On the day he was introduced as Notre Dame’s coach in December 2010, Brian Kelly offered a vivid reminder of how small a world it is.
He harked back two decades to the first time he’d been hired — at only 28 years old — to run a college program. It was at Division II Grand Valley State in Allendale, Mich., from which head coach Tom Beck had departed for a position on a staff at a slightly larger football school.
That school was Notre Dame. Beck went to work for Lou Holtz, who in the 1988 season had won what was — and still is — the Irish’s last national championship.
If not for Holtz and Notre Dame, Kelly wouldn’t have gotten that first opportunity when he did and perhaps wouldn’t have found the path to South Bend. But when he stood at the front of a packed room in 2010 and invoked Holtz’s name, the subtext was clear: He was there to deliver the Irish’s next title.
“There’s a football coach, and then there’s the football coach at Notre Dame,” he said then. “Because nobody, nobody does it like Notre Dame.”
But Kelly — preparing for his 10th season at the school — has yet to reach the summit of college football. He has come reasonably close twice, his 2012 team getting destroyed by vastly superior Alabama in the national title game and his 2018 team going down brutally hard against Clemson in a playoff semifinal.
There’s Kelly, and then there are Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney. The Irish seem to be a long way from doing it like the Crimson Tide and the Tigers.
“Ten years anywhere is a journey,” Kelly said at the start of 2019 training camp. “You just have to be able to learn, keep working on yourself and keep pushing the envelope, too, at the same time, and never get satisfied.
“We got a taste of what it’s like to be in the playoff. I want to win the darn thing. So never be satisfied with where you are, and never get to the point where you think you know it all. Always be working on yourself and trying to get better at your job.”
Eight months after losing 30-3 to Clemson in Arlington, Texas, the Irish will open another season of high expectations at Louisville. Expect them to land at around 10th in the AP’s preseason poll. Then again, 10th doesn’t represent a step forward for a program whose goal of reaching the playoff stayed alive until the regular-season finale in 2017 before being realized a year later.
But it’s impossible to glance at the team’s schedule and not see a couple of giant red thumbs: at Georgia in Game 3, and at Michigan in Game 7. The Bulldogs and Wolverines each will open the season ranked higher in the polls.
“One of our themes this year for our football team is that we have to be road warriors,” Kelly said. “We have to have that mindset of going on the road to Michigan. We’ve got to [go to] Georgia. We’ve got to go to Stanford, which we haven’t won at [since 2007]. …
“So, a number of challenges on our schedule, ones that our guys recognize. They know who they’re playing and the challenges that are in front of us, but that’s what they sign up for. That’s why they come to Notre Dame, because they relish those challenges.”
Five hot topics in training camp:
Book’s club: Notre Dame has always been one false move from a quarterback change under Kelly, so young backup Phil Jurkovec — a real oohs-and-aahs kind of athlete — might as well prepare like he’s the starter. He won’t be, though. This is Ian Book’s team.
Book had a transformative offseason — much different from his previous one, when Brandon Wimbush was the expected 2018 starter. Wimbush lost the job to Book before the end of September.
“The respect [Book] has is different than last year,” Kelly said. “He walks around the building a little bit different.”
End game, Part 1: The outside pass rush, led by Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, could be the greatest strength of the defense. Okwara, especially, created near-constant pressure in 2018. Of course, it helped to have tackle Jerry Tillery blowing up the middles of opposing offensive lines. The Irish are inexperienced on the interior of the D-line, though they have multiple players who could break through. The competition at all spots up front this spring has been intense.
End game, Part 2: Everyone was excited to see how much tight end Cole Kmet’s role could be expanded — especially in the red zone — but Kmet broke his collarbone early in camp, and now the questions are about how soon he’ll be back and how long it’ll take for him to get up to full speed.
Maybe he can be something of a secret weapon against Georgia? That’s undoubtedly a best-case scenario. At least the Irish know what it’s like to be without Kmet, who missed spring ball while pitching for the baseball team.
Here’s the kicker: Get to know him, folks — junior Jonathan Doerer wasted little time essentially locking down the starting job at kicker. After handling a good-size chunk of the kickoff duties the last two seasons, he’ll step into the shoes of the school’s all-time scoring leader, Justin Yoon, on field goals and PATs. Hey, no pressure, right?
Hands of “Clay”: When the Irish needed a big play from a wideout outside the hashes last season, Miles Boykin was the top target. Now, it’s 6-4, 229-pound senior Chase Claypool’s chance to display all his go-up-and-get-it ability. When Claypool’s motor is revved high, he can be the best player on the field. Will he be the offense’s breakout star?
CIRCLE THE DATES
Sept. 2 at Georgia: It was an instant classic when the teams last played, in South Bend in 2017, with the Bulldogs coming out on top 20-19. No doubt, Kirby Smart’s program has continued to get stronger since that game. Kelly’s has, too. But can the Irish stay in it — let alone win it — deep in the heart of SEC country?
Oct. 26 at Michigan: The home team has won five straight, and eight of the last nine, in this no-longer-every-year-but-should-be series. Book vs. Shea Patterson is one of the most enticing non-conference matchups of quarterbacks on the national schedule. Kelly vs. Jim Harbaugh is kind of a big deal, too.
Nov. 30 at Stanford: Kelly’s teams are 0-4 in Palo Alto, but the Irish’s 38-17 victory at home last season may have trumpeted a shift in the Legends Trophy rivalry. If playoff hopes hinge on the regular-season finale as they did in 2017, it’ll be a prime chance for payback.