- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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From a re-shuffled staff to a four-man quarterback race with no end in sight, from the transfer of a premiere defensive lineman to the seemingly potential departure of another, uncertainty reigned at Notre Dame last spring.
All of this amid the static question of whether the Fighting Irish could ever return to college football's highest level, and no one could have been surprised had coach Brian Kelly been privately shouting "Serenity Now!" during whatever alone time he got in his office at the south end of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.
For good measure, two weeks after the Blue-Gold game, the most experienced signal-caller on his roster allegedly knocked the wind out of a cop before getting himself pepper sprayed and arrested at an off-campus party.
It only makes sense that said quarterback, Tommy Rees, redeemed himself to become as valuable a piece as any in a season during which he started just two games. It makes even more sense that the loss of one standout defensive lineman, Aaron Lynch, equaled addition by subtraction, with another standout defensive lineman, Stephon Tuitt, bursting onto the national radar. Likewise, it makes just as much sense that Louis Nix put any transfer thoughts in the rearview mirror, re-gaining the starting spot he had been stripped of and performing so well and having so much fun that he ended up turning down a chance to jump early to the NFL.
All of which is to say that none of it made any sense at all.
Now a new spring is imminent, and though this offseason has not exactly been smooth sailing -- the words "Philadelphia Eagles" or "Lennay Kekua" still sting in the South Bend, Ind., vernacular -- Notre Dame's upcoming 15 practices may as well be boiled down to one simple theme:
Closing the gap.
Year 3 was kind to Kelly, the way it has been to many a Notre Dame coach before him. But it was not as kind, and erasing the sour taste from a 42-14 loss to Alabama in the Discover BCS National Championship starts with doing what it takes to become more like the Crimson Tide, something the Irish should have a head start on over the rest of the college football world embarking on the same chase in 2013.
Consider Jan. 7, 2013, a lesson learned firsthand.
"I know that it's easy to say when you look at the game that there are coaching things that we're going to do better, but our players are going to continue to close that gap, even if it's a little bit, through this recruiting process," Kelly said during a national signing day news conference that introduced the nation's No. 4 recruiting class, which features five offensive linemen. "I don't think we went into this and said, 'Well, we know Alabama looks like this; we've got to change what we do.' I think we're just three years into this, and I think we continue to close the gap.
"I don't think the Alabama game did anything in our minds to change the way we recruit other than continue to recruit at the highest level."
In winning its third national title in the past four years, Alabama was clearly more experienced than Notre Dame. By making Irish defenders miss left and right, and by rendering the Irish's ground game virtually nonexistent, the Tide were clearly better prepared -- a product of having the proper personnel in place to withstand the day-to-day preparation amid a painfully long layoff.
"There are a number of times where we didn't feel comfortable going live against our defense," Kelly said. "One time we had five offensive linemen from that period of the USC game until the Alabama game that could go out there and function with five offensive linemen. That impacts your program, I'm telling you. It impacts the way you practice. You don't get a chance to tackle quite as much, and all those things begin to show themselves when you're below the scholarship numbers."
This fall is the season that everything had been boiling toward for Notre Dame. It is the season that, after watching the Irish win their regular-season finale at USC in November, athletic director Jack Swarbrick confessed he thought would be the time his program had a chance to compete for the national title. It is the season that the Irish finally return some sense of stability to the quarterback position in Everett Golson, even if there are talented reserves sure to make a push this spring. One more recruiting class under Kelly's belt, one that is joining upward of 15 returning starters -- not to mention a coaching staff that returns in its entirety -- suggests as much, too.
And, as discovered during last year's surprising autumnal fallout after a potentially splintering spring, all of this may mean everything and nothing at all.