Notre Dame Players Notebook: 'It Doesn't Have To Be Close'
Earlier this week, head coach Brian Kelly said he has no “gut feel” about the 2019 Notre Dame team, other than the knowledge that the roster is well stocked enough to make another legitimate run or return to the College Football Playoff.
Senior safety and captain Alohi Gilman shared a similar sentiment.
“Every team is different,” he said. “Last year’s team is completely different from this year’s team. Once we step out there we’re going to see how we react to adversity, how we play in a big atmosphere with a lot of young guys, and how the leaders are going to respond.”
What Gilman does believe will be maintained is an aggressive approach.
“Throughout the spring and the summer, we’re just a group that attacked everything that was put in front of us,” he said. “Any workout, any challenge, any type of adversity, we attacked. … Sometimes we focus on certain things, but for us we focus on just being a warrior out there — stepping out and attacking everything. I think we have the people and the pieces to do those things.”
On Monday night, the principle of staying aggressive instead of “maintaining” — which former head coach Lou Holtz (1986-96) said was his greatest regret in his time at Notre Dame — will be a theme Gilman and Co. aim to channel.
“The game doesn’t have to be close,” said Gilman, echoing the line Holtz used with his 1987 Irish prior to the 26-7 season opening win at Michigan.
For fellow captain and defensive end Khalid Kareem, he has run the full gamut at Notre Dame, from a 4-8 debacle as a freshman to the 12-0 regular season last year that earned a bid to the CFP. He and the senior class use that as a lesson to impart to the younger players on staying grounded and not feeling entitled.
“I feel [the 2016 season] definitely helps the guys who are seniors now,” Kareem said. “Guys who were there for the 4-8, we don’t want to go back to that. We’ve been at the lowest of lows, and that also helps fuel us to keep going. We know where we were before … if we feel ourselves slipping a little bit, ‘alright pick it up!’ We feel the old habits come back, ‘okay, get out of it and make stuff happen.’”
The identity for at least the start of 2019 is simple for Kareem.
“To not be complacent or satisfied with what we did last year,” he responded. “It’s a new season, this is a new team. The guys that helped us last year, they’re gone. … I feel like this team is really capable of doing something special. As long as we keep the blinders on and not focus outside the team, we’ll be fine.”
Individually, Kareem’s goal is to stay relatively healthy. To enhance that chance, he has learned how to stay proactive when it comes to taking care of his body and not merely just try to “tough it out.”
“If I have aches and pains, I go see the trainers,” he said. “That’s something I kind of shied away from when I was younger. I felt like if I went to the trainer, I wasn’t going to play. If I don’t [now], I’m not going to play. If my body’s not working the right way, then I’m not going to play.”
So much of the preseason conversation has been on senior quarterback Ian Book, one of seven captains. He had an exceptional debut season in 2018, finishing 17th nationally in pass efficiency (the best in Kelly’s nine seasons) while also setting a school single season pass completion mark of 68.2 percent.
Still, the staff wanted to see him push the ball down field more, including the lower-percentage deep ball, to help upgrade the overall operation. As the Louisville game nears, Book said he hasn’t backed away from such throws, but now has a better overall understanding of his comfort zone.
“I’m glad I pushed myself because I know there are throws now that I can make that maybe I didn’t try last year,” Book said. “I’m not pulling away from [deep balls], but now I know exactly what I’m capable of doing.
“… I feel like I’ve learned from that, and I’ve been doing it. I haven’t really stopped. I’m not going to make any crazy decisions that obviously are going to lead to a bunch of picks, but I’ve definitely grown, I think, from that.”
With the younger players on offense, including first-time starters Jarrett Patterson at center and Lawrence Keys III in the slot, Book is adding extra duties as a captain.
“My job is to make sure they’re living in the moment and not freaking out,” he said. “I remember my first game was a little bit of a shock at first. Go back to your fundamentals, go back to the small details, that’s what I’ll remind them — and then have fun.”