“What you say you are is your philosophy. What we see on film is your identity.”
Noted philosopher Charlie Weis snatched that quote from the great Bill Parcels, introducing it to Notre Dame fans early in his tenure as head coach. It’s a lesson taught often in football, one that can determine the difference between a good football team and a great one. It’s also a lesson that applies to Brian Kelly’s 2014 squad.
After watching Notre Dame’s football program backslide throughout a truly Weisian November, the Irish sit at 7-5 at the end of the regular season, a disappointing finish to a season that started with great expectations and a 6-0 start.
Now the philosophy/identity conundrum needs applying to Kelly and his football program, a group that suffered a late-season identity crisis that not many saw coming.
After dominating November as a head coach, Kelly watched his Irish close the season with four-straight losses, including last weekend’s 35-point pasting by rival USC. A decimated defense, a schizophrenic offense and putrid special teams all disappointed this team down the stretch, a full-scale meltdown that demands total inspection.
Explaining away a lost season by solely blaming things on injuries only scratches the surface of the Irish’s problems. As Notre Dame enters a critical period in the program — the bowl preparation period that should jump-start the 2015 team before spring practice — let’s take a look at the key issues that face Kelly and the Irish as his fifth season atop the program comes to a close.
What Should Notre Dame’s Defense Look Like?
The defense the Irish ran out against USC wasn’t the group Kelly and Brian VanGorder wanted to play. It was all they had left.
Saturday’s group included underclassmen at nearly every spot in the lineup, supplemented only by veteran journeymen that for better or worse should be buried on a talented depth chart.
While starters like Isaac Rochell, James Onwualu, Cole Luke and Max Redfield took the field to start the game, the true sophomores — nearly all playing in their first season of significant action — were never supposed to be the foundation of a unit. But injuries changed the admittedly already thin personnel, leaving the Irish severely undermanned.
At its best, the Irish defense played very good football. Shutting out Michigan for the first time in the program’s history and holding Stanford to 14 points are examples of that. Down teams or not, that’s solid football. But as the book was being written (and game tape being produced) about Notre Dame’s attacking, multiple defense, the Irish coaching staff just wasn’t able to counter as team’s shifted their game plan.
North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora was the first to expose the Irish’s deficiencies against an up-tempo attack. Scoring 43 points and racking up 516 yards of total offense, the Tar Heels did so against a defense that was still essentially full strength.
During Notre Dame’s bye week, VanGorder spoke with the local media. When asked about the 43 points the Irish gave up against Fedora’s up-tempo defense, he blamed himself.
“I just didn’t do a good job. We got a lot of packages and can play a lot of players in different ways and schemes, and that wasn’t the game really to do that,” VanGorder conceded.
He also acknowledged a key factor that essentially contributed to the demise of this Irish defense. A system that relies heavily on scheme has a natural enemy in an up-tempo attack, because it forces simplicity to govern your decisions.
“That’s what defensive coaches don’t like. It takes some of the football away from us, takes your inventory and shrinks it, shrinks it way down,” VanGorder said. “Unfortunately, it just removes some of the strategies of the game.”
Those strategies made Notre Dame an incredibly efficient team on third down early in the season, even without natural pass rushers on the field. The Irish thrived in their “sub-packages,” a buzz word that spread in the early season narrative of this team. Those sub-packages were a credit to VanGorder, a new defensive coordinator that allowed young players to get on the field early and do what they did best.
Unfortunately, those packages also masked some of the deficiencies many had expected to see from the start. Deficiencies that came from starting two new defensive ends, both converted outside linebackers. At linebacker, a converted wide receiver was starting in his first game on that side of the ball, while an injured middle linebacker forced a first-year starter and contributor into the fray.
Pair that group with a secondary playing a man-heavy scheme that lost its best player to suspension. A unit that was counting on first-year starters at safety and cornerback was stripped to its bones, the foundation of this defense always one or two bad breaks away from being in a really dangerous spot — a reality Brian Kelly acknowledged from the start.
We saw that danger expose itself in all its ugliness down the stretch. The loss of Joe Schmidt robbed the Irish of its nerve center — not to mention a very productive linebacker. Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones took away the only position group operating with elite BCS-level personnel. Forced to play somebody who knew the ins and outs of the defense, Austin Collinsworth strapped on a harness and battled through knee and shoulder injuries to try and bring a pre-snap consistency into the huddle. It didn’t help.
All of this is a long way to cut to the true issue: At its core, what does this defense want to be?
Under Bob Diaco, the Irish had a system and a philosophy. Sure, it gave away little victories, like underneath throws. Yes, it played vanilla and didn’t do a good job of building pressure schemes. But Diaco did that because he thought it was the best way to win the war.
Diaco’s wasn’t the most youth-friendly system, either. The UConn head coach famously kept Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch on the bench as healthy scratches against Denard Robinson in 2010, unwilling to trust either freshman to play assignment-correct football. The Irish were carved up by the Michigan quarterback anyway.
With their depth pillaged, VanGorder and Kelly searched for defensive answers in November. They found none. Personnel was a steep challenge. So was football IQ, an issue that comes with playing freshman, but also happens when you players are learning a scheme devised in the NFL under mad scientists like Rex Ryan.
When things are going good, “NFL scheme” is music to the ears of fans and recruits. It’s also something that players relish — understandably proud of their installation and achievement in a system that draws from football played at its highest level.
But when things are like they’ve been this past month? It’s a four-alarm fire, with the Irish unable to stop the run, cover the pass, avoid the home run or the first-round knockout.
How did USC beat the Irish? Essentially any way they wanted to.
It wasn’t only USC’s skill talent that made the undermanned Irish look silly. It was Northwestern’s, who utilized an up-tempo attack to turn one of the least explosive offenses in the country into a group that scored 43 points against the Irish.
That gets to the point of building a defense. And likely one of the largest lessons VanGorder learned in his return to college football.
“I think the biggest adjustment is how many times a college player has to see something before he solves a problem,” VanGorder said back in October. “And then once he solves it, the ability to recall and not allow it to happen again is difficult.
“They’re so young, and the defense from the last few years they were involved in to this one is so different that they will make the same mistake over and over.”
We saw those mistakes happen. Over and over.
Not just the mistakes that come with freshmen like Nyles Morgan learning on the fly, but in the secondary, where Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield are battling to unlearn some lessons as they try and learn and play better football in their current system.
Nearly every piece of this defense returns next season. That’ll include KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams, who should both be back on campus this summer.
But as VanGorder, Kelly and the defensive staff look back on a season filled with peaks and valleys, they’d be wise to strip away the frills and focus on their foundation first.
Is Brian Kelly’s Preferred Offense the Right One for Brian Kelly’s Football Team?
As season five comes to a close, Brian Kelly’s preferred offensive system demands inspection. Brought to South Bend as one of the premiere offensive innovators in college football, the transition to Kelly’s aggressive, pass-heavy, spread attack hasn’t always been easy.
Most difficult has been finding the right fit at quarterback. Neither Dayne Crist nor Tommy Rees were natural fits. Then again, neither were Andrew Hendrix, Luke Massa or Gunner Kiel, either.
But Everett Golson’s struggles down the stretch should force Kelly to re-examine what it is he wants to accomplish with his offense. Not just through the prism of personnel or playcalling, but as a head coach, and ultimately as a vehicle to victory.
Golson’s turnover struggles can’t just be pinned on the quarterback. They should also fall on the coach calling the plays.
Right now, Notre Dame’s two most explosive offenses under Brian Kelly took place in 2011 and 2014. And both of those teams were held back by quarterbacks who turned the football over too many times.
For the longest time, the dog to kick was then second-year quarterback Tommy Rees. Whether it was lack of arm strength or athleticism, Rees’ shortcomings are well chronicled.
But Golson has none of those deficiencies. He has the arm to make any throw. The legs to escape trouble and run the zone read. But the 22 turnovers committed over the past nine games makes winning impossible, especially without a defense to bail you out.
Critiquing playcalling is the worst form of fan or media criticism. Analyzing red zone playcalling or offensive game planning — the second item a clear strength for Kelly as a head coach in every season up until now — is an exercise that’s difficult to do without the entire picture.
But if there’s something telling about multiple jet sweeps at the goal line or an over-reliance on the passing game, it’s that Kelly never developed trust in his offensive line when it was time to score touchdowns.
(That’s been obvious just about every time the Irish ran a QB draw inside the 10-yard line.)
Is the problem Everett Golson or Brian Kelly? Maybe it’s a system putting too much onto the shoulders of a quarterback?
Second-year quarterbacks make mistakes. Jimmy Clausen threw 17 interceptions as a sophomore. Brady Quinn completed just 54 percent of his throws. Outside the ND sphere, second-year player Jameis Winston has thrown 17 interceptions this season, a year after winning the Heisman with a sparkling 40:10 TD:INT ratio. A little bit of knowlege can be a dangerous thing.
With Golson the redshirt freshman, Kelly and then offensive coordinator Chuck Martin manufactured an undefeated regular season, leaning on the back of a stalwart defense and play-calling a run heavy, risk averse game. They were unwilling to let an offense beat itself after just living through it. That shows a head coach far more flexible and willing than his critics attest.
That discipline will need to be utilized in 2015. Whether it’s a reformed Golson or the upstart Malik Zaire, the formula for offensive success needs to be examined. The Irish receiving corps returns completely. The offensive line brings back four of five starters, with Christian Lombard swapped out for Mike McGlinchey in the second half, a kickstart to the future at right tackle.
With Tarean Folston set to emerge as a star and Greg Bryant a wonderful 1A, the running game can drive this offense if the head coach will let it. That also means the quarterback being a legitimate option, whether it be Golson (still the odds on favorite) or Zaire, a much better natural ball carrier.
But Kelly may need to once again recalibrate his approach to winning football games.
Does Notre Dame’s Coaching Staff Need a Change?
Brian Kelly has shown loyalty to his assistants. He’s also shown the ability to make changes, with the outside additions of Harry Hiestand and Bobby Elliott and the daring move of handing Chuck Martin the keys to the offense, spurring the success of 2012. (Scott Booker was also promoted from the GA ranks to take over as tight ends coach and special teams coordinator before the 2012 season.)
Kelly’s two big hires for 2014 — VanGorder and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur — haven’t shown the immediate impact that the last coaching shuffle did. VanGorder’s late-season struggles are well-chronicled above.
Golson’s struggles also reflect poorly on LaFluer. The first-year assistant, who worked under Kelly early in his career before coaching under Mike Shanahan with the Washington Redskins, was brought on to help improve the quarterback play as the Irish transitioned back to Kelly’s preferred spread attack. That’s obviously been a work-in-progress at best, as Golson’s been plagued by turnovers that have ruined otherwise impressive numbers.
(Some have speculated that LaFleur’s main job was working with Malik Zaire and freshman DeShone Kizer, while Kelly and Golson worked in lockstep.)
What kind of move would Kelly want to make before next season? First, it feels safe to eliminate big name hires like the recently fired Will Muschamp or Bo Pelini. That’s never been Kelly’s M.O. (And if Irish fans forgot how things went the last time Notre Dame let public opinion and Q-Rating determine the defensive coordinator, shame on them.)
But a shakeup might be in order for Kelly. So let’s look around and see where it might come.
First-year offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock ran an offense filled with young skill players and the group improved by a touchdown per game in points scored. He’s also been one of Kelly’s most trusted advisors. But another trusted assistant, former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn, is currently unemployed.
Quinn is an offensive line coach by trade, a position currently held by Hiestand. He’s also not likely to take a position coach job after running his own program and coordinating Kelly’s offense for four seasons in Cincinnati. So Quinn might be a move that Kelly would mull, though that could make for some difficult decisions in the staff room.
On the defensive side of the ball, it’s hard to think Kelly’s going to stop supporting VanGorder after 12 injury-and-youth-plagued games. But are any jobs below VanGorder up for grabs?
Defensive assistants Mike Elston, Kerry Cooks and Elliott all essentially learned a new defense along with the players, taking cues and radically rebuilding a defense that spent four years under the singular voice of Bob Diaco. Understanding the dynamic between VanGorder and the three other defensive staff would require CIA-level monitoring devices, and there’s no reason to believe that there’s anything wrong with those dynamics.
Special teams continues to be the one maddening constant that’s shown struggles since Kelly arrived. First handled by Mike Elston, Booker is the face of the unit, though he shares responsibilities with other coaches. A young coach who deserves credit for the tight end position and some key recruiting wins, the Irish fixed their return and coverage issues this season, but then saw Kyle Brindza and the kicking battery fall apart. A year after workshopping and looking for help outside the program, the steps forward the Irish made have been covered up by the wayward kicks and missed holds on the field goal unit.
Kelly has demanded loyalty from his assistants, and also shown it in return: Chuck Martin took a pay cut to leave and coach Miami (Ohio) and several other assistants are paid very well.
But in a year where the Irish didn’t make the type of progress anybody expected, a change could conceivably be on the horizon.
Displeasure is Only One Bad Loss Away
The idea of building good will at a program like Notre Dame is a bit pollyanna. Even when you win, there will be people who don’t like how it’s being done. And a loss? What tho’ the odds, that just won’t do. Even if you’re playing the JV defense.
But as the coaching carousel starts to crank up one more time, the hires that we end up seeing at big-time programs — Michigan, Nebraska and Florida — primarily consist of the usual suspects.
Barring Michigan tempting Jim Harbaugh with ownership rights, Florida looks close to hiring Colorado State’s coach. Nebraska might replace a former defensive coordinator with an offensive coordinator with ties to the school. Once again, Jon Gruden and Bob Stoops appear to be going nowhere.
Brian Kelly is Notre Dame’s head coach. It’s his first stop that’s lasted into season six since his run at Grand Valley. And while he’s built programs at Central Michigan and taken Cincinnati to new heights, year five had Kelly paying the price for earlier sins, as injuries, attrition and the NFL Draft robbed him of a senior class.
While this year isn’t a mulligan, it won’t be viewed at the national level the same way that it is by hard-core Irish faithful. But expect the intensity to ratchet up. Because after a 12-win 2012, Notre Dame has gone 16-9 the next two seasons. That’s the type of win rate that warms up hot seats, not build statues.
So as Kelly takes stock of his team’s performance this season, it’s worth a reminder that applies to players and coaches in kind:
“What you say you are is your philosophy. What we see on film is your identity.”