It’s getting difficult to ignore the trajectory this offseason is taking. Quite simply, Year Two of the Brian Kelly era has expectations. Great expectations. Eric Hansen expectations. Even Mark May expectations.
Because it’s July, it’s that time of year where we spend most of our time analyzing the past in hopes of predicting the future. As many do over holiday weekends, I spent my time watching from the sidelines and monitoring a few highly spirited debates about debut seasons of Notre Dame head coaches. It’s too soon to forget that Kelly’s debut season was worse than Charlie Weis’ 2005 campaign. But it was also less successful than Ty Willingham’s and only one victory better than Bob Davie’s. (Looking back at that 1997 season, it’s almost a microcosm of the Davie era, and should be Exhibit A on why it’s so hard to be a first-time head coach at Notre Dame.)
Still, for those looking back at eras of recent Irish past, it’s pretty easy to sense the separation between Kelly’s first season and those that came before him. In Eric Hansen’s recent article about the evolution of Brian Kelly (a must read), Lou Holtz pointed to the development of his 1986 team, a parallel that’s been drawn by many as they watched the 2010 Irish develop.
“There were so many things about his first year that reminded me of my first year at Notre Dame,” Holtz said of his 5-6 Irish in 1986. “By the end of the season, we could play with anybody in the country. So could Brian’s team.
“I just think that the program has never looked more hopeful than it does at the present time.”
Holtz’s 1986 squad finished with an uninspired 5-6 record, but lost five of those six games by a total of 14 points. Helping the narrative even more, that season planted the seeds to an eight-win 1987 season, and the undefeated national championship campaign in 1988.
Charlie Weis didn’t leave behind the team that Gerry Faust did. It also bears mentioning that Year Two of the Charlie Weis era had the Irish on the cover of major publications as a legit national title contender, and a ten-year contract that wasn’t universally hailed as being stupid yet.
Weis’ failures at Notre Dame can be pointed, quite fairly, to the defensive side of the football. To his detriment, he failed to develop a defensive identity similar to the one that made his offensive football teams impressive. Rick Minter, Corwin Brown, Jon Tenuta — Weis too often thought philosophy and identity could be easily interchanged, and the result was a defensive football team that was mediocre both developmentally and physically, a damning blend for a team that had championship aspirations.
Still, for those that happily kick dirt on the grave of Weis, I’d direct you here for the first and foremost reason Weis failed to put together a defense. Maurice Crum. Terrail Lambert. That’s it. That’s all that Notre Dame got defensively out of the 2004 recruiting class. Add in Darius Walker, and a great Blue-Gold game from Junior Jabbie and that’s really all the Irish got from Ty Willingham’s final recruiting class, putting a sizable hole in a program that left Weis little room for growing pains and a razor-thin margin for error.
But that’s ancient history for an Irish football program at an inflection point. Put together a season like many suspect is in the future and the Irish could make a true leap back into national contention, and potentially stake its claim as the preeminent northern prestige football program, with Ohio State in disarray and Michigan a year behind in its reclamation efforts.
So where could it all go wrong? Keeping the focus off a schedule that opens with four very losable games, the Irish need to find stability at quarterback — a position where Brian Kelly brings four guys into fall camp with a chance to win jobs.
Sure, Kelly met with Urban Meyer to discuss his implementation of the two-quarterback system that featured senior Chris Leak and freshman battering ram Tim Tebow, a combination that powered the Gators to a national championship. But remember, Charlie Weis met with Rich Rodriguez and his West Virginia staff to discuss the spread offense in life after Brady Quinn, a system that Weis employed for half-a-Saturday with quarterback Demetrius Jones before imploding his 2007 blueprint.
There’s twenty years of evidence that Brian Kelly understands his offensive system, and I’ll be the first to admit that I absolutely agree with the strategy Kelly is implementing. More importantly, Kelly has a defense that should be improved from last year’s unit — a group that finished the season embodying its maxim B.I.A (Best In America), not aspiring to it.
We’ll spend the rest of the week looking at the position groupings that’ll have to power the Irish through a tough four-game opening stretch. But if there’s one place where the fate of the 2011 season lies, it’s on the shoulders of the quarterback behind center for the Irish.
The fact that the Irish could be running four different guys out there shouldn’t just be a headache for opposing defensive coordinators as they prepare for the best Notre Dame team in the last five years. It should also be a hair-puller for Irish fans, who’ll likely have to wait until early September to see if Kelly’s plan will work.