A thing about being a Notre Dame fan, especially one who covers the team closely, is the program is in constant evaluation. It’s absolutely season to season, but also month to month and often week to week. Where is the program going? Are they getting closer? Are they “back”? This is largely how it’s been since Lou Holtz resigned in 1996. The Notre Dame football program has been trying to get back to the late 80’s and early 90’s era when they were a national power, year after year, and always in the national championship conversation. The thing is, none of the coaches immediately who followed Holtz knew how to get there.
In the seasons between 1994 and 2010, when Brian Kelly was hired, there has been a lot of bad football played, a lot of shoddy processes, poor regimes, and uneven success. They’d win nine or ten games one season, then win six the next. Nothing was ever being built that was sustainable. The same was true of the Kelly era.
They went 8-5 in 2010 and 2011, 12-1 in 2012, then back to 9-4 in 2013, then 8-5, to 10-3, to 4-8. That’s not quite Davie or Willingham or Weis, but in the end, the same question remained: where are they going? That’s the question Kelly looked to answer following the 2016 season, and it looks like he did.
Building From The Ground Up
Between 1994 and 2016, the thing that has been true that no one wanted to admit is Notre Dame had lost their way, and in that time, college football moved on. They’ve been trying to recapture past glory. Meanwhile, other programs were building dynasties through the modern game on the field, enhanced facilities, and revitalized recruiting off of the field. By the time Kelly arrived, the rest of college football had caught and passed the program in football operations. Kelly needed to completely rebuild the program; it was never going to be a quick fix like everyone, including him, wanted. It needed to be broken down and built again.
There is an argument to be made it took Kelly too long to figure this out–it happened following his 7th season–but in the end, it did get figured out. He revamped the majority of his staff, changed his approach, changed the way they recruited and lobbied for improvements to facilities and the football operation. Since the 2016 season, his program has gone 10-3, 12-1, and 11-2 with a playoff berth mixed in. He has yet to reach the pinnacle, but he has done what always had to happen for Notre Dame to return to what they were: he has built a consistent winner.
A Healthy Roster And Player Development
Part of the evolution of Kelly has been to build his team through the lines and go from there. The offensive line has always been a strong point for his teams during his era, but the recruiting and development along with the front seven defensively has been a throwback to the dominance of the Holtz era. Notre Dame will lose captains Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara, plus top reserve Jamir Jones at defensive end, and they will just re-load with Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji, rising stars Ovie Oghoufo and Isaiah Foskey, plus return all of the interior front four, and a plethora of youth behind them.
No position on the team defines where Notre Dame is developmentally and shows the health of the program than linebacker. Following 2018 they lost leading tacklers and captains Te’Von Coney and Drue Tranquill and replaced them with Asmar Bilal–who no one thought was good– and two players who had barely seen the field at all, in Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu Koramoah. Those three players finished with 239 tackles, 31.5 tackles for loss, and 7.5 sacks. This should probably inform how we discuss questions in personnel, especially on defense, over the offseason. There may be question marks, but the default position should be it’ll probably work out alright.
Brian Kelly signing his best crop of offensive skill position players in the 2020 class has been well chronicled, and the 2021 class looks like it could rival the 2013 group Kelly brought in that finished #4 overall. Perhaps the biggest news this past week was Kelly’s declaration that he thought Notre Dame was ready to target top 5 classes. Kelly has been loathe to set expectations too high recruiting wise, especially where rankings are concerned, so this is a notable shift from him.
Notre Dame entered the season ranked #14 in overall team talent. Moving that number into the top 10 and closer to the top five is a big step into the program, ultimately getting where they want to go.
The Last Step
It’s an open question whether Kelly can climb the program where Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State currently sit. He also made clear this week that is the ultimate goal, and it’s a good thing he’s speaking in those terms. But, Notre Dame can’t get there without the work they’ve done to put themselves into position to do it, and it’s a great credit to Kelly and his staff that they’ve stayed the course and kept the program moving in the direction everyone wants. Perhaps it wasn’t fast enough for some, and that’s fair, but they are headed there now, and the future is bright.