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The Journal Gazette

March 09, 2017 1:03 AM

Irish work on culture change as spring practice begins

Chris Goff | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Because of Notre Dame’s 4-8 season in 2016, coach Brian Kelly eagerly anticipated spring practice more than ever, just to get back on the field.

On Wednesday, the Irish took their initial step toward redemption with the first of 14 practices leading into their annual Blue-Gold Game on April 22.

“I think it’s energizing,” Kelly said. “When you know that you didn’t do the job that you expect, that your expectations have set for you, you’re more energized, right? You’re more focused. That’s what envelops me on a day-to-day basis.”

Drue Tranquill, one of six team captains appointed in December, said returning the program to its winning ways will begin with polishing up a culture of winning habits.

“When you have a long season like college football is, you need culture to get you through,” said Tranquill, a Carroll graduate. “It’s about establishing a dominant culture, a culture where every guy is bought in, no guy walks through the door without giving their all, and it is really about a culture where family matters.”

Opening spring practice was less of a family reunion and more of a nametags-needed situation with all of the coaching changes and a new quarterback.

DeShone Kizer is preparing for the NFL draft, leaving Brandon Wimbush as the heir apparent behind center. There are seven prominent newcomers to Kelly’s staff: Chip Long (offensive coordinator), Mike Elko (defensive coordinator), Brian Polian (special teams coordinator), Del Alexander (wide receivers coach), Clark Lea (linebackers coach), Tom Rees (quarterbacks coach) and Matt Balis (director of strength and conditioning).

“You’re going to have your bumps in the road in spring ball,” Long said. “We’ve been around so long, we can anticipate the problems you’re going to have. Biggest challenge is getting around your kids, building that relationship, because that’s huge for me.”

For once, spring practice in South Bend didn’t begin with exhaustive scrutiny of a quarterback battle, as it did a year ago with Kizer and Malik Zaire.

And, also unlike the 2016 spring session, the Irish don’t have the task of filling voids left by stars such as Jaylon Smith, Ronnie Stanley, Sheldon Day and Will Fuller.

Instead, Wednesday began a six-week process of integrating young talent, including early enrollees Robert Hainsey, Brock Wright, Isaiah Robertson, C.J. Holmes and Aaron Banks.

“(Robertson) we think can play the safety position for us at a high level,” Kelly said. “We think we have a nice package for (Holmes) right away. We’re going to ask him to compete right away.”

For the Irish to compete right away, beginning with their Sept. 2 season opener at home against Temple, they hope Wednesday marked the beginning of unification.

Tranquill said he came to admire a saying that goes, “Family, forget about me, I love you.”

“We want that mentality,” he said. “If each guy has that, we’re going to be just fine.”

Notes: Kelly said Wednesday that Greg Hudson, interim defensive coordinator in 2016, is no longer with the program. … If the NCAA does not approve an additional coaching position, Rees will technically be a graduate assistant, Kelly said.

cgoff@jg.net