Toughness, trenches are new Irish staples

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Like most people, Notre Dame guard Trevor Robinson had a preconceived notion when he first heard that Brian Kelly would be the new Irish head coach.

"My first thought was, 'Are we going to be pass-blocking 50 to 60 times a game?'" he said.

Kelly was known for his wide-open, high-powered spread offenses at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, and some wondered if that could work when the weather turned cold in South Bend. The opposite turned out to be true. Notre Dame took off late in Kelly's first season just as November arrived and it became -- dare we say it -- more of a smash-mouth team.

Kelly had preached building toughness and putting the fight back in the Fighting Irish, which might have come across merely as good slogans. But that's just what happened in the final four games of 2010, all victories. In three of those four wins, Notre Dame ran the ball more times than it passed; the exception was the USC game, when the Irish used the ground game for the winning drive. The defense also threw its weight around, allowing fewer than three yards per carry in those four wins.

Last year's finish made it clear that Kelly had no intention of repeating the Charlie Weis era (i.e., throwing out gaudy offensive stats but folding up when other teams punched the Irish in the mouth). Yes, he had little choice but to change his style of play once skill players like Dayne Crist, Armando Allen and Kyle Rudolph got hurt. He also found out the true heart of his team lay in the trenches.

"I think it takes away any of the concerns that we're just going to run the spread because that's all he knows," Kelly said. "Our playbook is pretty thick, and we're going to do the things offensively that takes advantage of our strengths. The only group that was together for whole year for us was the offensive line, and I told them, 'Listen, you're going to have to carry the load for us.' That's how I think we started to have an identity."

There was no way of knowing that early in the year, as Taylor Dever and Zack Martin were first-time starters at the tackle spots, while Braxston Cave took over starting duties at center. Dever and Martin exceeded even optimistic expectations, and the line gained confidence as the year progressed. The offense leaned on the guys up front once true freshman Tommy Rees became the starting quarterback.

"The last four or five games were maybe the first time in my career that I felt like the offensive line was the unit that stepped up and increased our production to help the team out," Robinson said.

That line could once again lead the way in 2011 as every starter but guard Chris Stewart returns. Andrew Nuss and Chris Watt are competing for that spot, and the Irish think youngsters Tate Nichols and Chris Lombard can add depth.

"With the veterans coming back now, we can push past beyond just assignment and get to really good fundamentals," offensive line coach Ed Warriner said. "We can focus on footwork, technique and the little intricacies that make you a really good player. We're trying to go from gaining four or five yards on a running play to gaining six or seven."

The veteran offensive line's counterpart is a defense that came on strong at the end of last year and has added blue-chip talent in the front seven. Even when it looked like star receiver Michael Floyd could face a long suspension for his DUI arrest, Kelly remained confident Notre Dame could win without him because of the lines on both sides of the ball.

That type of toughness may not be what Kelly was known for in the past, but he appears to be building it in the present and for the future.

"At Central Michigan, they were starving for an offense," Kelly said. "At Cincinnati, we were trying to make that program relevant, so we had to have something we could sell, which was a no-huddle, exciting offense.

"Then you get to Notre Dame, and it's just about winning. We don't have to sell tickets, we don't have to raise money, we don't have to worry about any thing other than winning football games. So, schematically, it's about who on our football team will allow us to win games, and our strength is our offensive and defensive lines."