SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Putting together back-to-back strong seasons has been rare of late at Notre Dame.
Since going 10-1-1 in 1992 and 11-1 in 1993, the Irish have won at least nine games in consecutive seasons just once, going 9-3 and 10-3 in 2005 and 2006 in the first two seasons under Charlie Weis. Last season's 12-1 record, which included a blowout loss to Alabama in the national title game, was the first time the Irish have won at least nine games since then. It was the program's best record in nearly two decades.
Coach Brian Kelly said the Irish know the challenge ahead.
"We've worked very hard to put ourselves back into position to get back into the national spotlight. We have no intentions of giving that up," Kelly said Friday. "So the focus has been since the last game of last year is to get back to the top of the mountain. You don't get there easily. It takes a lot of work."
The Irish get to work Monday when they begin practicing for the first four days at a facility in Marion, a central Indiana city about 100 miles southeast of the Notre Dame campus. Kelly said the players won't have access to TVs and predicted that the local Wi-Fi will crash shortly after the players arrive.
"It's an opportunity for us to focus on football and each other," Kelly said.
Kelly said his contract situation won't be a distraction, saying a new deal is "imminent." Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick has said the school is working on a contract extension for Kelly, whose current deal runs through the 2016 season. Kelly, who interviewed for the Philadelphia Eagles job the day after the BCS game in January, said the basic deal for a contract has been in place since December.
"We have a contract and an agreement. We have people that are paid money to look at these contracts. They look at them very closely. They don't operate as quickly as I would like to. But there are no issues contractually," Kelly said.
Kelly talking to the Eagles was one of many distractions that occurred for the Irish since the embarrassing 42-14 loss to Alabama. There was All-America linebacker Manti Te'o falling prey to an online girlfriend hoax and starting quarterback Everett Golson being suspended by the university for the semester for what he termed poor academic judgment. A highly touted defensive lineman also backed out of his letter of intent and is headed to UCLA.
Kelly said none of that will have any effect on this year's team.
"It was in the rearview mirror the next day. We don't even think about it, don't even talk about it. It's history," he said.
Kelly said he decided to name quarterback Tommy Rees as the starter before the start of practice because of his experience. He said, however, that doesn't mean the job is his for all season.
"I made him the starter for Temple. My expectation is that he would take the job and continue to lead our football team," Kelly said. "He's the most experienced. He's won. He knows our offense very well. He's a senior, well respected. He's got all those things. It was really a quite easy decision."
Tougher decisions will have to be made at running back, linebacker and elsewhere, where the Irish lost veteran players.
"It's going to be fun. We have a lot of veterans coming back, but there's going to be a lot of things that we're going to have to evaluate," he said. "We're going to have a lot of players that will get that opportunity.
There were two items of note on the Notre Dame roster released Friday. First, basketball player Joey Brooks, who redshirted last season as a senior and was listed as a tight end during spring football practice, is no longer on the roster. Kelly said he didn't want Brooks taking opportunities away from younger players like freshman Mike Heuerman. ... The other is that Jesse Bongiovi is listed is a freshman walk-on cornerback. He is the son of singer Jon Bon Jovi, who began attending Notre Dame games when Weis was coach.