SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Jamoris Slaughter emerged from Notre Dame's first fall practice Saturday in a white dri-fit T-shirt and walked into the Isban Auditiorium of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, the room's spring makeover reflecting the fifth-year safety's attire.
Plastered across three new blue signs inside the assembly hall of the campus' football building were quotes, bullet points and definitions, each punctuated with the same stamp that adorned Slaughter's T-shirt: The A-Team.
An initiative started by Brian Kelly this past January, The A-Team brought together the Irish head coach and his players once a week in Isban, where discussions big and small, about matters on the field and off it, took place in a forum to bring Kelly closer to his players -- and to subsequently lift those players to the plane of their head coach.
"It's kind of like a leadership committee on a team, basically," Slaughter said. "Somebody's in trouble, you kind of like have a say in what happens, or little things we might need. Basically it's like a player-union type deal."
The three As stand for accountability, appreciation and achievement.
Kelly's first two seasons at Notre Dame have ended with 8-5 records, and questions about his connection with the players mounted last year following his midseason comments about his recruits and those of predecessor Charlie Weis, with many upperclassmen voicing their frustration on social media shortly thereafter.
Unsatisfied with the results of his first two years, Kelly looked internally to see what could be done differently heading into Year 3.
"I just think it started back in January, when I was committed to being a better head coach in the sense that, I needed to spend more time with my players," Kelly said. "This job has a tendency to distract you a little bit, and I took it because I wanted to coach, and I wanted to be around the guys. So back in January we started, every Monday, our A-Club, our A-Team, and I would meet just myself with our players.
"So I just think my emphasis of spending more time with the players, and getting to know them better, and letting them get to know me better, [rather] than just sitting up in the office and, 'Oh, there's where the head coach of Notre Dame sits' -- I've never been that kind of coach, and I felt myself sliding toward that in my first couple of years. So I don't think it's anything on their part. I think it's probably more on my part being more accessible, being around the guys a lot more."
Players have described more of a give-and-take with Kelly heading into this season, with two years together helping to define the expectation from each side.
Senior linebacker Manti Te'o cited a better comfort level this year in allowing him and other upperclassmen to approach Kelly about whatever mood or temperature swings may be taking place in the locker room at a given time. In turn, Te'o said, the seniors have taken it upon themselves to correct teammates' tactical mistakes in practice and to monitor housekeeping items -- such as keeping the locker room clean -- before a whistle is blown and a staff member steps in.
"It's hard to be the head coach at Notre Dame," Te'o said. "There's a college football head coach, and then there's a college football head coach at ND. There's a lot of pressure. And coach Kelly tried his best and he's been trying his best to really be that head coach. And I think he's realized that, 'Hey, there are certain things you can do and there are some things you don't have control over, and just to be yourself.' He's himself now, and he's comfortable with the shoes he's in and it's now time to play football."
Hip-hop blasted from the speakers Saturday morning as Notre Dame's first practice got underway. Te'o, who was bobbing his head up and down in between early running, pointed to the music as a sign of Kelly better understanding the players. When the team broke into position groups after stretching, Kelly instructed the quarterbacks, later saying that being a hands-on coach suits him more than sitting up on a tower overseeing operations.
"I think he's learned. I think he's seen that Notre Dame is not the easiest college to go to, and that's all a process of learning," fifth-year senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said. "This is his third year. Each year I feel like he's learned something different, and he's doing a great job of handling it."