Bowl teams are allowed a maximum of 15 practices to prepare for their respective contests. Unlike previous bowl matchups played on December 31 (the Sun Bowl) and last year the 29th (Champs Sports Bowl) during the Brian Kelly era, the 2012 Irish were tasked with spacing those 15 sessions over an extended period.
Kelly thus scheduled Irish practices for December 8, 11, 14, 16, 18, 20, and 21 prior to sending the team home for an extended Christmas break. The squad returned on the 27th to resume practice for December 28, 29, 30, and 31. After New Year's Day off, they'll board a plane for Miami on January 2 and practice again on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th in Florida.
Until Friday the 28th, most practice plans included anything but heavy physical contact in full pads.
"We are in our preparation for Alabama and for us it’s been a long layoff, but one that we think properly (put) the pieces together leading into today and tomorrow, which are really intense practices, physical practices," said Kelly. "We’re out there in contact, doing the things that we need to do to prepare for Alabama through (December 30).
"All of our work up to this point has focused toward peaking on (game night). As you can imagine, today and (Dec. 30) will be the two most contact days that we've had with our football team since the USC game. That’s a long time.
Kelly offered the entire schedule was designed for his Irish to peak at the right time.
"I think the way we’ve coached them. We’ve coached them in a sense that we’re waiting to crank it up too<' he said of timing an emotional and physical peak for game night. "Every day hasn’t been a baseball bat to them. We’ve kind of paced ourselves. We’ve coached them, we’ve taught them, we’ve made sure that we hit gears that needed to be hit in terms of tackling and timing and conditioning, but we have to build up as well.
"If it’s game day right now then we’re not going to be where we need to be. So it’s getting a sense from the coaches and myself that we lead them up to that crescendo as well."
Irish fans might wonder why the allotment of bowl practices at Notre Dame's disposal weren't all national title game-centric. As noted above, there's a mental approach necessary during an extended layoff. For the 2012 Irish, there's also the reality of a dearth of depth for one critical position group.
"We’ve had to be very careful in what we’ve done relative to contact with (the offensive line) because we’re very limited right now," said Kelly of a sparse backup corps up front. "I think Nick Martin has played every position on the offensive line. He’s been our versatile guy across the board. (True freshman) Mark Harrell has played a lot at the No. 2 center position. He’s done a nice job for us. It’s just been really trying to manage the guys at this point where we’re not overtaxing them. It’s been a bit of limiting situation for us.
"If there’s probably one thing that has affected some of my thought process relative to engaging our O-line live against our D-line, it’s been that we’re a little thin on the offensive line."
Notre Dame lost sophomores in August, guard Brad Carrico to career-ending injury, and tackle Jordan Prestwood to transfer. The pair's classmate, center Matt Hegarty, has since been shut down due to undisclosed injury while junior tackle Tate Nichols was lost for the season due to a recurring knee injury.
Add to the carnage true freshman tackle Ronnie Stanley (elbow) and the scholarship backups available to Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand include the aforementioned Martin and Harrell, fellow sophomore Conor Hanratty, and junior center Bruce Heggie. 5th-year walk-on tackle Denis Mahoney has filled in often during practice as a result.
Kelly noted that should injuries occur in the BCS championship game, Martin would replace either tackle and Hanratty either guard. If starting center Braxston Cave goes down, starting right guard Mike Golic, Jr., would take over with Hanratty moving into his vacated guard spot. (All players in good health will dress for the championship game, but assuming calamity doesn't strike on January 7, Harrell will again sit out to preserve a redshirt in his freshman season.)
"If you take an hour-and-a-half practice, we’re probably taking 10 minutes of that to go ones versus ones," said Kelly. "I would go a little bit more, but we’re thin on the offensive line. I can’t afford to lose a guy there. We’ve been cautious there on the offensive line.
Fortunate for Kelly and the fan base, the starting front five remained upright through the entire four month regular season. They're full-go for the title tilt as well.
"It’s all about Alabama, and we’ve done a little bit of 11-on-11 work because I want to keep that speed that you need against a great team like Alabama. We did a little of "Ones vs. Ones" today at the end of practice (starters vs. starters), just to keep the speed in the game as well. I don’t want to the practices to slow down. When it becomes all scout team it has a tendency to become a little bit slower pace."
After a necessary break, its full speed ahead through January 7th's final gun.