For a head coach, every football team is different. This is no different for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. The Irish head coach kicked off the season today, as Notre Dame hosted its first official press conference of the 2014 season. Discussed was what Kelly thinks of his newest football team, the 2014 Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Several key themes quickly emerged during Kelly’s press conference. Embracing expectations, building unity within the team, establishing and developing leadership, and pushing for a playoff run were the overall points of emphasis from Kelly.
“It’s great to be back and doing what we love to do as coaches,” said Kelly, who enters his fifth season at the helm of the Irish program.
As is typical with Notre Dame, before Kelly could talk about the present and future he had to discuss the past.
“The football program here at Notre Dame has such a great history and tradition,” Kelly said during his opening statements. “You know, any time that we get an opportunity to begin another season, we are so energized as a staff with the expectations and with the opportunities and that’s what makes being at Notre Dame so great.”
Kelly did not shy away from what those program expectations are.
“You throw an undefeated season in there, you don’t want to have an undefeated season and then have just winning seasons,” said the Irish head coach. “You want to be a part of the national conversation. At Notre Dame that’s where we want to be.”
No longer is the talk about getting to the BCS Championship game, something Notre Dame did after its 12-0 regular season in 2012. With the shift to a playoff, the goal is now to push for a berth to college football’s version of the Final Four. Kelly stated clearly that he wants Notre Dame to be a program that is in contention for a playoff opportunity.
“For us, every year now it will be we want to put ourselves in a position to get into the national playoffs,” he commented. “We want to be one of those teams that are considered. That’s how we’ll mark our program every year, to compete for a playoff position.”
With the expectations put in the place, the question at this point is how Kelly and his staff will go about building the 2014 Notre Dame program into a legitimate playoff contender. On Monday, the Irish staff will officially begin that quest. Rule changes regarding the off-season have Kelly and his staff to get a jump start on the season.
“We began that off-season with a bit of a change from what had been a traditional June where most teams were focusing on their camps,” Kelly said during Friday’s presser. “We spent a little bit of time with our players and I think that proved to be very beneficial. I think I was at the time hopeful that that would be the case if we were able to continue to train in the manner that we had trained in the past. In other words, that we would not cut short our training in lieu of having workouts in June with our team.”
Kelly was pleased with the results, noting throughout the presser the improvements made by a number of players on the roster. He was also pleased with how the June time his staff spent with the players prepared them for even greater success in July, when the emphasis was on the work put in with the Strength and Conditioning staff. From all accounts, that preparation paid off.
“After talking to Paul Longo, our strength coach, and his staff, they had a great July and felt like they were able to accomplish all the strength and conditioning goals that we had accomplished in the past and even more so,” Kelly said of his team’s summer progress. “The combination of being able to work with our players in June, coupled with the strength and conditioning that is always part of our off-season, we believe that this was the best off-season that we have had since we’ve been here at Notre Dame.”
Kelly and his staff are hoping those gains can be smoothly carried into the season, which begins on Monday.
Being in great physical shape is important to Notre Dame’s success, but it is the just a piece to a championship puzzle. Developing great chemistry and leadership are just as important to building a winner. To help build each, Kelly has decided to take his team to Culver Academies, which resides about an hour away from the Notre Dame campus.
“Going there (Culver) allows us a great environment to do a lot of team building with our guys,” Kelly said, explaining the reasoning behind his choice of Culver Academies.
The solitude that is afforded from being away from campus is a part of the benefit of being at Culver. The specific layout and facilities of Culver Academies was also a key factor for Kelly.
“From a facilities standpoint, we really like the geography that’s there,” explained Kelly, referring to the benefits of the compact location of the football facilities. “We have two adjacent fields, one a field turf and one a brand new field that’s been installed there.”
“The things that we can do with our team there is going to allow us to continue to grow with our team,” concluded the Irish head coach. “We feel that site provides us a lot of opportunity to do some team building with our players.”
During the press conference, Kelly spoke often of leadership, most often without being prompted by a question. It was obvious from the press conference the Notre Dame head coach is pleased with where his team is heading into camp.
“I don’t look to name any captains right away but we are seeing players emerge in leadership roles,” Kelly said. “A lot of those guys have experience and a lot of those guys are our best players, and that’s always the best form of leadership within your ranks.”
During the presser, Kelly talked about several veterans emerging in the leadership roles mentioned above. Jarrett Grace and Ben Councell were noted for their leadership example displayed during their rehab efforts. Nick Martin was commended for emerging as the clear leader of the offensive line group, learning lessons from his older brother Zack. Sheldon Day and KeiVarae Russell were mentioned on the defensive side of the ball and DaVaris Daniels was cited as a player showing leadership at the wide receiver position.
Despite the presence of strong summer leadership, Kelly is well aware there is still plenty of work to be done.
“That is an ongoing process that will continue to work itself into our team as we go through.”
From a football specific standpoint, finding balance was the key theme. The thought heading into the season is that Notre Dame will likely have to rely on its offense as it waits for the defense to get caught up to speed. If things go the way Kelly wants, all three phases of the game will play a role in carrying the team.
“I really hope that all three phases are able to come together this year and complement,” he noted, drawing a contrast between the 2012 season, this year’s outside expectations and what he wants. “I want to be able to say that this football team, it can complement the defense and it can complement the offense and the special teams can complement.”
With the current trends in college football, Kelly knows that to be a championship caliber team his team must be well-rounded.
“I don’t want it to be, we got there because of our defense or we got there because of our offense,” he continued. “You know, going into the season, I think if all three phases can come together as one, we’ve got a chance to be a really good football team.”
For Kelly and the Irish football team, that means a January game to be played in either Pasadena, California or New Orleans, Louisiana.