His opening remarks were familiar, but the throng hardly seemed to notice. Maybe that's because Brian Kelly has missed nary a step in his first seven months in charge of the nation's most storied football program.
“We’ve got some work to do but the 2010 season is upon us and from my perspective, there’s been enough talk," Kelly began at today's media luncheon. "We’ve analyzed, we’ve looked at the roster, we’ve talked about the expectations. Now it’s about doing.”
That might be the last time Brian Kelly channels former head coach Charlie Weis at the outset of a season (Weis’ 2009 Media Day theme was “Don’t tell me; show me”). It’s from that point forward that the two leaders are expected to diverge.
Competition: every day, every snap
Likely cognizant of the thirst for information from those present and their respective readers, Kelly wasted little time offering concise insights on the state of his program entering August camp.
“We have strengths. We have some vulnerabilities and we probably have some question marks,” he began.
“Strength would be the depth of this football team. I believe that we have, on the offensive line, 10 that can play championship football. I believe that we have great depth at the running back position; that they all have unique styles but great depth.
“I believe that from a defensive standpoint that we have playmakers on the perimeter that can do some great things for us.”
But a .500 program can't feature all rainbows and butterflies in its self-assessment.
“And I think we have some vulnerabilities: experience at the quarterback position; depth at the defensive line position. And then we have some question marks: consistency and performance at the back line of our defense and our kicking game.”
The Irish have finished poorly over the last four seasons, losing two straight including the Sugar Bowl to end 2006; 2 of 4 to mercifully end 2007; 4 of 5 to finish the regular season in 2008; and then dropped each of their last four contests last fall. If Kelly's pre-season analysis is accurate, a November nose dive is unlikely to resurface in 2010.
“I see some (strengths) clearly in the depth of our football team. You’re going to see a lot of players," he added. "I would not get too married to a two-deep (depth chart) right now. You’re premature if you look and see a two-deep, that’s a starting point only.
“This is going to be – because of the strength of this football team, because of numbers – 1 and 2 (starters vs. backups) is 1A and 1B and in some instances 1C. And I think that’s important to note.”
How’s the Knee?
On September 4, junior quarterback Dayne Crist will be 10 months removed from surgery to repair the ACL in his right knee. According to Kelly, that’s the least of his concerns.
“I think his development has taken away any of the uncertainties about his knee. I don’t think that’s a topic of conversation anymore. That’s not even part of it.
“So it’s allowed us to focus on skill development: the consistency of footwork, release and the offense, the system. Really what he had, and I didn’t need to do a lot, was great, innate leadership capabilities. Great character; his parents did a great job.”
As the team's only veteran scholarship quarterback, Crist’s improvement from the end of April to fall camp and beyond is crucial to the 2010 squad's fortunes.
“One thing we wanted to certainly see him improve on day-to-day was taking over the offense in a leadership position. Obviously he did that this summer with our 7-on-7s and our workouts. It was Dayne that was running them.
“But from a skill standpoint in the spring it was the detail in his footwork and in his (pass) drops, and consistency in throwing the football.
That will be a work in progress from Dayne. I’ve heard great reports from the summer relative to his leadership…now as we get into camp we’ll be really focused on his skill development.”
No 4th Quarter Flops?
New Strength & Conditioning coach Paul Longo was the star of Notre Dame message boards over the long summer months. Longo was Kelly’s lone conduit to the team and the staff member charged with turning around a group that decidedly underperformed and wilted more often than not over the game's final 15 minutes last season.
“I’ve seen a number of them as they’ve checked in today,” Kelly offered of his pupils. “They’re in great condition, great shape. We’ve increased their workload. I will tell you this already: this is a different football team from April and we have not had our first practice.”
As for the group that offered Kelly the greatest pause last April?
“They have a big goal in front of them,” Kelly noted of the team’s wide receivers. “When you’re in a spread offense no huddle you’ve got to have a great work volume. And we lacked that (in the spring).
"I know that Coach Longo has done a great job of working with our players in the summer to get them to that (necessary) work volume and I’m certain that by the time we play Purdue that I’m going to be pleased with our wide receivers.”
Irish fans have been known to embrace the team’s purported workout warriors, almost to a fault, as boggling bench press numbers did little to stem the tide vs. the supposedly inferior Syracuse, Navy and Connecticut’s of the world over the last two seasons.
But Kelly did offer praise for a few weight room notables from the summer conditioning program while adding a real-world element to the eye-popping feats of strength.
“Chris Stewart for example," Kelly began, "here’s a young man when he came in could only do about 3-4 chin-ups…he did 24 chin-ups at 362 pounds (this summer), and his body fat composition went down almost four percent.
“Another example: Ian Williams – a very dynamic player for us is a 600-pound squat now. He was 485. Here’s a guy that’s going to play on the center (as the team's nose guard) and is now a 600-pound squat. He went from 302 to 313 pounds and dropped his body fat composition.
The staff's S&C theme was obvious.
“The big guys losing body fat, not losing weight, and gaining strength...that trickles down through the entire roster."
Kelly added one more notable to his list of big uglies and their collective pursuit of strength and stamina.
“Ethan Johnson was a 395 squat who’s now 550. What’s the applicability there? They’re not on the ground," Kelly quipped. "They won’t be on the ground. They have a stronger base and core that’s going to allow them to be on their feet pursuing the football, playing the kind of defense we need to play."
Just One Goal
“We have not gotten into any specifics other than we’re here to win championships," said Kelly when asked of pre-season goals.
"We’ll certainly have goals that allow us to evaluate the jobs that are being done, but the big picture here at the end of the day really is about winning and that’s the only goal they know of right now.”
It's an edict Kelly embraces as a football coach who loves every aspect of his craft.
“It’s about getting the job done, being challenged every single week on that schedule and passing that challenge.
“From my perspective, relative to an opening statement, I’m truly excited to get to work with this football team because they so badly want to be successful. Anytime you have an audience like that, it couldn’t be a better opportunity as coaches to go in and get some work done.”
After a well-publicized spring session that partly consisted of an attitude overhaul and of breaking bad habits, is there a message Kelly intends to impart to his team when it hits the field for summer session No. 1 tomorrow afternoon?
“I think I’ve already gotten that message across: We’re here for Our Lady. We’re here to play for Notre Dame. And there’s only one way to play this game – with great passion and spirit and to play for your teammates and for our University. And that message, we’ll talk about every single day.
“The rest takes care of itself."
Note: We'll have more from Coach Kelly's first August meeting with the media later this afternoon and throughout the weekend.