SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Brian Kelly sees progress every day. His players know where to line up and how he likes to practice after more than a year in his system. That's a start for the Notre Dame coach headed into his second season of the high-profile job.
His goal is to get the Irish into a BCS bowl game this season — and win it, of course — and show that the program has returned to the national spotlight. But starting with an opener against South Florida on Sept. 3, the Irish have to prove that they are ready and good enough to make the climb back.
"I know this football team; they know us. I think that's the strength," Kelly said. "We've got a tough schedule we have to navigate through. We're playing three Big Ten teams, three teams from the ACC, two teams from the Pac-12, Mountain West. ... We don't get any warm-up games."
"My point is, we're very confident, we believe in our strengths, but we got a tough schedule," he said. "That's going to be the challenge."
One of his biggest decisions could come in less than two weeks when he names his starting quarterback. Dayne Crist, whose last two seasons have ended with knee surgeries, is hoping to win his job back against a field that includes three other players.
Tommy Rees stepped in when Crist was injured Oct. 30 against Tulsa — one of the Irish's toughest losses last season — and led Notre Dame to four straight wins to close the season, including a victory over nationally ranked Utah, a win at Southern California and a triumph over Miami in the Sun Bowl. The Irish finished 8-5.
Sophomore Andrew Hendrix and freshman Everett Golson are also in the QB derby, but it's no secret that Crist and Rees are the front-runners for the job.
The ups and downs of Kelly's first season stretched off the field, too. A student videographer died in October after the tower in which he was filming football practice fell over in high winds. Kelly acknowledged it was his decision to practice outside that day and called the aftermath of Declan Sullivan's death one of the most difficult periods of his life.
The school also agreed to changes in how it handles allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, months after a student from neighboring St. Mary's College reportedly accused a Notre Dame football player of touching her. She later committed suicide.
And in March, Kelly suspended leading receiver Michael Floyd after his third alcohol-related brush with the law in the past two years. Floyd, who has caught more TD passes than any player in school history, was reinstated this month after Kelly said he was convinced the junior had taken the necessary steps to be allowed back on the team.
Floyd missed all of spring drills but was allowed to participate in voluntary offseason workouts with his teammates. Floyd has 28 TD catches and 171 receptions overall for 2,539 yards and will likely end up as Notre Dame's career leader in all three categories.
"He can make certain plays that other guys can't," Rees said of Floyd, who caught 79 balls for 1,025 yards and scored 12 TDS a year ago.
Kelly and the quarterbacks will have a veteran offensive line that returns four starters (center Braxston Cave, guard Trevor Robinson and tackles Zack Martin and Taylor Dever) and four skill players — Floyd, wide receiver Theo Riddick, tight end Tyler Eifert, and running back Cierre Wood. Another returning wideout, TJ Jones, drew early praise from Kelly for his play.
Notre Dame's 3-4 defense is headed by ferocious inside linebacker Manti T'eo, the team's leading tackler last season who sat out most of the spring after arthroscopic knee surgery.
"It's been cleared up since summer. The knee is fine," said T'eo, whose 133 tackles last season were the most by a Notre Dame player since 1983.
Carlo Calabrese, who started eight games last year, is battling Dan Fox to line up on the inside again next to T'eo. Returning senior Darius Fleming mans one outside linebacker spot with Prince Shembo and Danny Spond candidates on the other side.
The Irish return senior defensive ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, and highly touted freshman Aaron Lynch adds depth. Senior Sean Cwynar will likely start at nose guard.
The secondary is experienced, headed by team captain and safety Harrison Smith, who intercepted three passes in the Sun Bowl. The corners are Gary Gray, who started all 13 games last season, and Robert Blanton, who played in every game.
Place-kicker David Ruffer, a former walk-on, earned a scholarship this season and is 23 of 24 on field goals, including 18 of 19 last season.
Among Kelly's concerns are the return game and depth at running back where Wood and Jonas Gray are 1-2. Notre Dame might have to use freshmen in backup spots.
But now that his spread offense has been installed, the coaches and players have forged relationships and know what to expect of one another. Kelly has made his system work in previous successful stops at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
But, as he has said many times, it's a completely different deal in South Bend.
"I don't know at Notre Dame that you can pick out a bowl. We don't have a lot of options for bowls. It's BCS for us," Kelly said.
"If it's a conference championship at Cincinnati or a MAC championship at Central Michigan, it was a national championship at Grand Valley, it's here at the University of Notre Dame a BCS bowl game," he said. "We don't have any way other than (to) set the bar at a BCS."