AP Sports Writer
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly had a question for the eighth-ranked Fighting Irish as they began preparations to face No. 7 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl: “Are you committed to this game?”
“If you’re not committed to playing this game, just let us know. Because I’ll go home early and we’ll spend time with our families. In other words, you don’t have one foot out the door because you’re worried about your draft status and you’re thinking about other things,” Kelly said he told his players.
Kelly has been pleased with the response of the Irish (10-2), with five players who have sent in paperwork to the NFL requesting a potential draft grade. Kelly said the players have shown they plan to take the same team-first attitude against the Buckeyes (11-1) that kept them in the running for a playoff berth until a season-ending loss at Stanford.
An example of that, Kelly said, was a decision seniors made about not putting their names on their bowl jerseys. Notre Dame first put players’ last names on jerseys in the 1970 Cotton Bowl against No. 1 Texas and continued while Ara Parseghian remained coach through the 1974 season. It’s a tradition the Irish have continued their past six bowl appearances, the last five under Kelly.
“The seniors came to me and said, ‘Coach, we don’t want names on the back of our jerseys. We’re Team 127,’” Kelly said, referring to the number of seasons Notre Dame has been playing football.
Linebacker Joe Schmidt said the decision to not have names on the jersey is a sign of the team’s attitude all season.
“All year we’ve been talking about Team 127, how special this team is, the brotherhood has and how much we care about each other. It’s fair to say, that’s something we want to maintain into the bowl game,” he said. “It’s something we want all our games to represent, not just the one.”
Junior linebacker Jaylon Smith is among those considering entering the NFL draft. He said his focus is on the Fiesta Bowl, especially because his brother Rod was a running back at Ohio State.
“What matters the most is beating Ohio State,” Smith said. “I have to put a lot of effort into that considering talking trash with my brother.”
Schmidt said the Irish have no trouble getting motivated for the Fiesta Bowl.
“Are you kidding me? This is the Fiesta Bowl, we’re playing Ohio State. For the greater part of the year they were the No. 1 team in the nation,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for both teams to show the country and the world what they’ve accomplished this season.”
Kelly said he’s letting the Irish players take the lead when it comes to setting the attitude.
“I’m just trying to stay out of their way at this point and not mess it up, because they clearly have a direction as to where they want to go and how they want to play,” Kelly said.