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By Liam Farrell ’04
Senior Alumni Editor
Sitting in his office a few days before the beginning of football camp, Coach Brian Kelly said he would like to reveal who the starting quarterback for the Fighting Irish will be when the 2012 season begins.
Unfortunately, fans everywhere will have to wait a little longer to know who is going to take the first snap when Notre Dame plays Navy in Ireland on September 1.
“I’d share it if I knew it,” he said in an interview with ND Today.
For now, Kelly is encouraged with the attitude players such as Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson are taking into the headlining fall quarterback competition.
“They all want it badly. There is a passion in how they go about it on a day to day basis,” he said. “The ultimate goal for us as coaches is to get a quarterback that we trust — that we trust is going to take care of the football, that is going to lead our football team, that is going to do it right 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Kelly’s team is coming off what was often a difficult year. A strong win over Michigan State and thumpings of teams such as Purdue and Navy were contrasted with enough heartbreaking turnovers to make the Irish players feel they were capable of much more than an 8-5 record, the same as in 2010.
The head coach said his message to his team this year will focus on “attention to detail.”
“The little things make a big difference,” he said. “Our guys have really taken hold of that. And we’ve seen the spring and summer go by with that kind of purposeful attention to detail that every great program and great business has.”
As frequently happens in college football, Notre Dame heads into the season with a depth chart well-defined in some areas and looming with question marks in others. Tyler Eifert is arguably the best tight end in the country and Manti Te’o returns as a heralded veteran to anchor the linebacker corps, but there have been key departures like Robert Blanton '12 at defensive back and Michael Floyd '12 at wide receiver.
Kelly is happy with where his veterans will play on the field, however. More than 2,000 snaps of experience return on defense, and the offensive line has shown an ability to control the line of scrimmage. With Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter, the team also has safeties who can lead a new cohort of cornerbacks.
In terms of replacing the record-setting Floyd, Kelly said multiple players will be needed to fill that gap and could include upperclassmen like Robby Toma and John Goodman and incoming freshmen like Davonte Neal and Chris Brown.
“The offensive philosophy has not changed. We want to control the tempo of the game, we want to attack on offense. There were times that we couldn’t do that based on the personnel. As the personnel changes, as the personnel gets more experienced, I can get back to that philosophy of attacking,” Kelly said. “I am always going to run our offense around the players first, the plays second.”
And whoever ends up at the top of the depth chart will have to be ready for a difficult schedule, a slate of games some have described as the toughest in the nation. Outside of regular foes like Michigan, USC, and Stanford, Notre Dame will also face Miami in Chicago and Oklahoma in Norman.
“If I have our players focused and attentive on their preparation from week to week, and we carry through with that attention to detail, that’s all I can ask of our football team,” he said. “We believe, from week to week, that we can beat anybody we play against.”
The normal routine will also be different for the first game of the year, the Emerald Isle Classic in Dublin. Kelly said the staff has consulted with the NFL, which has recently organized games in London, and “stolen some really good ideas from them.” Although the team will only arrive on the Thursday before Saturday’s game and tourism won’t be at the top of the to-do list, the head coach is happy that many of the athletes will get to experience traveling overseas. Kelly estimates that less than 10 percent of the team previously had passports.
“That passport … opens up so many opportunities for them,” he said. “That just speaks volumes about the game and Notre Dame and the opportunities we give student athletes.”
But no matter where or when a game takes place, it all comes down to consistency for Kelly. With more than a decade having passed since Notre Dame strung together three consecutive eight-win seasons, he believes this year is a key step in becoming a regular contender for national championships.
“Our focus really is on more than eight wins,” he said. “But the point I’m making is it is important to develop consistency in the program first.”
The Fighting Irish players, Kelly believes, are nearing a breakthrough. He sees improvements in conditioning and nutrition and is heartened by a contingent of excellent players being excellent leaders.
“We’re running out of the tunnel now and feeling a lot better about how our football team has prepared themselves,” he said. “We have a lot of good guys. All our really good players are doing a great job leading. That bodes well for the future.”