SOUTH BEND, Indiana — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly believes the Fighting Irish have the pieces to challenge for a national championship. The question is whether the players will push one another to do the hard work and come together as a team to make it happen.
"It's not X's and O's. It's not individuals. It's not anything about singular. It's team 127," Kelly said Thursday, referring to how many years Notre Dame has been playing football. "It's the culture of this program, which means you hold each other accountable. There is an attention to detail. The mission is more important than keeping your guys happy. It's really about that, and that goes to culture and that mindset."
The Irish have a motto every year they put on T-shirts for inspiration. This year's is "Culture beats Scheme," hoping to rally the players behind the theme of everyone putting team first. The Irish hold their first practice Friday in Culver, about 40 miles south of campus.
The Irish players say they're behind the idea.
"It's doing the little things. Holding each other accountable. It's focusing on the mission, which is winning a national championship," linebacker Jaylon Smith said. "But along there there's going to be goals we need to accomplish each week and it starts now."
The Irish return all but four starters from the squad that went 8-5 last season, starting the year 6-0 and being ranked No. 5 before losing late against Florida State to start a collapse fueled by turnovers and injuries. It was the worst finish ever for a Notre Dame team that won its first six games.
The Irish lost two offensive linemen and quarterback Everett Golson, who left Notre Dame after earning his degree to use his final year of eligibility at Florida State. He had been competing for the starter's job with Malik Zaire. Kelly said Zaire has to work on some technical aspects of being a quarterback, but expects Zaire to be a strength for the Irish.
Selecting a backup for Zaire between sophomore DeShone Kizer and freshman Brandon Wimbush is a priority, Kelly said.
The Irish also need to replace Cody Riggs at cornerback. That job is expected to go to KeiVarae Russell, who was expected to start last season until he was among five players held out of practices and games while the school investigated whether homework and papers they turned in had been completed by others.
Kelly said Notre Dame feels confident the NCAA will rule Russell eligible to play, saying Russell did everything necessary. Kelly isn't as confident about defensive lineman Ishaq Williams, saying all he knows is the "process is still ongoing."
Kelly said Russell will be allowed to practice with the Irish while awaiting word from the NCAA. Williams will not.
Kelly also announced that wide receiver Justin Brent will be given a chance at running back after the school announced earlier this week that Greg Bryant, the second-leading rusher from last season, won't play in 2015 because he didn't meet "expectations."
"We're going to take a look at him at running back, see if he can give us something there," Kelly said. "He's big and strong and physical."
Kelly said he hopes Bryant will return to the Irish next season, but said it's up to him.
"If he's committed to getting his degree at Notre Dame, committed to utilizing the resources that we have here, I'd love to have Greg Bryant back," he said..
Kelly also announced that sophomore defensive lineman Kolin Hill of Schertz, Texas, plans to transfer to a school closer to home. Hill played in nine games last season and had seven tackles.