SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It seemed Brian Kelly had everything he wanted when he signed on for his new job — his dream job — at Notre Dame.
But he didn't have a hill, and if his Irish were going to climb back to relevancy in the national football landscape, they'd begin that journey by climbing a large sand hill. So Kelly, hired in December, had one erected near the team's practice facility.
“It turns into more of a competition than conditioning,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “It's a three to four guy race to the top of hill and the next thing you know you're finished with 10 of your hills and you weren't even focused on that.”
Kelly, who has overachieved everywhere he has been, is trying to do away with a culture that has breaded underachievement since the Lou Holtz era in the mid 1990s. Winners last week against Purdue in Kelly's debut, the Irish will play host to Michigan Saturday in a matchup of teams whose fan bases are growing increasingly restless. The winner could surface in next week's top 25 rankings, which was the case last year after UM snagged a 38-34 thriller over the Charlie Weis-coached Irish.
As good as Kelly has been in his career, this job, as high profile as it is, might be his most challenging yet. Recent history suggests that success in South Bend isn't as easy to come by as it was in the days when Notre Dame was the most visible brand in college football.
Bob Davie (35-25 record), Tyrone Willingham (21-15), and Weis (35-27) were either poor hires or victims of a situation no longer conducive to success. Or both. Kelly, unlike the others, came to ND with considerable success as a head coach, winning two national championships at Division II Grand Valley State and conference championships at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
“Everyone on this team wants to win right now,” quarterback Dayne Crist said. “The coaches want to win right now and it really comes down to how we prepare each week.”
Crist was solid last week in his starting debut, wracking up 205 yards on 19 of 26 passing and not throwing an interception. A redshirt sophomore, Crist didn't play a role in last year's game at the Big House, but most of his weapons did. Armando Allen (21 carries, 139 yards, one TD) and Michael Floyd (seven catches, 131 yards, TD) figure to be a concern for UM's often criticized defense defense, as does 6-foot-6 tight end Kyle Rudolph.
“Notre Dame has a lot of explosive players that they can implement into their offensive attack,” linebacker Obi Ezeh said. “Our coaches are going to come in with a game plan and we're going to focus and try to execute that to the best of our abilities.”
Kelly's spread offensive attack is less specific than the one used by Rodriguez, as he doesn't necessarily covet a multi-dimensional quarterback. On defense, Kelly preaches the basics — reliable tackling, gap integrity, thinking fast-— and he doesn't expect his Irish to blitz much today because it would leave them vulnerable against speedy Wolverine quarterback Denard Robinson.
If Kelly was disappointed with anything last week, it was that his players were disappointed, many believing they should have been sharper in the 23-12 win. Kelly didn't see it that way. Following a trying offseason of adapting to a new coaching staff and a new training program — sprinting up a hill wasn't easy — Kelly wanted his guys to feel good in the moment.
“I certainly want them to enjoy all of the work they put into winning and to recognize how special it is to win a football game,” Kelly said. “It's not an easy proposition.”
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