Noie: Opener will offer an idea to Notre Dame identity

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Who are these guys?

That might be the biggest question still in need of an answer about this Notre Dame football team. Heck, the greatest offseason issue — linebacker — took a step toward some sense of clarity last week with the form of a depth chart.

But, who are these guys? All these guys? This Notre Dame team? Today? Tomorrow? Next week? Next month? This season?

An offseason with director of football performance Matt Balis didn’t answer it. Nor did spring practice, which remains more window dressing than dress rehearsal.

It didn’t surface over summer in the players-only practice sessions. It didn’t appear off the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee during the five days of preseason camp at the Culver Academies, or after workouts the last three weeks on campus.

Not even the No. 9 Irish can say for sure who they are heading into Monday’s opener at Louisville (8 p.m. EDT; ESPN). They have some ideas, but nothing they can point to with any certainty. Like, boom, this is us.

“I’m interested in that,” senior safety Alohi Gilman said when asked late last week of exactly what the identity of this team is and can be. “Once we step out there, we’re going to see who we are.”

An early outline offered by the players and their head coach is based only on the individuals atop the leadership board. Quarterback Ian Book? He’s good. Defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara? Also good. Gilman and fellow safety/captain Jalen Elliott? Really good. Same for right tackle Robert Hainsey and wide receiver Chase Claypool. All really good. As individuals.

What about as a group? Who are they? Where are they going?

And what about the rest? Some step on a big stage for the first time. Guys like Jarrett Patterson, who makes his first start at center. The new-look linebacking corps, which may look a whole lot different come October than how they look Monday. What about the guy who gets the starting nod opposite Troy Pride at corner? At nickel? Dime? The kicking specialists?

What about them? Who are they going to be? That will go a long way in determining what this team will be. Who they’ll be.

“That’s the question,” said fifth-year senior Chris Finke. “Once we get out there, we’ll see what we can do. We have some confidence in the things that we’re about and we’re excited to show everybody.”

Excited because when last season ended, the Irish adopted even more of an attack mentality. Every winter drill? Attack it. Every weight room rep? Attack it. Every challenge in the classroom? Yep. Attack.

Spring and summer and into fall camp on the football field? Attack it. Earn it. There have been countless challenges that the Irish have embraced since picking up the pieces post-College Football Playoff. The next one they shy away from might be the first.

Now that the Louisville game’s here, the mentality won’t dare change. Time to attack everything about it — going on the road, playing at night, playing in front of a national television audience with most of the college football world watching. Don’t shy away from the spotlight. Let it rip.

“We focus on just being a warrior out there, stepping up, attacking everything,” Gilman said. “We have the people and the pieces to do those things.”

Work in progress

Irish head coach Brian Kelly mentioned last week that he still doesn’t know what type of team he’ll see come Monday. A team’s identity usually shows some of itself the opening game, then takes shape over the opening month. Two years ago, likely taking cues from All-America left guard Quenton Nelson, the mindset was to bulldoze anything in its way.

A year ago, that identity, that mindset remained murky the first few weeks. Even when Notre Dame opened with a home win over Michigan, then followed with narrow wins over Ball State (ugh) and Vanderbilt (hide your eyes), the identity was tough to see. It never solidified until Book stepped in for starter Brandon Wimbush.

What will Notre Dame be out of the gate Monday?

“We want to totally dominate, but there’s more that we want to do,” Book said. “We want to totally dominate all four quarters. We want to play fast as an offense. I think we’re going to put all that together and we’ll find out what this team’s made out of.”

Kelly wondered aloud last week about this group and that first game. Will Notre Dame be content to get out of Cardinal Stadium with a win regardless of score or style points? Or will they strut into someone’s house, make themselves at home and exert their will?

That sounds good to Gilman.

“Game doesn’t have to be close,” he said.

The Irish are ready to go play, in part because they’re tired. They’re tired of going against one another. They’re tired of hearing the air horn signal the end of yet another practice period and the start of another one. Tired or more film, tired of meetings, tired of doing it all again tomorrow and the next day and the next.

Preseason camp is hot. Preseason camp is hard. Preseason camp is over, which usually offers teams a return to normalcy. Even that will wait.

Opening on a Monday for the first time in program history throws everything out of whack. For all involved. Kelly will meet the media this season on Mondays; the players will talk on Tuesdays. Except last week, Wednesday was Monday and Thursday was Tuesday.

Finke woke Thursday morning and went to his Thursday class, but the minute he stepped inside the Gug, it was a Tuesday afternoon to him and his teammates. And that wasn’t Friday. That was Wednesday

“I have a pretty good grasp on it,” Finke insisted.

Glad someone did.

Whatever day it was today or tomorrow or yesterday didn’t matter. What did is these guys want to get going. See who they can be, what they can be.

“We’re ready to play somebody,” Book said. “It’s been a long time coming, but it’s come fast. The juice is good.”

Good in that the Irish know it won’t be long until everything gets turned up a notch. The intensity. The expectation. Monday’s a big night, but that’s nothing new. This is Notre Dame, where every game is a big game, a statement game. A go-and-get game. So go and get it.

This game and this season offer the Irish a chance they’ve waited for since December. It’s a chance to finish the journey. Take this one a step further. Maybe two.

“We were right there, Kareem said. “We were so close.”

Close doesn’t have to mean not close enough. Good doesn’t have to mean not good enough. With the right combination of experience and leadership and talent and resolve, there’s no reason for this team to take a step or two back. Move forward more.

“This team,” Kareem said, “is really capable of doing something special.”

That’s who they are; that’s who they can be.

Time to go be it. All of it.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly still isn’t sure what type of team he’ll see in terms of mindset/identity when the No. 9 Irish open Monday at Louisville.
Notre Dame senior captain Alohi Gilman is one of the Irish players who will help shape the team’s 2019 identity.