With exactly one month until the BCS Championship, Notre Dame held its first bowl practice Friday as the team begins preparation for Alabama. But there's more to this month of practice -- interrupted by a six-day break for Christmas -- than breaking down what the Irish need to do to beat the Tide in South Florida.
As is the case with all bowl-eligible teams, the extra weeks of practice that come with a bowl bid are used to get reps for guys who haven't played much, or at all, in the regular season. That's no different for Notre Dame despite playing in the biggest bowl game of them all.
"We really think that weve got the nucleus of some great young players that are going to get a chance to develop in this time as well," coach Brian Kelly said. "Its going to be a little bit like preseason camp, where were going to have a chance to do a lot of fundamental work, were going to get some young guys running -- were going to see Amir Carlisle. Were going to get a chance to see some guys who havent played this year.
"Thats really exciting to me and our coaches, theres no question about that, as well as getting our guys' weight back up and getting stronger in the weight room and developing our football team and getting a little bit more (weight) on an Everett Golson. Those are really exciting because they move your program along. And then get a chance to focus on Alabama."
Carlisle, a running back who transferred to Notre Dame from USC but redshirted in 2012 with an ankle injury, is one of a handful of players who will get early looks for 2013 in the coming weeks. Gunner Kiel, who also redshirted, is among the high-profile players who should get a look as well.
But it's not just about guys who redshirted. Plenty of freshmen played, but not frequently and will get an extended chance to develop in December. One of last year's emerging stars from bowl practice was Stephon Tuitt, who emerged in 2012 as one of the nation's top defensive ends.
"From that point to the bowl game, it hit me to know about the defense," Tuitt said earlier this year. "It was all better, it was all comfortable then."
As for what Notre Dame will work on in preparation for Alabama, topping the list is red zone efficiency. The Irish scored on 79 percent of their trips to the red zone, good for the 78th-best rate among FBS teams. More concerning, though, is the offense only converted a red zone opportunity into a touchdown 46.5 percent of the time -- the sixth-worst rate in the nation.
It's no surprise, then, that Notre Dame kicked more field goals (19) on red zone trips than any other FBS team. That's something that the Irish recognize has to change.
"We definitely have to improve. We're not there yet, we don't feel like it," running back Theo Riddick said after the USC game. " coach Kelly is going to set up some things to actually let us score touchdowns, because we have to. We have to get better at that being in the red zone. We're going to do that, and we're going to be okay."