Shared Expectations

Johnson (# 90) among many Irish leaders for 2011

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly offered a unique assessment of his team's greatest strength entering August camp.

One year ago today, then-first year head coach checked off a list of perceived strengths for his 2010 Fighting Irish. Included were specifics, drilling down to such micro-based assessments as running back depth, offensive linemen he could win with, and the possibility of a dynamic special teams.

Today, as Kelly's 2011 Irish approached the 24-hour mark before its first practice of the season, the second-year head coach offered a more macro-focused overview.

"When we come into this camp, now we know our football team so much better," Kelly noted of this gropu relative to last August. "I think Year Two is a year where you're not as concerned about what your personnel are going to do. You know your players. You know what to expect, and they know what to expect."

Pressed for a specific strength, Kelly reiterated, "They know what to expect from us and we know what to expect from them."

Which is?

"I like our football team relative to our depth. We've addressed that over the last two years in recruiting. We have experience on both sides of the ball and now we have some depth," he continued. "With that depth, those guys just need opportunities. But overall it's about having experience, our players know what to expect and from our standpoint, (the coaches do as well)."

For Irish fans wondering if black-and-white strengths such as improved blocking and tackling will also highlight the 2011 Irish, it became apparent the team's sense of self-awareness and shared expectation will serve two immediate purposes: Kelly and his staff will be able to use August to hone on-field strengths, while mitigating areas of weaknesses assessed in the off-season.

"It allows you to get to football," he said of the team's belief in a process that came to fruition over an uneven 8-5 season. "It allows you to get to the fundamentals of the game, to start to look at your scheme in particular, situationally.

"From an offensive standpoint," he continued, "we believe our offensive line gives us experience and depth. We really like our offensive line and I think it starts there.

"We have four established playmakers in (senior) Michael Floyd, (juniors) Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick, and Cierre Wood," Kelly offered. "So to have four established playmakers and an experienced offensive line, that makes you feel pretty good about where you are. Obviously we have to get our quarterback to play at a consistent level."

According to Kelly, that decision will occur on or before practice #19 this month, though not due to an arbitrary date on the calendar.

"We're only going to use the first 19 practices for the evaluation process," he explained. "We're going to spend two weeks on South Florida. We're going to going into the last 10 days knowing who the starting quarterback is, because we're going to rep that out for South Florida."

Key to the final decision will be the chosen signal-caller's grasp of the Irish offense.

"It's really going to come down to the ability to run our offense at the pace and tempo we want to run it," Kelly said.

"Dayne (Crist) and Tommy (Rees) have the first shot at that because they have a little more experience, but we all know (sophomore) Andrew Hendrix and (freshman) Everett Golson have great skill sets. In camp, we have to do a great job of giving them the appropriate reps necessary for us to make those decisions."

It starts up front

Kelly's offenses have historically enjoyed across-the-board statistical improvements in his second season with a program. The possibility for such improvement exists again this year, but it might not manifest as blatantly on the offensive stat sheet, as the program's strength, for the first time in several pre-seasons, appears on the other side of scrimmage.

"I really like our experience on defense. We have guys that have had 600-700 snaps in our system on the defensive line," Kelly offered. "Now they have some depth (to spell them during games). For example, (senior) Ethan Johnson was one of our best pass rushers last year, but he had to play so much on first and second down that sometimes he had to sub out on third down.

"Now (in 2011), a guy like Ethan Johnson can be our guy on third down," he noted. "The depth and experience on the defensive line, as well as having three really established safeties and two veteran corners, along with (junior) Manti Te'o…we have some depth there."

One of those three established safeties is team captain, Harrison Smith, who, along with Johnson and Te'o, ranks among the team's 10 best players and, according to Kelly, its emerging leaders.

"We characterize them by (a number system): 1 – who's not ready; 2 – who can play winning football; 3 – who can play championship football and start to bring that to the other players as well.

"We have a lot ‘3s' this year," he observed. "It's not just Harrison Smith…we have a lot of leaders. Ethan Johnson, Manti Te'o, (5th-year senior) Gary Gray, (senior) Robert Blanton just to name a couple of guys from a defensive standpoint.

"Offensively Dayne and Tommy have been outstanding, (senior) Jonas Gray has had a great summer. I could go on, but its more than just one captain.

"More people are taking that leadership role and I think that comes from what our strength is: our players know what to expect from us, and we know what to expect from them," Kelly reiterated. "So you're going to get those leadership skills to develop."

Depth, proven leadership, and a shared program message represent a far cry from last April, when Irish players competed for depth chart roles with names taped on their helmets for identification purposes.

Year Two of the Kelly regime may in no way resemble the trial and inevitable errors of his disjointed first season. It was all part of the process, one that required patience but is poised to pay off.

"They've developed physically and they've developed the confidence," Kelly said of his roster. "All of that happened over the course of last year to this year, for us to stand here and say, ‘Hey, I like our football team.'

"Whether they're physically the most talented team in the country, I'm not here to say that, but I like our football team," he concluded. "I like what they've done from last year to this year, and all of those experiences have led me to that feeling."

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