- Associated Press - Friday, November 5, 2010

SOUTH BEND, IND. (AP) - Autumn leaves dot the campus at Notre Dame where a lot more than the seasons have changed since football camp kicked off in the sweltering heat three months ago.

The optimism and promise of Brian Kelly’s first year as coach are gone and football has been a secondary concern for the past 10 days.

The death of 20-year-old Declan Sullivan, a student videographer who was killed when the tower he was in toppled over while he was filming practice on a windy afternoon, has overshadowed the struggles of an injury-riddled Irish team that’s just 4-5 with three games left.

Kelly has called this the most difficult time of his life and acknowledged that as a parent himself, he couldn’t imagine the pain Sullivan’s parents are enduring. He also took responsibility for holding practice outdoors that day, saying he felt at the time his team could get in safe and productive work.

“It’s been a tough 10 days. I’ve needed the strength of our team, my family and everybody,” Kelly said. “But we’ll get through it. Adversity strikes and you got to be able to lead during adversity, as well.”

Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins voiced support for Kelly on Friday when he sent an e-mail message to students, faculty, staff and alumni saying that the school is responsible for Sullivan’s death because it failed to protect him.

“Coach Kelly was hired not only because of his football expertise, but because we believed his character and values accord with the highest standards of Notre Dame. All we have seen since he came to Notre Dame, and everything we have learned in our investigation to date, have confirmed that belief,” Jenkins said. “For those reasons, I am confident that Coach Kelly has a bright future leading our football program.”

Kelly’s plan when he came to South Bend was to implement his spread offense, get the Irish moving in a hurry every time they stepped on the field and win immediately. He wasn’t interested, he said, in a transition year.

But that instant success has not happened.

The Irish’s play has been solid at times, spotty at others, and the team has been ravaged by injuries to key players. Quarterback Dayne Crist (patellar tendon), top tight end Kyle Rudolph (hamstring) and leading rusher Armando Allen (hip) have all been lost for the season. Nose guard Ian Williams, the anchor of the defensive line, is likely not to return because of a knee injury and talented slot receiver Theo Riddick has been out the last two games with an ankle sprain.

Star wide receiver Michael Floyd and numerous others have also been slowed by hamstring problems.

“There are a lot of areas where we are going to closely examine at the end of the season so we can come up with some answers, instead of saying, ‘You know what? Just bad luck this year.’ That just doesn’t cut it,” Kelly said. “We’re going to have to look at all of the things that can cut back on the number of injuries we had.”

Notre Dame’s defense, led by talented linebacker Manti Te’o, has struggled at times, especially against Navy’s triple option when the Midshipmen seemed to run up the middle at will. There have been heartbreaking losses in the final seconds to Michigan and Michigan State (on a fake field goal in overtime) and, shockingly, at home to Tulsa.

Kelly’s on-field decision making was questioned in the one-point loss when freshman backup Tommy Rees had a pass intercepted in the closing seconds when the Irish were in field goal range to win the game.

“You don’t feel good about losing football games. That’s the thing that eats at you because you put too much into this,” Kelly said.

With this weekend off, the Irish have time to regroup before hosting No. 6 Utah on Nov. 13, their final home game of the year. Then come games against Army at Yankee Stadium and Southern Cal on the road.

Getting to a bowl game that Kelly made a goal will be difficult.

Getting on the field for some practice gave the Irish some relief and a brief time to get away from the events of the last week.

“Our kids really know the work they are doing is going to pay off for them,” Kelly said. “In a sense we can go out and practice and focus on football. The other time of the day it’s classes and academics and being a student and then there is probably a portion of that that mentally they are still trying to sort everything out, too.”

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