Irish head coach Brian Kelly wrapped up preparations for the season-opener with a phrase every football coach at every level wishes to utter: “All hands on deck.”
“Everybody is healthy,” Kelly noted Thursday following the team’s last practice. “There are no injuries in that there’s no one unavailable to us. Even (left tackle) Tate Nichols is cleared to play. He’d be an emergency situation, but he was the last guy that was (iffy). All Hands on Deck, no excuses.”
Nichols missed the bulk of camp with a dislocated knee cap. His return gives the Irish nine non-freshmen offensive linemen for the season (backup senior guard Lane Clelland is out for the season due to a summer knee injury). It is Kelly’s hope that none of his four available freshman linemen will be pressed into action this fall.
Ragone Ready: Also available and thus expected to play his usual role in the team’s power running game is tight end Mike Ragone. The 5th-year senior missed a portion of August while battling a quadriceps injury.
“He looked pretty good the last couple of days and we really pushed him to (know of his availability on Tuesday), said Kelly of preparations involving Ragone. “The reports are great and he’s ready to go.
“We’re happy with how we paced out our camp and we feel very fortunate with where we are at this point.”
Gimme the ball
Nine months between games; the off-season, spring, and summer conditioning; a month of August camp; two weeks of preparation exclusively for South Florida.
There’s nothing left to talk about and the Irish join fans and media in their desire to kick-off the 2011 season.
If Kelly has his druthers, will the team’s offense or defense be the first to appear in front of 80,000-plus in South Bend today?
“I think if you look at it from an offensive standpoint, we have nine returning starters – (10 including quarterback Dayne Crist). We’re replacing the left guard and virtually everyone else is back,” Kelly said. “We have an experienced offense and generally when I’ve had an experienced offense, we like to touch the ball first. That’s how I feel now; we’ll see how that goes. But I’ve always wanted to get as many touches as possible.”
With a chance of isolated thunderstorms and temperatures in the 90s on tap for the game, will Kelly’s offense be forced to adjust?
“It won’t affect the offense,” he said, adding, “we have to be really good at substitutions. Some of those young guys will have to play early. When it’s a lot hotter, the (Stephon) Tuitt’s, (Aaron) Lynch’s, (Troy) Niklas’s, (George) Atkinson’s, (Cam) McDaniel’s…all those kids – you’re probably start seeing them in the first dozen plays, maybe sooner.”
In a scheduled meeting with the media Wednesday afternoon, Irish junior linebacker Manti Te’o offered that prior to National Signing Day in February 2009, the highly-touted prospect had decided to attend USC rather than Notre Dame.
Te’o prayed on that decision, woke up the next morning, and chose the Irish.
Kelly, who was the head coach of Cincinnati at the time, offered his thoughts on Te’o’s revelation:
“Yeah, I mean. Notre Dame…USC…I don’t think there was really much thought,” Kelly said with a smirk. “I think (Te’o) through that in there to make the people at USC feel good. I mean, that’s a no-brainer if you ask me.
“He’s such a nice kid I can see him saying that.”
Bouncing around outside the Isban Auditorium during the post-practice media session Thursday was Te’o’s 5-year-old brother, Manasseh.
Kelly was well-aware of his presence.
“We already offered him,” he joked. “Can we do that? I don’t think we can. You guys know more about this recruiting stuff than I do.”
Speaking of recruiting…
Kelly noted in mid-August that senior quarterback Dayne Crist is a player “he wants to coach.”
Did Kelly have an opinion of his current signal-caller during the coach’s days in the Queen City?
“I really didn’t know him. We weren’t in that stratosphere of recruiting,” Kelly admitted. “We weren’t getting those guys from California. So I didn’t know much about Dayne until I got here and it’s like anything else: you’re developing a relationship that’s unique to that position.
“The quarterback has to have a relationship that’s unique to the play-caller. I’m calling the plays, so we had to build that relationship.”
Kelly had to build similar relationships with the bulk of his 2010 roster. Though those numbers have dwindled significantly 21 months into his hire, another notable Irishman for 2011, redshirt-freshman nose guard Louis Nix, was relatively new to Kelly upon his arrival in the winter of 2009 as well.
“I liked his personality,” Kelly said of the gregarious Nix. “I thought there was a guy in there, that though I didn’t get a chance to know very well in the (recruitment) process, as I got a chance to know him…he had a lot of pride.
“Especially coming out of Jacksonville, from a school that’s not really a profile school, Kelly continued. “He had a lot of pride in wanting to do well at Notre Dame. Once I saw that, it’s pretty easy for a coach.”
Refreshingly honest and eminently quotable, the affable Nix has become a go-to media request prior to playing his first college game.
“He’s a pretty good sound byte, isn’t he?” Kelly offered of Nix.
The final question posed to Kelly Thursday evening was of the fill-in-the-blank variety. It posited: “The season will be a disappointment if we don’t…”
“...Play to what I think we’re capable of playing. Everyone wants to win all of their games,” he admitted. “I have an expectation of how we play four quarters of football. That is: we’re going to get after you.
“I’ll be disappointed if we don’t play at that level.”
Kelly admitted throughout August that his team was not able to hit the ground running last fall. A 1-3 start ensued, and the Irish struggled to exhale until mid-November.
Uncertainty and nervous energy remain; both are unique elements to every season opener, but the second-year head coach understands the difference.
“There are two kinds of nerves,” he offered. “One is not being prepared and one is coaching 18 to 20-year-olds. If you’ve ever had the experience of having your kid take your car…it’s similar to that. You’re still comfortable with your plan.”
“The test is Saturday in terms of getting your identity,” Kelly said. “We’ve looked towards the way you want to play, but it all has to come together (Saturday). We have an idea, we can practice those things, but we have to do it.”