Lesar: Notre Dame 'hunting dogs' search for personality

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Finding context in Brian Kelly’s suggestion that his Notre Dame football players are like hunting dogs is important.

That reference, made shortly after the Blue’s dramatic (OK, it wasn’t dramatic at all, but it was a typical beautiful day at Notre Dame Stadium; OK, it wasn’t that typical at all, remember it snowed last week) 17-7 victory over the Gold (OK, it wasn’t really Gold, more like White) in the Blue-Gold Game Saturday.

It had nothing to do with loud barks, mangy fur or a propensity to chase down wild game.

Those hunting pups are as obedient as the day is long, but hardly a pack of free-thinkers.

It was more about identity.

Kelly labored a bit when he tried to quantify the development of his seventh Notre Dame team’s personality through 15 spring practices. With just nine returning starters – making Notre Dame one of the youngest teams in the country – the growth process has been substantial.

“Little things happened along the way (this spring),” Kelly said. It's a pretty sound group. They are not a group that gets too far outside of the blueprint. In other words, we ask them to do things and they do them. They are not wanderers. They kind of stay where we point them. They are hunting dogs.

“We probably would like a little bit more personality in some senses, but we tell them where to go and they go. The only thing is, we've got to tell them where to go… every day. We've got to continue to work on that element with this group.

“If you tell them what you want, and you demand it, you're going to get it from this group.”

The operative word in Kelly’s statement is “personality.”

Last year, guys like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell, Chris Brown and Will Fuller were larger than life. They were dynamic. They controlled every room they were in. They had the talent and the confidence in that talent to freelance.

In crunch time, that trait could be a salvation. Games aren’t played by the book. Blueprints are there for reference sake, but when the rubber meets the road, the confident team that can perform out-of-the-box will usually have success.

That type of player isn’t obvious yet. Maybe if the quarterback position was settled, that would be a place to start. But that won’t happen probably ‘til late August.

“Every team has their own little thing,” said senior linebacker James Onwualu. “You don’t want to force something like that. Every team likes to put a little twist on their game. That’ll come throughout the summer and into the fall.

“Once you’ve got the pieces around you, you can start playing with it and putting your own flavor on it. Until then, it’s kinda tough. You’re just trying to work on your own game.

“As a group (it’s a confidence issue). Once you start playing with the same guys, it starts being, ‘I know what he’s doing, I know how he’s going to fit this. Let me try this.’ Then, you end up putting your own little flavor on it.”

“Once you have that confidence where you understand everything that’s going on, then you can start trying to be savvy about the game,” said senior receiver Torii Hunter (his last name being just a coincidence), Jr. “Right now, a lot of guys are just trying to get the basics down. Whatever they’re told, they’re going to do. Once you get that confidence, and really get a feel for the offense, you can make savvy decisions that give you the best opportunity to be successful.

“(Last year), we made some savvy decisions on the field. Our coach, (offensive coordinator Mike) Denbrock, he does a great job mentioning different scenarios and different situations where we could have been more savvy instead of sticking to the blueprint.”

“It’s a matter of time,” said senior corner Cole Luke. “We have a lot of young guys on the team. It’s a matter of them getting comfortable to where they can play to their potential.

“When I came in, I was scared to be who I was in high school. When (the young guys) understand the system, they’ll be able to just go out there and play.

“(How long ‘til that happens) depends on what type of guy you are. Some guys, it takes the coaches to push them. It takes yourself. It takes other players. It just depends.”

These mutts understand the commands and know how to respond.

Hopefully by fall, they’ll add a little bite.