FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — In need of an offensive identity, Brian Kelly turned to his safeties coach.
Read that again. Nevermind the coach of the entire secondary, just the safeties. It was a move that should have raised more eyebrows. Could you imagine Mack Brown turning to his DB coach after his most recent offensive crisis? Would an SEC team — now throwing around seven-figure contracts to top coordinators — take a foot soldier from the defensive side of the ball and put him in charge of the entire offense?
Yet that’s what Kelly did. And the fact that the fans and the media didn’t raise more eyebrows says an awful lot about Chuck Martin, the man tasked with straightening an offense that graduated the school’s all-time leading receiver and was dead set on hitting the reset button on the offense and starting anew with redshirt freshman Everett Golson.
Entering his third season in South Bend, this was a move that could have backfired easily. With ten losses in two seasons, Kelly wasn’t on a trajectory that built statues, but rather one that found coaches selling homes. But in a season filled with gutsy moves, the choice to move Martin to offensive coordinator ended up being a key decision that helped crown Kelly the consensus national coach of the year.
For Martin, it was just another turn in a coaching career that’s seen him wear a lot of hats, and win a lot of football games. And like most things, it was a challenge Martin felt confident about.
“The confidence comes from doing it before earlier in my career when I spent 12 years on defense and moved to offense, when I didn’t know anything about it really,” Martin said.
Martin’s last transition was also courtesy of Brian Kelly. When the Grand Valley State head coaching job opened up when Kelly moved to Central Michigan, it was Martin who jumped from being a defensive coordinator to the head coach, where he — just like his predecessor — called the offensive plays and coached the quarterbacks. It was a job he found challenging. And one he learned as he went.
“When you’re the head coach you can pretend you know something about anything,” Martin quipped.
If he was learning on the fly, it was a pretty successful run. Under Martin’s watch, Grand Valley went 74-7 and won two national championships. After taking over Kelly’s offensive system, the Lakers offense continued to churn out prolific numbers, producing All-American quarterbacks and a thousand yard rusher in each of Martin’s six seasons.
With an offense in disarray and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar departing to take over the UMass football program, Kelly tapped Martin to take on his most important task, and implement a system both knew inside and out.
“Chuck is a very talented coach that will make our offense better in the future due to his knowledge of our offensive system as well as how defenses like to attack it,” Kelly said in January after announcing the change. “I wanted someone that knew the system I’m familiar with and our experience coaching together will make for an easy transition. Chuck did a great job directing the Grand Valley State offense after I left and led the program to unprecedented heights. I look forward to witnessing the impact he’ll have on our offense.”
Statistically, the switch hasn’t transformed the Irish’s production. This year’s offense ranks a modest 48th in the country, gaining around ten yards more per game that last season’s outfit. The biggest uptick has been in the running game, where Martin has juggled the champagne problem of trying to find enough touches for a talented trio of runners in Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson. And while the passing game has fallen to 74th in the country, Martin has done his best work finding a way to limit mistakes, taking the Irish from 11oth in the country in turnovers to an astounding 11th.
Working together to fix the offense, Martin and Kelly led a rookie quarterback to an offensive turnaround that continued to evolve all season. In the beginning, that meant Kelly leading the charge with Golson and the quarterbacks. But as the season progressed, the head coach let his offensive leader take the reins, allowing Kelly to focus on big picture issues.
“I just think it’s been an interesting process this year,” Martin said. “It’s kind of morphed from a time where in the spring he was very hands on to where now he kind of likes the way things look out there.
“I think he was bound and determined to get some things corrected on offense, i.e. turnovers, and was really bound and determined to do that. I think once everybody settled in, I think he’s a little bit more back to just running the whole outfit, which he’s pretty good at.”
It’s also becoming pretty apparent that Martin is pretty good at running an offense as well. And while the lights might not have been as bright at the D-II level, the goals remain the same at Notre Dame.
“I know it’s a bigger stage. There’s more people in the press room. There’s more fans running around. But it’s the same deal,” Martin said. “It’s a football game and it’s a National Championship game, and fortunately for me it’s seven times in 12 years we’ve gotten to go try to win it all.”