SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly opened his press conference with a debate on the pressing matter du jour.
Namely: Why do some reporters use microcassette recorders when the vast majority simply record interviews on their phones?
“These old ones … are they outdated?” he wondered.
Yes, but there’s no danger of interrupting a press conference with a ring.
“There you go,” Kelly replied. “Touché.”
Kelly later ribbed some overzealous media members who keep track of interceptions during preseason practices: “It’s amazing that you guys keep stats. Is there a big board? How many times have I screwed up someone’s name?”
And Kelly dropped this gem regarding the cautious style of quarterback Ian Book: “I don’t think he’s going to get many speeding tickets. He doesn’t live on the edge.”
Remember when Kelly’s face turned purple as he undressed a quarterback after a foolish turnover? He wants Book to be more willing to roll the dice with downfield flings.
That’s one change at Notre Dame, where the vibe is unlike previous fall camps.
The Irish are coming off back-to-back seasons of 10 or more wins for the first time since Lou Holtz prowled the sidelines. Both coordinators are in place. There’s a new indoor facility. The strength program is, well, strong. And they have a terrific — and prudent — returning quarterback.
“Brian has built such a strong foundation,” athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “The culture is so well set, the expectations are so clear. It’s easier. I’m not suggesting it runs itself. But we’re not changing things, not trying to build the culture or address issues. It’s in place.”
All that helps explain why, when asked to describe his summer, Swarbrick paused and used one word: “Calm.”
Kelly is entering Year 10, one shy of three of the four coaches on Notre Dame’s Mount Rushmore: Holtz, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian. The fourth, Knute Rockne, lost 12 games in 13 seasons.
Swarbrick allowed Kelly to reset after his hideous 4-8 mark in 2016.
“He’s not micromanaging. He’s not play-calling. He’s not the quarterbacks coach,” Swarbrick said. “He’s able to narrow his focus to things he can uniquely do. And I think that lifts a burden off him. He can be a little bit more relaxed and comfortable.”
And yet at Notre Dame, misery is always one “L” away. Northwestern lost three straight games last season and still had a wildly successful year, winning the Big Ten West.
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The Irish can’t win a conference and might get zapped from the playoffs with a single loss, even if it’s at Georgia (Sept. 21) or at Michigan (Oct. 26).
Last year some clowns thought the Irish weren’t worthy at 12-0, then doubled down after Notre Dame got spanked by Clemson in a semifinal of the College Football Playoff. But based on that rationale, Alabama also didn’t deserve to make the final four.
Swarbrick paid no attention to the critics after the Clemson blowout.
“I didn’t read anything for a week,” he said. “And by the time I started reading anything, Alabama had had the same experience.”
That Clemson loss was like a drawing where some people see a duck and others a bunny.
The masses saw the final score (30-3), the halftime score (23-3) and the yardage disparity (538-248) and termed it a blowout. Tribune headline: “It happened again. Notre Dame mauled in its hunt …”
Swarbrick and some Irish fans saw a close (9-3) game late in the second quarter change when stud cornerback Julian Love entered the concussion protocol. Trevor Lawrence (27-for-39, 327 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs) torched his sub.
A bad break for the Irish? Or proof of a flawed roster?
“I think Clemson wins that game nine out of 10 times,” Swarbrick said.
And if Love stays healthy: “Certainly a different outcome … in terms of the spread. Not the result. But it feels very different.”
The hypothetical will never be resolved, but the Irish can answer those who think there’s a Dexter Lawrence-sized gap between Notre Dame and Clemson.
“People can say (it was huge) because the score was like that,” Irish receiver Chris Finke said. “For me and the other players on the field, we didn’t feel outmatched. We didn’t execute our game plan and didn’t get the job done, but I don’t think we were totally on a different field, you know?”
The theme of this year’s team, the one you see hashtagged on social media, is: “Sharpen the Blade.”
After the 4-8 season, the Irish needed all new weapons. Now it’s a matter of fine-tuning.
Kelly realizes this. And instead of bullying or micromanaging, he’s showing an easy confidence.
After lauding the hang time and makeup of freshman punter Jay Bramblett, Kelly added a virtual wink: “And he’s got a terrific arm. … Just throwing that out there.”