Notebook: Brian Kelly retooled Notre Dame with November success in mind

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It was a makeover designed for sustainability and not simply survival.

And being a team built for November success was hardly a stray detail in the evolving big picture for Brian Kelly. Getting ahead of the curve in strength and conditioning was a large part of that. Finding a philosophical schematic/play-calling template that paired with that was every bit as necessary.

Where that has brought Kelly and the Irish (8-1) is the largest one-year statistical leap in school history when it comes to the running game, from 80th nationally to fifth in yards per game, and on pace (at 7.04) to not only shatter the modern school record for team yards per carry (5.63 in 2015) but the antiquated one as well (6.2 by Knute Rockne’s 1921 team).

“I think the way we’re set up makes us very well-prepared for November,” said Kelly, who was 10-1 (.909) in November in his first three seasons as ND’s head coach, then 7-10 (.412) in the four seasons that followed.

“(Because of the) weather,” he continued. “Not needing to rely on one person to carry your team, especially. It’s a group. It’s running the football. I think it lends itself a lot more.

“We don’t have to throw the ball 50 times and have a great day by our quarterback. He needs to continue to grow certainly, but it’s much more of a collective group that just needs to continue to do what they’re doing and be physical and bring that physicality each week.”

They’ll bring that show on the road Saturday night (8 EST; ABC-TV) to Hard Rock Stadium, the same facility (but with a different name) the last time the Irish sported an AP ranking higher than the current No. 3 status.

Notre Dame was No. 1 when it faced Alabama in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Jan. 7, 2013, with a national title on the line, and fell to No. 4 after a 42-14 loss.

This time the Irish play host Miami, No. 7 in the AP poll and 8-0 for the first time since 2002, two years before it bolted from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

It will be Kelly’s 100th game as Notre Dame’s head coach.

“That's like a thousand (in) dog years, isn't it?” he said with a chuckle Tuesday at his weekly press conference.

“It's really focus, refocus at Notre Dame. You have to stay on top of it.”

What that entailed this past offseason was tailoring the new offensive approach around an offensive line that underachieved in 2016 during a 4-8 season.

“The pieces were certainly (here),” Kelly said. “It was a change of philosophy in terms of what we were going to really hang our hat on in terms of who we were going to be, our identity. So our identity was going to run through that offensive line.

“So in the offseason, there was a commitment to it: The hiring, the philosophy, the total makeover of our entire mental psyche in terms of being physical, was all part of that.

“But I don't think it really takes hold until in the season, when that's all backed up by actually doing it. And you can talk about all that stuff, but if you actually do it and stick to it, I think that that's when it really start to come together.”

Perhaps no team has been set up to test ND’s new physical/bullying/run game personality more than Miami is since Georgia limited the Irish to 55 yards on 37 carries on Sept. 9 in a 20-19 Bulldog win, seven days before the Irish went off for 515 at Boston College.

The Hurricanes are a modest 67th in run defense, but No. 1 nationally in tackles for loss. They pair that with the nation’s No. 3 pass efficiency defense — the third top 10 unit Irish QB Brandon Wimbush has faced this season — and the No. 12 scoring defense, the best on the Irish schedule other than Georgia’s (No. 3).

“(It’s) really (about) trying to keep out of those third and double-digits,” Kelly said. “If we can keep them into third and manageable, then the quarterback can run, too. So don't force it, don't turn the football over, make it manageable on third-down situations. That's really the key for us.

“You start getting up into those (third and) 12, 13, 14, 15, you're in trouble. That's what we've done really well all year is we've leveraged third down in our favor.”

And staying with the running game and believing in the offensive line even when things went bad against Georgia.

“They were fine because it wasn't all on the offensive line,” Kelly said. “It was a number of things that we needed to do better collectively at a number of different positions, from tight end to quarterback to running back to coaches, everybody. And it was still becoming more comfortable with what we were doing schematically as well.

“There wasn't a panic. There wasn't finger pointing. It was, ‘Let's continue to do what we're doing and we'll break through.’ ”

Personnel matters

Starting running back Josh Adams (run down) and quarterback Brandon Wimbush (contusion/bruise to non-throwing hand) continue to distance themselves from ailments/injuries that cut their playing time short in last Saturday’s 48-37 win over Wake Forest.

“They had a great day in the weight room (Monday) physically,” Kelly said. “So there are no concerns about their readiness and what their physical stature is for going into the (Miami) game.”

• Tight end Alize’ Mack (concussion), ND’s third-leading receiver, was expected to practice Tuesday with no restrictions after missing the Wake game.

• The status of junior running back Dexter Williams (thigh contusion) for Saturday is still murky, though Kelly was optimistic Tuesday. Williams was limited to three carries against Wake Forest.

The Florida product during the recruiting process initially verbally committed to Miami before flipping to and signing with the Irish.

“His explosion was back (Monday in the weight room),” Kelly said. “You saw that he didn't have that full speed on Saturday, but I think we're getting closer there.”

• Wide receiver Cam Smith has missed three straight games with a hamstring injury, and his status for Miami is still up in the air.

“We took another picture of that hamstring,” Kelly said. “Didn't quite like what we saw but we're going to let him stretch it out (Tuesday) and see how it goes. We saw some cloudiness in that hamstring. We'll see how it goes (Tuesday).”

GameDay trivia

ESPN’s College GameDay will be telecast from the Miami campus on Coral Gables, Fla., Saturday morning at 9 EST.

It will be the 28th game GameDay has been at for a Notre Dame game, with the Irish 12-15 in the previous 27 appearances. The last six GameDay appearances involving Notre Dame have been road games, with the Irish 8-10 all-time when appearing as the road team.

The most recent Irish GameDay appearance came on Oct. 31, 2015, when GameDay was in Philadelphia for Notre Dame’s 24-20 win at Temple.

The Irish are 3-5 when Lee Corso picks Notre Dame to win, with a 5-9 mark when Corso picks against the Irish.

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Notre Dame offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey (68) and the ND offensive line will be on center stage Saturday night, when the Irish visit Miami (Fla.). (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)