SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There are plenty of tangible facets to Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff push, headlined on the surface by an offense that averages over five touchdowns per game and a boom-or-bust defense that forces three and outs but gives up plenty of big plays.
But Irish players and coaches believe there’s an unquantifiable undercurrent to their 8-1 record, which has them at No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings. This is a team that’s best players are also its best leaders, a discussion that begins with left tackle Ronnie Stanley and defensive tackle Sheldon Day, two seniors who decided to pass on entering the NFL Draft in January and stay in school for another year.
“They're responsible for so much of our success in that they are arguably our best players and our best leaders,” coach Brian Kelly said. “So when your best players are your best leaders, it changes the dynamics of everything that you do because they're out there in practice, setting a standard. They're in the locker room setting a standard, and then they're on the field in the way they compete setting a standard.”
[SHOP: Get your Notre Dame gear]
But beyond Stanley (who was not able to accept his captaincy before the season due to “parking,” as he said) and Day (a two-time captain) are leaders at nearly every position group. Center Nick Martin, linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt and safety Matthias Farley are all captains, while other upperclassmen — like wide receiver Chris Brown — are considered leaders as well.
A year ago, Notre Dame saw a 7-1 record plummet to 7-5 over the final third of the season, the product of a rash of injuries and a leadership vacuum. Last year’s captains were Martin, Day, running back Cam McDaniel and safety Austin Collinsworth — Day was a junior still deferring to seniors and graduate students, McDaniel was a backup running back and Collinsworth was injured for nearly the entire season. Quarterback Everett Golson wasn’t a natural leader, unlike the guy before him (Tommy Rees) or the guys after him (Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer).
But with so many leaders emerging from last year’s late-season debacle, there’s no longer a dearth of voices on the 2015 Irish. Instead, there’s a depth of voices that permeates everything Notre Dame does.
“It’s taken a little stress off of people,” Schmidt said. “Like, you don't have feel like you have to lead 100 percent of the time in the same way — because sometimes I think people that are being leaders are trying to lead sometimes maybe stretch themselves out into positions they don't exactly need to be in.”
So what, exactly, can this nebulous concept of strong, team-wide leadership accomplish?
The biggest impact comes during the grind of weekday practices. It’s Stanley yelling at Will Fuller to practice better, it’s Day getting his fellow defensive linemen to practice cohesively and it can be a younger player telling a veteran to hustle.
“People are just more focused,” Martin said. “When you look around and you see those people are locked in or they call you out, you're like, all right, well, I've got to get my (expletive) together. I've got to get going.”
“When the guys are driving, it's a different motivation for the team to work when it's player driven,” Schmidt said. “So Coach Kelly doesn't have to get all over us, because we'll get all over ourselves and we can try to police that on our own. So I think that helps with practice.”
Leadership will only get a team so far — in 2012, it got Notre Dame to the BCS Championship, where it promptly was blown out by an Alabama team with far superior talent. But this year’s edition of the Irish believes it has the combination of talent and leadership necessary to handle the regular season grind and emerge in December as one of the four teams selected to participate in the College Football Playoff.
“It gives you great resolve that they're difficult to beat because they've invested so much, you know?” Kelly said. “They've invested on the practice field. They've invested in the weight room. They were in here this morning at 7:00 a.m., 65 of them lifting weights. Why are you here at 7:00 a.m. in November? You've invested. And they want to get the benefits of that investment and that's winning football games.”