Notre Dame-USC: A low point in 2011, high point in 2012

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Notre Dame-USC: A low point in 2011, high point in 2012

If Notre Dame's loss to USC a year ago served as the low point of 2011, Brian Kelly's comments the week after were the exclamation point of that nadir. But Notre Dame's win over USC in 2012 brought them to a high point, only 13 months after some very public splintering.

"You can see the players that I recruited here," Kelly said in late October of last year. "You know who they are. We've had one class that I've had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along. But it's a process. It can't happen overnight. They're getting there. We're making good progress."

Notre Dame's upperclassmen -- who were recruited to the school by Charlie Weis -- took exception to the remarks, with Manti Te'o tweeting "playin for my bros and that's it!!!" A day after Kelly's comments, he cleared the air with his players from the previous regime, and all parties involved moved on.

And after Notre Dame's latest game against USC, the tone of the team was decidedly different.

"It was bumpy at first, but now it's great," Te'o said of his relationship with Kelly. "I'm happy to have him as my coach. He's the best coach in college football."

"I was just speechless, man," running back Theo Riddick, another Weis recruit, added. "I was just in shock. It was like a dream come true."

Thanks to efforts from both sides, Notre Dame players have bought into Kelly's system. For Kelly, he began the season by being more accessible to players.

"As you develop closer relationships with your players they starting to go, oh, I now know what you were talking about," Kelly said earlier in November. "I think we're at that point now."

Those bonds helped breed confidence within the program, which hadn't sniffed a somewhat realistic championship bid in a decade.

"I believed it was possible when we were working out in the offseason," senior safety Zeke Motta said after Saturday's win over USC. "I believed it then based off the way we competed every day and visualized our goal. And from then until now, it was always in our mind."

Perhaps the third-year-at-Notre-Dame trend isn't so random. Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won national championships in their third season in South Bend, and Kelly has a chance to join that group in early January. Implementing a system doesn't happen overnight, especially when so many key players weren't brought in by the new coaching staff.

Those bumps in the road are in the past. All that matters is what's in the future, and that's a date with Alabama or Georgia in the BCS Championship Jan. 7 in Miami.

"We believe in each other, our coaches believe in us and we believe in our coaches," Te'o said. "It's showed the type of camaraderie we have on our team. That's what's helped us be successful."

Programming note

On Saturday, Dec. 22, NBC will air "Undefeated: 2012 Notre Dame football season in review" at 1 p.m. CST, a behind-the-scenes look back at the program's first undefeated season in 24 years. It'll feature interviews with Kelly and Te'o and comes on the heels of the most-watched season of Notre Dame football on NBC since 2005.

Bears 'horizontal' leadership plan building on some surprising leaders

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Bears 'horizontal' leadership plan building on some surprising leaders

Sometimes you really do have to just appreciate the attitude. Because Bears coaches do, in ways of significance in what kind of team the 2016 Bears will become.

Ka’Deem Carey has been a backup his first two Bears seasons, yet now finds himself with more games played in a Bears uniform than any other Chicago running back. The 2014 fourth-round draft pick accordingly has set one very lofty 2016 objective for himself:

“Just being a leader, really trying to focus on that,” Carey said during the team’s OTA this week. “We’ve still got a young team, I’m vocal, coaches like the way I run the ball, and sometimes the way I play out there, the coaches like that and want to pass that on to teammates.

“So I’m just trying to be a leader to these young guys.”

Somehow the notion of a 23-year-old talking about setting an example for “these” young guys shouldn’t be dismissed. At all. Because Carey is representative of something developing within the current team.

Leadership is a popular, near-annual topic for Bears teams, no less so early this offseason as the 2016 team takes shape without 40 percent of its elected – and veteran – captains from the 2015 season.

Players elect five captains: two for offense, two defense and one special teams. Coach John Fox names a sixth captain each based on merit from the previous week.

The problem for the Bears is that two of the 2015 five elected captains – running back Matt Forte, safety Antrel Rolle – were not brought back by the organization this offseason. Veterans were added in free agency, but headcount does not translate into instant chemistry, cohesion or leadership.

That falls to a Carey to infuse. Elsewhere, guard Matt Slauson, a popular leader in the offensive-line room and huddle, was released, as was left tackle Jermon Bushrod. After just three NFL seasons, Kyle Long abruptly becomes the offensive lineman with more games in a Bears uniform than anyone else in the O-line room.

Indeed, longevity is no criterion whatsoever for a Bears “leadership” role. Teammates elected Pernell McPhee one of the defensive co-captains last year, his first as a Bear. And linebacker Danny Trevathan, brought in from Super Bowl champion Denver, could emerge as one in his first, using precisely the same calling card that McPhee did.

“I'm just going out there and being an example,” Trevathan said. “It's not hard, you know, I've just got to go out and play the game that I know how to play but also get guys to come along and speak and communicate and be on one page with these guys.”

The key is the “horizontal” leadership concept – leading not from a few at the top, but from multiple strong individuals in a leadership layer.

“Obviously missing Matt Slauson, missing guys like Slauson and Forte, there are large voids to be filled,” Long said. “But this team has been built on horizontal leadership and we’ve done a great job bringing in the right people, defensively, offensively and the special teams unit.

“I love the coaches, I love the guys on this team, I don’t think that will be an issue, so I don’t really have to take on that much bigger of a role because of the guys that we have in our room. Everybody is kind of accountable themselves.”

Melo Trimble will return to Terps for junior season

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Melo Trimble will return to Terps for junior season

Well, at least Mark Turgeon won't lose his entire starting lineup.

With four-fifths of Maryland's starting unit already off to the NBA in one fashion or another, Melo Trimble decided to return to the Terps for his junior season, opting to postpone his pro career for at least one more year.

"I am really excited to return for my junior season at Maryland," Trimble said in the team's announcement. "It’s truly special that I get to continue to play in front of my family, friends and our amazing fans. I’m looking forward to working out with my teammates this summer, and I am excited for what we can accomplish. I learned a great deal through this experience, and I am committed to working hard in getting better each day. I’m appreciative of all the support that I have received from coach Turgeon, my family and my teammates throughout this process. I look forward to continuing my education and building upon the success that we have had at Maryland."

Trimble waited an awful long time to make his decision on whether to withdraw from or remain in the NBA Draft, with news of the decision coming out just a couple hours before Wednesday night's deadline.

Trimble had a strong follow up to his sensational freshman season last year, improving as a distributor and as a defender despite a significant dropoff in his scoring and shooting numbers. But he still led the way for a star-studded Maryland team that advanced to the program's first Sweet Sixteen in 13 years.

After averaging 16.2 points per game, shooting 44 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from 3-point range and getting to the free-throw line nearly seven times a game as a freshman, Trimble averaged 14.8 points per game, shot just 41 percent from the field and 31.5 percent from 3-point range and averaged just better than five free throws a game as a sophomore. Still, he earned All-Big Ten First Team honors for the second straight season.

The expectations placed on him and his team were huge. Trimble was the conference preseason player of the year, and the Terps were tabbed as one of the favorites to win the national championship.

A return to school is not without its risks, as a further decline in Trimble's shooting numbers could prove costly for his draft stock. Plus, with many of the stars from last season's team gone, the Terps will enter the season with vastly different expectations, with many questioning whether they'll even make the NCAA tournament.

However, Trimble could be doing exactly what the new rules were designed to do: using better access to information to make the best decision. If NBA teams truly believe he's not ready for the pros, continuing to develop at the college level makes a heck of a lot of sense. Plus, while his stock was high after that freshman season, it no doubt took a hit after his sophomore season and could rocket back up with another big year as a junior.

Plus, Trimble's return means Turgeon doesn't have to go into full-tilt rebuild mode a season removed from one with championship expectations.

"Melo informed me (Wednesday) night that he has decided to return to Maryland for his junior season," Turgeon said. "After gathering information throughout this process, I agree that this is the best decision for him. Melo is a very special person. He is a winner, and his impact on our program has been immeasurable. Melo has an extremely bright future ahead of him both on and off the basketball court. We are excited that he will continue to pursue his degree and build upon his legacy in College Park."

Fire hoping to build on Houston win

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Fire hoping to build on Houston win

The Chicago Fire slogged through the first third of the season with just two wins, but the 1-0 win against Houston on Saturday offered some hope.

That hope comes not just in the result, but in the way the Fire played.

The 20 shots was the most for the Fire this season and the seven on target was second to only the season opener. It was probably the Fire's best performance of the season when adding in the solid defensive performance that was absent back on March 6.

There are still things that the Fire need to improve on though. The Fire probably should have converted more of those chances and the Dynamo had 62.9 percent of the possession.

“I’m absolutely sure that at some point of the season all the pieces will come together," coach Veljko Paunovic said during Tuesday's conference call with media. "We will start performing much better and we will have more offensive outcome and obviously we have to keep our defensive good performance."

So now that the Fire had a decent performance and result, the question becomes can the team build on it?

“I think we have to build on this win," goalkeeper Sean Johnson said after the game. "I think any type of positivity in this time you have to grab and you have to run with it."

It must be said that Houston is down near the bottom of the league's standings and the Dynamo are now 0-6 on the road. With that in mind, beating Houston should have been more of an expectation, but if it gives a confidence boost to the Fire that may be all that matters.

It won't be as easy against Portland, the defending MLS Cup champions. However, a win against the Timbers would start to make the MLS standings less cringe-worthy for Fire fans ahead of the Copa America break.

"We believe that winning the game against Houston will help us to come to this game with more confidence, better prepared and that’s something that we have to work on this week," Paunovic said. "We believe that actually it’s a great moment for us to finish the first part of the season winning against a very good team, at least have a very good performance.”

On the injury front, Paunovic said that David Accam is still at full strength and ready to return after being suspended for the Houston match. Gilberto is still nursing a minor hamstring injury, but has been training with the team. Michael Harrington and Collin Fernandez are nearing returns, but may still be out Saturday. John Goossens will be out Saturday, but Paunovic said he expects him to be back after the break.