Noie column: New football season offers Brian Kelly, Notre Dame a clean start

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Requiring team captains to vacuum the locker room every night before they leave guarantees nothing against Georgia or USC or Stanford.

Making sure that everyone from wide-eyed freshmen to fifth-year seniors keep their shoes, socks and helmets nice and tidy in their cubicles isn’t going to push the Irish any closer to something — a national championship — that they haven’t tasted in nearly three decades.

But it’s a start.

A fresh one.

One that a program coming off a 4-8 season in 2016 demanded.

Change at Notre Dame needed to be made. Change arrived in waves.

Head coach Brian Kelly overhauled his staff. Six new faces are in place. A new offensive coordinator in Chip Long. New defensive coordinator Mike Elko. New quarterbacks coach, Tom Rees, himself a former Irish quarterback. And a new special teams coordinator, who looks a whole lot like a former special teams coordinator, as Brian Polian begins his second tour in South Bend.

Once the nameplates on the office doors along the Gug hallways were secure and the “Hello, my name is ….” stickers no longer necessary for staff meetings, attention turned toward the players.

It was time for Kelly to raise the stakes. And the bar. Doing what had been done for far too long no longer cut it. Not when even the slightest detail — keeping a clean locker room — might carry over to the practice field during the week. Then over to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturdays.

As the first phase of preseason camp begins Tuesday at Culver Academy, Kelly has doubled down on his players. Much is expected, whether it be first-time starter Brandon Wimbush at quarterback, veteran left tackle Mike McGlinchey or any one of the dozen or so defensive players that Kelly rolled through during Monday’s 55-minute meeting with the media as the guys — HIS guys — who are ready to run with bigger roles this fall.

Though this season’s bottom line has Kelly’s name squarely on it, he’s all-in with the belief that his players will offer their names as well. Time for them to deliver. Kelly believes they will.

Who’s going to make plays? Who isn’t?

“Our players are going to make us look good,” he said. “They want to make Notre Dame great.”

As great as it was back when Notre Dame Stadium held 59,075 and there was no FieldTurf.

Back when there was no tiered-ticket pricing, Jumbotron or luxury suites.

Back when Notre Dame held a prominent place on the national landscape. Every. Single. Year.

Today’s game is different. Can Notre Dame also be?

Kelly is confident it can. With this group. It's a bigger group. A stronger group. A group that values relationships maybe a little more than his previous teams. One that has its confidence back after as challenging an offseason as they’ve ever experienced.

It’s a program that has a clearer vision of Notre Dame’s mission — graduate its players and win a national championship. Not vice versa.

A program that understands it’s about the process first, the production second. Skip one, and the other disintegrates into a fractured locker room, excuse-riddled losses and the frustration of 4-8.

Save for a massive meltdown somewhere inside the 13-game regular season (see VanGorder, Brian), Kelly’s job status is status quo. It’s not going to plummet with the first loss, not going to spike with the first win. He’ll be judged by his boss, university vice president/director of athletics Jack Swarbrick, at the end of season eight, where a season nine is likely.

Like many a college coach Monday, Kelly talked a good game. Words like “energizing” and exciting” were among the first from his mouth. He’s no different than any other college coach in the country as August arrives. This year can be something special for his guys.

“They’re counting on having the best season they’ve ever had,” Kelly said.

He insisted that there’s a lot to like about his program as preseason camp commences. Positive vibes in the (clean) locker room. A challenging offseason that pushed his players to points they never figured possible. Hope. Focus. An attention to detail. Accountability.

How it translates when it’s time to convert third-and-long or garner a key stop on fourth-and-1 remains to be seen.

Won’t happen? Kelly believes it will. The players have invested too much to settle for the alternative of being really good, but still nowhere good enough.

All those good vibrations have also extended into recruiting as Notre Dame secured five commitments over a 13-day period of July.

Why?

Kelly’s response? Why not? After all, he said, Notre Dame played for a national championship in 2012, and qualified for a New Year’s Day bowl (Fiesta) as recently as 2015.

“Those aren’t distant memories,” Kelly said.

Sure seems like it.

These players, this coach and the program are long overdue to make a few new ones. Better ones. Bigger ones.

Sooner than later.

No more sweeping that aside.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly likes a lot about his football team coming off a 4-8 season, but how will that translate into on-field success this fall? (SBT Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES)