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Back to the basics as Notre Dame heads to training camp

BK Tom Loy

Brian Kelly is a sports fan. And he channeled an adage heard from coaches of every kind when he talked about what it would take from his young team to reach their goals.

“This football team is one that’s going to have to do the ordinary things extraordinarily well,” Kelly said Friday. “If they do the basics, the ordinary things, and do them well, it’s going to be a good football team.”

It may be a Crash Davis-approved cliche, but it’s true. Those ordinary things tend to make quite a difference. In baseball parlance, that’s making the routine plays in the field, taking quality at-bats at the plate and throwing strikes from the mound.

In football terms? That’s doing some of the things that... weren’t all that easy for Kelly’s ten-win 2015 squad.

Last year’s Notre Dame team was talented enough to be within 30 seconds of having a very good argument at being the fourth team invited to the College Football Playoff. They did that with a rash of injuries that devastated the depth chart. But those ordinary things got in the way.

Now without some of the best talent we’ve seen in South Bend since Lou Holtz and Vinny Cerrito were in town, Kelly’s asking his team to get back to the basics—and to master them this time around.

It might be too much to ask. Then again, it might be just the right thing to ask.

In Kelly’s first two seasons in South Bend, every time it looked like the team was ready to run at the pace Kelly wanted, they stumbled. Self-inflicted errors ruined two seasons. The ordinary things.

In 2012, a throttled back attack—one that leaned heavily on a stout defense that played fundamentally sound—was good enough to win each and every Saturday the Irish took the field. It wasn’t flashy. It wasn’t all that pretty. But it was effective.

No, Manti Te’o isn’t walking out of that tunnel. But neither is a first-year starter at quarterback. Or skill talent that relied on a converted wide receiver to move the chains as a runner and a great tight end to be the team’s No. 1 receiver.

This roster may certainly lacks the defense that was one of the nation’s—and school’s—best. So while it may be short on start power, it’s heavy on depth and talent, with two great quarterbacks and enough talent to win a lot of games—assuming they don’t find ways to give them away.

That last part is a big reason why Kelly took great pains to build a new identity with this football team. It’s a part of the reason why a system reset was needed, cultivated by an ornery coach in January who sought out new leaders to take charge and control their own destiny.

Good programs don’t rebuild, they reload. That’s what Ohio State’s doing. That’s what Alabama’s doing.

It’s even the expectation at places like Michigan State and Stanford, two teams that’ll come to South Bend with new quarterbacks and rebuilt depth charts. So while there are plenty of holes that need plugging on the Irish roster, that’s what the great programs do.

“Everybody in college football goes through this process of retooling,” Kelly said. It’s getting those that have waited for their opportunity ready to play, and I like where we have evolved to.”

It wasn’t easy. Kelly’s cracked the whip as he molded this group, all while taking long hard looks at the tactics and schemes deployed by Brian VanGorder as well as his offensive staff.

It’s only day one. Everybody wins the opening press conference. And life without Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller, Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Sheldon Day is a lot easier when you’re at a podium than on the sideline.

But if you were expecting any change in expectations from a head coach now trailing just Rockne, Holtz, Parseghian and Leahy in wins at Notre Dame, think again.

“We only have one goal and that is to be one of the four teams to be selected for the playoffs,” Kelly said. Everthing that we look towards is to be one of those four teams selected in the playoffs.