SOUTH BEND - It wasn’t until a fleck of lightning pocked the gray afternoon sky that Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly made use of the school’s indoor practice facility for the first time. Even then, as soon as discomfort reverted to being the most dangerous consequence of practicing outdoors, Kelly had the Irish back out in the heavy downpour for most of Wednesday’s spring practice - session five of 15 if you’re keeping score at home. It was also easily the most difficult of the five for Kelly to orchestrate. Dealing with a six-day layoff for Easter was the lesser evil. Balancing heavy hearts with the urgency of moving forward at warp speed was where some magic was required. This, after all, was the first time the Irish took the field since ND offensive line recruit Matt James’ tragic death in a spring break accident Friday night. “Everybody on the team felt like they lost a brother,” Irish junior tight end Kyle Rudolph offered. No one felt the brotherly pull stronger than Rudolph, who met James when he was in the fourth grade and James was in second and a classmate of Rudolph’s younger brother, back in Cincinnati, Ohio. “I played football with him all the way through (until they went to separate high schools), because he was too big to play with the little kids,” Rudolph said with a lump in his throat. “So he played with us.” In some form or fashion, James will be with the Irish as they take the field in the fall of 2010. The mode for just how they’ll commemorate the life of the 17-year-old who tumbled to his death from a hotel balcony in Panama City Beach, Fla., has yet to be crystallized. For the time being, Rudolph will represent all ND players Friday at the James family visitation before returning to campus for a Saturday morning practice, the same day James will be buried in Cincinnati. Kelly and assistant coaches Ed Warinner, Bob Diaco, Charley Molnar, Mike Elston and Tim Hinton will make the trip as well. “It’s going to be tough for me to see the family,” said Rudolph. who starred at Elder when James was blossoming at rival St. Xavier. “But I’m just going to go up to them and give them both a hug, let them know we’re thinking about them and praying for them and if they ever need anything, they can come to any of us.” Rudolph played Wednesday in practice like the All-America candidate he is on the trajectory to become. To Kelly’s delight, Rudolph’s teammates followed suit - just one practice session removed from one in which Kelly proclaimed: “We stink.” For Rudolph, Wednesday wasn’t just a chance to grow. It was a diversion, he said, a chance to think about something other than, “Why did this happen?” The team did talk about that, though, at a Mass held Tuesday night on campus. “Sometimes it’s just being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Kelly said of James’ passing. “I really think in this instance that a lot of people are going to sit back and take real stock in what is the role of spring break? What is that all about? But again, I think we could probably have a sociology lesson for hours about that and probably still come back to the same place - and that is: tragic accident.” The Notre Dame football team has been down this road before. In the fall of 2007, then-freshman running back Robert Hughes’ brother, Tony, was killed in an incident police still label an unsolved murder. “I think this place kind of helps when you’re trying to balance moving forward and grieving,” fifth-year senior offensive guard Chris Stewart said. “Falling back on religion and the unity that comes with it helps - whether it’s Mass or praying together. It’s not about pushing that on anyone. It’s about it being there and us being there for each other in difficult situations.” Rudolph, meanwhile, was even able to look back and forge a smile from his favorite memory of James, which came on James’ official recruiting visit to ND, this past January. The Irish players had taken James to a party, Rudolph explained. “And all of a sudden, we couldn’t find Matthew,” he said. “So we were looking around, looking around. It’s hard to lose Matthew, but we lost him.” The 6-foot-6, 291-pound James eventually emerged through a back door, munching on a big handful of snow. “We were like, ‘If you’re hungry, we can go get food,’ ” Rudolph related. “He’s like, ‘Oh, no.’ “So for the next two days he kept asking me, ‘Is it that weird to eat snow?’ That was a funny memory for me and all the guys. We talk about that a lot.”
Faces in the crowdAmong those soaking in Wednesday’s practice - literally - sans umbrella was future Notre Dame quarterback Andrew Hendrix. The Cincinnati Moeller High prospect reports June 7. A standout prep sophomore quarterback, Gunner Kiel from Columbus (Ind.) East High, also was on hand. The 6-4, 190-pounder already has offers from Indiana, Purdue and Iowa. He is the nephew of former Irish quarterback Blair Kiel, who also played at East. One of the nation’s top junior receivers also made a trip to see the Irish practice. DeAnthony Arnett, a 6-0, 167-pound receiver from Saginaw (Mich.) High, has the Irish among his early front-runners, along with Michigan State and USC. He has scholarship offers from all three of those schools as well as the likes of Oklahoma, Alabama, Michigan, Tennessee and Stanford.
- Fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger didn’t brave the rain at practice, but he did make a point while on campus for another engagement to seek out Kelly in his office at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.
- Three former Irish players from the 2009 ND team took in practice - wide receiver Robby Parris, safety Kyle McCarthy and quarterback Jimmy Clausen, the latter of whom has his private Pro Day audition for NFL scouts and personnel set for Friday.
Alive and kickingLate last fall, former starting kicker Brandon Walker had slipped to No. 4 on the kicking depth chart and his career was in jeopardy of coming to a premature close due to a painful and chronic back condition. Walker resurfaced center stage Wednesday, when the senior from Findlay, Ohio, tried to match incumbent sophomore Nick Tausch for distance and accuracy on field goals. Tausch looked exceptionally strong, at one point nailing a 52-yarder that looked like it could have cleared 60 yards. The left-footed Walker, meanwhile, worked his way up to a 45-yard attempt.