Notre Dame picks up speed, strength as college football season winds down

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

If a specific sport’s season indeed is a marathon and not a sprint as the cliché likes to say, then members of the Notre Dame football team labored in previous years long before the 26.2-mile marker.

In runner’s terms, they often suffered through painful calf cramps where it felt like a brick was being pushed up the backs of their legs. Their breathing was all over the place. They would remain in the race, but far off the pace. Every next step, every approaching mile, became that much more difficult and demanding. Sometimes, demoralizing.

Oh, the Irish would reach the finish line the best they could come Saturdays, but it was tough. Trying. Sometimes, terrible. They just didn’t have it in them. Everything they had to give was given weeks earlier. Sometimes months. By the time the homestretch arrived — in college football, that’s November — the Irish were on fumes, scrambling to stay sane.

“It was kind of like hanging on,” said senior linebacker Greer Martini. “Every week it was a like a race to Friday and try to recover as much as you could before the game.”

That has changed, in myriad ways. Much of it started back in the early morning cold and darkness of a South Bend winter. That’s when new director of football performance Matt Balis took over, shredded any previous scripts and started rebuilding the Irish from scratch. They didn’t know it then, didn’t understand it, but Balis would help mold a group that could be as fresh in late November as it was when preseason camp commenced on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee in early August.

Tired legs and arms and minds? Balis would make sure there’d be none of it. Any of it.

As No. 5 Notre Dame (7-1) enters the season’s final full month with a whole lot to play for — like, everything it sets out to do when the season starts — the Irish do so feeling as fresh and fit as they have in weeks. Months. Even years. No longer do they labor to get through another week of practice. No longer do they labor to get through the next game on the schedule after the weather and the leaves have turned. They’re good. And good to go. This week against Wake Forest. Next week in the sun and humidity of South Florida. Right through to wherever a season that’s become borderline special might take them.

“We’re going in fresh, going into Saturdays feeling better than ever, which is a big difference,” said Martini. “We’re getting stronger as the season goes on, which hadn’t been that way my first three years here.”

Times change

Senior middle linebacker Nyles Morgan remembers the moment when everything changed for an Irish team that finished 4-8 last season. It was a Tuesday in January during their initial meeting with Balis, who had arrived after three seasons at Connecticut. Balis pitched his 2017 blueprint for an Irish team that really needed something new. Different. Exciting.

Some guys in the room that day may have been a bit skeptical. Dubious.

Morgan bought it all and bought in from the jump. Make him bigger, stronger and faster. Give him the ability to play snap No. 80 as well and as focused as he did the eighth one? Morgan couldn’t wait to sign up, couldn’t wait to get going, couldn’t wait to see how well he maintained his conditioning from the August heat through the November chill.

“I was not skeptical at all after the first day,” Morgan said. “Physically, I feel stronger and faster. There isn’t a week where I don’t feel like I haven’t gotten better in some area.”

Where? Morgan declined to offer specifics. Mainly, because he didn’t know the exact numbers of his vertical leap or squat or bench press.

“It’s, like, Balis stuff,” Morgan said. “Ask Coach Balis.”

No can do. Like all Irish assistant coaches, Balis is off-limits to the media. It’s up to the players, and head coach Brian Kelly, to do the talking for him. There’s a lot to talk about. And a lot to like.

The players see the Balis results. Kelly sees it. The nation’s now seeing it.

Among Kelly’s new assistants, coordinator Chip Long deserves credit for bringing some sanity to the offense. Mike Elko has coordinated a defensive renaissance. Kelly’s been praised for both hires. But right there with them is Balis, who’s helped reinvent the way everything and everybody works, be it the offseason or during game week.

Notre Dame’s main goal each week isn’t to win the game. Winning rarely is discussed in the meeting rooms of the Guglielmino Center and the weight room next door in Loftus Center. The main goal, really the only goal, is to dominate the next opponent.

Notre Dame’s done a whole lot of that. The Irish average 468.2 yards and 40.8 points per game. That’s Long. Defensively, they’ve not allowed anyone to score more than 20 points in a given game. And when the defense needs a big play, often times the defense gets a big play. That’s Elko.

This is Balis: At a point in a season where some teams are hitting a conditioning wall, Notre Dame may be hitting another gear. A championship-caliber one.

“We’ve made incredible strides during the season,” Kelly said. “We’re a stronger football team today than we were in August.”

Mondays matter

Win or lose, play at home or travel back from the road, the Irish have stayed on script throughout game weeks. Sundays are a day to get treatment, a day for them to relax their bodies and their minds. Though the on-field football stuff doesn’t begin again until Tuesday, Mondays often lay the proper groundwork to dominate on Saturday.

That means weight room work. Serious work. Leg work.

“Monday lifts are brutal,” said senior rover Drue Tranquill. “I’m still sore from Monday’s lift. We really crush the lower half, do a lot of different mechanics in terms of squatting, explosiveness, speed squats.

“It’s a grind, but it’s what we want.”

Novembers often have been a time for Tranquill to realize that he’s lost a few pounds off his 6-foot-2 fame. Usually, it’s around five. As November arrived Wednesday, Tranquill still was carrying the same amount of weight — 231 pounds — as he was when the season started. Meanwhile, his strength numbers, particularly his speed squats, continue to rise.

“I certainly feel that,” he said. “We’ve seen the benefits from the challenge in the weight room, not necessarily just going in there to maintain, do things that we have in the past.

“It’s kind of become second nature to us to go in there and attack it.”

Then turn around and be ready to rock on Saturdays. Now eight games in, 17 Irish have made every start on offense (seven) or defense (10). Missing games — and starts — because of injury has been a relative non-issue. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush did sit out the win at North Carolina with a sore foot. Wide receiver Cameron Smith currently is down with a hamstring. Martini missed the Southern California game after a surgery to repair a torn meniscus.

First hurt during a bye-week practice, Martini was expected to miss up to a month. He was back in less than two weeks. Part of that stems from his desire to savor every chance in his final season, but part of that also stems from the shape he’s been in all season.

“Going in before surgery, the stronger you are, the quicker your recovery is,” Martini said. “I think that definitely had an impact on it.”

No player has had a bigger impact on the field this season than junior running back Josh Adams, now a very serious contender to capture the school’s eighth Heisman Trophy next month in New York City. Adams has rushed for 1,169 yards on 132 carries and nine touchdowns. Each time he’s touched the ball, he’s averaged 8.9 yards per carry. He’s run 50 yards for touchdowns. Sixty. Seventy. Much of that work is done between the tackles, running right up the gut of the defense and absorbing big hits. But he still keeps on trucking.

He’s taken a lot of hits already, and will take many more over the final four regular-season games. He’s ready mentally and, most importantly, physically, for any of it. All of it.

“You can’t really change much about having a little bruise here or there. I’m cut up on my legs. That’s nothing new,” Adams said during his portion of Wednesday’s captains’ press conference. “From a physical standpoint, I feel pretty good.”

After answering his final question, Adams made a quick exit out a side door. The clocks on the wall said it was nearly 1 p.m. There was someplace Adams needed to be at the top of the hour.

The weight room.

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame linebacker Greer Martini is one of many Irish who have benefited from the new strength and conditioning program of Matt Balis. The Irish are bigger, stronger and better. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)