SOUTH BEND - Is different necessarily better? That is where those covering Notre Dame football spring practice have to put their focus every day. Dig through the skepticism built up from the hyperventilating in the early days of the last three coaching regimes. Realize there is more than one template that produces consistent BCS teams. Look for the little things that add up to meaningful change in the big picture. By the time the Irish stage their first Blue-Gold Game under first-year coach Brian Kelly, April 24 at Notre Dame Stadium, the hints about where the program is headed will still far outnumber the conclusions. What Kelly has working for him is history. His own history. Predecessor Charlie Weis come to ND with a history of producing prolific offenses in the NFL. With the exception of the 2007 collapse, that’s what Weis did best at the college level. Kelly, meanwhile, made both immediate and sustained wide-ranging impact on the Division I level both times he switched school colors and area codes. One was in a clear rebuilding situation - at Central Michigan. One was so clearly not rebuilding that the head coach at Cincinnati at the time, Mark Dantonio, was shanghaied to Michigan State. In 2007 at UC, the first Kelly-driven Bearcat squad was statistically superior almost across the board from Dantonio’s last incarnation. Scoring offense went from an 82nd national ranking to 16th in one season. Scoring defense went from 36 to 13th. Sacks by went from 38th to 8th. Sacks allowed went from 95th to 48th. Turnover margin went from 90th to 6th. Net punting went from 85th to 1st. And the theory that time-of-possession equates to winning went right in the toilet. UC was a better offensive and defensive team under Kelly, despite taking a slide from 13th to 93rd in TOP his first year. Last year, the Bearcats’ BCS team ranked dead last (120th) in time of possession. The Central Michigan numbers from 2003, compared to Kelly’s first season there (2004), weren’t as dramatic - but every bit as consistent. The biggest improvements came in pass offense, total offense, run defense and in the return game. With that as an appropriate backdrop, here are some early impressions 20 percent of the way through Kelly’s first spring. 1. Cincinnati didn’t have an indoor practice facility, and Kelly is pretending ND doesn’t have one for the time being. To make a point. It’s not enough to talk about being tough. You have to build it from the ground up. Kelly mixes symbolic messages (he wore shorts the first day of practice when long underwear would have been the model for dressing for success) and practical messages. The amped-up pace and duress of practices simulate game-day conditions. And the players have already connected the dots. “It’s not just go ’til you die,” fifth-year senior offensive guard Chris Stewart said. “There’s a rhyme and a reason. I’ve spoke to some of the guys on the team and a lot of us have consented that, ‘Hey, we’re going to be ready in the fourth quarter.’ “Our practices are two hours and you’re not walking anywhere. I think it’s going to help us in the fourth quarter.” Last year, UC outscored opponents decisively in every quarter, including 112-75 in the fourth. 2. Speaking of Stewart, Kelly likes his offensive linemen - as a rule - to be light on their feet and ND’s new training table program for football is helping the players get there. The 6-5 Stewart, who was at 330 pounds last season, is at 345 now. But he has lost 3 to 4 percent body fat. Early in his career, you would look at him and say “project.” Now? He’s ripped enough to make you say “Mommy.” And cower. 3. In a very small sampling, the early-enrolling freshman who stands out the most among the five is wide receiver Tai-ler Jones. The 5-11, 185-pounder from Gainesville, Ga., accelerates impressively into his routes. Where he has most room to improve is adjusting to routes when the ball is poorly thrown. And given the inexperience at QB behind junior-to-be Dayne Crist this spring, Jones will have plenty of opportunity to improve. 4. Loved the drills the kicking/punting specialists have to do in practice. Instead of throwing the football around to each other to break up the boredom until it’s time to kick, they had to repeatedly field balls in the dirt, simulating bad snaps. 5. Safety and offensive tackle appear to be the thinnest positions, or at least where the players have the most to prove. Kelly’s decision to flip tackle Lane Clelland to defensive end leaves him with just three true returning tackles - Matt Romine, Taylor Dever and Zach Martin - and none of them have ever performed more than a cameo in a game. But Kelly is buoyed by the thought he can borrow from his guard stockpile, reasoning that guards and tackles are not all that different of animals in a shotgun offense. He is also high on the three incoming freshmen - tackles Matt James and Tate Nichols, and guard Christian Lombard. 6. The position that might be the most difficult to keep everyone happy? Nose guard. You’ve got five players there this spring - Ian Williams, Hafis Williams, Brandon Newman, Tyler Stockton and Sean Cwynar, and only Ian Williams’ eligibility expires after the 2010 season. Add to that freshman Louis Nix joining the mix in the fall. He’s a player Kelly is content to slow-play or redshirt in 2010 but has big hopes for him in 2011 after Ian Williams leaves. 7. Charlie Weis is still connected. And that’s hardly a bad thing. Many of the current players still maintain contact with him, and Kelly doesn’t interpret that as disloyalty. Weis also left Kelly with a deeper talent base with fewer holes than the one he inherited, and a nice infrastructure to build from. But part of Kelly’s job this spring is to let his players know who ultimately is in charge and to draw distinct lines about how and where the culture - not just the X’s and O’s - has changed. Even in the limited media windows, you can see the differences. They are dramatic. But is different necessarily better? History still tells us more about Brian Kelly than the present, but there are enough flashes of promise in early spring to keep a wide-open mind.
Staff writer Eric Hansen: email@example.com (574) 235-6470