NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Game week has finally arrived for the Notre Dame football team. After three weeks of training camp, Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish are now preparing to face Temple in this Saturday's season-opener.
The Owls bring a bit of an unknown element to the table, not only because they have a new head coach, but also because that head coach, Matt Rhule, has never previously been a head coach.
"We do know this," Kelly said of Rhule. "Matt tutored under (former Temple head coach) Al Golden. We know the success that Al has had and I have a great deal of respect for Al and his program (at Miami). The discipline and organization that the Temple football team is going to have in this game as well as working for (New York Giants head coach Tom) Coughlin - you know that this football team is going to be ready."
Rhule coached under Golden at Temple from 2006-2011 and then worked for Coughlin and the Giants in 2012 before returning to Temple to take his first head coaching position. Temple was just 4-7 last year under current Boston College head coach Steve Addazio, but the Owls won a combined 17 games in 2010 and 2011.
One of the challenges Kelly has in the opener against a team that is far from a traditional college football power is not looking forward to next week's foe - Michigan. Keeping his team focused on this week and not next week is something Kelly says he emphasizes with his team "every day".
"I'm not that removed from (losing to) South Florida," Kelly said of the 2011 season-opening upset loss that came a week before playing the Wolverines. "So that's what I do. This is my livelihood, so I think about all those things."
"We focus on Temple," Kelly continued. "I talk about it every day. I talk about the importance of playing this game and focusing on this football game. It'll be a topic of conversation today, tomorrow and every day leading right up to the Temple game."
Everett Golson is gone and Tommy Rees is back as Notre Dame's full-time starter this season. It is the first time in Rees' career that he did not have to go through a training camp battle to earn the job. By not needing to dole out reps to multiple QBs for the last three weeks, Kelly says he was able to spend more time on other things with Rees.
"(We could work on) communication with your receivers and getting in the right play," Kelly began. "(Also) movement within the pocket - really focusing on, for example with Tommy, his ability to extend plays."
Temple is one of several 2013 Irish opponents that spent the better part of the last three weeks going through a quarterback derby to determine a starter (Purdue, Michigan State, USC and Oklahoma were among the others).
"There (were) so many other things that we were able to work on this year knowing who our starter was," said Kelly. "I know what coach Rhule was having to go through. I've been through that many times. It's nice that we were able to work on many more things that help our quarterback position out heading into game one."
Kelly said at media day last week that if the Irish are to be successful this year they will have to score more than the 25.8 points a game they averaged last season. He expects that to happen because of the offensive line he has, balance with his running backs and receivers and, maybe most importantly, because of the improvements he has seen from Rees.
"He's making good decisions," said Kelly. "He's showing some escapability, but it's not just going to be him. We can threaten you over the top. We can push the ball over your head. If you want to drop down on us, we've got some weapons that can beat you one-on-one and we've got a quarterback that can see that and throw the ball to you."
Kelly says there were times last year when opponents would put eight men in the box and first and second down with Everett Golson at quarterback. The optimal check would have been to go to a pass play, but those checks were seldom made. The head coach expects those checks to be made this year with Rees at quarterback.
"Tommy Rees really needs to have a good first game," Kelly said. "I think we're focused more about Tommy playing start to finish than we are (about) getting other quarterbacks in the game."
Kelly says defensive lineman Tony Springmann had successful surgery on his knee. Reserve running back Will Mahone is the only other player besides Springmann who Kelly says will miss this week's game. Ronnie Stanley practiced Monday and should be a full go this week.
Notre Dame's use of the "pistol" offense has fans abuzz. Current San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick used the offense to run to the Super Bowl last season and he used it even more extensively prior to that at the University of Nevada under former head coach Chris Ault. Kelly leaned on the current Kansas City Chiefs consultant for his expertise in installing the offense.
"We had coach Ault come here," said Kelly. "He spent a couple of days here. He was also a clinic speaker for us."
"How much we use the pistol will be determined really for us in terms of game plan, week to week," Kelly continued. "We just think it's another piece that we can use to get some downhill runs. I don't think we've turned into a pistol offense. We're still a shotgun offense that will operate similar to what we have in the past."
The Irish used the pistol a little bit during Kelly's first season in 2010. Kelly thinks the scheme suites running back George Atkinson.
"George is a guy that I wanted to get downhill," said Kelly. "As you know, he's got great speed and acceleration. He ran very well downhill in high school and we felt like the pistol could fit him very well."
Kelly singled out two players who he thinks have made the most improvement since the spring - Nick Martin and Kona Schwenke.
"Where he went from the spring as such an important position at center," Kelly said of Martin. "Where you're taking over one of the most important positions on the offensive line."
"He went against Louis Nix every day," Kelly continued. "One of the best, if not the best, nose guards in the country and has done very well. I would say that the progress he has made in such a very short period of time has been really impressive."
Schwenke has the unenviable task of playing behind Nix, which can make time on the field on Saturday's hard to come by.
"He's going to play a lot of football," Kelly said of Schwenke. "He could play for a lot of teams and make an impact."
Probably the biggest eye-opener on the first official depth chart of the 2013 season is true freshman Jaylon Smith ahead of junior Ben Councell at drop linebacker.
"He plays so well in space," Kelly said of Smith. "(He is a) very smart player (who) plays instinctively. I think the one thing that Jaylon has done as well as a lot of freshmen that I've been around (is) he doesn't make the same mistake twice. He's a guy that comes back the next day and he can eradicate (making) the same mistake twice."
If Smith starts on Saturday he would become the first true freshman to start at outside linebacker at Notre Dame since Kory Minor in 1995.
Austin Collinsworth is listed ahead of Elijah Shumate playing next to Matthias Farley at one safety position. Kelly calls Collinsworth and Shumate "1A and 1B" and also included Eilar Hardy while referring to the trio of players as a "three for two" playing time situation.
Atkinson is also listed at the top of the depth chart at running back - a position that Kelly says will include a host of players seeing time this season.
"He's going to have to perform," Kelly said of Atkinson. "If George fumbles the football, if George misses assignments, if George doesn't run the right hole George will be standing next to me on the sideline."
Kelly also shared his thoughts on a few other individuals:
Sophomore wide receiver Chris Brown
"I thought it was just ok," Kelly said when asked about Brown's fall training camp. "We expect a little bit more consistency from Chris. He (has) great talent. He really worked hard this summer. I was really pleased with his summer work. He put on weight. He got to the level that we wanted him physically. Now we want to see a consistency out of him."
Junior outside linebacker Ishaq Williams
"Everything that I've seen, he's done cooking," proclaimed Kelly of the somewhat enigmatic Williams. "He's ready to go. He's shown everything to me in practice. His preparation, his offseason - it just took a little bit longer, but I'm excited to watch him play on Saturday. He's done everything that we've asked him to do. (He) hasn't said anything about 'hey I want to play at this position'. We've asked him to play end - he's played end. He's at Cat (linebacker behind Prince Shembo). He's done everything we've asked him to do."
Freshman safety Max Redfield
"I think Max is in the mix there," Kelly said. "I think he has made great progress. He is not right now in that (safety) rotation. I think he is somebody that you need to keep an eye on that will be in that rotation, but he's not there yet, but he's going to play on Saturday. We obviously have high expectations for Max as we move through the season."