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All eyes, Irish and otherwise, on new coach Brian Kelly as Notre Dame debut draws near

Brian Kelly's wait is nearly over. Call it 20 years in the making.

Those other head coaching stops at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati? They helped prepare him. Now, it's really time to step up.

He'll be greeted by 80,000 boisterous fans Saturday when he takes his Notre Dame team onto the field for the first time for the season-opener against Purdue. Most eyes will be on him. He's already pledged that his mission is to win immediately and put the Irish back on the national radar.

"I'll be excited, obviously, running out and being on the field for the first time but that will go all away just like it goes away, the excitement or the jitters, on that first hit," Kelly said.

"It goes away as a coach on that first play call. Especially if they boo you. It gets your attention right away ... I think once you get into that game and that ball is kicked, you focus like any other game. You focus like you're at Grand Valley State."

But it won't be.

And if Kelly's nervous with game day approaching, it doesn't show. He's trying to immerse himself in preparations for the Boilermakers, a game important for more than just being the opener. It's an early opportunity to show his team and those watching that what he's been preaching and installing really works for them — like it did at Cincinnati, where the Bearcats went 12-0 in the regular season a year ago.

As you would imagine, Kelly has gotten a read on his team since taking over in December and going through both spring and prison practices. It's a sense you get when you're around young players for so many hours in close quarters, sometimes patting them on the back, sometimes loudly criticizing them.

Kelly took his team to Notre Dame Stadium last Friday and could tell that his players were tight. So he gave them an example to loosen them up: himself.

"So it was pretty clear to me that our football team needed to stop thinking about being Notre Dame football players and just play the game," Kelly said.

"And I used my own circumstances to try to bring it on a more understandable plain for them," he said. "That is, I can't come to work every day thinking I'm the head coach at Notre Dame. There are just too many things out there that you would succumb to all the pressure. I come thinking about the process every day."

As far as his players go, Kelly said that even though freshman Tommy Rees is listed behind Dayne Crist on a two-deep depth chart that he is not necessarily the No. 2 quarterback ahead of Nate Montana, the former walk-on and son of Joe Montana who is now on scholarship.

Kelly said Rees and Montana could have been listed as 2A and 2B but he only filled out two slots.

"There is no No. 2 or No. 3," Kelly said, adding that spot will continue to be evaluated all season. "I don't think it's accurate to say that he's nailed that position down."

And Crist, who replaces Jimmy Clausen under center for the Irish? He's getting his first start and his teammates have were barred from hitting him during spring and preseason practice. After knee surgery last November, Crist's first contact will come on his first hit in the Purdue game.