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Ben Smith

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Associated Press
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said the loss to Alabama in the BCS championship game showed the Irish areas they need to improve.

That Game helps establish agenda for ’13 Irish team

That Game is miles behind them now, a dwindling bloodstain in their mirrors. Brian Kelly says it’s history, and – even at Notre Dame, where history is something you can breathe like air – that means it’s as dead as disco.

“2012 and the personality of that team is gone,” Kelly said Tuesday in his kickoff news conference for spring football, as winter fought a stubborn rearguard action outside. “It now starts to begin with a new group of players, a new football team.”

And yet the paradox is clear, as those words exit Kelly’s larynx: If 2012 is truly gone, it also informs everything going forward from it, or at least from Jan. 7, 2013, the last true day of 2012. And not just because this is Notre Dame, where the past is prologue like nowhere else.

It’s because Jan. 7, the day of the BCS championship, is when Notre Dame discovered what it means to be truly elite. And just how near, and at the same time how far, it was from getting there.

That was the night of That Game, of course – Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14 – and even 2 1/2 months later, every detail is etched in acid. The defense everyone raved about all year was brutally strip-mined, two ’Bama running backs gouging it for more than 100 yards, the Crimson Tide burying it beneath 529 total yards. It was no contest from the moment ’Bama drove 82 yards in five plays on its first possession, cruelly exposing Notre Dame’s proud 12-0 record as something as counterfeit as a Confederate dollar.

And yet in that exposing, there was this, too: A revelation that will serve the Irish well from here on out.

“I think after that game, we learned a lot about where we want to go moving forward,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That’s the benefit of playing in that game, that even though we lost the football game, I think we learned a lot from it.”

Such as?

Well, you can start with the fact that Kelly spent an inordinate amount of time Tuesday talking about how much bigger and stronger his players were, and how Job 1 now is to develop quality depth, the lack of which Alabama so brutally exposed. And, yes, that includes the quarterback position, where Everett Golson is an heir who’s hardly apparent.

He ran for a score and threw for one in the national championship game, completing 21 of 36 passes for 270, yards. But Kelly made it clear Tuesday he’ll go to spring ball without an assigned seat as the starter.

“I want (the other Notre Dame quarterbacks) to push to be on the field,” Kelly says. “I want them to go in knowing Everett Golson has experience, but that’s all he has. It’s your job to go out there and show us you can be the starting quarterback.”

It’s a mantra that runs through everything here now, because that’s something else Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14 taught everyone.

“If there was one thing that stood out for me in that game, we lacked depth at crucial positions,” Kelly said Tuesday. “The recruiting process, that’s one answer, and then the second answer is just continue to build the strength of your football team.

“We want competition. If you’re program is in good shape, there’s competition from within. So it’s going to be a competitive situation.”

Jan. 7, 2013, everything it meant then and inspires now, demands no less.

“When you’re in that environment, you want to get back there,” Kelly says. “There’s no atmosphere like it. It’s a great motivator for your football team.”

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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