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Will Kelly's offense be his liability?

Dec 18, 2009, 7:30 AM EST

When Jack Swarbrick set out to search for Charlie Weis’ replacement, he hinted that the coach he was looking for would have — among other things — a strong defensive background.

I think we can all say that Brian Kelly’s defensive background wasn’t what got him the job at Notre Dame. You can even make the argument that what did get Kelly the job — his offensive acumen — could be one of his largest liabilities.

Kelly is the new coach at Notre Dame because Charlie Weis failed to post a winning season in his final three seasons. Yet for all Weis’ deficiencies as a head coach, he attracted elite offensive talent to Notre Dame. Those top skill players came to play for a coach that coordinated a Super Bowl winning offense, and gave offensive players the ability to showcase their skills playing in prototype NFL offense.

Many say what got Kelly the job at Notre Dame was his ability to win without elite players. Yet for Kelly to succeed at Notre Dame, he’ll not only have to adjust to playing a schedule without the likes of Southeast Missouri State or Eastern Kentucky on it, but also build a talent base that’s capable of beating BCS level teams from game one of the season.

For Kelly to do that, he’ll not only have to use the traditional selling points that bring recruits to Notre Dame, but also find something to replace the trump card Weis held with an NFL ready offense.

Kelly’s spread offense is prolific, but shares many of the same traits as the versions run by a handful of other coaches. Chris Brown, the proprietor of the website Smart Football and the writer of this detailed breakdown of Kelly’s offensive system, had this to say about Kelly’s fit at Notre Dame:

“This might be heresy, but schematically I don’t find Kelly that
interesting. Now he’s a spread guy (which plays to my preferences), and
he’s been doing it a long time (so he has a pedigree), but I think much
of the talk about Kelly as an “offensive genius” is misplaced. He runs
a very simple, and even at times simplistic, spread offense. That’s the
bad news.”

Simple isn’t bad. Brown goes on to compare Kelly to Lou Holtz, which is a career arc that I think many Irish fans would be happy with. What Weis’ five years in South Bend did was make people forget that Notre Dame struggled to play great offense in the years following Lou Holtz. Bob Davie had to fire Jim Colleto before finding an offensive identity with Kevin Rogers, and Ty Willingham struggled to do anything offensively with Bill Diedrick. Looking back at the modern era of Notre Dame football, you’d be hard pressed to say that Notre Dame ever won because of its offensive firepower. With Weis, he may not have won the way we thought he could, but it was the defensive deficiencies that cost him his job, not his ability to put up points.

When Weis and his staff went into the living rooms of Jimmy Clausen, Dayne Crist, and Michael Floyd, they left with signatures in large part because the recruits were convinced that Charlie Weis was the man that would prepare them best for the NFL. That advantage is gone with Brian Kelly’s offense, and in the years to come we’ll have to hear if Dayne Crist or the next Irish quarterback can successful adapt from the spread offense to a drop-back style system.

If we’ve learned anything about Brian Kelly, it’s that he’s won football games wherever he goes. And if he’s as good a coach as his record shows, he won’t need trump cards like Super Bowl rings to win.  Kelly himself has said that his Cincinnati team wasn’t built to beat BCS
caliber teams for 12 game seasons.

At Notre Dame, it’ll have to be, or
he’ll eventually find himself on a hot seat as well.

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