Notre Dame was a middling team this season that showed flashes of excellence. There were missed opportunities. There were embarrassments. There was a three-game resurrection at the end.
A year after being introduced in the same auditorium, coach Brian Kelly stepped in front of the lectern Saturday and explained that the Sun Bowl isn't what he was shooting for. But playing Miami in El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 31 has turned out to be the best of the rest for the Fighting Irish.
"We started about talking about how important it was for this game to really reflect being the first game of 2011 and a glimpse towards that," Kelly said. [Finishing at] 7-6 versus 8-5, playing Miami. I think we've talked about the game itself. They're excited about the matchup. Let's face it, nobody has their eyes set on the Sun Bowl when you start the season. Nobody does. But you are playing Miami in a bowl game and it sold out in 24 hours. It's a great matchup that goes back for so many years.”
Kelly mixed humor and honesty to sum up a tumultuous first season in South Bend.
"Generally at this time, I usually have to begin by saying I'm not interested in any other jobs," he said to open the news conference. "I'm only interested in the job that I have here at the University of Notre Dame. The good part about it and the bad part about it is when you're 7-5 you don't have to worry about those things.
"... I think I said it then, that it was a dream come true. I think what I can tell you now is that there's no job like being the head football coach at the University of Notre Dame. Some could comment on what that dream meant. It certainly was, for me, a great experience. Some highs, some lows, but it's what I thought it would be."
What he focused on this past week was continuing to polish younger and inexperienced players, as well as bringing everyone back up to the kind of speed they showed to cap the season.
"Seriously, for us here, we've always talked about developing our players and our program and that's what we're doing right now in our practices," Kelly said. "You know, the past four or five practices have really been about timing, tempo and tackling. And, really, when you talk about those three things, the game of football requires you to knock the rust off when there's about 30 days before you play that next game.
"So, our focus has been on, again, those elements of the game that require timing. You get away from it and you can immediately see it. So, that's been a focus. The tempo, in terms of moving our practices and getting our guys back to pace that they need to be."
Here are some other topics Kelly addressed Saturday:
On next week's schedule: "We'll now move into next week, and trying to work around a busy schedule for our players with exams, with some practicing. Those schedules are going to put us in some non-traditional times relative to practice so that we can get our players there. We'll start to look at Miami next week -- hone in on that a little bit. And then the 20th, 21st and 22nd will really be a long day of football. We'll treat it almost like camp in the sense that we'll have our guys the full day. We let them loose at noon on the 22nd ... they then will go home and will meet us in El Paso on the 26th."
On having nose guard Ian Williams and receiver Theo Riddick back: "Good to see Ian Williams back out there in a live situation. Very good to see Theo Riddick back to where we remember him [being] before he got injured."
On other bumps and bruises: "The front line guys -- no injuries. [Dan] McCarthy had shoulder surgery, a shoulder that he had some difficulty with last spring. And, of course, a lot of the focus on Daniel was his hamstring and that has come through well. But [the shoulder] was re-injured and we just thought it would be prudent to get it taken care of now so we wouldn't be into spring ball without him being able to participate because it's an important spring for him. Tyler Stockton, they cleaned up his shoulder. He had some need to have that done. He had been playing most of the this year, in terms of his work on scout team, with a shoulder that needed to get scoped. [Manti Te'o] had his nose set. He thinks he looks a lot better before the nose was broken. [Special teams player] Danny Spond has been fighting a viral illness. He's back in the health center again. He's been hit with a couple bugs that we thought it was food poisoning and turned out to be an infection."