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Closing The Gap

Mike Monaco | Thursday, April 18, 2013

Nelson Mandela. Fr. Hesburgh. Dan Gable.

The Irish defense studied them all in the spring after a 42-14 beatdown in January’s BCS National Championship Game.

Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco highlighted the Gable example and said the defensive exercise was concocted to teach Notre Dame to respond from the title game.

“Like every warrior champion [you respond],” Diaco said. “Before the season we studied [former Olympic wrestler] Dan Gable in detail … Dan Gable’s greatest, most defining moment was also his worst moment. He lost his final match of his life up to that point, where he has ahead. The lessons learned in that propelled him to go on and win Olympic gold.

“So the unit needs to understand those lessons. We’ve got to make sure that that moment right there is really our greatest moment. We’ve got to turn it in to our greatest strength, and an understanding and an energy that gets created moving forward, and understand what we need to do, an opportunity for everyone to sharpen the blade on their knife, so to speak, to move forward. So it has to be viewed that way.”

To the Irish, the Alabama game was their worst moment. The Crimson Tide rumbled 82 yards in the first 2:57 of the game. It was 21-0 four seconds into the second quarter. It was 28-0 at halftime. Alabama outgained Notre Dame on the ground 265-32.

“What I really took away [from the game] is we got smacked,” Irish senior linebacker Prince Shembo said. “To me, it’s bad. We gave up 42 points. We didn’t do that all year long. That’s just bad to me. Afterwards I was kind of mad. So, never let that happen again.”

After the game, Irish coach Brian Kelly and former Irish linebacker Manti Te’o said Notre Dame needed to continue to “close the gap” between the Irish and the Crimson Tide. To Kelly, who later admitted the gap wasn’t as big as he initially thought on the night of Jan. 7, that narrowing process needed to start in the weight room.

“We’ve got to get physically stronger, continue to close the gap there and just overall you need to see what it looks like,” Kelly said after the championship game. “Our guys clearly know what it looks like. [Alabama] is back-to-back national champs, so that’s what it looks like. Measure yourself against that, and I think it was pretty clear across the board what we have to do.”

What the Irish did was hit the Guglielmino weight room, add strength, add weight and add reps. At the start of spring practice, Kelly liked the gains he saw. According to Kelly, junior linebacker Ben Councell added 16 pounds and increased to 19 bench press reps of 225 pounds. Fellow junior linebacker Jarrett Grace packed on 13 pounds and went from nine reps of 225 to 22. Junior running back George Atkinson III added 11 pounds and increased from five reps on the bench to 19. Junior tight end Troy Niklas boosted his bench to 27 reps.

“We need to continually get bigger, faster, stronger,” Kelly said. “Year four [of Kelly’s tenure] is seeing those results really hit home for us right now.”

Shembo, who had three tackles in the championship game, said being so close to the ultimate goal has given the team a burning desire to turn its worst moment into its greatest.

“Pretty much, the way I channel that frustration [from the national championship] is to try to get better every day,” Shembo said. “Everyone’s just got that hunger. We’re learning from that last loss and we’re continuing to push and continuing to improve.”


Bigger, faster, stronger

For Shembo personally, the frustration from losing to Alabama was directed right into his offseason work.

“Getting in there every day, pounding the weights, taking care of your body, eating the right foods, taking your vitamins, stay hydrated, all the little things,” Shembo said. “Your body is like a temple. You put good things in it so that’s how we think about it.”

On the other side of the ball, junior quarterback Everett Golson has become more of a vocal leader in his second year at the helm of the offense. But Golson, who rushed 94 times last season, said much of his development has been a product of his work in the weight room.

“It just came with doing a good job in the weight room with [director of football strength and conditioning Paul] Longo having a set plan for me and me just working hard,” Golson said. “I was still 185 [pounds] last year, but in this offseason I’ve increased my weight a little bit. I’d feel comfortable at 195. I don’t want to get too heavy, because it will take away from my running ability, but I definitely want to be more durable.”

Senior right tackle Christian Lombard, one of the men charged with keeping Golson upright and healthy, said he needed to improve his upper-body strength in the offseason and become more explosive in all his lifts.

Lombard said the work ethic and determination of the team throughout the spring, and especially in weightlifting sessions, has tightened the gap with Alabama.

“I think we’re making strides every day, just having that pride and having that determination,” Lombard said. “Having that work ethic and that desire to come in every day and get better, I think that in itself is a gap-closer.”

For sophomore cornerback KeiVarae Russell, that work ethic stems from the pain of the national championship. Notre Dame entered the game as one of the top two defenses in the nation. But the Irish, who recorded 34 sacks in the regular season, were held sack-less in Miami. A defense that forced 23 turnovers through the first 12 games couldn’t force one against Alabama. A defense that allowed an average of less than 287 yards per game throughout the regular season gave up 529 as the Tide rolled.

“Every time I’m in the weight room I think about that [game],” Russell said. “Sometimes I watch the Alabama film just to watch myself. Me personally I have over 100 plays where I messed up, missing tackles, bad coverages. … It just looks terrible.

“I always keep that in my mind when I’m in the weight room, that I’ve got to get stronger. … If you want to have a great career, you can’t just be a great cover guy. You’ve got to be strong to be able to set the edge and come up and make tackles and push them back. … I’m trying to build a coat of armor on me.”

Russell started all 13 games as a freshman cornerback after switching from running back upon his arrival in South Bend. He was fifth on the Irish defense with 58 tackles, but Russell said he was overmatched against Alabama.

“I was at 178 [pounds] in the BCS game. I’m not going to tackle Lacy at 178. That’s just not going to work,” Russell said. “And I felt it every time I tackled. That one I saved the touchdown, my chest hurt for two weeks. I was like this is not going to work. So I gained weight. I think that really added a lot of confidence too.”

Russell said he has tacked on 10 to 12 pounds in four months.

 “Now when I’m hitting, I feel it,” Russell said. “I’m like ‘This feels a lot better.'”

Despite palpable weight and strength gains, the Irish collectively admit improvements made in February and March don’t necessarily ensure results in December and January. Kelly said he’s pleased to see the physical increases, but “this does not mean they’ll be first team All-Americans.” The Irish acknowledge there is still work to be done in order to potentially turn Notre Dame’s worst moment from last season into its best moment this season.
“In light of that national championship, coming back to this year, it definitely gives us a little more motivation,” Golson said. “Actually getting there, seeing what is was like, but having your dreams crushed of actually winning it – it definitely puts that fire in you. I know for me, that fire is burning to get back. For the other guys too, it’s motivation to try to be better everyday.”

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu