Five things we'll learn: Keys to the Irish season


In the nine months that have passed since the Notre Dame Fighting Irish last played a meaningful football game, Irish fans have done a lot of heavy thinking.

They just watched one of their own fail. A coach that dazzled the Irish faithful with his Super Bowl wins and unprecedented offensive fireworks. He found early success with recruits from a regime long thought mediocre at procuring high-level talent, but then failed when he brought in his own players, blue-chippers that competed annually for mythical national recruiting titles.

This one stung. Notre Dame Nation had just done all it could to get the last guy run out of town after three years. Even he started with a bang, riding an opportunistic defense and a recharged fanbase to a top-five ranking and eight consecutive wins to start his tenure, the Coach of the Year trophies and Sports Illustrated covers now sit covered in dust next to an old set of golf clubs.

(Let’s not even get into the guy before him. He never made it to his first practice, learning first-hand that while Student Affairs may be tough on students who are caught turning in a paper that’s less than truthful, the administration has even less leeway for coaches that may play a little loose with their CV.)

And so Irish fans sit, 13 years since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines, having played in only eight bowl games and three BCS bowls, walking away with a lone victory against Hawaii on Christmas Eve, 2008. It’s been 17 years since Irish fans could even complain about getting truly worked over, when the Irish beat the eventual national champs head-to-head in November. (But even then they had themselves to blame after giving away the title to Boston College a week after ascending to No. 1.)

Fast forward to today. The New Guy. Brian Kelly. Named head coach of the Irish on Dec. 10, he’s gone undefeated since then, navigating effortlessly through the media obligations, his first recruiting class, some 180 speaking engagements, fifteen spring practices, and his first fall camp. He’s everything the last few guys haven’t been. Unfortunately, on Saturday against Purdue, there’s a good chance he could turn into the rest of them.

He’ll actually have to coach a game.

Heading into Saturday’s season opener against the visiting Boilermakers on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, here’s five things we’ll learn about the Irish, Kelly, and the state of Notre Dame football:

1. Brian Kelly has the experience needed to succeed at Notre Dame.

As we’ve learned from the Charlie Weis and Tryone Willingham, starting fast doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on the road to greatness. Nor does starting slow — Lou Holtz was only 13-10 after two seasons, including a 5-6 season that matched the final year of Gerry Faust. But Holtz had the experience needed to succeed at Notre Dame, he had already made stops at major college programs like Arkansas and Minnesota. In the last 50 years, the only Notre Dame head coaches to have had multiple D-I jobs are Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz. All three won national championships.

Kelly himself conceded he wouldn’t be ready if Notre Dame was his first stop.

“I could not do it. I could not do it. I learn something every day,” Kelly said last week. “I learn about press conferences and what I should say and what I shouldn’t say. It’s a learning experience. To have 20 years just to be able to function, I could not have done the job without that experience.”

One final tidbit that should have Irish fans feeling confident: Kelly’s 23-3 mark in the last two seasons at Cincinnati is the best two-year run by an incoming head coach since Frank Leahy came from Boston College in 1941.

None of this guarantees he’ll wake up the echoes, but at the very least he’ll know what to do if he finds them.

2. The defense will determine whether the Irish make a BCS run.

Charlie Weis likely sealed his own fate when he replaced Corwin Brown’s 3-4 system with the blitzing attack of Jon Tenuta. While Brown’s troops only played average football, under Tenuta the defense fell apart, giving up back-breaking big plays and blowing critical assignments.

Now defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is tasked with turning a defense returning most of the same players into an outfit worthy of its rallying cry: B.I.A. Best in America.  The talent is there to back up the seemingly preposterous statement. Notre Dame’s two-deep depth chart is littered with top-notch talent, every bit as strong as the units at Alabama, TCU or Texas.

Nearly every player in the depth chart was a four-star recruit, and as the Wall Street Journal pointed out last week, Notre Dame’s projected starters have the third-highest recruiting rankings in the country, trailing only USC and Florida. Better yet, most were recruited to play in the same 3-4 scheme that Diaco employs. Part of the offseason was spent rebuilding the psyches of some players that were left gun-shy after a terrible season. If Diaco can turn this group of talented players around, expect him to be running his own program soon.

3. The Notre Dame offense depends on the health of Dayne Crist.

While the “Next Man In” philosophy is a key tenet of Brian Kelly’s belief system, the head coach is tweaking his rules when it comes to starting quarterback Dayne Crist. While Crist has only thrown 20 passes in his college career, behind him the Irish are looking at true freshman Tommy Rees and former walk-on quarterback Nate Montana. With Crist only 10 months removed from a torn ACL, Kelly is playing a delicate balancing act with his junior quarterback.

“Dayne Crist is a guy who is going to have to use all of his tools,” Kelly said. “He’s a pretty good athlete. He can run as well and he can extend plays. He’s going to get hit out there. But we’re not going to put him in a position where we get running hits on our quarterback. That’s just not smart.”

The physical ability of Crist has never been questioned, and nobody inside the program would be surprised if he leaves Notre Dame drafted higher than Jimmy Clausen. But for Notre Dame to win now, they’ll need to keep the quarterback healthy.

4. If the offensive line can hold up, Notre Dame will dominate with its running game.

Many assumed the implementation of the spread offense meant throwing the ball a majority of the time. But if you look back at the history of Brian Kelly’s offense, you’ll see that he’s kept a run-pass balance that purists would find refreshing. At Central Michigan, Kelly ran the ball nearly 53-percent of the time. At Cincinnati, that number was 48-percent.  

“It’s a misnomer that with the spread you’re going to throw the ball every down,” offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said. “If we can get the defense in the looks where we like to run the football, where they’re really trying to play coverage, we’ll create running lanes for our running backs that would be no different than what you would get in a conventional offense.”

More importantly, the Irish will depend on the run to keep its relatively youthful offensive line protected, leaning on the zone running system that Kelly and Molnar have utilized as well as the expertise of line coach Ed Warinner to protect Zack Martin and Taylor Dever, two tackles starting their first games on Saturday.

Armando Allen, Cierre Wood, Robert Hughes and Jonas Gray are the most talented backfield the Irish have had since the Holtz era. The Notre Dame rushing attack took a backseat during the Charlie Weis era, as the team’s finesse style struggled to create an even average ground attack. Expect that to change under Kelly, where explosive running plays from the spread could bring back memories of Reggie Brooks and Tony Rice breaking free in the second

5. The i
dentity of Notre Dame football has changed for the better.

Even if the 2010 season doesn’t go as well as many Irish fans hope, there’s still plenty of reason to believe that the Irish football program has changed for the better. New strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo has implemented a program that made incredible gains to a roster that consistently faltered in November. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick worked with Kelly to institute a training table, catching the Irish up in a dietary arms race that Notre Dame has been lagging behind in for years. And Kelly re-energized the Notre Dame community, meeting with professors, deans, and students in ways that Charlie Weis never made time to do. Kelly didn’t need to make 180 stops in 180 days this offseason, but he understands better than any coach that’s been at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz that being an ambassador at award dinners, fund-raisers and golf outings is part of the job as well.

While Weis touted a schematic advantage, Kelly might also better him on the field immediately by installing a frenetically-paced, no-huddle spread attack that will wear down teams with their conditioning and precision. While Weis reveled in outsmarting his opponents, Kelly plans on out-hustling his opponents with smart players, a change that could pay immediate dividends.

The days of Brian Kelly being perfect end this Saturday. But even if he’ll never be, Notre Dame fans can at least find hope in the new beginning.

Kelly stays in the moment

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Coming off a bye week, you could excuse Brian Kelly if he started looking ahead. To his impending hire at defensive coordinator, or his shifting focus to a recruiting class that suffered its first defection since Blake Barnett bolted for Alabama.

But the seventh-year head coach has his hands full fixing his current predicament, leaving any planning beyond Miami to the weeks after the regular season.

“My time is spent on the present right now. I don’t look too far ahead,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I think I’ve stayed with very similar thoughts about not mortgaging the future, not dwelling too much on the past, but living in the present right now.”

That commitment to right now hasn’t translated into wins yet. But it’s the best way to beat Miami, a talented football team with what might be the best quarterback the Irish will face, coming in on a three-game losing streak.

So while Irish fans wonder how this team will find a way to straighten out and win four of their next five to qualify for a bowl game, Kelly talked about the internal motivation this team has, playing for each other more than any postseason bonus.

“All these kids, they come to Notre Dame because they want to be challenged,” Kelly said. “They have incredible intrinsic motivation every day to get up, to go to class, to want to succeed. It’s why they come here. There’s an immense amount of pride. They want to freakin’ win. They want to win. They really don’t care whether they get a Visa gift card in the bowl game.

“They want to practice more. They want to be with their teammates. They want to be with their guys. They want to win football games. They want to be successful in the classroom. They want to be successful on the football field. That’s why they came here. That’s why I’m here. That’s all we talk about. That’s all we do every day, is think about how we can be more successful.”

Mailbag: The head coach, Malik and the running game

Notre Dame offensive line

bearcatboy:  The “fire coach Kelly” thing is getting a bit over-blown, particularly in the twitter-verse (ad nauseum). I hate asking this question (I think its reached the point where it’s warranted), but as a rational person, what has Kelly done to make you truly believe he can win a title, or even big games for that matter, at ND?

Consider this an answer to the roughly 40 different posts asking the same question. So apologies if this gets a little meandering.

The big thing for me—and something that most people calling for change are doing their best to ignore—is that Brian Kelly already got his team to one title game. If you’re trying to run him out of town based on this season, you can’t ignore that season. This isn’t figure skating, where you throw out the high score but not the low.

Ultimately, my biggest reason for sticking with the status quo, is that it’s hard to win. Period. And it’s really hard to win at Notre Dame. Besides that, all coaches, at least when they’re under your microscope, are going to have flaws that drive you nuts.

Let’s go through the wish list of Notre Dame coaches: Urban Meyer just lost to a 20-point underdog this weekend, and he’s still one of the game’s two best coaches. Dream candidate Tom Herman lost to Navy and just got blown out by SMU, another huge underdog.

You want someone who has some tenure? Well, former Irish assistant Dan Mullen lost a few terrible games this year that are head-scratchers and Dak Prescott is getting smaller in the rearview mirror. David Shaw’s team is losing. Mark Dantonio’s team is losing. Dave Doeren’s team is losing. Jim Mora’s team is losing.

This isn’t the old college football. This isn’t even Lou Holtz’s college football. It’s a hyper-competitive industry, and while there are a few institutional advantages that Notre Dame still certainly has, there are quite a few negatives that are truly barriers to winning.

We’ve watched Kelly and Jack Swarbrick attack some of the major ones—and Kelly has it better than Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis when it comes to others. But certain things—academics, the way the university handles  student life, fifth-years and redshirts—they might not ever change.

Ultimately, I don’t know if Notre Dame can compete with Alabama—if that’s the standard you want to set. But then again the Crimson Tide had a star defender arrested for drugs and guns on a Thursday and he played on Saturday. Max Redfield is looking for a place to finish up his degree.

I think Brian Kelly’s a good football coach having a really tough season. Can he bring Notre Dame to the promise land? Not sure.

But he had them within 60 minutes once and last year had a roster that was ravaged by injury and had his team within a field goal of probably getting an invite to the playoff. So I’m not rolling the dice yet, and wouldn’t unless the change is a clear upgrade. And I’m not sure who that’d be.


blackirish23: Malik Zaire has been less than impressive when given the opportunity. Do you think Malik’s heart just isn’t in being a back-up QB and thus has lost a bit of his passion for the game which affects his play when given the opportunity?

If somehow Kizer decides to return to ND next season, should the coaching staff discuss a position switch with Malik similar to what happened with Carlyle Holiday and Arnaz Battle (and even Braxton Miller at Ohio State)? If so, what position would Malik be best suited to switch to?

Thanks for the question, it’s certainly not the first time someone has wondered how to utilize Malik if it isn’t at quarterback. To address that point first, Malik isn’t Arnaz or Carlyle, and he certainly isn’t Braxton Miller. Those guys have the speed to be NFL receivers, something Malik doesn’t possess. Does that make him a tight end? H-Back? Running back? Probably not one who is good enough to get onto the field for the Irish.

As for his heart, I don’t think that’s something I can speak to with any certainty, though I do think he’s pressing. Give a guy known for “making plays when things break down” a limited amount of reps and it’s human nature to press. That explains to me why he’s breaking out of the pocket and scrambling when the initial look isn’t there. Or trying to juke a defender and make a play instead of throwing the ball away on a reverse.

Lastly, if Kizer stays-or-goes, I think Zaire would owe it to himself to look around and check out his options after he earns his degree. A graduate transfer might be the best thing for his football career if he wants to be a starter. Because Brandon Wimbush is a very talented quarterback with an elite set of skills and there’s no telling if Zaire will beat him out for the job next year, let alone Kizer.


ndgoz: ND has consistently been producing high-level NFL draft picks on the O-line. The running game is predominantly zone read plays, which rely on isolating and attempting to deceive a defender. If ND has the quality offensive line that the NFL draft suggests, why doesn’t ND put more emphasis on a power running game?

If you have more size and skill than your opponent, you don’t need to trick them – just overpower them. You can still take advantage of the QB running ability with bootlegs and rollouts to keep the defense honest.

I’m not the guy to go to if you’re looking for astute offensive line breakdowns. For a while, I think there was some validity to the criticism that Notre Dame’s ground game was a bit too vanilla. Inside zone, outside zone, repeat.

But I don’t think the zone read game is as simple as you make it out to be. Deception is a piece of it, but there’s plenty of physicality and winning at the point of attack, something we just haven’t seen that much of this year.

Kelly’s running game looked great last year, a big-play machine with a talented offensive line.  No, they weren’t a lock to convert every short-yardage attempt, but then again—Alabama isn’t either. And with CJ Prosise and Josh Adams and a very nice offensive front, these guys were hitting home runs.

The zone read can drive certain fans nuts. But asking why Kelly doesn’t put more of an emphasis on the power running game kind of ignores the fact that he’s not running that system. So when you say that the offense could get production from DeShone Kizer on bootlegs and rollouts, I think you’re discounting just how impactful Kizer has been as a runner these past two season. He’s run for 17 touchdowns in the 19 games he’s played since Virginia last year and he’s on pace for double-digit touchdowns again this season.

We’ve seen Kelly and Harry Hiestand do things to help get the ground game going—pistol, pulls, traps, and a few other wrinkles. But a lot of the issue is breaking in four starters at new positions with only Quenton Nelson in the same position as last year. This group will gel. But it might be a while before they can just go out and dictate terms.



How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here: