Noie: Been there, done that as Notre Dame football prepares for 2021 opener

Tom Noie
ND Insider

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Load the convoy of buses idling outside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, get out to the airport, hop the Delta charter and point it south in preparation to open a college football season against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent on the back end of Labor Day Weekend. 

Sound familiar? Ninth-ranked Notre Dame has been there and done that, and not all that long ago. 

Sunday’s opener against Florida State (7:30 p.m., ABC) at sold-out Doak Campbell Stadium musters memories of the 2019 opener for the Irish, who didn’t venture all that far from campus – about an hour’s flight or an easy four-hour drive – to Kentucky. There, a sellout crowd on a hot and steamy Labor Day weekend night awaited in Louisville. 

Entering season No. 12 on the Notre Dame sideline, head coach Brian Kelly mentioned early last week, so ready to start his pre-Florida State press conference that he headed for the podium two minutes early – “All, right, let’s get rolling” – that this one reminds him a lot of that one. 

Road game, ACC opponent, holiday weekend, and a prime-time, everyone’s-at-home to watch TV slot for an Irish team like the one in 2019 that has some intrigue to it.

Running back Kyren Williams hopes to remember more about this Labor Day weekend opener than the one in 2019, when he barely played.

Running back Kyren Williams also might agree with his head coach, if the junior captain only could recall something – anything – about that night (a 35-17 Irish win) at Cardinal Stadium other than the red-and-black clad crowd. 

“That was my first game year traveling, first game ever being able to play,” said Williams, a Heisman hopeful after a 2020 breakout/breakthrough campaign. “The atmosphere was crazy. I don’t remember much.” 

Don’t remember, or maybe don’t want to remember. Early on, with the Irish searching for someone to be the bust-out back in then-coordinator Chip Long’s offense, Williams short-armed an Ian Book screen pass. Williams spent the rest of the night – really, the rest of that season – stuck on the sideline. Not ready for prime time was No. 23. 

Not so Sunday. He’ll be the featured guy in now-coordinator Tommy Rees's offense, one that promises to open it up a whole lot more than last year. The Irish could go one back with Williams. They could go two backs with the seldom-mentioned during preseason camp but still ultra-talented Chris Tyree alongside Williams. They can go one (really good) tight end in Michael Mayer. Or go two tight ends. 

Multiple looks. Multiple options. A plethora of possibilities. Let's see it.

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It’s likely all going to start with Williams, either taking a pitch from first-time starter Jack Coan at quarterback or swinging out of the backfield to do what he didn’t do that night in the Commonwealth – make the catch, then make the play. 

“We have so many backs that can do many things,” Williams said. “We’re going to have a great year and a whole lot of explosives. It’s exciting to see what we can do as an offense.” 

Don’t dismiss the defense under first-year coordinator Marcus Freeman. Like two years ago at Louisville, it might take that group a quarter or two to get their bearings and adjust to having to chase and cover and tackle somebody else. Once they settle in, that group has plenty of potential to play fast and free. Spearheading it from his free safety spot is Kyle Hamilton. 

Like Williams, Hamilton made his college football debut that night two years ago Monday against Louisville. Counseled to stay ready as a reserve, Hamilton handled it well. First time he jogged on the field for a down, he got involved. 

“Came in, got my feet wet, got a tackle on my first play," said Hamilton, a junior and a captain. “That really calmed me down a lot. It brought me in the moment.” 

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No moment Sunday should be too big or too bright for Hamilton or for Williams or for anyone else Irish. A potential for distractions is everywhere. From Chief Osceola riding in on Renegade to the 79,560 fans in the sellout stands, to the on-going, in-game tributes to the late Bobby Bowden (dadgumit, rest the kind coach's soul) to the heat and humidity to the same Tomahawk chop that played on a loop back in South Bend during practice last week, there’s a lot that could fluster the Irish focus. 

A different program – one that hasn’t gone to the College Football Playoff two of the last three years – might find itself submerged in the hoopla. Suffocated by the hype. Not these guys. Not this year. 

Play at Notre Dame – especially on the road – and you learn how to negate all the noise. It’s in a Notre Dame football player’s DNA, which could stand for “Do Not Allow” when it comes to potential distractions of road games. Of any game. 

Opening at Doak Campbell in prime time and on a special day? Par for the Irish scheduling course. A Notre Dame program that’s been built for this night should embrace it. All of it. 

The 2019 opener against Louisville was the first game for then-freshman safety Kyle Hamilton.

It already has. 

“We are so focused on the task at hand,” Hamilton said. “All the coaches and support staff have prepared us for this moment. It's really just another walk in the park for us. 

“We all know what to do. We all know what we need to do.” 

College Football 2021 won’t look anything like College Football 2020 when there were so few fans in the stands and little gameday juice. This road game will be the first since Notre Dame visited Duke on Nov. 9, 2019 where every seat is sold. Didn’t happen at all last year. Might happen nearly every time out this year. 

It will be an adjustment, but ultimately, just another distraction to dismiss. This Notre Dame team is beyond what happened to say, No. 10 North Carolina in its ACC road opener. Stage seemed too bright at night.

This stage is familiar to Notre Dame.

“You’ve got to be able to focus on the game,” Williams said. “I’m excited to go down there and just play ball.” 

And play somebody else. Preseason camp commenced four weeks ago Saturday, a time when the Irish weren’t ready to do what now awaits. As camp progressed, and the main guys got a little more confident, got a little better every day, this one couldn’t come soon enough. Veteran nose tackle Kurt Hinish admitted weeks ago that he was anxious to hit someone in a different jersey. 

Hamilton too. 

“We’re so ready to be in a live situation against somebody else,” he said. “We’re all just like hungry dogs ready to be let loose.”

Time to go and run. Time to go and play.

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI