While confirming the reports of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s dismissal, Irish head coach Brian Kelly had no choice but to also acknowledge Notre Dame’s success in Long’s three seasons, particularly 2019 and its 37.1 points per game, ranking No. 13 in the country.
“Anytime that you’re scoring points at the level that we were, you’re pleased in that respect,” Kelly said Saturday. “There were some other things that, certainly, I wasn’t as pleased with.
“Overall, this is not an offense that lagged in the back half of many categories. It was in the top half or the top third of many. Is that the only way you judge an offense? Probably not. … But by and large, the product and what it resulted was pretty darn good.”
Nonetheless, Kelly felt changing up the staff “was in the best interest of the program.” Given the quick turnaround heading into the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28, Kelly did not want to put off the decision until after Wednesday’s Early Signing Period. The Irish, in fact, had their first bowl preparation practice on Saturday.
For the next two weeks, quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees will handle the passing game and running backs coach Lance Taylor will handle the running game. Kelly said he has not decided who will call plays against Iowa State. That likely will not be Kelly, now or in the future. When Long arrived, Kelly handed over play-calling duties for the first genuine time in his career. The success that followed sealed that decision for good, it seems.
“I’m not calling plays, I will not call plays,” Kelly said. “That’s not my role. I’ve moved past that role. I will certainly be much more involved in the organization of the offense and clearly making sure that our room is where I want it to be, and I think it is.
“I will be there to lean on and consult with, but this will be a collaborative approach, with the lead coming from Lance and Tom.”
When the time comes to find a permanent offensive coordinator, unlikely to be before the bowl game when listening to Kelly, only one factor will be considered, a cliche when hearing it but also the factor that led to Long’s ouster.
“We had an offensive coordinator who was extremely successful, and I did what I thought was best for the program,” Kelly said. “So I’m going to again do what’s best for the program. That doesn’t mean default back to hiring just to hire somebody. We’re going to do what’s in the best interest of this football program.”
If that sounded like a vague denial of the rumors Rees has already been selected for the job, Kelly confronted that even more bluntly.
“I’ve got a great staff, as well, but no decision has been made. I know there’s a lot of speculation that one of the coaches has already been named. That’s unfounded. That’s simply not true. We’re going to do a thorough evaluation and search and find what I would consider the best coach that fits Notre Dame.”
Whomever that is, the Irish offense will change only so much. Kelly’s system has long leaned on the pass, straying toward the run in Long’s first year only thanks to an unrivaled offensive line led by two top-10 draft picks. That passing game approach will not become a thing of the past, both because of Kelly’s preferences and because this is 2019 and college football has moved away from ground-specific attacks.
“It’ll be subtle, but there will be some differences,” Kelly said. “I think every offensive coordinator has their own touches to the way that the offense would look. Again, the base structure is fundamentally going to look mostly the same, but there’ll be some nuances there that I think when you look at it closely, that you’ll see the differences.”
Until then, it’ll be Rees and Taylor in Orlando.