SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Coaches still searching for leaders and playmakers often rationalize by praising their depth. So when Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly took that tack Thursday at the team's media day it only guaranteed Irish fans they will want to keep a flip card handy.
"We're going to need a lot of players,'' Kelly said.
With a straight face, Kelly tried selling the idea that the defense most responsible for carrying Notre Dame into the national championship game could survive the loss of Manti Te'o because, at other positions, they "gain some pieces that are a little stronger.''
Forgive me for not falling for any more hyperbole involving Te'o. Undoubtedly, Notre Dame will struggle replacing the All-American linebacker. Just as the Irish will miss quarterback Everett Golson, center Braxston Cave, running back Cierre Wood, all-purpose threat Theo Riddick and big-play tight end Tyler Eifert. By the way, who replaces the intangibles safety Zeke Motta and linebacker Danny Spond supplied?
Change is the wonderful constant that makes college football so compelling. After a magical 12-1 season, it also looks like the enemy to Notre Dame.
When Kelly bragged that he didn't know if he ever had more depth at running back in 22 years of coaching, that was one way of saying George Atkinson III and Amir Carlisle have 79 combined career carries. Proven left tackle Zack Martin will anchor an offensive line that will incorporate two new starters and find out how many sacks Golson avoided with elusiveness. Steady but unspectacular replacement Tommy Rees must do more than hand off but to whom will Rees throw on third-and-long? An offense with four potential go-to receivers ultimately has none.
Look up and down the Notre Dame roster, returning just 12 starters and lacking skill-position pizzazz, and no names jump out as ones university officials will fret finding at the center of an autograph scandal. For star power, NBC might want to consider adding the cast of "Chicago Fire" to home Saturday pre-game shows. Defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix indeed possess All-America potential but need to stay healthy and hope a linebacker corps in flux doesn't expose them. True freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith has turned heads and will rattle skulls but he's 19. The secondary minus Motta hardly qualifies as a sure thing, especially given how much blitzing the Irish will do to help their reshaped front seven.
Indeed, the marquee element of this Notre Dame football team is missing. Identifying the Domer most likely to make an impact in the NFL in 2014 only reinforces that.
The head coach.
Remember, Kelly flirted with the Eagles mere hours after the bodies of Notre Dame players had stopped aching thanks to Alabama. One NFL source called the '13 season Kelly's "13-game job interview" for league executives. We can debate later where Kelly might land (Lions?), how he would do in the NFL (fine) and what a move could reveal about him (ambition).
Making the point now simply underscores how an unproven group of players will require every ounce of Kelly's considerable coaching ability to return to a BCS bowl. Kelly must back up his reputation for developing players even more than last year. Coaches like Kelly love to mold, and this wouldn't be the first time he has turned a lump of clay into something to behold.
Kelly's evolution at Notre Dame has included achieving detente with Rees, who incited Kelly on the sidelines enough during the quarterback's last stint as the starter to worry NBC censors. Now?
"I still reserve the right to bark at him if it doesn't go the way I expect it to go but our practices run so much better because we're all on the same page,'' Kelly said.
Rees agreed, with a smirk.
"We've been through a lot together and I have complete faith in him,'' Rees said. "He's a little fiery on Saturdays. But I'm sure it's nothing I can't handle.''
Ultimately, how Kelly handles the challenge of motivating a team coming off a historic resurgence will determine how smooth Saturdays go for everybody. A program immersed in tradition must forget its recent past for the sake of the immediate future.
"Everything that we talked about has been focused strictly on you don't just begin this climb at the top of the mountain — we have to start all over again,'' Kelly said. "That has been the consistent theme. How do we get back up there?''
It starts by establishing a mindset, which Kelly did shortly after returning home from the land of cheesesteaks.
"In January, I told them if we do it like we did last year, we're going to be an 8-5 team,'' Kelly said.
Notre Dame players will vow to do it differently but that sounds about right.