SOUTH BEND, Ind. —
If there were such a thing as a Mid-Season National Coach of the Year Award, Brian Kelly would get my vote.
Of course, with six football games left in the regular season, that award and 85 cents (Can you believe it? Vending machines in The South Bend Tribune newsroom went up a nickel. Don't they know what journalists make?) will get you a Diet Pepsi.
Even before most of the leaves have become rakeable, Kelly and his Notre Dame players have proven wrong all those media mopes who predicted a 7-5 season and insinuated a coach search rather than a bowl game.
It's BCS or bust now. The bandwagon has plenty of room.
This crusade might have started the week before the overseas thrashing of Navy. It could have had all the makings of a Hollywood movie (sorry Rudy, this one should be better). Heck, if NFL Films can document a week in the life of the Irish, why not let a full-length motion picture chronicle the entire ride?
Can you imagine the drama? Quiet. Hear that pin drop? Cue the music. Drum roll, please. Kelly (played by Matt Damon, Sean Astin would be too cliché), scowl on his face, is at the podium of the Gug waving "The Daily Bugle" above his head, ranting how these local yocals have no respect for his time-tested player development skills and no appreciation for his national impact on the college game.
The script for this contrived soliloquy wouldn't have anything to do with "The Gipper," and wouldn't rival Rockne for motivation, but it would stoke the fire for an "us versus them" chip on the shoulder that at least would have challenged the Irish toward a positive trajectory.
Production on the screenplay will last another couple months, at least. The final six games of the season, along with the bowl game, will decide whether it turns out to be one of those motivational — overcome the odds — sort of feel-good films or a horror flick. Bloopers have been kept to a minimum thus far.
The fuel that will get Notre Dame through the second half of its season won't come from Hollywood or fire and brimstone speeches.
Right about now is when the player development kicks in.
There are at least six players on defense and three on offense who are obvious success stories in the realm of player development.
Senior safety Zeke Motta is probably the guy who has made the most progress. During his first three years in the Notre Dame program, the cerebral part of the game was never his strong point.
Earlier this season, Kelly said that even last year, Motta had trouble making sure he was in the right position. Now, with the season-ending injury to fellow safety and secondary leader Jamoris Slaughter, Motta has been given custody of the entire crew.
Corners Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell don't act like guys playing for the first time. They're aggressive. Tight coverage doesn't fluster. Ball's in the air? Go get it. Jackson leads the team with four interceptions this season. Russell has one.
Jackson, who got noticed because of his play-making ability on special teams, is among the tackling leaders with 27. Russell has 23.
Before leaving the secondary, Matthias Farley is another mountain of talent who was just a mole hill of production this time last year. Without much of a football pedigree behind him, Farley has had his God-given athleticism molded into a football discipline.
His interception and subsequent 49-yard return against Stanford was a critical play.
Outside linebacker Danny Spond, who battled migraines through most of the preseason and early in the schedule, has come on to be a factor. The junior was all over the field, racking up seven tackles, in an amazing game against Michigan. His impact was a bit more subtle, but he still had six stops against Stanford.
The other poster boy for player development is Louis Nix. Not much of a factor in the interior before, the nose guard now is a physical presence inside, as well as one of the unique personalities on the defense.
Development is not as clear-cut, nose-on-your-face obvious on offense.
Quarterback Tommy Rees has probably made the most strides, but his body of work is still lacking.
He has rescued the Irish three times this season without a terrible mistake.. His brief and very effective performances are examples of growth, maturity, and functioning within the confines of his physical limitations.
In other words, nobody will truly know how far Rees has come until he plays a whole game.
TJ Jones isn't going to fill Michael Floyd's shoes any time soon, but the improvement the junior has made won't make Floyd's absence hurt so much. His 19 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns have been good enough to give the Irish an option at receiver.
Finding the right position for Theo Riddick hasn't been easy. Running back? Receiver? Running back/receiver? Hmmmm, maybe they're on to something there.
Use Riddick as a hard-charging running back who can morph into a slot receiver at a moment's notice might actually work. It has so far. Riddick's versatility has allowed him to rush for more than 300 yards and gain 170 receiving yards this season. His 16-yard catch from Rees in overtime against Stanford was one of the game's key plays.
Development, though, doesn't end with the players. There has been a measure of coaching development, as well.
Hate to keep kicking a dead — and by now, long since glue-factoried — horse, but the loss to Tulsa is a nightmare that won't go away. Remember? Kelly chose to go for a touchdown to win the game instead of kicking a field goal that would have won the game.
"Get used to it," was the warning he issued after the game.
Two seasons and 10 losses have mellowed the man and the coach. If it were Kelly, circa 2010, running the show against Stanford, he probably would have gone for the win on fourth-and-2 from the Stanford 5 with 23 seconds left in regulation.
Instead, the much wiser and developed Kelly had Kyle Brindza convert the chip shot and roll the dice in overtime.
Now that's something worth getting used to.
And worthy of some sort of award — fictitious, or not.
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