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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, December 23, 2017 1:00 am

Kelly sees spark returning to Irish

Recent suspensions put cloud over bowl preparations

TODD BURLAGE | Associated Press

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is pleased with how his team is preparing for its Citrus Bowl clash with No. 16 LSU.

There are some other concerns for the 14th-ranked Irish.

When it comes to practice, Kelly said he has been thrilled with how Notre Dame has responded to dropping two of its last three games. Attitude and aptitude had slipped, and Kelly said his players “looked like they were in biology class” as he tried to motivate them in the days before a 38-20 loss to Stanford on Nov. 25.

“There was no juice,” Kelly recalled, “there was no excitement.”

But at least through the campus bowl workouts before a four-day Christmas break, Kelly said the “quickness and crispness” had returned.

“You can see the sense of urgency that they are starting to practice with,” he said, “a physicalness that we're looking for was quite apparent.”

But Kelly and Notre Dame have been dealing with a couple off-the-field issues. The recent suspensions of sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson and freshman running back C.J. Holmes after their shoplifting arrests, and a subsequent suspension for junior tight end Alize Mack after an “internal team matter” are a blow to a program looking to finish the season on a high note.

On Friday, it was reported by media outlets that Stepherson is now facing a drug charge from a traffic stop that occurred one day before he was arrested on a shoplifting charge.

The Marshall County Prosecutor's Office says Stepherson was pulled over for speeding Dec. 14 and is being charged with possession of marijuana, speeding, and no valid driver's license.

Stepherson and Holmes were arrested Dec. 15. 

A university spokesman issued a statement, saying “student disciplinary cases are handled privately, in accord with university policies and federal law.” 

A Notre Dame football spokesman says team has no further comment on Stepherson.

Less than two months ago, Notre Dame had won seven straight games and played its way to No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings. But the Irish yielded 33 points per game and were outscored 133-100 during a 2-2 November.

“We didn't like the way the season ended,” senior cornerback Nick Watkins said. “But we get to go out and prove ourselves one more time, so we have a face and a name heading into next year.”

Kelly is focusing on the positives while downplaying distractions ahead of the Jan. 1 game between two nine-win teams that may not mean much on the national stage but could help set the table for next season.

Since 2012, Kelly's teams have won just nine of 23 games played after Halloween.

“We really just want to get to 10 wins,” sophomore offensive lineman Tommy Kraemer said. “That's our goal right now and I don't think it's because of how the season ended, I think we just really want to get to 10 wins and go out on a high note.” 

Note: Notre Dame signed receiver Braden Lenzy from Portland, Oregon, on the last day of the early signing period. Lenzy had committed to the Irish in February then flipped to Oregon over the summer but found himself returning to Notre Dame after the Ducks went through a coaching change.