Brian Kelly

Kelly’s Coach of the Year award a validation of the process


As the only coach to finish college football’s regular season 12-0, the naming of Brian Kelly as the Home Depot Coach of the Year might have been a foregone conclusion. Yet when Kelly steps to the podium tonight in ESPN’s made for television award show, it’s a great validation of the process Kelly used to rebuild this football program, and the decision athletic director Jack Swarbrick made when he decided to bring the former Cincinnati coach to South Bend.

Kelly is the only coach to win the award twice, honored after his 2009 Bearcats finished their regular season 12-0. And while that team succeeded with an explosive, quick-strike offense, Kelly’s Irish squad reached college football’s summit by playing dominant defense as a first-year quarterback learned on the job.

With a third-year benchmark being a historical indicator for Irish head coaches, Kelly’s sparking 2012 season came as a surprise to many — including his athletic director — who candidly said after the team’s final victory that he thought 2013 would be the year. Yet Kelly’s progress, while seemingly incremental at best with back-to-back eight-win seasons, was being established off the field, through player development, weight room gains, and program building, things that seem like coach-speak when a team loses five games, but became a perfect alchemy this season. Kelly’s football team continued to improve throughout the year, fighting for wins as it learned about the perils of success along the way.

It may be too long ago for success-drunk Irish fans to remember, but August was a very different time for Notre Dame nation. While there was no sense of this inside the program, many fans had already begun to sour on a head coach who didn’t appear to bring many of the attributes that got him the job with him to South Bend.

Yet Kelly’s restructuring of his coaching staff — including the bold move of turning a defensive position coach into his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach — paid immediate dividends. Saying goodbye to respected coaches Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton, both of whom went to Ohio State to work with Urban Meyer, allowed Kelly to promote Scott Booker and bring in Harry Hiestand. With Booker, the staff added another hard-working young assistant, a coach already familiar with the team after spending two seasons as a graduate assistant. In Hiestand, Kelly brought in an old-school offensive line technician, a coach that would turn the Irish trenches into a game of physicality, immediately beloved by his players after not getting those results in his first two seasons.

But the biggest gamble Kelly made this season was doubling-down on himself. After spending two seasons demanding excellence from his players and riding them with a hard edge, the head of the Irish football program reconnected with his players, spending more time with them, breaking down the wall that had been erected as he put the ownership of the team back into the hands of its leaders.

With a strong group of veteran leadership, four captains led by the transcendent Manti Te’o, two years of results seen mostly off the field transitioned to remarkable success on the field.

For Kelly, the result is another large trophy that’ll impress recruits and find a spot in the trophy case inside the Gug. But for the Irish football program, it’s a validation of a coaching search that led to a choice that was disliked by many because it was so obvious.

And more important than anything, it’s the culmination of a terrific regular season, and Notre Dame’s first chance to play for a national title in over 20 years.

Even amidst chaos, Kelly expecting USC’s best

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rocky Hayes, Blaise Taylor

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired on Monday, with interim head coach Clay Helton taking the reins of the Trojan program during tumultuous times. Helton will be the fourth different USC head coach to face Notre Dame in as many years, illustrative of the chaos that’s shaken up Heritage Hall in the years since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.

All eyes are on the SC program, with heat on athletic director Pat Haden and the ensuing media circus that only Los Angeles can provide. But Brian Kelly doesn’t expect anything but their best when USC boards a plane to take on the Irish in South Bend.

While the majority of Notre Dame’s focus will be inward this week, Kelly did take the time on Sunday and Monday to talk with his team about the changes atop the Trojan program, and how they’ll likely impact the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.

“We talked about there would be an interim coach, and what that means,” Kelly said. “Teams come together under those circumstances and they’re going to play their very best. And I just reminded them of that.”

While nobody on this Notre Dame roster has experienced a coaching change, they’ve seen their share of scrutiny. The Irish managed to spring an upset not many saw coming against LSU last year in the Music City Bowl after a humiliating defeat against the Trojans and amidst the chaos of a quarterbacking controversy. And just last week, we saw Charlie Strong’s team spring an upset against arch rival Oklahoma when just about everybody left the Longhorns for dead.

“I think you look at the way Texas responded this past weekend with a lot of media scrutiny,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I expect USC to respond the same way, so we’re going to have to play extremely well.”

Outside of the head coaching departure, it’s difficult to know if there’ll be any significant difference between a team lead by Sarkisian or the one that Helton will lead into battle. The offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach has been at USC for six years, and has already held the title of interim head coach when he led the Trojans to a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl title after Lane Kiffin was fired and Ed Orgeron left the program after he wasn’t given the full time position.

Helton will likely call plays, a role he partially handled even when Sarkisian was on the sideline. The defense will still be run by Justin Wilcox. And more importantly, the game plan will be executed by a group of players that are among the most talented in the country.

“They have some of the finest athletes in the country. I’ve recruited a lot of them, and they have an immense amount of pride for their program and personal pride,” Kelly said. “So they will come out with that here at Notre Dame, there is no question about that.”

Irish add commitment from CB Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn

Notre Dame’s recruiting class grew on Monday. And in adding 6-foot-3 Memphis cornerback Donte Vaughn, it grew considerably.

The Irish added another jumbo-sized skill player in Vaughn, beating out a slew of SEC offers for the intriguing cover man. Vaughn picked Notre Dame over offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M among others.

He made the announcement on Monday, his 18th birthday:

It remains to be seen if Vaughn can run like a true cornerback. But his length certainly gives him a skill-set that doesn’t currently exist on the Notre Dame roster.

Interestingly enough, Vaughn’s commitment comes a cycle after Brian VanGorder made news by going after out-of-profile coverman Shaun Crawford, immediately offering the 5-foot-9 cornerback after taking over for Bob Diaco, who passed because of Crawford’s size. An ACL injury cut short Crawford’s freshman season before it got started, but not before Crawford already proved he’ll be a valuable piece of the Irish secondary for years to come.

Vaughn is another freaky athlete in a class that already features British Columbia’s Chase Claypool. With a safety depth chart that’s likely turning over quite a bit in the next two seasons, Vaughn can clearly shift over if that’s needed, though Notre Dame adding length like Vaughn clearly points to some of the shifting trends after Richard Sherman went from an average wide receiver to one of the best cornerbacks in football, and Vaughn will be asked to play on the outside.

Vaughn is the 15th member of Notre Dame’s 2016 signing class. He is the fifth defensive back, joining safeties D.J. Morgan, Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry along with cornerback Julian Love. The Irish project to take one more.

With Notre Dame expecting another huge recruiting weekend with USC coming to town, it’ll be very interesting to see how the Irish staff close out this recruiting class.