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With another storied season ending unfulfilled, what’s next for Notre Dame and Brian Kelly?

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So, what now for Notre Dame?

That’s the easy question to ask a day after Notre Dame saw their perfect season and title hopes go up in smoke as they were grilled southwestern style by a more physical, athletic, skilled and healthy Clemson in the Cotton Bowl. Comparing the aftermath of another undefeated regular season ending on an unfulfilled note under Brian Kelly between this season and the 2012 season will inevitably serve up some similar questions about the state of the program. But are any of those questions truly legitimate years later?

There will be plenty of comparison between this 30-3 loss to Clemson and the 42-14 smackdown against Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game. Notre Dame was clearly at a disadvantage with its roster compared to their counterpart in each of those games. Against Alabama, the Crimson Tide were just bigger and stronger. As a result, Kelly has taken measures to improve his own team’s size and athleticism through recruiting, and Notre Dame has become an arguably better team and program because of it.

Against Clemson, Notre Dame’s shortcomings on the roster were once again evident, and not just because of notable injuries to key players like Julian Love missing the second quarter. If anything, the performance against Clemson showed Notre Dame may have improved its top-line talent, but it could benefit from improving the depth on the roster. Where Clemson was able to adjust for the absence of one of its top defensive players, the suspended Dexter Lawrence, Notre Dame was not equipped to overcome the loss of Love. Once Love left the game, Clemson took to the air attacking the position. Not coincidentally, Clemson scored two long touchdowns and closed the half with a third touchdown from 19 yards to take a commanding lead going to halftime, with all of the damage being done in the passing game.

If Notre Dame continues to improve its roster as a result of this latest loss, the Irish will remain in the playoff discussion in future seasons. But for now, Notre Dame and Kelly will have no choice but to endure the obvious reactions from national pundits and critics of Notre Dame. Comments about why Notre Dame needs to join a conference were popping up all over the Twittersphere at halftime of the Cotton Bowl. It tends to be the first line of defense for any Notre Dame critic who looks for a reason to suggest Notre Dame didn’t belong in the four-team College Football Playoff to begin with. But this result will not force Notre Dame to re-evaluate its place in the college football landscape, nor should it.

The main focus for Kelly is what do you do next?

Perhaps the question is whether or not Kelly will see much reason to change his approach with the program. Keep in mind this playoff field saw both Alabama and Clemson as lopsided favorites, almost regardless of their opponents in any playoff field you could imagine. All season long, Alabama and Clemson were perceived to be the two absolute best college football programs on a collision course for the national championship game for a third time in the playoff era. Should there be any shame in losing to one of these teams on their way to the national championship? Of course not, however you have to wonder how much losing by 27 points stings inside the mind of Kelly and the rest of the program.

Kelly changed his tune this season after facing plenty of scrutiny over how he handled himself in previous seasons. As a result, Notre Dame went 12-0 and earned a spot in the playoff. Can Notre Dame get better? Absolutely, because there is clearly room for improvement. But does Notre Dame need to change much to get another crack at the playoff? Perhaps not.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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Ex-ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco fired at UConn

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Bob Diaco is out as the head coach at UConn after three seasons.

The architect of Brian Kelly’s best defenses at Notre Dame lost his job on Monday afternoon after a 3-9 season, finishing at 11-26 in his three years in Storrs. Diaco’s firing is effective January 2nd, likely a negotiated date as his contract buy-out drops significantly after the new year. Diaco had received a contract extension through 2020 that included a pay raise heading into the season.

The news of Diaco’s firing comes just days after Notre Dame announced the hiring of new coordinator Mike Elko. While there’s absolutely no indication that Diaco would be willing to return to South Bend—or Kelly would pursue a reunion—it’s an eye-opening move as Kelly rebuilds his coaching staff before the new year with a mix of new and familiar faces.

Other than Elko, the timing of the announcement of that rebuilt staff will hopefully be revealed after the recruiting dead period ends right after the new year. Kelly has made no public comments other than those released in written statement following the Elko hire, but did discuss the timeline for coaching moves with Jack Nolan in the latest episode of Inside Notre Dame Football, detailing the next few critical months for both the head coach and his program.

“I’d like to get the staff solidified before the holidays, if we can do that. Maybe that might be a stretch in some instances, but for the most part have that solidified, so nobody is going through the holidays not knowing what their situation is,” Kelly told Jack Nolan.

“Then we get the staff back in here right when recruiting opens back up. Attack the recruiting, finish up—we only have a few spots left in the recruiting. And then get to work on this football team.

“When they get back on campus, it’s going to be pretty exciting, but it’s going to be a great challenge as well. Our football team is going to learn the grind necessary to win games in the fourth quarter and that will be the emphasis.”

Brian Polian has already been reported to have accepted a coaching position, likely special teams coordinator. Former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn, who served as Kelly’s offensive coordinator at Cincinnati and has served in a variety of off-field roles the past two seasons in South Bend, is rumored to be moving to a coaching role, likely tight ends.

While Elko’s hiring announced, Kelly is still looking for a quarterback coach and potentially an offensive coordinator, though it helps to be reminded that he’s chosen different ways to fill that vacancy—hiring Matt LaFleur to be just the position coach while Mike Sanford was both coordinator and quarterbacks coach. (Chuck Martin held both positions after coaching safeties and coordinating recruiting.)

Whoever is hired, Kelly talked about the task of replacing the offensive, defensive and special teams coordinator in one offseason.

“It’s absolutely critical that you find the right people that recognize the vision that you have and embrace the vision that you have for your program and understand Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “We have a uniqueness here at Notre Dame that you need to embrace. And then, they have to be compatible to the things that we want to do on the field.

“I think in all three of those positions, they’re going to make a huge impact. I think we’re going to be able to improve our football team with these three hires and we’re right in the middle of that process, but one that I’m very excited about.”

Kelly expects to play two quarterbacks in 2016

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With Notre Dame opening up camp next week, Brian Kelly seems to be opening up to the idea of playing two quarterbacks.

As DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire get set to begin their battle, Notre Dame’s head coach talked about that high-profile job with Jim Rome, giving us an interesting look at his mindset on the eve of the season, while also adding a new tweak to the old adage of having two quarterbacks.

Namely, you need two.

“I think you need two,” Kelly told Rome. “You’re going to need two quarterbacks in college football. You need two and we’ve got two very good ones. My expectation is that we need both of them to play.”

That attitude makes sense when you look back at Kelly’s time in South Bend. From the moment Dayne Crist’s bell was rung against Michigan in Kelly’s first season, Notre Dame’s offense has seemingly been pushed into Plan B each and every season—giving way to Nate Montana, Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and eventually Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer.

The Irish certainly wouldn’t have won 10 games in 2015 if Kizer wasn’t capable of thriving when he replaced Zaire against Virginia. And Kelly knows that experience has turned the tables on the depth chart as they enter 2016.

“Both of them are capable of winning, we know that. Malik showed that in the way he played against Texas and he’s been in the program for four years,” Kelly said. “But Kizer obviously has got more experience because of the number of games that he played and big games last year.”

While the plan to continue the competition into fall camp hasn’t changed, Kelly seems to have softened on his stance that only one quarterback will be happy. And while you certainly can’t take this as a declaration that a platoon is coming, Kelly acknowledged the need to have both guys ready and involved. And the best way to do that is by getting them on the field.

“It would be great that whoever took the job over played so well that he’s going to be a Heisman contender,” Kelly said. “If that doesn’t happen, I can see both of them eventually playing.”

The balancing act is nothing new for Kelly. He’s managed it in South Bend, as well as in Cincinnati and his two previous stops. While he’s noted the challenges Ohio State had last season trying to make their offense work while utilizing both Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, it’s worth pointing out that the Irish coaching staff also spent significant time this offseason huddled with the Buckeyes coaching staff, likely a helpful introduction to the quarterback challenges that even Urban Meyer struggled with.

Kelly knows it won’t be easy finding snaps for both quarterbacks. But he also knows it’s likely better to find your balance when you’re the one dictating terms—not a season-ending injury.

“I think it’s so important to have two quarterbacks, be engaged, keep them involved and as much as they can try to get them in the game if you can,” Kelly said. “It’s a lot more difficult if you can do that. But thats the way it is in college football, with the quarterback being so actively involved in the running game.”

Zaire made it only 19 carries last year when his season ended with a broken ankle. Quarterback runs have ended seasons for Dayne Crist and forced Everett Golson to miss multiple games. But Notre Dame’s offense requires a quarterback who can run the football. And Kelly would rather take his chances playing to that identity than recalibrating how they attack opponents.

“You can’t change your identity week to week, you’ve got to be who you are,” Kelly said. “These two quarterbacks are proven winners. The team knows that.

“I’m not going to have a quarterback controversy. I think we can move forward knowing that both of them are going to play in some fashion.”

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Listen to Kelly’s full interview with Jim Rome from July 29 below. 

Kelly reiterates stance on staying put at Notre Dame

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In what is fast becoming an annual rite of winter, Brian Kelly has once again explained why he’s not interested in going to the NFL. Notre Dame’s head football coach, who just wrapped up his sixth season in South Bend, was asked the inevitable question about coaching at the game’s highest level.

Irish 247’s Nick Ironside caught Kelly’s comments on a Monday afternoon SportsCenter where Notre Dame’s head coach once again explained why he plans on staying in the college game.

“I really feel like I’m at the level,” Kelly said, according to Irish247. “I know the NFL gets that notoriety because it’s professional sports, but it doesn’t mean necessarily it has it right in all facets. I think college football has it right for me, because for me it’s coach centric where I control the scholarships. I control the roster. Not that I’m a control freak, but this is my 25th year as a head coach.

“So doing it for so long, I like to be able to know what’s going on in the front office. Those are my biggest concerns sometimes. There’s so much turnover in the NFL. There’s the lack of continuity. In every great business there has to be some change, but continuity is important and I’ve always liked the continuity. And at Notre Dame we’ve got great structure. Great continuity. Great athletic director. Great president. So that’s why there’s no need to go chase anything else. I’m in a great situation at Notre Dame.”

Kelly’s comments are similar to the ones he made in the lead-up to the Fiesta Bowl—and closely mirror what Urban Meyer said during the same time period when Ohio State’s head coach acknowledged receiving a phone call from an interested NFL team but said no thanks. It’s also a reflection on the realities of today’s coaching world, where the money, power and autonomy in college sports is second to none.

Kelly’s declaration won’t please everybody who still think back to the head coach’s conversations with the Philadelphia Eagles after the Irish played for the BCS title. But they do likely eliminates any questions about the relationship between Kelly and his bosses.

For as long as Notre Dame has had a head football coach, there’s been rumblings about his relationship with the athletic director or the university president. With Rev. John Jenkins engaged (and part of the ongoing battle to support the amateur model in college athletics) and Jack Swarbrick among the best in the business, Notre Dame may not have some of the advantages that come at football-first schools like Alabama, but Kelly certainly has support from above that didn’t always exist the last few decades.