SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame begins the 2013 season looking for a new identity, eager to shed the bad taste of a BCS title game blowout loss.
The Fighting Irish, coming off a 12-1 season that was the program’s best in at least two decades, begin spring practice Wednesday without linebacker Manti Te’o to anchor the defense or tight end Tyler Eifert or running back Theo Riddick to bail out the offense.
“I don’t know that we have the kind of singular great players that we had last year,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We’ve got a lot of really good players. I’ve had great teams that have had great players across the board, then I’ve had great teams that have had individual players. I think that’s work in progress for us to figure out.”
Each season a team has a new identity, a new group of leaders, Kelly said. He’s looking to see which players are ready to step forward to fill the void.
“I want to leave spring ball knowing what we have, knowing the identity of our football team, I want to know where the leadership group is coming from, and I want to know what the depth looks like,” he said.
The Irish have some positives to build off from last season, including their best defense in more than 30 years, but also have to put the embarrassing 42-14 loss to Alabama in the championship game behind them. The program also was the focus of added attention when news broke that Te’o was the victim of a hoax of an online romance with a man posing as a woman and Kelly interviewing for the head coaching job with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Kelly brushed off a question about him having to repair his relationship with the players after interviewing for the job.
“They don’t like me very much anyway, so it was really very little,” he joked.
He said the matter was handled behind closed doors and the players “appreciated my candor with them about it. We moved on.”
But he also said he expects his name to come up for more coaching jobs “because we’re going to continue to win here. That doesn’t mean I have an interest.”
Kelly is entering his fourth year at Notre Dame, a milestone he didn’t reach at his previous two jobs at Cincinnati and Central Michigan, when he moved on to higher-profile jobs each time. The advantage of returning for a fourth season, Kelly said, is players know what to expect and he has a good idea of what his players can do.
“It allows you to really work on the development of your football team,” he said.
Kelly spent much of the news conference talking about individual players getting heavier and stronger, and how various players are recuperating from offseason injuries, including running back Amir Carlisle, a transfer from Southern Cal who missed last season with a leg injury.
“We’re starting to see him as almost 100 percent,” Kelly said. “We saw some real exciting flashes from Amir.”