By DAVID VANTRESS
THE GOSHEN NEWS
The eyes of much of the sports world this week are on March Madness, as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament kicks off.
But in South Bend on Tuesday, the focus was on Notre Dame football, as the Fighting Irish officially opened spring practice with a press conference conducted by head coach Brian Kelly.
It’s been an eventful few months since the Irish fell to Alabama in the BCS National Championship game: The Manti Te’o dead girlfriend hoax scandal, Kelly’s brief flirtation with a jump to the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles; and the imminent transfer of highly touted freshman quarterback Gunner Kiel have all been stories that have kept the Irish in the news — not necessarily in a light they want to be seen in.
But with today’s official opening of spring practice, the focus for Kelly’s Irish returns to the field.
Despite the loss in the national title game, the 2012 season was the best for the Irish in nearly two decades.
Key players need to be replaced, including Te’o; tight end Tyler Eifert; and running back Theo Riddick.
“I don’t know that we have the kind of singular great players that we had last year,” Kelly said. “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 a work in progress for us to figure out.”
Like every team, Kelly said, the 2013 Irish will have to forge their own identity.
“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.
Kelly also said there are no fences to be mended with his team after his short dalliance with the possibility of leaving South Bend for the NFL.
“They don’t like me very much anyway, so it was really very little,” he joked.
Kelly added that 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 season at as the head coach at Notre Dame — a milestone he did not reach in his two previous stops at Cincinnati or Central Michigan.
With that much time in the job, Kelly said, he has become more comfortable with the players — and they with him.
“It allows you to really work on the development of your football team,” Kelly said.
The 2013 Irish roster will include several fifth-year players, including linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, offensive linemen Zack Martin and Chris Watt, defensive tackle Tyler Stockton and kicker Nick Tausch.
Irish basketball player Joey Brooks, who redshirted this season as a senior, also has been added to the roster.
Missing from the roster is Kiel, who apparently will transfer despite being given assurances he would have a chance to compete for the starting job.
Kelly said he is disappointed Kiel is leaving, but understands the decision.
“There’s always a sense from my end that we wish he would have given it an opportunity,” Kelly said. “But kids make decisions based upon what are important factors to them. Gunner and his family felt like it was best for them to pursue other opportunities.”
Spring practice for Notre Dame runs through Wedesday, April 17 and culminates Saturday, April 20 with the annual Blue-Gold Game.