SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Despite a 4-6 record that’s seen week after week of gutting losses, Notre Dame players haven't seen any signs of them quitting on the 2016 season.
On one hand, that’s almost a discouraging development — maybe it’d be easier to say Notre Dame could turn things around in 2017 if its players weren’t trying their best this year and just needed a different mix of coaches/teammates around them to play up to their collective talent level. That Notre Dame is only 4-6 while putting forth good effort levels every week — against an easier-than-normal schedule, it should be noted — could speak to a significant fault in the program.
Or, on the other hand, it could mean that Notre Dame isn’t far away from a major turnaround next year with largely the same group of players coming back. Which one of those narratives is accurate won't be known for sure for another 12 1/2 months.
But that’s the bigger picture view of things. For senior captain and linebacker James Onwualu, who will play his final game at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday against Virginia Tech, the narrow view is that the effort level that’s been there all season is a small victory for 2016.
“It just comes back to really finding the love and passion in what you're doing,” Onwualu said. “When everything's not going very well, it's pretty easy to break down, and vice versa, when something's going really well, it's easy to be a leader and it's easy to be the all-star player. But when things aren't going very well, it's tough to show up every single day and have a smile on your face and work and get other guys to work around and still push themselves to become better players.
“So I think for me within my room I've done a good job of keeping the guys focused on continuing to become better players and playing our role in this game. So that's a small accomplishment I see in myself. And as the whole team, I think a small accomplishment for the whole team is just that we haven't stopped. There's not a guy on the team that I would say has quit on what this season is. They still come to work and still are trying to become better players. I think you don't really see that in a lot of other programs.”
It’s a small consolation for Notre Dame’s captains — Onwualu, wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey and defensive end Isaac Rochell — that they’ve kept Notre Dame’s locker room from splintering and quitting over the course of the last two and a half months. That togetherness hasn’t been the case for other perennially-strong programs having dismal seasons: Oregon, which is 3-7, lost by 49 to Washington, 25 to USC, 25 to Stanford and 18 to Washington State, and games that uncompetitive are usually a sign of 1) a lack of talent and/or 2) a lack of effort.
Onwualu and Rochell won’t be back next year, and Hunter’s future — he has another year of eligibility left but was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels last summer — is uncertain. But McGlinchey has been steadfast in his commitment to return for a fifth year in South Bend, and he sees the togetherness of this current team through a trying 2016 season as more than just a small victory heading into next year.
“This year it's obviously been a little bit harder to understand what this team is working for now, and everybody has kind of gotten the message that it's just about getting better personally and as a team,” McGlinchey said. “And I think that the way that people have took that with stride and the way that this team has been fighting to get better and coming together, growing closer in this hard time is the biggest victory we could have had. And I think that it could have easily gone the wrong way, and it's a huge victory for this team that it didn't, and that's the biggest thing we've held onto this year.”