SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame hit rock bottom under Brian Kelly in 2016.
The freshman group that year made sure it would never happen again.
After a 4-8 season in 2016, the Fighting Irish have gone 10-3, 12-1 and currently 8-2 in the three seasons, respectively, since then. They’ve been ranked in the Top 25 every week since the middle of 2017. They made the College Football Playoff in 2018. And although they won’t make the playoff this year, they have a chance to finish 11-2 with a bowl victory.
After the sky was falling in South Bend in 2016, the seniors who’ll be running onto the Notre Dame Stadium field for the final time Saturday made sure to push the sky back into the air.
“That season was hell, and it’s never going to happen around here ever again,” graduate senior offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland said.
Ruhland was a redshirt freshman in 2016, so he had experience of the 2015 success before the disastrous 2016 campaign. In Ruhland’s freshman year, Notre Dame went 10-3 and made a Fiesta Bowl appearance.
That’s what made 2016 tougher for true freshmen, like defensive end Khalid Kareem. A four-star prospect from Michigan, Kareem admitted there was a huge learning curve when he first stepped foot on campus. And although going 4-8 didn’t humble him anymore, it changed the mood among the freshmen on the roster.
“That just added fuel to the fire,” Kareem said. “Our class spoke amongst ourselves that, ‘We’re going to be the class that changes this.’ And, I think it definitely showed. We have a lot of guys from our class that have definitely changed the culture. We did what we set out to do.”
Kareem, along with senior safety Jalen Elliott, said the team started holding each other more accountable during the offseason workouts following 2016.
“Just not letting each other slack off because, ‘OK, you’re my boy, I’m allowed to slack.’ Like, no,” Kareem said. “I feel like I should do it even more because you’re my guy. I shouldn’t let Daelin (Hayes) slide because he’ll do it. No. He needs to do it now.”
“It was never demeaning. We were never really big on cussing each other out,” Elliott added. “We just really pushed each other because we knew where we wanted to go. We knew that everybody had that same goal in mind.”
Senior wide receiver Chase Claypool was confident 2017 was going to be better.
“If you just look at those (2016) games, we lost every game except one by a touchdown or something,” Claypool said. “We had the right pieces. We just had to put them together. I think it wasn’t like, ‘Damn, this can’t get any better.’”
Notre Dame reached as high as No. 3 in the CFP rankings in 2017 before finishing the regular season 9-3. A victory in the Citrus Bowl gave the Irish double-digit wins and a plus-6 difference in victories from 2016.
The program followed 2017 by staying at No. 3 in the CFP for the final five weeks of the 2018 season, qualifying for the playoff semifinal game against Clemson in the Cotton Bowl. It was the first undefeated regular season (12-0) for Notre Dame since 2012.
Tough losses to Georgia and Michigan have Notre Dame hoping for a New Year’s Six bowl game this year. The Irish still have a chance to finish the home portion of their schedule undefeated, though, when they host Boston College on Saturday.
Everyone who was on the 2016 team knows how much work has been done to reach this point. They’ll have one more chance to show the home fans that work this weekend.
“We’re not the same team at all. This is not the same program. That energy is totally different around here,” Ruhland said. “We practice so hard, and that’s the main difference. Coach (Brian) Kelly’s done a great job. Our coaching staff’s fantastic — and not to say 2016 wasn’t. But this is just a totally different team. The energy around the building every single day is totally different.”
“I think you always have to go through a trial to come out triumphant,” Elliott added. “As you know, 2016 wasn’t a great year for us. We were thrown into that fire as young boys, and we promised each other that it wouldn’t happen again. Once we got into that offseason, it was important for us to work like we didn’t want it to happen again. I think we set a tone for that, and we upheld that tone.
“I’m just thankful, man. So thankful.”