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SOUTH BEND – During the six weeks of non-compete football that the Notre Dame program is in the midst of, there are a lot of aspects that go into keeping the Fighting Irish sharp.
One of the most critical areas is maintaining the players' physical conditioning.
“After our last game, the number one challenge that we had was to prepare our football team for this (upcoming) game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We didn't talk about the long layoff. We just talked about what we needed to do to win this football game and be the best football team on January the 7th.”
That date is when Kelly's kids will battle No. 2-ranked Alabama (12-1) in the BCS National Championship game (8:30 p.m., ESPN).
The Irish have not played since beating USC in Los Angeles on Nov. 24, but that doesn't mean that the players haven't been working on the football field. They've been doing that, along with getting healthy, resting, and to a degree, getting in even better shape due to the extra time and ability to rest their bodies.
“There are a lot of pieces that go into that, and I think I it began for us with getting our football team back in the weight room and really looking at this as a preparation for a one game series,” Kelly said. “That means our guys have to get back to conditioning element. We have to find our timing as it relates to practicing. And also be smart enough to know that we certainly want to peak at the right time.”
The responsibility for that conditioning element doesn't fall on Kelly, but on director of football strength and conditioning Paul Longo.
“We certainly wouldn't be the football team that we are today without our strength and conditioning program, and in particular the leadership that Paul brings us,” Kelly said.
Longo served under Kelly at both Central Michigan, as well as Cincinnati. When Kelly took over in South Bend in 2009, he didn't like what he saw physically from the Notre Dame players, and neither did Longo.
“(Longo has) been with me the last three stops, knows exactly what I'm looking forward in terms of developing our players, not just in the weight room, but outside the weight room,” Kelly said.
The Irish had developed a deserved reputation under former coach Charlie Weis of being a group that faltered late in games, as well as late in the season. Longo's work changed that direction drastically.
Kelly explained that Longo has a critical role in the development of the athletes, due to the NCAA limiting the amount of time that the other coaches can spend with the players working on football-related development.
“You've got to understand, one of the huge dynamics of a strength and conditioning team is that when the coaches are away for three months and they're not able to have interaction with your football team, that has to be the biggest jump that a football team makes,” Kelly said. “Has to be during those three months.”
Not only is Longo responsible for the physical development of the athletes, but that translates to the Notre Dame players being able to be mentally tough after being challenged by Longo and his staff throughout the year.
“Understand there are 105 players out there and we have three strength and conditioning coaches,” Kelly explained. “So you can imagine how important he is to the development not only as it relates to their strength, but conditioning and their ability to go above and beyond.
So he's an integral part. I consider him a leadership part of our entire operation. He's been instrumental in getting us to where we are today.”