Notebook: Ara Parseghian still positively influencing Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND —They come in the mail, handwritten with stamps, and almost every week during the football season.
On this reunion weekend honoring the 1966 Notre Dame national championship football team and the 50th anniversary of its famed 10-10 tie with Michigan State, Brian Kelly is reminded of the enormity of iconic Irish coach Ara Parseghian’s reach in shaping ND football’s storied past.
It’s the cards, though, that Parseghian sends to Kelly that remind the seventh-year Irish mentor that the 93-year-old continues to positively influence Notre Dame football’s present as well.
“I have a book of the cards, that he drops me after most games,” Kelly said Thursday after 18th-ranked Notre Dame's (1-1) preparations for the 78th meeting with No. 12 Michigan State (1-0), Saturday night (7:30 EDT) at Notre Dame Stadium. “It’s pretty special.
“He’s not a man of many words, but for me they’re inspirational in the sense that at 90-something years old he takes the time to write me a note, and I can read them. Very legible.”
Parseghian and the 1966 team will be honored just before kickoff Saturday. More than 70 members of the team are expected to attend reunion activities, which include a private lunch on campus Friday afternoon and a public appearance at the pep rally Friday evening at Purcell Pavilion.
Fellow Irish coaching legend Lou Holtz also is expected on campus this weekend for a function. Lou’s Lads is a charitable organization, powered by former Holtz-era players, “dedicated to preserving and supporting the legacy of Lou Holtz.”
“Both of them I respect greatly,” Kelly said of Parseghian and Holtz. “We connect through the charitable work of our foundations, which inevitably allows us to segue into football topics. That connection stays, because they stay connected to Notre Dame, too.”
Kelly left no doubt as to whether senior receiver Torii Hunter Jr., will play Saturday night. He will, which Hunter himself had already strongly suggested Wednesday.
But will the Irish get the dynamic, deep threat Hunter had been before suffering a concussion late in the third quarter of the Sept. 4 double-overtime loss at Texas?
“I thought he was a little rusty Tuesday,” Kelly said of Hunter’s first extensive practice since the concussion. “Wednesday he was a little better. I think today he got back into the rhythm.
“When you take a week off in our offense, where there’s so much volume for those wide receivers, you lose a little bit of that. He’s a little sore — muscular soreness, not anything with the head or neck. He was a little stiff and sore the first day or two. So it was getting the kinks out.
“But (Thursday) he looked pretty much back to where he had been.”
The twists of junior cornerback Nick Watkins’ recovery from a broken left arm may finally have taken a turn for the better more than five months later.
The 6-1, 200-pound junior from DeSoto, Texas, had a scan taken this week to assess the progress from an injury suffered April 2 during spring practice.
“There’s been some bone growth there,” Kelly said. “That’s a positive sign for us.”
Notre Dame's starter against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl will be re-examined next week to get a definitive word on his status. If Watkins gets the go-ahead, Kelly said he could be back playing in games as soon as two weeks, best-case scenario.
“He practiced very hard this week,” Kelly said. “He’s a kid who started for us and played pretty good in the bowl game. He’s in pretty good shape. His volume was really good in practice. We’ve just to get a green light that we’re not putting him in a position where he could hurt himself.”
Two defensive ends who enjoyed promising springs and/or summers, junior Jay Hayes and freshman Daelin Hayes, have been slow to impact the defense so far, largely because of limited opportunities.
“Before it’s all said and done, both those guys will play a role in our defense,” Kelly said Thursday. “The first week we were in sub (nickel) personnel. We’ve already kind of rehashed that. And then the Nevada game, we really wanted to right the ship, and went with the guys that we felt like could get us going in the right direction.
“Now we’re really looking at getting all of these guys to the point where they can contribute. I’m very confident you’re going to see both the Hayeses playing more football. I think you’ll see (Julian) Okwara playing more football, Jamir Jones. There are a lot of guys we have yet to see that will have roles for us on the defensive side of the ball.”
Keep an eye on the rushing stats in Saturday’s game, which are extremely telling for these two coaches. Kelly is 41-6 at Notre Dame when his teams win the rushing battle. Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, over the same time frame (2010-present), is 55-4.
One of those four MSU losses came in 2013, when the Irish prevailed, 17-13, on the scoreboard but lost the rushing battle, 119-78. The other three Dantonio-Kelly matchups went true to form.
Speaking of that 2013 games, the Spartans have gone 34-4 since that loss at Notre Dame Stadium.
Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 7 1/2