The year that was for Notre Dame's Brian Kelly
Brian Kelly immediately seized his team's attention one year ago when he took over as head coach at Notre Dame.
''He wins. That was the biggest thing,'' said freshman quarterback Tommy Rees.
One day after the anniversary of securing his dream job, Kelly was getting the Irish back in football mode for a Sun Bowl that is still nearly three weeks away.
Notre Dame will take a 7-5 record into a New Year Eve's date with Miami in a renewal of a nasty rivalry that's taken a 20-year hiatus.
''We started talking about how important it was for this game to really reflect being the first game of 2011,'' Kelly said Saturday after his team had a scrimmage with live tackling.
Other incentives for his players are easy to present: ''7-6 vs 8-5; playing Miami. I think we talked about the game itself and they're excited about the matchup,'' Kelly said.
''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, it sold out in 24 hours, it's a great matchup that goes back so many years.''
Just as he sold most of the veteran players on his plan when he took over from Charlie Weis on Dec. 10, 2009, Weis is now hoping the bowl game and its additional practices will help the Irish's younger players heading into next season and also aid recruiting. And he still has the attention of those who will be leaving after the trip to El Paso.
''I believe how you treat your seniors during the year is going to be a great indication of how they're going to help you in this bowl game and they've been terrific,'' Kelly said.
Safety Harrison Smith is winding up his fourth season and is one of the key performers on a defense that helped the Irish go on a three-game winning streak to close the regular season.
He said there was initially a feeling-out process with the new coaching staff but that it has evolved.
''It's been a long process. There have been a lot of steps, but since day one, he came in and everybody bought in right away,'' said Smith, who has another year of eligibility remaining. ''Just the way he presented himself and the way he talked to us and addressed us. ... From then on it's been the same thing. We've gotten more used to him, while he's gotten more used to us.''
In response to a question on how the first season under Kelly unfolded, Smith quickly pointed out that it had its share of adversity.
A student videographer was killed in late October when the tower from which he was filming practice toppled over in high winds. The Irish started 1-3 and were hit by numerous injuries to key players such as tight end Kyle Rudolph, quarterback Dayne Crist and running back Armando Allen. And Notre Dame was routed by Navy and lost by a point at home to Tulsa before winning the final three games to nail down a winning season.
''I think what I can tell you now is that there is no job like being the head football coach at the University of Notre Dame,'' Kelly said. ''It certainly for me was a great experience. Some highs. Some lows. ''
Notre Dame will work next week's practices in around finals and go hard for three days Dec. 20-22 before players head home for Christmas. They will reconvene in El Paso on Dec. 26.
Kelly, who coached in three bowls at Cincinnati but not the Orange Bowl last year because he landed the Notre Dame job, said Miami's overall speed is comparable to USC's, the team the Irish beat in their regular-season finale on Nov. 27.
The Hurricanes are in the same transition mode Notre Dame was in last year after coach Randy Shannon was fired following a season-ending loss to South Florida that left Miami at 7-5.
Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland will be the interim head coach for the bowl game between two schools who've played 23 times but not since 1990.
Notre Dame leads the all-time series 15-7-1, though the two schools have never met in a bowl. The series dates to the 1950s, but it was during the 1980s, when Miami became a national power, that the rivalry got interesting - and intense.
Notes: WR Michael Floyd said he still hasn't decided whether he will turn pro and that he hasn't even given it a lot of thought. Floyd and Rudolph, both juniors, have asked to be evaluated early by the NFL to learn when they might be taken in the draft. ''You never know when is the right time and you got to go through that and think about it,'' Floyd said. ... PK David Ruffer, perfect on field goals in his career (20-for-20), said he'd love to come back if he applies to Notre Dame's Faculty Board on Athletics and gets another year of eligibility. Ruffer, an economics major who transferred from William & Mary after the 2007-08 school year, is a walk-on. Kelly said he'd welcome him back. ... NG Ian Williams (knee) and slot receiver Theo Riddick (ankle) are practicing with Riddick pretty much back at full speed.