Rare is the boss who criticizes a brand new hire, if that boss exists at all. Thus, it comes as no surprise Irish coach Brian Kelly spent his Monday press conference praising his eight new hires—six assistant coaches and two strength and conditioning staffers—between acknowledgements of the program-wide missteps in 2016.
“Last year, certainly we didn’t live up to those expectations and that falls on me first and foremost,” Kelly said to the media in his first availability since the immediate aftermath of Notre Dame’s season-ending loss at USC in November. “We needed to make some significant changes, significant not just in terms of personnel, but in how we do things on a day-to-day basis, and it starts with me.”
Kelly focused on his two new coordinators, Chip Long on the offensive side and Mike Elko as his defensive counterpart. In something of a change from his preferred tendencies, Kelly intends to leave the play-calling to Long, largely so the head coach can be more involved on the defensive side of the ball, partly at his players’ behest.
“One of the first things that I did [after last season] was sit down and did exit interviews with 96 players, current players as well as players that were leaving,” he said. “I wanted to get their feedback on things that went on during the season, good and bad.
“One of the things that was pretty consistent across the board was that when I spent time on defense, our defensive personnel and players in particular really enjoyed having me part of that day-to-day schedule.”
When concerning himself with the particulars of play-calling and the minutiae of offensive gameplans, Kelly did not necessarily have the time to work with the defense. Removing some of the former burden should allow for greater emphasis on the latter task.
Knowing he wanted a play-caller as his offensive coordinator, Kelly focused on the fast-paced offenses of Long’s past. Though they were up-tempo, Kelly noted those offenses were still well-rounded.
“He was able to use the running game late in games,” Kelly said. “[Long] didn’t rely heavily on a passing game when he was forced to make up ground late in games. Utilized two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move toward with the great depth that we have at that position.”
Long’s offense maintained a greater pace partly because its communications are simpler than Notre Dame’s have been in recent years. While insisting the Irish playbook would not drastically change, Kelly did indicate the lexicon will.
“Within our offensive system, we want to run more plays. We can’t do it right now because of over a period of time, we’ve layered too much verbiage in the system to go as fast as we want across the board.”
Knowing he would work more with the defensive coordinator than he did in the past did not change Kelly’s top desire for the position. Quite simply, Kelly wants Elko to get the ball to Long.
“I was looking for something that would take the football away,” Kelly said. “Somebody that has had great success in doing so, as well as continued success as a coordinator.”
With both Elko and Long, as well as new director of football performance (otherwise known as the strength and conditioning coach) Matt Balis, Kelly praised University administration for aiding him in the hires. If nothing else, this is notable for the future, should Kelly ever want to bemoan a lack of support.
“We did our due diligence,” he said. “Got great support from [director of athletics] Jack Swarbrick, allowing us to go out and find the very best. We didn’t settle in any one of these three positions for anything but the best candidates in the country. I think that says a lot about who we have here in our administration and allowing us to go out and find the very best.”
Kelly and Swarbrick began the process of finding new coordinators immediately following the close of the 2016 season, though Kelly said they never discussed the fate of his own job.
“We didn’t discuss my job as much as we discussed a blueprint for what we needed to do to be successful … The great thing about Notre Dame is you’re not defined by what happened in the past. It’s about what you do in the future.”
At this point, Kelly’s future is staked to the success of his new hires. No wonder he praised them so extensively.
On new special teams coordinator Brian Polian:
“To have somebody with his experience, with his knowledge, with his background coaching our special teams and focusing primarily on that, without another position to pull his focus away…” Kelly said, never quite finishing that sentence but one presumes it included an implied positive ending.
“He’s also an outstanding recruiter,” Kelly said of Polian. “He’s able to recruit from coast-to-cast. We’ll feel his effects, I believe, right away, in the recruiting, and we hope to see that show itself here in the next 24 to 48 hours.
Exactly 43 hours from when Kelly’s press conference started, National Signing Day will begin, Wednesday at 7 a.m. Eastern time.
On having a former head coach on staff in Polian:
“The conversations are a little bit different sometimes. Just in recruiting, sometimes we talk about things that maybe haven’t necessarily crossed the desk of an assistant coach. Maybe fit over position skill, far-reaching effects more so than maybe immediate.”
On new quarterbacks coach, and former Irish quarterback, Tom(my) Rees:
“What I like to call him is our quarterbacks coach. For you guys that are counting, we have nine coaches, so he is officially in a graduate assistant’s role, but he is fully-empowered to coach [the quarterbacks]. He will have the room. He will coach those quarterbacks on a day-to-day basis, and I have great confidence in his ability to do so.”
Kelly later confirmed Rees will be Notre Dame’s 10th assistant coach should legislation allowing such pass in April as it is widely-presumed it will. Rees’s hiring was made with that understanding. When asked what slot he would have filled had the legislation not had such momentum, Kelly said Long would have coached the quarterbacks, and he still would have hired Polian as the special teams coordinator.