Notebook: A profound wake-up call as Notre Dame's Kelly reshuffles schedule, priorities

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The alarm now going off at 4:30 a.m., on a regular basis is more profound than symbolic.

For better, for worse, this is who the reinvented version of Brian Kelly is as he heads into his eighth spring presiding over the Notre Dame football program, with the first of 15 practices set for Wednesday morning.

This is where long hours of introspection took him. This is also where the players, scarred by a 4-8 season, implored him to be, with near unanimity in 93 postseason exit interviews.

In their corner. In their process. In their face, all before the sun rises.

Kelly was never a part of the player winter workouts at 5:45 a.m., in his previous seven seasons at ND. The all-consuming figurehead part of his job precluded it.

So he decided things like fund-raising would be someone else’s problem. Even the harder-to-let-go-of things, like running the offense, has been handed off to new 33-year-old offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“Over the last few years it's been a committee running the offense,” Kelly said of the scheme that gets an uptempo kick this spring. “There is no committee now. It's one guy that can kind of turn it loose and run it.

“When I was at Cincinnati, I was the guy. I was running it by myself. So I think going back to what I believe is the most efficient way to do it, and get out of the way and let Chip run it.”

Kelly’s increased accessibility to his players — and not just the guys on offense — is designed to endure throughout the day. Every day.

But it starts in the grueling weight room sessions, where building mental toughness drives the agenda, and physical and speed gains are a happy byproduct.

What it’s all supposed to look like hasn’t been condensed down to a slogan worthy of a T-shirt or collectible plate, but Kelly used words like “process” and “grit” and “traits” early and often, and in lieu of a whole lot of X’s and O’s.

“There isn't one person that's in this building that's not talking the same language, and I won't let them,” Kelly said. “I think that’s the biggest difference.”

That and a re-calibrating of his body clock to get the message out in the pre-dawn hours.

“I love it,” he said eight weeks into his new routine. “You can't get up at 4:30 in the morning if you don't like it. You know? If you don't love getting up and spending time with your players and are not energized to do that, you can't do this job.

“But I can't wait to get in here in the morning. I can't wait to spend time with our guys. They're incredible to work with. There's such a desire to want to be great. That's the only way you can continually, five days a week, get up early and get in here, because there is an incredible passion by our guys to want to be great.”

He’s back

Junior-to-be tight end Alizé Jones returns from a semester of academic exile in which he was able to practice with the team in 2016 but not play in actual games.

Most of his reps came on the scout team, prepping ND’s No. 1 defense for upcoming games.

In terms of expectations for the dynamic tight end who could end up at the top of the depth chart, Kelly wants his top priority to be continuing work hard on the academic side of things.

“He can't lose focus on the most important things, and he can't get distracted, and that is graduate and win a championship. Social media, other things that pop up in life can distract you from that end.

“So I just try in my relationship with him to keep him focused, to pay attention to detail. If he does those two things, he's going to have a really good spring, because his physical tools are really, really outstanding.”

Measurables

New director of football performance Matt Balis believes in constant Combine-style testing to measure progress.

“We time a lot more 10-yard and 20-yard dashes than we do 40s, though,” Kelly said.

The two fastest players on the roster, consistently in the 40, heading into spring are a pair of sophomores-to-be — wide receiver/running back Deon McIntosh and cornerback Troy Pride Jr.

• Every player on the roster with the surname Jones put on at least five pounds this offseason. Tight end Alizé, who changed his uniform number from 10 to No. 86, is now 6-foot-5, 245, up from 240. Linebacker Jonathan Jones (6-foot) went from 220 to 227 and running back Tony Jones Jr. (5-11) is up to 224 from 215.

The most dramatic physical transformation on the roster — Jones or otherwise — belongs to linebacker Jamir Jones, who’s 6-3, 243 — up from 225.

• Some others of note, 6-1 safety Jalen Elliott (was 195, now 208), 6-2 long snapper John Shannon (was 220, now 235), 6-0 running back C.J. Holmes (was 196, now 206), 6-6 offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg (was 280, now 294), 6-5 defensive end Julian Okwara (was 228, now 235), and 6-6 tight end Durham Smythe (was 245, now 256).

Notable players who are playing leaner are 5-11 running back Dexter Williams (was 210, now 202) and linebacker Nyles Morgan (was 245, now 238).

“The way we put the staff together is that we wanted the combination of a high-intensity training with some velocity-based training, Olympic lifts,” Kelly said. “We wanted correctives immediately with some individual position-specific lifts.

“Then, obviously, some speed, agility, and quickness. So those five layers of training have already been implemented, and I think we've already seen that through just the workouts, preliminary workouts with our guys.

“I know they feel better. I know that they feel as though their confidence in their workouts — whether it be numbers that they actually see, how their body looks — I know that they feel a lot more confident in how they're moving.

“We'll see how that translates on the field, certainly. We've got to be able to take it out of the weight room and put it on the football field.”

Personnel matters

The list of players restricted for spring practice by injury/surgery rehab may be the shortest of the Kelly Era.

Wide receiver Javon McKinley (broken fibula) and cornerback Shaun Crawford (torn Achilles tendon) are the only two on that list, per Kelly, and Crawford continues to be well ahead of schedule in his comeback.

“He's jumping, his change of direction, I think you're going to see him extremely active in the spring,” Kelly said of perhaps ND’s most dynamic defensive player.

“I don't see him in a contact position at this time, but he won't be cheated this spring. He's really going to use spring as an opportunity for him to continue to grow as a football player.”

• Kelly said he’ll split quarterback reps between presumptive starter Brandon Wimbush and backup Ian Book 60/40 this spring.

As for the intangibles of the position relative to Wimbush?

“We're not asking him to come in here and lead the entire building,” Kelly said of the junior-to-be. “We've got six captains right now. We're going to probably have as many as seven. So he's well supported in that role.

“He has to have a presence about him. Body language. He's got to have confidence in himself. So those are the areas that I'm spending more time on than him having to take control of the entire football program.”

• The only two position changes noted on the spring roster were cornerbacks Nick Coleman and Ashton White both moving to safety.

There may be more before the spring concludes with the annual Blue-Gold Game on April 22.

“Nothing crazy,” Kelly said. “Maybe a tackle slips out to an end. “So you guys are going to be out at practice. You'll see guys running around at some position. But this is not going to be a Gong Show.

“I mean, these guys are going to be in positions that can map their physical tools. We may have a situation where we're trying to get guys on the field and see if they can compete at particular positions, but I don't think you're going to see anything that's like, wow, Jay Hayes is playing slot?”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly heads into his eighth spring practice at ND with a new routine that allows him to be more accessible to his players. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)