And yes, at the halfway point of a season that started in an 0-2 tsunami of turnovers, Notre Dame (4-2) can still talk BCS. Not non-refundable-airline-ticket kind of talk, but at least it’s a tenable reality.
It is so, in large part, because of magic moments the public doesn’t see — like when Notre Dame star receiver and soon-to-be seven-figure salaried NFL rookie Michael Floyd sought out second-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly last week and asked to be auditioned at punt returns.
There’s a thread of unselfishness, of deferring NFL aspirations and personal preferences, and often of courage that string together the pivotal behind-the-scenes touchstones that have provided the Irish with such a statistical surge of late.
This is the culture Kelly sought to engender when he walked away from a low-pressure but successful gig at Cincinnati and agreed to be the next hope of restoring Notre Dame football.
It remains in the hope stage still, but is gaining momentum. If it does indeed galvanize into something more before season’s end, here’s a look through five different lenses at how team chemistry set off the chain reaction:
The man, who could have found the trap door into the NFL supplemental draft when his personal life bottomed out last March, continues to act like a team captain and beyond, even though his drunk-driving arrest last spring resulted in him losing that distinction officially.
Notre Dame has been languishing in the bottom five nationally in punt returns all season and had tried both dynamic Theo Riddick and sure-handed John Goodman, a combination that resulted in as many fumbles (3) as total return yards (3) for the season.
Enter Floyd, who hadn’t returned a punt since his senior year at St. Paul (Minn.) Cretin-Derham Hall High School. He averaged 23.3 yards per return on 16 attempts with four TDs that season for the state runners-up.
"I think we have talked about wanting to get a playmaker out there," Kelly said, "and John certainly can handle the ball for us, but lacks that big-play ability.
"Mike actually came to me and said, ‘Coach, I'll do it. Give me a shot at it.’ We worked hard — and this is the great thing about Mike, he stayed after practice. Here is a guy who is one of the best receivers in the country and spent probably more time than I can remember a guy staying after practice just fielding punts so he can go in there and do it."
Floyd actually shared duties with Goodman in ND’s 59-33 throttling of Air Force on Saturday, but neither one ended up actually returning any of the Falcons’ three punts — just fielding. But Kelly is excited about where the experiment may be headed.
"A lot of this has been precipitated by our need to jump-start that unit, and Mike saw that. As we talked about it in every special teams meeting, which he's part of. I think he finally said, ‘You know what, I can do this.’ We were not looking down that road with Mike, because he had never done it before (in college), but he's such an exceptional athlete and was committed to doing it, and I think that's obviously a game-changer when it comes to that."
In Saturday’s Air Force game aftermath, Kelly looked like a kid who finally got to open his favorite Christmas present — on St. Patrick’s Day.
Yes, it came against a defense that didn’t exactly shut down either South Dakota or Tennessee State, but the unleashing of the change-up quarterback — namely sophomore Andrew Hendrix — figures to change the way defensive coordinators look at and attack the Irish offense, moving forward.
For his part, Hendrix ran for 111 yards on six carries — the most by an Irish quarterback in 10 years. His stumble near the goal line, though, prevented the Cincinnati Moeller product from wiping out Bill Eder’s 42-year-old school record for longest run by an ND QB (79 yards).
He also completed 4-of-4 passes for 33 yards in his collegiate debut, for a QB efficiency rating of 169.3. Rees’ efficiency (141.7) climbed too — from 60th to 47th nationally — an intended side effect of using the change-up QB.
"When you now have to prepare for triple option and the ability for the quarterback to run, (opposing defenses) put in one less coverage to cover Michael Floyd. You put in one less blitz package to get after Tommy, because you're afraid you may get caught in that when Hendrix is in the game.