistry tests in postseason. (SBT Photo/ BECKY MALEWITZ)