Even while Notre Dame was preparing for the Citrus Bowl against LSU, Brian Kelly was looking ahead to next season.
The Fighting Irish coach was pleased with what he called a transformational 10-3 year for his 14th-ranked program, but left no doubt about what the goals will be in 2018.
Kelly told a crowd during a pep rally before the bowl game in Orlando, Florida, that "it's only going to get better from here. So get ready for more warm weather. Get ready for playoffs and national championship. This is just the start."
Notre Dame's 21-17 win over LSU gave Kelly his second 10-win season in three years but also showed that a 4-8 record in 2016 was just a short-term disappointment.
"If you can come away with 10 wins with the schedule that we play, I think that's a pretty damn good season for us," quarterback Brandon Wimbush said.
The Irish will have holes to fill on the offensive line and at linebacker, but the most focus will be at quarterback. Wimbush led the team to eight wins and accounted for 30 touchdowns, but Ian Book came in during the second quarter of Monday's game and led the team to its first win in a New Year's Day bowl game since 1994.
The sophomore was 14 of 19 for 164 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Kelly said the plan going into the game was to play both, but Book's play shows how much depth Kelly has at quarterback.
"Ian is extremely accurate as a passer. He's got a really fine ability to locate the football. He throws strikes," Kelly said. "I think we also saw if you do not play him in the option game, he is extremely capable of pulling it and being effective in the run game."
Wimbush completed just 49.5 percent of his passes and had three games where his completion percentage was under 40 percent. His greatest strength is as a runner as he was second on the team with 765 yards and had 14 touchdowns on runs, which is a single-season record for a ND quarterback.
Kelly said that Wimbush has been successful throwing on shallow routes since it gives receivers a chance to gain yards after the catch. However he does need to work on more of his passing game.
"It just goes to being smart with your quarterback because he's got some work to do in the off season," Kelly said. "He's a dynamic runner. He's got great traits. He's a competitor. He finds a way and wills his way into making plays and now it's up to us as coaches to put him in a good position to succeed."
Whoever the quarterback is, they could have more targets. Citrus Bowl MVP Miles Boykin showed he was ready to make a bid for a starting spot with three receptions for 102 yards, including a one-handed grab for a 55-yard touchdown that ended up being the game winner.
For the players returning, it should be less hectic of an offseason. Kelly hired six new assistants after the end of the 2016 season including new coordinators Chip Long (offense) and Mike Elko (defense).
Besides the eight starters who are graduating - including All-American offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson - there is the possibility that junior wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who led the team in receptions with 33, and running back Josh Adams could declare for the NFL draft. Adams rushed for 1,430 yards, but was held under 50 yards in each of the last three games. Tight end Alizé Mack and junior linebacker Te'von Coney could also leave early.
Kelly said that he will have one-on-one meetings with each of his players, which he said was important to helping with this season's turnaround.
Notre Dame faced 10 teams during the regular season that went to a bowl game, including championship finalist Georgia. The schedule will not be any easier in 2018, beginning with the Sept. 1 opener against Michigan. It also includes home games against Stanford and Florida State as well as trips to Virginia Tech and Southern California.
"We were in a bad spot last year and we knew it. That's not what Notre Dame deserves, it," McGlinchey said. "I think we did a pretty good job of laying the groundwork for success. I think the sky is limit and I can't wait to see where the program goes with the guys we have."
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