When Brian Kelly accepted the head coaching position at the University of Notre Dame on a frigid December day in 2009, the expectations were clear. Kelly, as the USA Today reported, would bring with him to South Bend a “quick-strike spread offense and the promise of sunnier Saturdays.” While the sun has graced the Notre Dame skyline more than at any point since the Holtz era, the “quick-strike” reference may leave Irish heads scratching.
Notre Dame’s success under the Kelly regime has come courtesy of Notre Dame’s defense, throwing a curve ball to fans and critics alike that had shown tepidness to the idea of hiring another offensive guru after the failed tenure of former head coach Charlie Weis. Notre Dame’s total offensive production under Kelly has ranked nationally at the 61st, 35th and 54th positions respectively, and currently holds the 86th spot in 2013, a far cry from the offensive fireworks that helped Kelly climb the job ladder. Why have we seen his offensive firework show misfire time and again at Notre Dame?
Whether dual threat or pro-style, in Brian Kelly’s offense it’s all about quarterback production, and the instability at the quarterback position since Kelly’s arrival has stalled Notre Dame’s offensive progress.
Kelly made a name for himself with his ability to spot and develop talent. At Grand Valley State University, his first head coaching position, he recruited a quarterback named Curt Anes from East Kentwood High School in Kentwood, Michigan, a prospect receiving little recruiting attention due to his team utilizing a run-centric Wing-T offense. Fast-forward several years and Anes had accumulated two national titles, a 28-1 record and oversaw an offense that averaged over 58.4 points per game and a still-standing Division II record 600 yards per game. Anes combined for 3,859 yards and 55 touchdowns in 11 games, averaging 350 yards and 5 touchdowns per contest, which led to capturing the Harlon Hill Trophy, the Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
Not bad for a quarterback whose primary duty in high school was to hand the ball off to a stable of running backs.
The process was repeated at Central Michigan, Kelly’s next coaching stop. Kelly targeted a largely unknown 2-star quarterback prospect from Illinois named Dan LeFevour who boasted only four scholarship offers, one of which hailed from the Division II ranks. LeFevour was so under the radar that he was listed as a “pro-style” quarterback, a laughable notion considering he would eventually become the second quarterback in NCAA history to throw for over 3,000 yards and rush for over 1,000 in the same season (the first quarterback accomplishing this feat being former Texas star, Vince Young).
Kelly started LeFevour immediately as a true freshman and the unknown 2-star “pro-style” quarterback amassed 3,552 yards – 521 of which were with his feet – and 33 touchdowns, propelling Central Michigan to a 9-win season and a MAC Championship that ultimately landed Kelly in Cincinnati.
The Cincinnati Bearcats offered Kelly an opportunity to flash his versatility and adaptability. Kelly inherited a pro-style quarterback with limited mobility in Tony Pike. During Cincinnati’s 2009 undefeated regular season, Pike completed 62.4% of his passes for 2,520 yards and 29 touchdowns, winning in explosive fashion even without a staple mobile quarterback (though Zach Collaros, a dual threat quarterback Kelly recruited and was molding for the future, filled in for Pike at spots when Pike was injured).
So why has Kelly’s offense succeeded everywhere but Notre Dame? The instability speaks for itself. Three days prior to Kelly being announced as the new head of Notre Dame, starting Quarterback Jimmy Clausen, fresh off a season where he completed 68% of his passes for 3,722 yards and 28 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions, chose to forego his final year of eligibility and enter the NFL Draft. Clausen told ESPN, “Coach Weis told me whether he was going to be here or not be here, it was time for me to go.” After Weis’ suggestion for Clausen to depart, Kelly inherited Dayne Crist, an inexperienced former 5-star high school quarterback rehabbing an ACL injury suffered the previous season against Washington State.
Crist, though possessing 5-star character as well as 5-star intangibles, would never pan out at the collegiate level, leaving Tommy Rees, a former 3-star quarterback with mostly MAC offers, to take the reins. It is a testament to Rees’ competitive drive and Kelly’s ability to develop and maximize talent that Notre Dame has been able to defeat the likes of Michigan, USC and Miami with a quarterback who, through no fault of his own, is limited physically in his ability to counter certain defensive schemes.
Throughout all of the ups and downs, the ins and outs of Crist and Rees throughout the years, Kelly finally landed his quarterback in Everett Golson. After sitting out his freshman season to soak in his college surroundings and learn the offense, Golson nabbed the starting job his redshirt freshman year, racking up 2,700 yards and 18 touchdowns as he helped lead Notre Dame to its first undefeated regular season in decades. His progression trajectory was so high that prior to the start of the 2013 season Golson was listed on the Heisman watch list by CBSSports. Notre Dame was finally on the cusp of a Kelly offense for 2013.
And then it happened.
In May of 2013 the story broke that Golson had been suspended for poor academic judgment and would miss the 2013 season. Once again, as with Crist before him, Rees would emerge as Notre Dame’s starter to replace the departed Golson. One look at Notre Dame’s current depth at the quarterback position tells of the instability since Kelly’s arrival. Only one quarterback currently on the team – true freshman Malik Zaire – was recruited by Brian Kelly.
After years of playing musical quarterbacks, it appears 2014 is when stability will finally be achieved. Should Everett Golson return from his suspension and Hendrix claim his fifth year of eligibility, the quarterback depth chart will consist of Everett Golson, Malik Zaire, Andrew Hendrix and current 2014 commitment DeShone Kizer. Every quarterback will have dual threat capability, and three of the four players will have been recruited by Brian Kelly.
Armed with arguably the best back-to-back offensive line recruiting classes in the nation, a deep, talented and youthful wide receiver corps and immense talent ceilings of running backs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, the explosive offensive potential is finally within eyesight.
The impending 2014 firework show will be overdue, but well worth the wait.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles as well as co-founded a nationally-featured non-profit organization. In his spare time he takes his NCAA Football ’13 online dynasty way too seriously and alienates those around him by discussing football 24 hours a day. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.