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Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s coaches’ jobs shift, as all of ours do

Brian Kelly Notre Dame

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 28: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish encourages his team during warmups before the Camping World Bowl against the Iowa State Cyclones at Camping World Stadium on December 28, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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As Notre Dame instituted an optional pass/fail grading system for this semester of remote learning, the student-athletes should not have any additional worries about the usual GPA thresholds that lead to mid-May piece of news that upsets Irish fans. Instead, letter grades will be factored in only when students choose — in other words, only when those grades will boost a GPA.

That may have reduced some of the stress of audibling to schooling from a distance, but Notre Dame’s coaching staff has still taken on some atypical duties amidst the discord of sending the players home on a moment’s notice.

“Our football coaches took off the football coach’s hat and put on the academic support hat,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said late Wednesday night in an interview on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt. “It’s been challenging, but it’s been fun in that respect, too, because it’s something different.”

That appearance and Kelly’s 30 minutes after Notre Dame’s one spring practice very well may have been Kelly’s only interactions with the media between the postgame scrum at the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28 and a practice date to be determined, hopefully this summer. More so than usual, that kind of public absence makes sense, considering just about any conversation with Kelly would focus on the bigger picture, a topic beyond much reasonable insights at this point and for the foreseeable future.

With that in mind, a review of Kelly’s comments following that one and only spring practice revealed what is now a bit of irony. In light of the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing mechanisms to win the 2017 World Series, Kelly was asked about any concerns over the influx of technology in sports and college football in particular. It was an off-topic question better-suited for another time, but the thought process behind it held a touch of logic.

In response, Kelly pointed to college football’s game day rules around technology use, stringent enough to remove much worry about such cheating.

“Other than that, it really kind of ends the digital piece coming into the sideline or the locker room for us to gain any kind of audio/visual advantage from that perspective,” Kelly said, later expanding a bit on a general lack of technology at this level. “... It just seems like we’re a step behind here, but there are some really simple things we could be doing.”

Something tells me Kelly and the Irish are much more acquainted with tech right now, even if that newfound necessity won’t inherently make it to Saturdays.

Of course, both Polian and Rees were chatting from home. Kelly and the rest of the staff are, as well. That’s a rare occurrence for college football coaches, and rare might be a generous description.

“It’s kind of nice as a football coach that’s been in it for 30 years, I’ve seen a lot of my family,” Kelly said of the one silver lining of the current chaos. “It is kind of nice that we’re being able to take advantage of this time to be with our families.”

When Notre Dame knocked off back-to-back top-15 foes in mid-October of 2017, it rocketed the Irish up to No. 3 in the polls and erased any lingering doubts from 2016’s debacle. The game that stands out to many, as was discussed in the most recent edition of “30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC,” was the 49-14 rout of USC. It was against the most historic of Irish rivals, a known national power and a program seemingly on the rise.

But personally, the 35-14 win a week later against No. 14 North Carolina State stood out more. Sure, the Wolfpack is not as broadly respected, but that was a 6-1 team led by an experienced quarterback in senior Ryan Finley with two dynamic threats at his disposal in Jaylen Samuels and Nyheim Hines. Future top-5 NFL draft pick Bradley Chubb led a threatening defense. In every respect, North Carolina State had the talent to stick with Notre Dame.

When a Wolfpack defender blocked an Irish punt five minutes into the game and recovered it for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead, there was more than talent working against the Irish.

It was a situation reminiscent of moments Notre Dame had folded in for 20 years. A bit of adversity against a quality opponent and the true character of the Irish would be revealed.

Walking through the parking lots afterward with a couple beat writers, a unanimous opinion stood out: Responding to that blocked punt touchdown with a quick-strike touchdown was a moment that may have saved Notre Dame’s season. Josh Adams took a handoff for 35 yards before Brandon Wimbush connected with Durham Smythe for a 25-yard touchdown and a tie game.

“We don’t talk about winning,” Kelly said afterward. “Winning is not even part of our vocabulary. We didn’t talk about winning any games this year.

“It’s about the mindset that we’ve created to dominate our opponent. Winning is not even part of the equation with this group.”

Julian Love later broke the game open with a 69-yard interception return for a touchdown and Adams gave his “33 Trucking” Heisman campaign some momentum with a 77-yard scoring dash, but it was the response to that punt block that showed a demeanor reversed from 2016.

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