Brian Kelly podium

Kelly’s recruiting reputation continues to rise


When Notre Dame turned to Brian Kelly after another disappointing season in 2009, many wondered whether or not he was going to be able to make it on the recruiting trail. Cutting his teeth at Grand Valley State, then spending stints at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, moving to Notre Dame was a big step forward. And for Kelly and his staff — a group that was largely coaching on college football’s biggest stage for the first time — there was real concern whether this coaching staff could battle with the biggest names in college football to get elite talent to come to South Bend.

That answer has been rather obvious the past three years. After filling out a recruiting class built by Charlie Weis and his staff, Kelly’s 2011 class included elite defensive prospects Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch, and Ishaq Williams, all recruits that needed major work in the final days of their recruitment.

Last season, Kelly plucked five-star quarterback Gunner Kiel out from under LSU’s nose while also bringing in high profile players like Sheldon Day, Davonte Neal, Elijah Shumate, and KeiVarae Russell, who walked onto campus and started at cornerback from day one.

After recruiting prospects to Notre Dame after two eight-win seasons, Kelly and his staff have put together a banner class, with a handful of names still in play in the final days before faxes begin arriving.

With the Irish in the running to have the nation’s top recruiting class, ESPN’s Travis Haney took notice, including Brian Kelly among his top ten recruiting head coaches.

Here’s his list:

1. Nick Saban, Alabama
2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
T3. Art Briles & Kevin Sumlin, Baylor & Texas A&M
5. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
6. James Franklin, Vanderbilt
7. Will Muschamp, Florida
8. Lane Kiffin, USC
9. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
10. David Shaw, Stanford

Here’s what Haney had to say about Kelly:

Kelly is pure polish, illustrative perhaps of his brief run at politics before settling on a career as a football coach. Kelly cut his teeth at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati before landing at Notre Dame, which is to say he had some time to ready himself for the particular demands of that highly visible job. (Not that anything could have prepared him for something like the Manti Te’o saga.)

But Kelly sure does not seem to represent the sometimes phony side of politics. Kelly has the ability to personally connect with recruits and their families and coaches. All of a sudden, high-end prospects — those who can get in, anyway — are again interested in Notre Dame.

To get the surge, Kelly partly used a message that sometimes pops up in recruiting: “Come help us win again.” And it’s working, as evidenced by more than just the BCS title game appearance. The Irish currently have the third-ranked recruiting class, behind only Florida and Alabama.

It’s interesting to look at this list from the viewpoint of perception. A majority of this group is known primarily for their recruiting acumen. It’s hard to find an article on guys like Swinney and Franklin that doesn’t mention their ability to charm recruits. When you read about Kiffin, the negative press that plagues him (much of which was his own doing), is almost rationalized with his ability to connect with young players.

Urban Meyer and Nick Saban have practically built their myth around their relentless nature — recruiting just as hard as they do everything else, with Meyer’s one-year sabbatical from the sport a product of simply trying too hard. A similar story is in its infancy for Muschamp.

Sure, Haney’s decription of what makes Kelly a great recruiter toes a familiar line. For a guy that spent a post-college year working for a political campaign as he figured out what he was going to do with his life, you half expect Kelly to have been Ryan Gosling from The Ides of March. But it’s got to be reassuring for Irish fans that Kelly has excelled so quickly on the recruiting trail.

As a coach that was hired for his ability to build a program and for his knowledge of Xs and Os, the fact that he finds himself on a list like this after just three seasons at Notre Dame — and only one where the Irish have had any sort of success — is a great sign of things to come.


Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”