Analyzing Notre Dame Football’s Extreme Makeover

Brian Kelly is banking on a staff overhaul leading to a rebound in 2017. (Photo: © Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports)
Brian Kelly is banking on a staff overhaul leading to a rebound in 2017. (Photo: © Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports)

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.

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  1. Can anyone point me to a single time in college football where a coach was essentially given one last chance, he overhauled his staff, and it actually worked?

    I don’t believe that anyone can, if so I would be surprised. Although I like the hire at DC, this is still just delaying the inevitable. The change at DC should have happened last year if not the year before, and once Kelly is hopefully gone after next season, most will likely say the same about him.

    1. Wrdomerson you are making assumptions and speculations that are not proven these assumptions, as far as I can ascertain no one with any authority or knowledge of the situation has agreed with these speculations. No one with any credibility has said that Coach Kelly was given an ultimatum or given one last chance. The only person that would be giving that ultimatum or given one last chance would be Jack Swarbrick the athletic director at the University of Notre Dame and he said that did not happen.

      Last year much of the talk was about the offensive and defensive lines, and in part, the linebackers were soft or played softly. Coach Kelly brought in a new S&C coordinator in hopes that the Irish needed to be in better shape. A team that plays soft in the last quarter or the end of the game needs to be in better shape, however, soft play can have another reason. We have all heard the old coaches saying you play as you practice and that can be a major part of a good team playing soft. The offensive and defensive lines must scrimmage and scrimmage hard to develop the timing needed between the tackle and guard on a double team or the complex maneuver to open a hole for that back. The running backs must get hit and know how to deliver a hit or how to block a hard charging Defensive end. The defensive line has to play fast and hard the D. End must know where the D. tackle will be and that knowing and trust is developed by scrimmaging. I wonder if the Irish are scrimmaging enough or with sufficient enthusiasm. The timing, feel, trust and comradery cannot be accomplished when the O or D line are going against blocking bags. I like the things Brian Kelly has done I hope it all come together.

  2. A lot of you so called fans are nothing but whiners wanting to be on a site with other whiners. No matter what you cry babies say about BK, he is not going anywhere soon. Personally, I don’t think much of him either but at least give him a chance to make it work with his new coaches. If next year is a dumpster fire then I’ll join the whiners club and be right there with you.

    In the mean time, would you like some whine with your cheese?

  3. Unfortunately, Notre Dame is trying to live up to a tradition that is now past. Notre Dame used to be a blue collar school. Middle class and poor kids used to go to school at ND and the school itself represented the values and ethics of those families. Now, it is all about image. Even the gold shoes reflect the image and not the essence of what Notre Dame is all about, or at least was all about, at one time.

    Notre Dame is an elite school now and its teams reflect it. It is image more than essentials. Holtz and other great coaches were never about image. The team wore black shoes and sweat socks. I understand that black shoes and sweat socks don’t win games, but they reflected the heart of a team. Holtz believed in real toughness, from the heart up. Now, being tough is just talk and image without real toughness to back it up. It takes heart and essential toughness to play through a 4th quarter. Image just won’t do it.
    You can’t act tough, it requires character and the character just does not seem to be there anymore.
    THe kind of “fix” they need is not in coaching reassignments, unless those coaches believe in character and rebuilding young men from the heart up.

    1. I’ve been a “faculty brat” since 1956 and I don’t remember anything about the student body that I would summarize as “blue collar.” There were plenty of kids from blue collar backgrounds, but plenty of kids from all sorts of other backgrounds too.

  4. Fortunately for Coach Kelly, it doesn’t really matter what you think. Did anyone see Alize Jones’ tweet yesterday:

    “Man, I got nothing but respect for Coach Kelly. A man that’s truly about his team and winning. Wouldn’t want it any other way.”

    So if those guys are buying in, so am I.

    If he did nothing to the staff, you would complain. If he changes a bunch of coaches, you complain they aren’t qualified enough, newbies, etc.

    Hate to break it to everyone, ND isn’t getting Stoops, Saban, Meyer, Harbaugh or any other high-level, established NC-level coach. Those are ALL a pipedream. They would’ve ended up with someone like Fleck.

  5. An entire new staff has to carry out the Head Coaches’ orders. That Is The Problem. Because Kelly is in above his head at Notre Dame.
    Kelly is ineffective at the level of play necessary at ND. Football at ND is beyond Kelly’s head. It will be the Keystone Cops at ND in 2017.

  6. I think all the new coaches and strength coach also being new means a fresh start,and Kelly still might succeed. I be a fan certainly hope they truly play like champions in 2017!

  7. Ever since Kelly came to ND I kept waiting for this up-tempo spread. Was NBC preventing it? Couldn’t match the Brian Kelly teams I saw at Cincinnati with the teams I saw in South Bend. How ridiculous was it to see a ND quarterback looking over to the sidelines during a series with the shot clock winding down?

  8. I’m glad to see the changes he has made, but I’m not convinced that will bring ND that elusive NC at this point. It’s a move in the right direction, but is it too little too late? I guess we’ll find out.

    Like it or not, though, BK will get another year to prove himself. As a ND fan, I hope ND becomes elite again. If it happened under BK or another coach, I don’t care. I’m not out to see BK fail. After all, believing he will fail and wanting him to fail are two different things. I’m not interested in being proved right in this case. If ND somehow wins a NC under BK, I would happily eat my words.

    We’ll see.

    1. It is not too little too late! It IS a Head Coach working at a job which is beyond him. The level of coaching necessary for success at ND is beyond Kelly’s ability.
      He will be ordering his staff to do the Keystone Cops on the field.

  9. FACT: Brian Kelly never gave upon the 2016 season.
    FACT: Brian Kelly believes it is possible to win big at ND in this modern era of football. There are some well known elite coaches who do not believe this is possible, and will not come here under these current conditions.

    Apparently, BK is addressing the deficiencies with a massive overhaul…if he succeeds, he will turn tradition here on its head…a national championship in year 8 or 9 or 10, rather than in the early years. But he will have year 2012 as a bona fides; NCAA rewrites notwithstanding. I think that any ND fan would like to see him snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, as the saying goes. As I’ve said before, it is probably a fool’s mission, but since he is back, and the deck chairs on the Titanic have been rearranged so well, let’s give it a shot – just for a hoot, if nothing else. This could never actually work anywhere else, but at Notre Dame, it might.

    Bruce G. Curme
    La Crosse, Indiana

    1. What bs
      These guys swarbrick and kelly are protecting their jobs
      There are no great coaches in this group
      Just a collection of newbies working for a proven loser
      Fire swarbrick fire Kelly or just gd give up
      What pathetic weak leadership

  10. Tomorrow,next month & next year. Its still about the defense, nothing else comes close. Kelly just might finally get it .

      1. Chuckie…you take over the team and lets see how good you do. I’m sure you would end up looking like the trolls on the field and you the head troll!

    1. You nailed it Chuckie. Kelly also does not get how important the running game/balanced offense is to to an effective offense is to winning against the best of the best. This years final four all had balanced attacks.

      1. As has been demonstrated elsewhere, teams pass too much because they losing; they don’t lose too much because they are passing.

  11. Greg, I like your style…

    “the stench of the Brian VanGorder era…” I can still smell it.

    “…people wouldn’t have been happy this off-season unless Brian Kelly was fired and everything was new.” I’m in that camp. BTW, as long as he’s still here, is there precedence to move a HC up into the booth? I for one would like not having to be reminded of him after every play.

    Another take on his staying/going vis a vis the new hirings, it’s possible that he’s offering ND a smooth transition to a new HC (at his termination) between whichever of the new OC/DC performs the best?

  12. Time to get our “Gimmick Committe ” going. How about a new Fightin ‘Irish Terrier Four Horsemen, Leprechaun needs a makeover, He is to commercialized looking. Shamrock needs to be promoted more.

    1. Mike,
      We need “the Shirt” to be in the colors of our opening day opponent! Like against Northwestern one year – the student section was purplish- violet! (We lost). Can’t be worse than this year’s Army fashion statement.

      Bruce G. Curme
      La Crosse, Indiana

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