The annual Notre Dame Echoes Awards banquet rarely brings much in terms of breaking news outside of a potential recruiting commitment. Last night, however, Brian Kelly’s program raised eyebrows when Notre Dame named seven captains for the 2017 season while the calendar still says 2016. Was the move a head coach on the hot seat grab bagging or a necessary move needed to change the culture of the program?
In past years, Brian Kelly hasn’t been ready to name his captains until well into training camp in some cases. As he prepares for what is likely a make or break season for him and his staff, he’s named them 9 months in advance. He also named what could be a record number with seven. That’s right, seven!
- Deshone Kizer – Notre Dame’s starting quarterback for the last 23 games hasn’t even decided if he will return for a senior season or leave for the NFL at this point. If he returns, however, he is an obvious captain.
- Quenton Nelson – Another potential early departure, Nelson requested an evaluation from the NFL Advisory Committee. Nelson is a firey offensive lineman but with McGlinchey a captain as well it’s a bit odd having two potential offensive linemen as captains.
- Mike McGlinchey – Struggled a bit in his first year as a left tackle and has repeatedly said he plans on returning despite potentially being a high draft pick. McGlinchey is an obvious candidate as well, but again, odd to have two offensive linemen.
- Nyles Morgan – Obvious choice to be the voice of the defense. Morgan was one of the few bright spots this year on a dismal defense and still has barely scratched the surface of his talent. Pray the next defensive coordinator unlocks that full potential. Also requested an evaluation but fully expected to return.
- Drue Tranquill – Vocal leader on the defense already who still doesn’t have a natural position in this defense. Like Morgan, hopefully the next DC finds a way to best utilize the hard hitting tweener.
- Austin Webster – Not familiar with Webster? Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Webster is the first walk on to be named a captain for the Irish (past former walkons like Joe Schmidt have been captains but were elevated to scholarship players before hand).
- Greer Martini – Notre Dame’s Swiss Army Knife on defense. Probably not an every down player next season, but a versatile player who is a good leader.
The timing of this is very odd however you look at it. Four of the seven players have request draft evaluations and could potentially not even be members of the 2017 Fighting Irish. That would leave Martini, Tranquil, and Webster as your captains.
Notre Dame Has Had a Leadership Problem
So why did Kelly name his captains so far in advance? Only he knows for sure, but the lack of leadership for Notre Dame has been a recurring narrative surrounding this team for years. Notre Dame has had a lot of “quiet leaders” and captains who “lead by example” but not a lot of vocal captains since Manti Te’o and Kapron Lewis-Moore graduated.
The lack of leadership was apparent in meltdown after meltdown during the 2016 season. Notre Dame fell to Duke, Navy, Virginia Tech, Texas, and Stanford despite leading in the second half in all five games. If Notre Dame simply held on to those leads, the Irish are 9-3 and preparing for a half decent bowl game.
Now, leadership from within the team is not the only reason Notre Dame lost those five games. Questionable play calling, bad coaching decisions, and a defense that never had a chance all had a part in those losses. As all of those losses mounted though, how many times did we see a captain taking another player to task? Rarely, if ever.
Perhaps Kelly has recognized the lack of leadership and decided that naming captains now could set the tone for the off-season. Instead of waiting to see who emerges as a leader in the off-season conditioning, he’s assigning those roles now and hoping these players will step up to the challenge and hold their fellow classmates accountable.
Will This Work?
Who knows. In the nearly 20 years that UHND.com has been covering Notre Dame football, we’ve never seen a coach name his captains this year. Heck, in most years under Kelly it’s been surprising to find out who the captains were before mid-August.
What is certain, however, is that this is the kind of a move a coach makes who realizes he needs to make some sweeping changes in order to change the direction of a program that just finished a 4-8 season a year after winning 10 games and playing in a New Year’s Six bowl.
Avoiding Off-Season Distractions
Since the blowout at the hands of Alabama, Brian Kelly’s program has had major off the field incidents in three of the last four off-seasons. In it was Golson’s academic issue, in 2014 the “Frozen Four”, and just this summer we saw five players get arrested weeks before the season opener. Last year’s incident was doubling disturbing since it involved a senior multi-year starter “leading” a car full of underclassmen.
The only off-season in which there wasn’t a major off the field incident, 2015, resulted in that 10 win season despite an epidemic of injuries throughout the season. Coincidence? Probably not.
Something has to change to keep this team focused in the off-season. Naming captains early alone will not do the trick, but it could at least help. Hopefully this is just the first of many changes that Brian Kelly makes this off-season because business as usual this off-season won’t cut it. Business as usual could very well result in a much different message from Jack Swarbrick next December.