Vorel: Notre Dame football taking steps to prevent a Miami sequel

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly remembers Miami.

He probably remembers the day after, too, when Notre Dame’s ninth-year head coach was asked during his weekly teleconference to explain his team’s uncharacteristic 41-8 shellacking at the hands of the then-undefeated Hurricanes.

“In retrospect, it was a big game. There was a lot to the atmosphere,” Kelly said on Nov. 12. “You know, I think our guys really wanted to win. I mean, they wanted to win really, really bad. I have to do a better job of keeping them in the moment and keeping them from being distracted from all of what's going on around them.

“I think you may have asked the question about big games and such, and I've never given it too much thought because we play in a big-game atmosphere at Notre Dame. But this one was a little bit different. A number of these kids hadn't played in a game of this magnitude since maybe the Clemson game (that the Irish lost 24-22 in 2015), and I don't know that there were many (current) defensive players on the field for that.

“We'll have to take a good close look at that and making sure we prepare our guys. I've got to do a better job of making sure that they're in the moment.”

The next round of meaningful moments arrive this fall, specifically with Notre Dame’s 2018 road games at Virginia Tech on Oct. 6 and USC on Nov. 24.

But how, exactly, can you prepare a team to execute in a hostile environment … without the hostile environment?

“Well, it's creating distractions,” Kelly said on Monday, weeks after second-year strength coach Matt Balis designed a workout specifically to simulate situations like the one the Irish found in Miami Gardens, Fla. “We had strobe lights and things that distract you during your workout, loud noises to simulate the atmosphere that we had at Miami. They had to watch a video and they saw ‘the turnover chain’ quite a bit. It was not a pleasant experience for our guys.

“So handling that kind of scenario and that situation really comes down to (fight) or flight, and we want to fight. Our guys kind of got the message.”

Great, but will it matter? That answer won’t arrive on Tuesday, when the Irish kick off the first of 15 spring practices inside the Loftus Center at 7:45 a.m. It won’t appear during the annual Blue-Gold Game on April 21, either.

Let’s face it: a strobe light in a dingy gym doesn’t exactly compare to 65,303 ravenous, often inebriated fans dancing on the remains of your College Football Playoff résumé for four straight hours inside Hard Rock Stadium. It probably won’t prepare you to have bottles crack the window of your team bus as you pull into the parking lot, either. And the Guglielmino Athletics Complex sound system will undoubtedly be diminished by the pounding decibels throbbing through Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va., on Oct. 6, as Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” serves as the haunting soundtrack for one of college football’s premier pregame traditions.

But it’s a start.

So is “speed school,” Notre Dame’s new-look conditioning emphasis on endurance and explosiveness that — if execution matches intention — will combat the Irish’s near-annual November swoon.

“We weren't able to sustain the kind of workload with our running and strength training last year that we can this year,” Kelly said. “I think the easiest (areas of improvement) would be the ability for our players to bounce back after a really difficult workout and come back and run the next day at a high level. Whether it be timed runs, which we have for all of our guys because we're in competition in everything that we do.

“We weren't able to make some of those timed runs last year. We'd have a group of guys that couldn't make them. We're not in that position this year.”

Kelly and Co. should be commended for adding another layer of adversity to winter workouts already tailored to test one’s will. So bring on the dead sprints and distractions. Bring on the strobe lights. Bring on the videos and the artificial crowd noise and the blinged-out turnover chains taunting the Irish from the recent past.

For that matter, bring on spring practice — chaotic quarterback competitions and all.

But remember, there’s no greater asset than experience. And this time, the Irish have it.

Ten defensive starters return from the team that allowed Miami to rush for 237 yards and 5.6 yards per carry without creating a turnover. Quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book — who combined to complete less than half of their passes and throw three interceptions — are also back, and hopefully better for it.

Better believe they remember Miami, too.

For good reason, Kelly won’t let them forget it.


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Michael Young (87), from left, Josh Adams (33) and Chase Claypool (83) sit on the bench in the final seconds of the fourth quarter during the Notre Dame at Miami NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA