Notebook: Notre Dame's potential for growing pains didn't blindside Brian Kelly

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The many layers of issues that have turned a preseason top 10 ranking into a 2-5 start hardly blindsided Brian Kelly, he said Thursday night.

But the seventh-year Notre Dame head football coach believed his team could transcend them enough to survive early, then grow into a more finished product as the season rolled along.

“I was worried about not getting off to a good start and what that could mean,” said Kelly whose Irish will try to reboot their season Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium against Miami (4-3), a team that itself was in the top 10 three games ago before a three-game losing streak deleted them from the national rankings.

“I’ve never been a half-empty guy,” Kelly continued. “I’ve always been a half-full (guy), so I was expecting to get off to a good start and then letting that kind of build, that confidence.”

The Irish, coming off an open date, are 7-1 under Kelly in the games immediately following a bye week. That includes a six-game winning streak in such games, a string that started with a 41-3 rout of the Hurricanes in Chicago during the 2012 season.

Different history lessons

Brian Kelly admitted Thursday he’s never seen Notre Dame’s epic 31-30 victory over Miami in 1988 in its entirety, but he copped to having watched the pregame tunnel fight multiple times.

“And the lore of the Jimmy Johnson-Lou Holtz, ‘Leave Jimmy for me’ — that kind of tête-à-tête was always one of my favorites,” said Kelly, who was a graduate assistant coach at Division II Grand Valley State at the time.

Saturday’s meeting between the two dormant rivals will be the 26th overall but first staged in Notre Dame Stadium since 1990 and only the third meeting at any venue since that game.

“I was clearly aware of the magnitude of the game and the whole ‘Catholics vs. Convicts’ thing and that shtick,” Kelly said, “but really haven’t made it a big piece of our week. Not that our kids are not aware of it, as much as it’s really not central to what we’re going through right now.

“What’s central for this football team, in my estimation, is execution and confidence and all the things that are really more germane to this team. It’s not about retribution and tradition and things of that nature. It’s much more centered on playing better and playing more consistent.”

Meanwhile, in Miami, Hurricanes defensive coordinator Manny Diaz took a contrary tack with his team.

“They’re being told that you’re being judged by whether you beat Notre Dame or not,” he said. “And if you don’t beat Notre Dame, it’s a failure. It’s a big deal. It’s a big thing in this university. It’s a big thing in this town.

“And if we’re both 12-0 or 0-12 —or playing here, there or on the moon — Miami must beat Notre Dame. … Those battles back in the ‘80s are really what made the ‘U’ the ‘U’.”

McKinley set for surgery

Freshman wide receiver Javon McKinley suffered a broken left fibula in practice Wednesday and will miss the rest of the season.

An ND spokesman said the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Corona, Calif., product will undergo surgery on Tuesday.

Because McKinley has played in more than three games (5) and appeared in at least one in the second half of Notre Dame’s season (Stanford on Oct. 15), recouping the season as an injury redshirt is highly unlikely.

McKinley, one of three freshman wideouts to see action this season, did not record a reception.

More personnel matters

Sophomore defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway completed a full week of practice on scout team, his first extensive full-contact work since undergoing surgery on Aug. 10 for a Jones fracture in his left foot.

The 6-foot-4, 300-pounder was projected as Jerry Tillery’s primary backup before the injury. Because Dew-Treadway already redshirted last season, the Irish are not going to hold him out if he can contribute.

“He did a really nice job for us this week,” Kelly said. “I think he’s probably ready to … be evaluated as to whether he can compete to get some playing time.”

• Junior Justin Brent’s slow recovery from summer foot surgery (Lisfranc) has finally come along to the point where the running back is finally practicing. But playing time this season may not be a reality.

The converted wide receiver or former top 100 recruit, in fact, hasn’t seen playing time since his freshman year, and only sparingly that season. He redshirted in 2015.

“He’s down the depth chart right now,” Kelly said. “He’s working hard, but we feel like we’re in a pretty good positon with the guys we have right now.”

• Freshman Kevin Stepherson’s recent surge in practice is squeezing sophomore slotman C.J. Sanders’ receiving opportunities in games.

The 6-foot, 181-pounder from Jacksonville, Fla. (10 catches, 209 yards, 2 TDs), actually plays former Irish All-American Will Fuller’s old outside position, with Torii Hunter — Fuller’s initial successor —now moving inside and taking most of his reps from the slot position.

“He’s got explosive traits in that he can catch the ball at full speed, he can break at full speed,” Kelly said of Stepherson. “He just has that explosiveness that not all of our guys have. We brought him along slowly, but he’s going to be a tremendous football player.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly enters Notre Dame Stadium before the start of the Stanford game, Oct. 15 in South Bend. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)