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Football

As season opener against Louisville approaches, captains look to form team identity, develop winning mindset

| Friday, August 30, 2019

Four of Notre Dame Football’s seven captains — senior quarterback Ian Book, graduate student wide receiver Chris Finke, senior safety Alohi Gilman and senior defensive end Khalid Kareem — fielded questions during a media conference Thursday on the team’s mindset with the season fast approaching.

There is a considerable level of excitement throughout the program, the captains said, with the Labor Day matchup against the Louisville Cardinals looming.

“Everyone’s excited. You can just tell,” Book said. “It’s been fun playing our own guys and whatnot, but we’re ready to play somebody else, and [we] can’t wait for Monday to get here.”

Gilman, the leading returning tackler for the Irish, echoed Book’s sentiment. The team is looking forward to finally facing a new opponent, Gilman said.

“I mean, we’ve been going at it for 22, 23 practices now, so, you know, it’ll be good to line up against someone other than ourselves,” Gilman said.

Zachary Yim | The Observer

Irish graduate student slot receiver Chris Finke cuts to the left during Notre Dame’s 31-21 win over Northwestern on Nov. 3 at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. Finke is one of seven captains this season for the Irish.

Since the Irish fell 30-3 to the eventual national champion Clemson Tigers in the Cotton Bowl, Finke, the team’s second-leading returning receiver, said the team has been anxious to get back on the field and take another swing at a playoff appearance.

“The excitement level is really high, as always, in week one,” Finke said. “We’ve been waiting ever since that Cotton Bowl, itching to get back on the field. So it’s been a long time preparing in the weight room and on the practice field against each other, and everybody’s really excited.”

The loss to Clemson, while painful, has been used as a lesson for the team this coming season and played a big role in developing their mindset, Kareem said.

“One thing we’re just keying on is just finishing,” Kareem said. “We were right there — one game away. We were so close, I mean, even though the score was 30-3. … If we just finish the first half off, then … like I said, just finishing and just taking everything game-by-game, just play-by-play really.”

While Kareem claims the mindset of the team is to take the next step and finish what they started, head coach Brian Kelly isn’t so sure. On Wednesday, Kelly said he can’t yet decipher this team’s dynamic as he usually can going into a season.

“I think each year you kind of have a gut feeling,” Kelly said. “I don’t have a gut feeling, per se, as much as I know certain players and how they’ll perform. I think what I’m waiting for is what mindset the group brings. A few years ago, we had a mindset that they really wanted to dominate their opponent. I think the mindset of this group kind of comes together after a first game. I’m not sure what that is right now. … But you really don’t know about your football team in terms of their mindset until you play the game.”

Gilman agreed with Kelly’s analysis by saying the Irish still have to show what they’re made of when the time comes.

“I’m interested in that as well, just figuring out who our identity is,” Gilman said. “Coach Kelly talked about sharpening our ax and now that our ax is ready, … I’m interested to see who we are as a team. You know, every team is different. Last year’s team is completely different from this year’s team. And once we step out there, we’re going to see who [we are] and how we react to adversity, how we play in a big atmosphere — [there are] a lot of young guys — and how the leaders are going to respond to those situations.”

The captains all realize they have to prove their confidence on the field. However, while Kelly may not yet be certain of his team’s mentality, Kareem and Finke seem to have an idea already.

“I guess the mentality is just being able to take anything that comes at us,” Finke said. “Like I said, [from] January to spring ball, to summer, to workouts, to camp, it’s just taking whatever [director of football performance Matt] Balis puts in front of us or whatever our practice has in front of us and having no second thoughts and attacking it. So, I guess what Coach means when he says he doesn’t know exactly what is, it’s we haven’t done it against anyone else yet. So, we’ll see if we can handle that adversity, we’ll see what we’re made of when we get out against somebody else. But that’s our mentality, and that’s the kind of confidence we have in what we’re about.”

The team will not be complacent or satisfied with its performance last year, Kareem noted.

“It’s a new season, this is a new team,” he said. “Guys that helped us last year, they’re gone, so guys will have to step up and do their job, and I feel like this team is really capable of doing something special. So, I think as long as we keep the blinders on and not focus outside the team, I think we’ll be fine.”

Kareem said another factor influencing the team is this year’s seniors would have been freshmen during Notre Dame’s 4-8 campaign in 2016. The veterans, according to Kareem, remember that experience vividly and use it as a reality check when necessary.

“I feel like that definitely helps the guys who are seniors now, the guys who were there for the 4-8 [season],” Kareem said. “I mean, we don’t want to go back to that. We’ve been at the lowest of lows and that also helps us keep fueling [ourselves] to keep going, because we know where we were before, and we don’t ever want to go back. If we feel ourselves slipping a little bit, alright, pick it up. If we feel those old habits coming back, OK, let’s get out of it. And we’ll make stuff happen.”

While the captains may have offered different takes on the team’s mentality, Gilman says that the team has prepared to be fearless no matter what and to confront any obstacles head-on.

“I mean, throughout the spring and the summer, we’re just a group [in] that we’ve attacked everything that was put in front of us,” Gilman said. “Any workout, any challenge, any type of adversity, we attack. … You know, sometimes we focus on certain things, but for us, we focus on just being a warrior out there, you know, stepping out, attacking everything, and I think we have the people and the pieces to do those things.”

No matter the differences in opinion, Gilman expressed a common sentiment among the players on the roster.

“[Let’s] line up right now,” he said.

The Irish will kick off against Louisville on Monday at 8 p.m.

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