Attention to detail. Laser focus. Smart decisions. Gritty play.
According to a sign that hangs in the auditorium of the Guglielmo Athletics Complex, those are the “traits necessary to complete Notre Dame’s football mission.”
What is the mission? “To graduate all of our student-athletes and win a national championship.” By the way, that little part after the “and” (no big deal, right?) hasn’t happened in 30 years.
Much has changed in terms of annual expectations since Lou Holtz’s 1988 squad went 12-0, but Year 9 of the Brian Kelly era might re-establish the Irish as major players on the national scene. Some would argue the Irish are at that level already, considering their 10-victory campaigns in 2015 and 2017. A 4-8 disaster in between, though, led to a major reset that’s still playing out in South Bend, Indiana.
What it’s really going to take for the Irish to erase lingering doubts about the program is a debut appearance in the four-team College Football Playoff. They got close in 2015. They were squarely in the hunt into November last season. And now?
Kelly is talking big.
“This is a very good roster from 1 through 85, and there’s depth in this roster,” he said. “And the one thing I can tell you is that they’re all very, very competitive. We don’t have guys that are slackers. They want to be great.”
THREE KEYS IN 2018
1. Quarterback efficiency: Brandon Wimbush completed a hair less than half of his passes as a junior, which isn’t nearly good enough. There’s no reason that number shouldn’t be closer to 60 percent, given the tremendous size and skill of the team’s tight ends and wide receivers.
Last time we saw Wimbush in a game situation, though, he was being pulled for Ian Book in the Citrus Bowl. Book — not nearly the runner Wimbush is but clearly a more talented thrower — was outstanding in that victory against LSU and remains a viable alternative as a full-time guy.
2. The pass rush: The Irish had 24 sacks, tied for 70th nationally, last season and — hard to believe — haven’t outsacked their opponents in the course of a season since 2013. Ends Daelin Hayes and Khalid Kareem, among others, have to crank up the pressure. The good news: Kelly thinks the Irish have the starters and backups at end to be highly productive.
“It has been awhile since we’ve had four guys that we feel [can] go out there and compete with anybody,” he said.
3. Kick-starter: Senior Justin Yoon has been a high-percentage field-goal converter throughout his time in South Bend, but a stepped-up weight-training program during the offseason helped him add as many as 10 yards to range.
“Justin Yoon is pounding the football,” Kelly said. “I mean pounding. When I use that word, I mean he’s gone from a guy that, you know, his cliff was probably 45 [yards]. Now his cliff is 52, 55.”
ONE GAME AT A TIME
Sept. 1 vs. Michigan: Win. Good or bad, it’ll be a huge tone-setter.
Sept. 8 vs. Ball State: Win. But you knew that already.
Sept. 15 vs. Vanderbilt: Win. The Commodores have an experienced offense that might be pretty pesky.
Sept. 22 at Wake Forest: Win. It’s a dangerous one, though. The Demon Deacons showed tons of character in the matchup last season, putting up 37 points in defeat.
Sept. 29 vs. Stanford: Win. It’s a good chance for the Irish to flex their increasing toughness.
Oct. 6 at Virginia Tech: Loss. Lane Stadium will be a tinderbox.
Oct. 13 vs. Pittsburgh: Win. Nothing wrong with a 6-1 record going into a bye week.
Oct. 27 vs. Navy (San Diego): Win. It’ll be a bowl-like environment, especially for the Middies.
Nov. 3 at Northwestern: Win. The Wildcats will be motivated to the max, but which team will have more crowd support?
Nov. 10 vs. Florida State: Win. Now 9-1, the Irish should be right on the border of the playoff committee’s top four.
Nov. 17 vs. Syracuse (New York): Win. Yankee Stadium is an underrated football setting.
Nov. 24 at USC: Loss. Holy heartbreak, man. The Irish fall by a single score, their playoff dream deferred again.