Thursday April 8th, 2010

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- For the first 20 minutes or so of Wednesday's rain-soaked spring practice, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly remained largely unnoticeable, hiding quietly under his blue Notre Dame baseball cap. But then, it came time for a drill called "tempo."

Suddenly, Irish players began running in waves at breakneck speed to get to the line and call a play. And each time, Kelly's voice bellowed at somebody not moving fast enough for his liking.

It was this drill -- in which the goal is for each offensive unit (first-, second- and third-string) to get off as many plays as possible in a short amount of time -- that caused a frustrated Kelly to proclaim after the Irish's March 31 practice: "We stink right now." After a weeklong break for Easter and a reportedly heated Monday team meeting in which the first-year coach from Cincinnati "drew a line in the sand," Kelly was more pleased with Wednesday's performance.

"It's small steps," he said, "but I'm pleased that they got the message."

That the Irish are having trouble adjusting to Kelly's work-fast, play-fast philosophy hasn't surprised those who watched them practice under Kelly's predecessor. The NFL-bred Charlie Weis did things the way the pros do -- more methodically, less frenetically and with an emphasis on keeping players fresh.

"Last year, we would go hard and then we would get a break, and then we'd have walkthroughs and stuff like that," said safety Harrison Smith. "There's no walkthroughs now."

Practice tempo is just one of a bundle of changes the Irish are adjusting to in what Kelly called "a 180-degree turn from the way this business was run to the way I'm running this business." The 48-year-old Massachusetts native still refers to himself as a "Division II coach," having spent 13 years as head coach at Grand Valley State prior to winning conference championships at Central Michigan (2006) and Cincinnati ('08 and '09).

As he peeled back the curtain on Weis' regime, during which the Irish went 16-21 the past three seasons, Kelly found what many of us on the outside had suspected all along: For years, Notre Dame had run more like an NFL franchise than a college program. For many, career aspirations came before championships. McCARTNEY: Can Kelly fix Irish?

"A lot of these guys signed up for Notre Dame because of the idea that 'Hey, we're going to get you to the NFL,'" said Kelly. "That was a good pitch. You had a guy that had great credibility to do that. I can't pitch that because I don't have that background. Mine is, I know how to get you to a BCS game.

"My impression, in the short amount of time that I've been here, is guys were playing for themselves. The priorities have to be Notre Dame, playing for your family, playing for your teammates and then playing for yourself. I think that was upside down. 'Selfishness' and 'entitlement' are two words that would be apropos."

To help his team become closer, Kelly initiated a couple of measures to keep the Irish together longer at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. While commonplace at most major football programs, the changes met with some resistance at Notre Dame, which prides itself on ensuring its athletes remain in sync with the general student body. But Weis' grueling daily schedule -- which included two hours of meetings followed by two hours of practice -- left Irish football players little time to socialize.

Thanks to a push by Kelly and Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick, the football team finally has its own training table for meals. In the past, players often had to race across campus to make it to the dining halls before they closed at 8 p.m. Meanwhile, a nutritional study last fall found that Irish defensive players lost an average of 13 pounds during the season.

Now, after 45-minute meetings and practices that end nearly two hours earlier, players can head straight from the locker room and up a flight of stairs to dinner. With evening study hall moved to the football building as well, the players' obligations end by 8:30 rather than 10:30.

"It's all helped us to get in, work hard to the fullest, go out and really be a college student," said offensive lineman Chris Stewart.

Meanwhile, over the past three-plus months, Kelly and his staff spent time reaching out to various parties -- doctors, athletic trainers, strength and conditioning staff, academic support staff -- with whom there had been reported communication breakdowns under the old regime.

"There was an 'us against them' mentality -- us being football, them being everyone else," said Kelly. "The football building was not a place that had an open-door policy, I guess. 'We're doing football over here, just leave us alone.' I really feel like at a college campus, it needs to be 'us.'"

Of course, to the fans who fill Notre Dame Stadium on Saturdays, missed defensive assignments were far more troubling last season than missed dinners. Whatever excitement former stars Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate may have provided on offense was negated by a defense that allowed nearly 400 yards per game, leaving the Irish on the wrong end of too many shootouts in a disappointing 6-6 campaign.

Given that, Kelly's initial assessment of Notre Dame's personnel may come as a surprise. "Defensively, we're ahead of our offense -- and I'm not surprised at that after seeing some of the players who were on the defensive side of the ball."

He's referring to guys like Smith, a former safety-turned-linebacker now moving back to safety for his senior season; sophomore linebacker Manti Te'o, the decorated recruit who started as a true freshman; and junior Ethan Johnson, who will move from tackle to end in coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme.

It could also be that Kelly, an offensive guy, is pumping up the defense merely because he holds the other unit to a higher standard. The Irish are still in the infant stages of transitioning from Weis' pro-style offense to the shotgun-spread Kelly employed at Cincinnati, producing a top five scoring offense and undefeated regular season last fall.

It's admittedly bizarre watching Notre Dame line up to run a play this spring and not seeing No. 7 taking the snaps. (Clausen, whose Pro Day is Friday, watched Wednesday's practice as a visitor.) The staff feels extremely fortunate, however, that Clausen's replacement, Dayne Crist, was available in time for spring ball. Less than five months removed from ACL surgery, Crist, a rising junior who saw action early last season when Clausen was hobbled, is participating in all drills, albeit with a non-contact jersey.

"Had I not been able to participate in spring, it would have been very difficult for me to have a grasp of the offense I'm expected to," Crist said.

The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Californian exhibited a strong arm and nice touch on deep balls. Once healthy, he's equipped to run when the play calls for it.

The quarterbacks spent part of Wednesday working on option pitches and shovel passes. And like their teammates, they are doing plenty of running after the whistle blows, too.

Thunder and a hint of lightning forced the Irish to hurriedly scramble to their indoor facility 45 minutes in to Wednesday's practice. An hour later, they dashed back outside. Even the managers were struggling to keep up.

"I want them to think faster, I want them to walk faster, I want them to go to the bathroom faster," said Kelly. "I want them to do everything quicker than they've been doing it. It's been so cerebral, it's been so walkthrough like, that we want to change the tempo in everything they do."

Between all of the running and all of the yelling, practices haven't been very enjoyable so far. Stewart said he's looking forward to the day when "there's less instruction by the head man, when you look up and you hear pads popping and guys getting excited, because they already know what assignments they're running."

In the meantime, at least there's a hot meal waiting.

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