April 22, 2017
By John Heisler
Brian Kelly knows better.
The University of Notre Dame head football coach knows the hiring last winter of a new Irish offensive coordinator (Chip Long), defensive coordinator (Mike Elko), special teams coordinator (Brian Polian) and football performance director (Matt Balis)—plus other staff changes--marked simply the first steps toward improvement on the field in 2017.
He knows there are literally hundreds of meetings, conversations, strategy sessions and decisions that will have been made since the 2016 season finale at USC that all will contribute to what fans see when Notre Dame opens the 2017 campaign Sept. 2 against Temple.
He knows that while Irish fans--who don’t see every moment of spring practices or sit in on all those position meetings--will more likely react to what they saw Saturday in the annual Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium (such as 22-of-32 passing for 303 yards by Brandon Wimbush; 96 rushing yards and 36 more on receptions by Dexter Williams; 7 solo tackles, including 4 sacks, by Daelin Hayes), that event is simply a small part of the equation.
He knows attitude, chemistry, direction and commitment all play big roles in what happens on the field on Saturdays--and yet those elements are never simple to quantify.
In other words, Rome wasn’t built in a day—nor will Kelly’s eighth Irish football team be.
That’s why Kelly last week used the word “process” maybe a dozen times in a 20-minute session with media who cover his program.
“It’s just a continuation of what we’ve been working on,” Notre Dame’s head coach noted in reference to the official end of spring drills.
“We’re not playing Temple this weekend. So it’s about continuing to stick to the process for our players--making sure they finish strong.
“It’s not about production in the (Blue-Gold) game, it’s about process. You want to see attention to detail at all the positions--raise their level of focus. You want to see that they are gritty, that they keep fighting no matter what the circumstances.
“I want to see great attitude across the board. But it’s more about the process – that’s more important than how many carries or yards a guy gets. Just continue to stay the course relating to process.
“This is about a continuation of what we’ve been doing since January. It’s about what’s important right now.
“When we get to Temple they (fans) should have an expectation of all that coming together.”
Austin Webster, a walk-on senior-to-be Irish wide receiver from Westchester, California, is in something of a unique position.
He’s not likely to end up on the recipient end of dozens of passes this fall—yet he already has played a noteworthy role as one of the Notre Dame players designated in December as team captains for 2017.
Webster (his only game action for Notre Dame came against Massachusetts in 2015—he traveled to 2016 games against Army and USC) suggests that players, to some extent, are programmed to expect new elements from one year to the next.
“Any athlete is tailored to get used to change, whether that’s new coaches, new schemes, new opponents every year,” he says. “Coach Kelly did a great job of making this a smooth transition and making known to everyone why we are doing this.
“It’s the process, like he always likes to explain. It’s initially very hectic, but over the course of the spring it culminates into more of a finished product. Obviously there’s a lot of work to be done over the summer.”
Webster says the Irish started by recommitting themselves to taking better care of all the little things that go into making a football season a success.
“It was being fully invested and attention to the little details,” he says. “The work that has to be put in is not just how many hours you put in in the weight room or on the practice field. Each player has to determine that this is for a greater purpose--and I’m doing this for the team and not for myself. We each had to ask ourselves, ‘Am I willing to invest my full self, not even knowing what the process would be?’
“Initially it was, ‘What are you willing to do to change what happened last year.’ Working harder, working smarter, realizing that the little details really matter.
“Last year it was a couple of plays here and there in every game – little stuff – that’s why we switch a couple of plays around and we’re 8-4 or 9-3. Last year the ball doesn’t roll your way. But it’s not on talent or tactics alone--it’s about what you invest, the little details you put in every single day.”
Kelly helped emphasize that attention to detail by creating a series of SWAT teams of 12-13 players, each led by a captain or other veteran player. Each team earns points for positive results in various activities on and off the field. Teams can lose points based on negative results in any of those areas. It includes everything from players policing their lockers to turning in their daily online wellness surveys on time. Point totals are updated regularly in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex weight room for all players to see.
In past years players have been grouped in the Gug locker room by position. This year Kelly opted to spread players randomly into what Webster calls “neighborhoods” with captains and neighborhood “bosses” setting the tone.
“We’re one team fighting for the same purpose, and this has helped everybody get to know each other better,” Webster adds.
Kelly has openly made a point of adopting more of a daily hands-on approach with his players—and maybe less of a CEO style. Webster suggests players value the personal communication that has come with that plan (including things like coaches spending time at team meals at the Gug), beyond position meetings and other tactical football interactions.
“We still are college kids—this isn’t a professional relationship everywhere you go,” Webster says. “It can be more casual and closer – it fosters community – we’re all in this together and we’re all on the same page. It may be hard to see dividends now, but it will help.”
Just as Kelly knows the final stat sheets from the Blue-Gold Game don’t contribute much to the bottom line, Webster knows that nothing that has occurred since January is an absolute guarantee of what the scoreboard will read in the fall.
“It’s tough to quantify the levels of progression,” Webster says. “On a tactical level, players are starting to understand the offense more and have fewer missed assignments. It’s not just do your job, but understand why you do your job and make the minor adjustments needed.
“Off the field, with the SWAT teams, guys are showing they care more for the process. These are small things, but guys are really buying into it – doing little things right more and more often.”
The Irish addressed improving the physical aspect of their team with Balis in the weight room—then the tactical aspect came about when the coaches presented new wrinkles on offense and defense. In addition, in recent weeks Notre Dame players have been taking part in mental performance training sessions to increase mental capacity and strength, control emotions and stay laser-focused.
“Everything’s different and everything’s changed,” says Webster, “but there’s a reason for all of this and we’re seeing the effects. We trust Coach Kelly and, even though it may be difficult to discern right now, we believe if we fully invest in all these processes we have a very good chance of doing what we need to do.”
Webster suggests he and his teammates appreciate the offseason evaluations that took place, in part with Kelly meeting with each individual player
“I’m sure there’s not a single answer, but that was Coach Kelly’s whole purpose and drive from the second the (2016) season ended until we got back--and how he as our leader could fix it. He got answers he was looking for and this is why we are doing all these things. He went to work, for sure.”
Webster says it wasn’t especially enjoyable watching other teams playing in bowl games during the holiday break:
“That was a big motivator. Once we got back on campus and we were willing for change. Whatever change is out there for us, the thought was, ‘We got to go for it.’”
Kelly knows the new pieces and parts and other programming elements all represent building blocks toward the fall.
“The players have been energized, and there are new faces. There’s a clear mission in front of them and a clear path they’ve gone down. There’s an all-in sense among the group,” he says.
“The coaches have done a great job of teaching. I’ve spent more time keeping us on the path, not as much on what play we’re going to run as much as how we’re going to communicate the same message.”
Kelly also understands spring football is one of many stepping stones for his program.
“I know what I have,” Kelly says. “This is still about developing our team, it’s another opportunity for them to continue to build.”
Notre Dame’s head coach also appreciates that eternal optimism dominates spring sessions everywhere in the country.
“I don’t think anybody’s taken a step back. Nobody’s going in the other direction. No one has thrown in the towel.
“We’ve had meetings (with each player) and said, ‘Here’s where you are and here’s how we see you progressing. Let’s continue the process.’”
There’s that word process again.
Noted Wimbush after the Notre Dame Stadium action Saturday, “We’re growing and we’re in a process.”
There it is again.
“I’ve given them a clear understanding of what the blueprint is,” says Kelly.
“Now we’re going to do this together.”
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com.