Vorel: Time will tell if spring storms bring sunnier Saturdays for Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND — Spring is for storms.
You know, April showers and September flowers. That’s how college football works.
Theoretically, you endure in April — long practices, early mornings, blood and sweat and one big glorified scrimmage — so that in the fall, you can’t fail. You introduce new coaches, install new schemes, drill fundamentals until they’re instincts.
The storm is ugly. It paints the sky black, dropping sheets of rain in unrelenting waves. It’s punishing, and purposeful. In the process, something grows.
“After USC and you have your eighth loss of the season, you kind of know a storm’s coming,” hulking Notre Dame left tackle Mike McGlinchey says on Friday. “But the deal was that we didn’t know what was coming, but we trusted coach (Brian) Kelly. The guys that he’s put into place and the way he’s gone about taking back control of this football team have been tremendous.”
But understand, April is also for excessive optimism. Right now, every team in the country is undefeated. Every coaching change is a revelation. Every program is on the rise.
And at Notre Dame, it’s no different. On Friday, looking perhaps more mammoth than he ever has, McGlinchey says there has been “a complete 180” this spring. The way they work is different. Their preparation is different. Their attention to detail is different. It’s different, and it’s better. He believes it. You can tell.
According to South Bend’s resident 6-foot-8, 312-pounder, Notre Dame’s young players are improving more rapidly than they ever have. “Guys like me that have been here for five years have seen dramatic changes as well,” he adds.
McGlinchey credits first-year director of football performance Matt Balis as well as the program’s six new full-time assistant coaches. He heaps praise upon the embattled Kelly, lauding him for “understanding where we needed to change and how we needed to change it.” He vows to remove last season’s pesky penalties, too.
"First and foremost, I'm going to stop jumping offsides,” McGlinchey declares. “That will be nipped in the bud."
And when McGlinchey leaves the podium, the parade of optimism carries on.
“We said, ‘Play like a champion today,’ but I don’t think anyone really bought into that last year when we were going 4-8,” admits senior safety Drue Tranquill, a fellow captain. “It wasn’t an expectation to lose, but there was an uncertainty of what the outcome was.
“I think, if we were to step on the field now, our mentality would totally be to win every game and expect to win every game.”
Of course, words don’t win football games. But for now, that — along with a few practice highlights — is all you have. Kelly says that the 2017 Irish defense will boast improved fundamentals that bolster the bottom line. First-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko will utilize his best athletes and put them in positions to succeed. The largely unproven defensive line will exceed many of its critics’ expectations.
And on offense, “tempo” is the magic word. A faster pace, according to first-year Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long, will create a “fifth quarter” for first-year starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Notre Dame will wear down and outrun its competition — first and foremost, by running the football.
So, to recap: the offense will score quickly, and often. The defense will tackle and force turnovers.
Oh, and the team will rally together — in the locker room and on the field.
“I heard it best from (special teams) coach (Brian) Polian this morning,” Tranquill says. “He said, ‘You know what makes the difference between a good and great team? It’s the team that loves one another.’ I think I’m finally seeing that here at Notre Dame. There’s a group of people that just genuinely cares about each other and wants the best for each other.”
The Irish players and coaches paint a pretty picture — but is it also a premonition? Don’t forget, this is still a team that finished 117th in sacks last season and 72nd in rushing defense. It’s still an offense attempting to break in a new starting quarterback behind a previously underperforming offensive line. It’s still a special teams unit that was fatally ordinary last fall.
It’s still a proud program coming off a 4-8 season led by Kelly, who many in the fan base nudged toward the door.
This is a team that wants desperately to make good on its promises. But can it? Right now, the optimism is overwhelming. But only on Sept. 2 can we truly judge if it’s deserved.
For now, words are just words. But the work is there. The intent is there.
This has been a welcome storm, washing away any lingering stink of mediocrity.
It’s been pouring rain for months now. Let’s see if some flowers grow.