SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Standing before more than 100 media members ready to ask him questions at Tuesday’s media day, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly stated in the opening moments he still has questions of his own about this year’s team.
Kelly still isn’t sure who his starting quarterback will be. He has question marks at offensive backup positions. He wonders if Notre Dame has the depth to compete with the nation’s best teams.
“Expectations are always high at Notre Dame, but I can’t give you a whole lot about our football team until I get another 10 days to two weeks with them,” Kelly said. “I can give you some early thoughts. I can give you some clearer pictures relative to our football team to where are position-wise. But we’re still cooking; we’re still developing who we are in 2011.”
While Notre Dame’s identity may be unclear, Kelly said he witnessed enough in his team during a week of practice to know its focus is exactly where he wants it to be. It won’t be determined for some time whether the Irish will play like champions this season, but their mindset is already there.
“This group has been as focused about the task at hand relative to their preparation in 2011 than any team I’ve coached,” Kelly said. “Extremely professionally, they go to work every day with a purpose. It hasn’t been a camp where we’ve had to take out the stick and get these guys to practice. They really enjoy practicing. They really enjoy the preparation. I enjoy that as a coach.
“The greatest joys will be in winning. I get that. But this is a team that I really enjoy coaching because they come to work every day.”
Kelly admitted not all his teams throughout his 20-year head-coaching career have had that focus. He has seen it before in a few of his special ones at Grand Valley State and Cincinnati.
“They were so locked in that they had that kind of steely eyed focus when you walked into the locker room, you knew it was just, let them play,” Kelly said. “Just let the dogs hunt. This group does a great job of keeping the distractions at bay as well. They don’t get distracted. There can be things going off around them, and they can stay focused at the task at hand.”
So, why now does it click for Notre Dame? Kelly had an easy explanation.
“They want and desire to be a championship football team,” Kelly said. “It’s been a long time. They’ve only won six games two years ago and eight games [last season]. That doesn’t fill you up, I believe.”
Notre Dame’s players have noticed that same change in their approach. The seniors at Tuesday’s media day agreed with Kelly’s reasoning. Their focus grew more intense because they’ve come to the realization their college careers haven’t lived up to expectations. They came to Notre Dame with aspirations to win big, and that hasn’t occurred, going just 21-17 over their first three seasons.
“I’ve been here for four years,” Notre Dame senior linebacker Darius Fleming said. “I’ve been here for some of the low points. My dad always tells me you have to learn how to lose before you can learn how to win. We’ve had our seasons; we’ve had our rough times.
“We know what we’re capable of. We know we can do big things. We’re going into practice every day with a hunger mindset, just trying to compete.”
Senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said he believes the sea of change began during the team’s season-ending four-game winning streak.
“I want to say ever since last season and the way we ended last season it’s been a different feel in the air around the program in what our potential can be as far as the football team,” Lewis-Moore said. “We’ve been staying focused and chipping away.”