Will Kelly's offense be his liability?

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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.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”