Gosh, we expected changes, but this? We all knew a shakeup was going to be coming; Brian Kelly and his football team couldn’t endure a 4-8 season and simply run it back with the old gang while making a tweak here and there. I’m not sure anyone saw the makeover that took place within the coaching staff, and probably most surprising, Kelly giving full control of the play calling to a new comer in the program, offensive coordinator Chip Long from Memphis.
In all, Notre Dame is likely to welcome five new coaches, including both coordinators, and make an overhaul of the strength and conditioning program with the jettisoning of Paul Longo in favor of Matt Balis from UConn.
There was a healthy amount of speculation regarding Brian Kelly’s interest, or lack thereof, in continuing to be the Notre Dame football coach in the past couple of months. Pro Football Weekly has been having a stellar off-season fanning those flames with unsourced speculation of his supposed desire to leave the program and seemingly find a job–any job–some place else.
However, there is all kinds of evidence to the contrary, including his willingness to depart with staff who he has worked with for a long time–Paul Longo, Mike Denbrock, Brian VanGorder, and possibly Keith Gilmore. And logically, you don’t go about hiring six new members of the football staff while also looking for another job, or aren’t really into the one you have.
Of course, that doesn’t mean much, the coach should be fully invested into the program. Kelly’s commitment isn’t some sort of advantage gained, but these moves do point to not just a commitment to winning, but also a self-awareness of his program. Things had become stale and stagnant. He recognized that and made the changes he needed to infuse life into the program.
The obvious criticism, however, still remains. No matter the changes, it’s still the same old Brian Kelly, with the same old team. Fortunately, with two new coordinators, there is reason to think that will not be the case.
Chip Long, Offensive Coordinator
The most skeptical of those who feel no matter what changes are made, as long as Brian Kelly is the coach things will be business as usual for the Notre Dame football team, especially on offense. And initially, the hiring of Long, a young coordinator who has only called his own plays for one season, signaled that Kelly was going to retake control of play calling duties after relinquishing them for the last three seasons.
Those feelings were especially boosted once Mike Sanford and Mike Denbrock–who called the plays the last three years–left for other positions with different programs. Long would assume essentially the same role as Sanford, which was to provide input in the building of the game plan, and Kelly would pull the strings on game day. At least that was conventional wisdom.
However, when Kelly officially announced the hiring of Long, he stated in his press release that Long would be given full control of play calling duties on gamedays. This tells us a couple of things. First, Kelly is comfortable with the type of offense that Long ran while at Memphis. And second, we are going to see a different type of offense than what we’ve been used to during Kelly’s time at Notre Dame.
One thing a lot of people would agree on regarding the Notre Dame offense is it had gotten stale and predictable. How many times did the team line up and you could discern within a couple plays what the team would be doing based on alignment, personnel and down and distance? And we all know the adage, if we know, then the defense surely knows. Even if the playbook did not change at all, the tendencies of Denbrock or Kelly do not belong to Chip Long. Any offense that becomes less predictable immediately becomes more effective, just by its nature.
Another change is pace. Memphis wasn’t Oregon, but they weren’t Notre Dame either. They average about eight more plays a game, and they are much more decisive when coming to the line. The focus was on execution and less on the defense and what they were doing. Now, it’s still the spread and he doesn’t have a great history with “running” teams. But, he also doesn’t have a great history with the type of offensive line Notre Dame has, or talents like Josh Adams and Dexter Williams in the back field. The point is, whatever it is, it will be unpredictable and it will be fresh. Hopefully it will also be effective.
Mike Elko, Defensive Coordinator
The overhaul on defense is extremely welcome, but altogether unsurprising. More than anything, it probably needed to completely rid itself from the stench of the Brian VanGorder era and whatever scheme they were trying to employ. If I hear anything resembles an “NFL type scheme” or “Rex Ryan” or “sub package” I’m going to lose it. Luckily, prior to this writing Mike Elko hasn’t given any type of press conference or made public remarks, so at least thus far I am safe.
The advantage of Elko is not simply that he is new and will bring the quintessential “new energy” to the defense, but as Tim Prister from Irish Illustrated pointed out in their latest podcast, he comes from the ACC, a conference Notre Dame plays five games against per season. When coordinators move jobs, it’s not very often they stay within the conference, and technically Elko is not doing that. But, in a way which is extremely beneficial to Notre Dame, he is doing that. Having a strong knowledge for the conference that Notre Dame has a significant tie to has been a fairly overlooked benefit to his hire, notwithstanding the fact his defense registered 34 sacks last season with a bunch of guys none of us have heard of.
Matt Balis, S&C Coordinator
Brian Kelly has talked about being more of a tempo team in the offseason pretty much every season he has been at Notre Dame, and it never happens. Part of the reason could have been because they are not physically prepared to play much tempo. They weren’t conditioned to do it, even if they wanted to.
How many times has Notre Dame come out in tempo only abandon it later? It could be that they are off script and are being more deliberate with their play calling. Or they don’t have the legs to do it for 60 minutes. Could be both. But, whatever the reason, last years team broke down multiple times in the 4th quarter, so something needed to change.
I don’t know the first thing about being a S&C coordinator, but if Notre Dame got a guy who was good enough to work with Urban Meyer at two different schools, and we know the style of play and the physicality of his teams, then he is good enough for me as well.
The Program Has Turned Over
A lot of people wouldn’t have been happy this off-season unless Brian Kelly was fired and everything was new. But, short of that happening, this is as complete a makeover I’ve seen without having fired the head coach.
I expect to see a lot of things that are unfamiliar next season at Notre Dame, and when you change both coordinators, and both coordinators are given free reign to do the things they want to do, you are going to get a different product. Will this work? It’s hard to say because there isn’t a ton of precedent for this situation.
I will say that I was entirely skeptical of the forthcoming changes and what they would mean for the program, and Brian Kelly specifically, long term. A new defense yes, maybe a new position coach on that side. But, with a complete overhaul of the offensive staff as well, I’m more intrigued than I was a month ago.
Brian Kelly is not running it back and he’s not stubbornly sticking to his way of doing things, at least from a play calling perspective. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it will work, but I think it’s success is a lot more likely than what the expectation was heading into the off-season.
Now for goodness sakes go get some recruits.