(MCT) — SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The final obstacle to Notre Dame’s championship aspirations was about to drop into place like a boulder flipped off a rooftop Saturday. The SEC title game was a rollicking, hollering affair, to boot. And Theo Riddick watched practically none of it.
“Whoever won,” the Irish tailback said, “I was going to have enough time to do my research on them.”
Consider it yet another time management challenge for high-profile student-athletes. At the moment the BCS title game matchup was set with Alabama, Notre Dame had enjoyed eight days without game action. A scant 36 more remained before kickoff Jan. 7 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
There are layoffs, and there is this lurching dirge of preparation, riddled with pauses, facing the Irish and Crimson Tide. Alabama has been there and endured that. It’s foreign to Notre Dame, which is why coach Brian Kelly called LSU and Oregon to double-check his plan to stay fresh and avoid a premature expiration date.
“It’s a one-game deal,” Kelly said. “We’re just trying to be better than Alabama on Monday, Jan. 7. Our entire focus will be on a one-game season, trying to be better on Monday, Jan. 7. So you can understand we don’t want to be better than Alabama on the 27th of December.”
The plan: Conditioning work until practices begin Friday. Then eight practices over 15 days before players are released for a holiday break, then four more after that and before departing Jan. 2 for Florida. Most of the initial work will revolve around self-improvement and fundamentals, and the Alabama ramp-up begins in late December.
It is slow, slow going, which is why strength coach Paul Longo and his staff might never be more valuable, when facing an imperative they never have faced before.
“When you’re off for six weeks, it’s a real balance to maintain your edge,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “You get out of your routine.
“Not only do you get out of it, you have players who are going to travel around the country for their awards shows, the coaches are going to be traveling around for recruiting. A great strength coach and a great strength staff is a hidden secret for teams that have been able to go on, to take that six-week layoff and not miss a beat.”
Before practice begins Friday, Notre Dame will have had four scheduled weightlifting sessions since the Nov. 24 season-ending victory at USC, balancing the need to heal with the need to avoid dulled sensibilities.
“Even though we’re off, we’re still lifting, we’re still running, we’re still staying in shape,” linebacker Manti Te’o said. “We don’t have to be banging heads to keep our edges sharp.”
There will be some of that. Alabama coach Nick Saban deemed some of his first, forthcoming practices as “camp-like,” zeroed in on the basics while obviously including more physical drills than, say, a Week 10 workout.
Ultimately, no one is complaining. Which might be a less-discussed element to weathering 44 days of wait: It’s only numbing and interminable if players view it as numbing and interminable.
“It’s the national championship,” defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said. “I don’t care if you have to prepare two months for it. You’re playing for all the marbles.”