In two of his nine previous seasons at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish have reached the national championship game and fallen short.
Starts of 12-0 have ended with losses, to Alabama in 2013 and Clemson after last season. Nevertheless, Kelly said he is eager to start the climb again with the first of 14 spring practices this weekend.
“Just because you know how to do it doesn’t mean you can do it again,” Kelly said Friday. “You have to work at it again, and this is work. It’s not knowing how to do it. It’s putting in the time and the effort and the sacrifice. That’s really hard. Pushing that rock up the hill again is what they have to do again.”
Six of the top players from last season’s team that lost 30-3 to the Tigers in the College Football Playoff semifinals were in Indianapolis at the NFL combine this week.
They include defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, who led the team with eight sacks, and inside linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill, who combined for 209 tackles, plus running back Dexter Williams, who rushed for 995 yards despite missing the first four games under a team suspension. All-America cornerback Julian Love, who had a school-record 39 passes broken up and five interceptions, and 6-foot-4 leading receiver Miles Boykin are leaving early for the pros.
The lessons from the title game losses, particularly the game against Clemson, have not been lost on Kelly.
“Look, if you don’t get into those football games you can’t get better as a football team,” he said. “Their skill was outstanding; we have to continue to grow in the skill area. That’s the next challenge for us to make the next step.”
Quarterback Ian Book, a 6-foot, 208-pound senior who completed 68.2 percent of his passes for 2,628 yards and 19 touchdowns, returns as the starter ahead of 6-foot-4½, 225-pound sophomore Phil Jurkovec, a highly touted 2018 recruit who saw limited snaps.
“Ian has some specific things to work on to be a great quarterback,” Kelly said, “and Phil has to gain the confidence in the offense and the guys around him that, if he’s called on, he can lead us to a championship.”
Returnees Chase Claypool and Chris Finke, who combined for 99 receptions, are the principal targets. Junior Jafar Armstrong and senior Tony Jones Jr. lead the returnees at running back where Lance Turner, who developed Bryce Love and Christian McCaffrey at Stanford, is the new position coach. The offensive line, led by tackle Liam Eichenberg and guard Aaron Banks, is experienced.
Defensive ends Julian Okwara, Daelin Hayes and Khalid Kareem, a trio that combined for 14.5 sacks, return and cornerback Troy Pride Jr. takes Love’s spot. He is joined in the secondary by senior safeties Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman, who had 19 tackles against Clemson.
Senior Asmar Bilal, who played rover, and sophomore Bo Bauer lead the eight candidates available at inside linebacker. Sophomore Houston Griffith has moved from safety to corner where he’s joined by junior Avery Davis, who spent last year at running back after being recruited as a dual-threat quarterback but now has his head coach excited.
“I think Avery can be a really good corner and could play at the next level at that position,” Kelly said. “He has a football acumen that is really high.”