Brian Kelly Giving Up Notre Dame Play Calling Duties a Big Deal

Brian Kelly - Notre Dame Head Coach
Photo: Matt Cashore // USA TODAY Sports

When Mike Denbrock left Notre Dame to become the offensive coordinator on Luke Fickell’s first staff at Cincinnati, we heard a lot about how Denbrock was going to lose his play calling duties at Notre Dame.  At the time, it was assumed Brian Kelly was taking them back under his control.  Then when news broke that Notre Dame’s new offensive coordinator was 33 year old Chip Long, we heard again how this was in an effort for Kelly to call the shots.  Well, not so fast my friend.

Notre Dame finally officially announced the hiring of Chip Long yesterday – gotta love that swift background check process at Notre Dame.  In the official announcement there was a bit of a bombshell layered in with the standard press release fluff.

“Chip will be given the full responsibility to call plays in 2017,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “His offense at Memphis displayed a unique blend of physicality, athleticism, versatility and explosiveness. Chip’s play-calling created mismatches all over the field and did it in a number of different ways. He likes to use players who can fill numerous roles in an array of formations, whether that be two and three tight ends or multiple running backs.”

This is big news for Notre Dame football, folks.  If Denbrock took the job at Cincinnati because he would be losing play calling duties, that means Kelly decided instead to hand over those duties to a 33 year old coach with one season of coordinator experience over a long time, trusted assistant coach.

Many felt that Kelly’s selection of Long was meant to bring in a young, fairly inexperienced coordinator to run his offense exactly as he wanted it.  If Chip Long is indeed calling the plays in 2017 though, Kelly has just handed over the keys to his offense to a young, up and coming coach who may just have some fresh new ideas for the Notre Dame offense.

It’s also very telling that Kelly has already announced that Chip Long will be given this responsibility.  Remember, when Kelly brought Mike Sanford on as offensive coordinator in 2015, he was evasive over who was calling the plays between Sanford, Denbrock, and himself.  It wasn’t until the end of the 2015 season that we knew who was actually calling the plays.   That vagueness led in part to a three headed monster that worked great in 2015, but not so much in 2016.

In past seasons Kelly had been cagey as well about who was calling plays when Chuck Martin ran the offense.  This is an about face.  Long hasn’t even spoken to the press yet as an official member of the Notre Dame coaching staff and Kelly has announced that he will be calling the plays.

Chip Long’s Limited Body of Work is Quite Good

Long called plays for Memphis this past season in his lone season as an OC and the results were quite good.  The Tigers ranked 16th in scoring with 38.8 points a game – nearly 8 points a game better than Notre Dame.  The Memphis passing attack was especially efficient ranking 19th in pass efficiency, 17th in completion percentage, and 14th in passing offense.  Uh oh, those are a lot of passing statistics.  I can sense the eyes rolling already,

Oh, Memphis was able to accomplish all of this despite replacing a first round NFL Draft – Paxton Lynch – at quarterback.  That experience will serve Long well in 2017 as Notre Dame works in first time starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush.  That also probably has a bunch of you wondering if Notre Dame will still be a pass happy offense in 2017 but that’s another topic.

It’s still very possible that this could be a short lived experiment for Brian Kelly if the offense struggles out of the gates, but on the surface it appears as though this is another positive development for Notre Dame as Brian Kelly assesses his program and what needs to be done to rebound from last year’s train wreck.

Add this on top of the impending restructuring of the Strength & Conditioning program after Kelly reportedly shuffled his long-time friend Paul Longo into a new role and it’s clear that Kelly is not playing favorites this off-season either.  Between Longo’s “new role” and Denbrock’s unceremonious departure, Kelly at least hasn’t been afraid to make some pragmatic changes this off-season.

Much More Remains to be Done

The work is just beginning for Kelly, Long, and the new offensive coaching that still needs a wide receivers coach to join the two along with Autry Denson and Harry Heistand.  For now, we know that the plan – at least for now – is for Long to call the plays.

Brian Kelly is facing a make or break type season in 2017 after last year’s 4-8 clunker.  With his back against the wall Kelly has nearly completely made over his staff and has given the keys to his offense, to a 33 year old offensive coordinator who was a graduate assistant at Arkansas the year before Kelly took over at Notre Dame.

Let that sink in for a second.

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  1. Duh-on-me. I’m just piecing-this-togeter. Sanford kicks-ass. I was really wondering why ND let-him-go. Chip Long is a similar prospect, still unproven. Supposing Long works-out, BK has set-up the ND program nicely for his departure. (guess 3-5 years) Sanford head coach. Long OC – and we got ND Alumnus Todd Lyght on the staff. I’m not a Polly-polyanna nor a Debbie-downer. I’m a MACROMAXIMIZER. (I spot trends and adjust/predict/exploit accordingly)

    I just spotted David’s comment below. (ya – from 3 months ago) I have a good, social attitude. David is probably a very lonely person. I pray someone else will pray for him.

  2. This is a terrible recruiting year and the consequence of Kelly’s regular arrogance of playcalling. Though his rhetoric to his players and to his audience when in front of a microphone is positive, the audience has witnessed his lack of professionalism and emotional weakness during disappointing performance. His glum face gives him away. The talent is the eroding and our team needs a more charismatic results oriented leader. Kelly failed our team when he kept a horrible defensive Cordinator in 2015. And Schwarburg failed our team in keeping Kelly for another year. As a committed Notre Dame enthusiast since 1966, my hopes are with a very athletic quarterback, talented skilled positions, offense of line that depends on retaining 2 All-Americans on the left side, an expected poor defense of line , with talent at linebacker and defensive backs. We may win 10 games, but this coach cannot move us into the elite competition. Leadership talent is available, we must pay for it, and if we are to get to the playoffs we need to make that move next year irrespective of nuber of wins. ND’s heritage cries for a change and we should not settle for less than elite. No one can claim our present coach is elite nor has he ever been elite. I learned long ago that when you fire someone for just cause that person cannot hurt you again .

  3. This is a move Kelly should have made years ago. It’s the same thing Charlie Weis failed to do; “I’m head coach and the offensive coordinator and I’ll let the rest of the team take care of itself.”

    If Kelly wants to be a head coach then he needs to turn over controls of offense, defense and special teams to coaches and be that head coach. He would learn a lot from watching head coaches who are winning like Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney and Urban Meyer. They let their coordinators take care of their areas while monitoring their progress and coaching them.

  4. In my opinion this is a good hire. Coach Kelly will continue to call plays and make key decisions as he always has. Again this is my opinion.

    ND suffered last season due to the summer fiasco with law enforcement more than anything else. ND scored at least 35 points on most opponents and that point margin is enough to win with a good defense coupled with productive special teams performance along with a determined special teams coach, good athletes and some Irish Good Fortune.

  5. The problem is nothing will really change while swarbrick and Kelly are here.
    Swarbrick has to go first.

    1. C’mon, Bruce. Things have changed a great deal since Swarbrick and Kelly got here, and for the better. If Kelly isn’t the guy to win us the NC, then we’ll know in the next year or two. I’m pretty confident that Swarbrick will make a change when it’s time. And he’s done a great job with the other sports, so you have to take that into account as well.

      1. Bob is right, especially about the Olympic sports. JS has done a lot of good things at ND. In Olympic sports, we are now on a par with anyone. But he needs to consider the possibility that BK can’t turn this football program around, and he also needs to start asking himself what it really means when a program even needs to be turned around in its 8th year. He needs to start facing some facts that he seems to want to avoid forever.

        Bruce G. Curme ’77 ’82

      2. I agree with Bruce G. There have been some positive improvements under Swarbick. I think the field improvements were a positive (retro is ok, old is not), and I think his maneuvering the other sports into the ACC and keeping the football program mostly independent was a work of genius. I know some fans don’t care about the other sports, but he has to. It’s his job. And he managed to find a home with the other sports and maintain ND’s independence in football. The ACC is getting better in football so playing 5 ACC teams in football shouldn’t hurt our schedule too much (and there’s some flexibility as to when to schedule those teams in a year).

        I also agree ND football needs to be a winner, and next year he may need to make some hard choices. I really hoped after this year, we’d have a new coach, but I realize there may be some economic reasons involved since ND just got done paying off Weis (that was not his fault, blame Kevin White for that fiasco). Despite what some may say, he had no choice there, Weis absolutely would have taken them to court and since Weis didn’t break the law or anything like that, ND had no choice but to pay him his buyout.

        I actually think Swarbick may be behind some of these changes with BK. I don’t think BK has suddenly made all these changes on his own. I think it’s very possible Swarbick may have given BK a warning that things better be improved next year, that another poor year would not be tolerated. Furthering my opinion is when Swarbick left BK twisting in the wind for about a week or so after the end of the season and when BK did not stay in California to recruit.

        So I’m not in the fire Swarbick camp yet. We’ll see what happens next year. If ND is much improved, that’s one thing. If they have another lackluster year, we’ll see what Swarbick does with BK and any future HC hire.

    1. I actually agree there. I don’t think BK suddenly had a change of philosophy. I think Swarbick may have chewed him out a bit, or at least warned him that seasons like this last one better not be repeated. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

  6. I love this move. I’ve said for years Kelly needs to hire a big time coordinator and let him have complete control of the offense. Urban Meyer did this when he hired Tom Herman. When Tom left he moved Warner and Beck into those positions and Ohio States offense regressed. Also, Kelly had a great offense at Cinncinati with Quinn as ocoordinator. I also think this will make Kelly better because it will free him up to oversee entire team. I could be wrong, too. I guess we will find out next year.

  7. Wow. My opinion with Kelly on the hot seat that this is a big mistake. This is Kelly’s expertise and he’s going to rely on a guy that has called plays once in his career. And don’t be fooled by the rankings on offense. It was Memphis. Here is their schedule:

    Southeast Missouri State
    Bowling Green
    Ole Miss
    Western Kentucky

    Some real strong teams there….Memphis did score 28 points against Navy vs our 27 so I guess Kelly feels that he must be the man for the job. I hope this guy comes in and does well and all but I think this is a very big risk for Kelly to do this when he could be fired if the offense doesn’t perform. Nobody knows these players better than Kelly and I feel that he should be the one calling the plays himself this season. Lets see what happens though.

    1. @ ChrisJ, good point but, on the other hand…Kelly had pretty much run out of scapegoats. He just added two. What if next year’s Offense bombs after say the fifth game, he can step in to “try to salvage” the season. It’s apparent the Admin bought into his BS and to save face they will let him serve out his term. I see a ‘co-ordinator’s revolving door’ for the next 3 years.

      On another note, while watching the NC game last night I kept thinking, Kelly could never have prepared a team, ND or otherwise, to perform as well as either of those two. We’ve got a looooong wait before that dream can happen. Fire Heistand, fire Kelly. It’ll be a start.

      1. Sub,

        If we could just find some consistency on both offense and defense, we can compete with these teams. Hell, we were right there with basically the same Clemson team last year. I agree with you that preparation goes a long way and that Kelly probably wouldn’t have us ready. 2012…

      2. I don’t think we should be jumping on Hiestand just yet. The OL is the most complex part of the entire game, and it takes time to get all the pieces working together. Maybe you know of someone better at it than Hiestand is? I don’t, but I can’t call myself an expert. I will say that from what I hear, the experts say he’s one of the best at it.

    2. would it make you feel better if Long’s offenses struggled against that schedule? I can see your point in posting the schedule, but it doesn’t tell a complete story.

      What coach or coordinator has gotten promoted to the next level without being successful against the teams on their schedule? None!

      The point you make is basically saying that Texas should’ve passed on Herman as coach because he lost to SMU, Navy, and Memphis this year.

      1. ChrisJ,

        that’s just the risk you take with an up and comer, and yes I’m fine with it.

      2. Lynn,

        Tell me that when your job is on the line. Then I’ll believe ya that you are fine with it 🙂

      3. Yes, I’m definitely fine because my job is not on the line. If my job was on the line, I’d be singing a different tune. lol

    3. I dunno Chris. The teams Memphis played aren’t as good as the teams ND played, but Memphis isn’t as good a team as ND either. Stat rankings are overrated as an indicator of how good a coach is, it is true, because they don’t compare apples to apples, but they are at least an indicator. It looks like Long did a great job with what he had to work with. Hopefully, he’ll do another great job with what he has to work with now. Basically, he has a “weapons upgrade”, but the weapons still work pretty much the same.

    4. Bob,

      I agree with your points completely. I’m just giving my opinion on the perspective of Kelly relinquishing these duties to a one time OC when Kelly is on the hottest seat ever this year. That seems like a big risk considering you are putting something that you have control of (and have had large success in doing yourself in the past) into someone else’s hands, especially someone who has only had 1 year experience. Tough call but maybe he’s doing it because of the comments Sub made about having a scapegoat again. He does have a history of blaming others for the team’s misfortunes, haha!!

      1. A more charitable assessment would be that stubborn people generally don’t change until they get the proverbial whack up the side of the head by a two-by-four, and then they change with a great deal of determination. Kelly appears to be as stubborn as the day is long, and last year was just such a whack for him.

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