The Fighting Irish will kick off the 2014 campaign against Rice on August 30th in Notre Dame Stadium. Head coach Brian Kelly, entering his fifth year at the helm, sat down with Echoes at the start of training camp to preview the season:
Heading into the season, what do you view as the team’s biggest strength?
Well it’s our fifth year as it relates to the staff and myself, so there’s a consistency in the approach. Everybody knows what to expect. There’s a way of doing business on a day-to-day basis. Even though we may have a new defensive coordinator, there’s a consistent message. So I think that continuity is our biggest strength.
What are some of the uncertainties that you’re looking to gain some more clarity on as you start practice?
Every year you’re turning over a lot of veterans, so new players have to step up in leadership roles which are unfamiliar to them. Quarterback, clearly. And we lost a lot of talented players on defense. In no particular order, all three of those things stand out: leadership, the quarterback, and the number of players on the defensive side of the ball that have to step up and really impact what we do.
Among fans, there seems to be a ton of optimism about the offense. Does this offensive unit have the potential to be the strongest one you’ve had so far at Notre Dame?
This offense is a lot closer to the kind of offense that we’ve been trying to create since I arrived here, and that starts with the athleticism on the offensive line, the multidimensional running backs, the quarterback, the wide receivers and the depth there, so it’s across the board. It’s not just one guy. It’s taken us a while to really get the offense to look the way we want it to look. So I think the optimism is warranted. Now we have to go out and prove it.
You have a new defensive coordinator in Brian VanGorder. How is this defense going to look different than it has over the past few years when you had a lot of success under Coach Diaco?
I think one of the things that Brian is really good at is getting the most out of each player. He can play multiple schemes because he’s more about the player than the play. So I think you’ll see a lot more players in and out of the lineup. I think you’ll see a lot of different names out there, not because we have to but because that’s how Brian has coached. I kind of like that. That’s very similar to the way that I coach on the offensive side of the ball, that it’s about the player, not the play.
Are there some freshmen you can point to that have a very good shot of contributing significantly this season?
I think most of them will be on the defensive side of the ball. There’s a lot of depth on the offensive side of the ball that’s returned that will make it hard for a freshman to get in there. I think if you’re going to see some new names, you’re probably going to see them on the defensive side of the ball.
You’ve lost some great leaders over the past two years, from Manti Te’o and Kapron Lewis-Moore to Zack Martin. Who are the leaders of this year’s team?
It’s a good question but one that we’ve been working on. Leadership doesn’t happen necessarily by the passing of a baton or because it’s now your time, but we’ve tried to cultivate it. So Sheldon Day has really stepped into wanting to be a guy that we can count on in that capacity. I think Nick Martin, much like his brother, has kind of taken that group over. And then there’s a number of other guys that have shown the capacity to be leaders, from Matthias Farley to Joe Schmidt to Everett Golson. So I really think it’s a work in progress, but I think the two guys that really stand out to me are Sheldon Day and Nick Martin.
The preseason coaches’ poll came out recently, and you’re playing five teams ranked in the top 25, and that doesn’t even include Michigan, which is always a tough game. Is this schedule a good blueprint for what you’d like it to look like each each season?
I think with a four team playoff, you’re going to have to play that kind of schedule. I don’t think you’re going to be able to back into one of those four spots playing a bunch of poor teams. The reality of it is, if the bar is set to get into the playoffs, that’s what your schedule is going to have to look like. If the bar is, hey, let’s just go to a warm weather destination, than we don’t need to play all those teams. That’s not the way it is here. I’m pretty sure that our alumni and our base, they want to have that kind of schedule because they want to go to the playoffs.
Other than the game itself, what’s your favorite part of a Notre Dame home football weekend?
I would say the whole buildup. It’s the radio show Thursday night and the luncheon on Friday and the band and the walk. I think what makes Notre Dame special is that there’s not one singular event. All of that is what makes it just incredible.
You mentioned the walk. What does it do for the team to have all the fans surrounding them and cheering them on as they walk to the stadium?
It validates what they believed when they were recruited to Notre Dame, that there’s nothing like a game day experience here. Three-deep people cheering you on as you walk to the stadium. It’s incredible. I think it just validates that there’s no better game day atmosphere than Notre Dame.
During each offseason you travel to a number of different Notre Dame clubs across the country. Why is that important to you? What do you get out of those visits with our alumni and friends?
There’s something about the grassroots. I think it’s important that you can hear what they’re saying. Doing these kinds of trips puts you in better touch with what’s going on out there, and that’s why they’re so important.