Stated goal #1 realized at season's endThe first item new head coach Brian Kelly shared with the media last December was his belief that player development would be the foundation of his program. Undeveloped talents; veterans who had underperformed; highly rated players in need of a proverbial kick in the backside…the Irish roster was populated by plenty and each group needed continuous development after a 16-21 effort over the previous three seasons.
Kelly was asked Friday if the changes in team's strength and conditioning program resulted in that end.
"My overview of the first year – I think there were two things and if we were (at a press conference) one year ago today – there would be two things I'd talk about:
- You have to get the defense right.
- We had not had good Novembers. Our kids had not progressed.
"We've made very good progress with (those two items). One thing for me was to make sure that our players were physically fit and stronger as we moved into November. I think we've hit that mark."
Essential to a 3-0 finish and chance at bowl season (and nearly 15 team practices for 2011) was the continued, albeit delayed, improvement of his inherited senior class. Notable in that regard is Chicago native Robert Hughes, who'll play his last game in the Sun Bowl.
"Robert's running the way we've asked him to run from Day One and that is: lower your pads, lets dent the defense and keep being physical," Kelly said, noting the Irish are a much better running team now than in September. "Robert has been a large reason for that. Here's a great illustration of a kid that's been in the program for four years and the message finally hit him: I'm going to stay on the field if I run downhill and physically. He figured that out."
Also figuring things out was oft-moved, maligned, and intermittently lauded linebacker Brian Smith, whose final position move – back inside and with just four games remaining in the season – helped spur the Irish defense to new heights.
With incumbent WILL linebacker Carlo Calabrese back from injury, which player will man the inside spot next to Manti Te'o for the bowl game?
"Brian will stay inside," Kelly flatly stated. "He had his best game of his career against USC. He's a guy that as the season progressed, developed as a football player.
"He and Duval (Kamara) and Robert Hughes, three seniors, have made as much progress developing as football players as any one player in our program."
Speaking of late-bloomersTaylor Dever found fewer than 31 minutes of playing time (mostly on special teams) over his first three seasons. He was withheld from action as a freshman (2007) and never seriously threatened Sam Young's starting right tackle spot as a sophomore or junior (2008-09).
Likely to return for a 5th-season of eligibility next fall, Dever continues to fly under the radar as a senior – this time as a starting right tackle on an offensive line that yielded the fewest sacks of its quarterback in decade.
"I think the one thing I would point out about Taylor is you don't know about your players until you get an opportunity to compete and practice and evaluate them," Kelly said.
"Here's what he has: an intense desire to be successful. It is really, really important to him. When he's at practice, every snap, every time he does something, it means something to him. And I didn't know that – you don't know that until you get a chance to coach your kids.
"He's got the physical tools, this was just a matter of giving him an opportunity. Taylor is a great example of developing a player throughout a year. Because he has that intrinsic motivation – you have to have that, if he didn't care…I'm not really good at getting those guys to (improve)."
Shouldn't everyone care about a role hundreds of thousands of less-talented football lovers would likely take years off their life to man, especially for Notre Dame?
"Let me put it this way: we have some guys that play because there are 81,000 in that Stadium," Kelly offered. "Most of our guys would play if not one fan showed up for the game. Those are the guys I want. We had too many guys here that were interested in the walk from The Basilica, wearing the gold helmet, and running out before 81,000 – that can't be your primary reason for being at the University of Notre Dame.
"We've changed a lot of that. Taylor Dever is a guy that if you told him (to show up for a game with no fans), he'd want to play."
You say tomato…Spring 2010 featured a quarterback competition of the following spare parts: a junior with 20 total snaps under his belt; an early enrollee freshman; a junior walk-on.
Spring 2011 will include those three players again – all of whom saw meaningful action this year and two of whom manned the starting role over a grueling 12-game slate.
Kelly was asked if that sextet – none of which could rightly be considered the clear-cut leader – made the quarterback position "murky" once again.
"I would use a different word," Kelly immediately noted. "I think we have a lot of players I believe we can develop into front line quarterbacks. I saw the weather (forecast) and they said today it was going to be ‘dreary,' I just thought it was cloudy.
"My point is, we have a number of quarterbacks and it will be very competitive. That's exciting for me. I hope that it's not murky and we just have great competition and whoever wins that spot is better because it's a very competitive situation."
Crist has had two major knee operations – one on each leg – over the last 13.5 months. Can he make a spring dent and earn starter's reps, challenging again for the lead role next fall?
"If he comes back physically able to compete at the highest level, he's got a great deal of experience," Kelly began of his junior signal-caller. "There (was) a lot of time that we spent together and a lot of information that he's been able to digest in his first year as a starter.
"So we should really be looking at it that as long as he's physically able to come back – and I believe he will…this is a tough kid now. He's got a great amount of experience that will serve him well."
In 2010, it was imperative that Crist recover from an October 31 knee injury to take the bulk of the Spring snaps. With as many as five other QB options on hand this March and April, Crist won't automatically rush to the front of the class. He has challengers, and challenges, at every turn.
"I think we all know that our concerns are his physical ability with the second operation," Kelly continued. "From everything that I've seen in his rehab already, he's passed that mental (hurdle), because he had to go through it the first time.
"I think there were some mental scars the first time: the knee brace and not being sure about himself. I see in him, a different look in his eye, ‘Coach I'm going to get through this and I'm going to be stronger because of it.'
"Once he's healthy he's going to have a chance to compete and be our starter."
Kelly noted that Crist is currently "a week or two" behind schedule due to a low-grade infection in his repaired knee. But it wasn't something that concerned him in terms of final availability.