Brian Kelly And Notre Dame Keep It Moving Against Iowa State And In 2019

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.

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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.

Enhanced Recruiting

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.

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21 comments

  1. Damian 3 months ago

    I’ve said for a while now the D/W/W years did real damage to ND in numerous ways. And I’ll give credit where credit is due. We have improved to the point that we beat the teams we should beat now, and many of them convincingly. We are now a team most other teams take seriously (other than the usual platitudes about playing a ‘national’ team opponents always throw out there).

    And while I have some complaints about Swarbick, modernizing the facilities is not one of them. You want to compete with the big boys then you have to have facilities like the big boys. ND’s facilities had crossed the line from being nostalgic to just being plain old and outdated. I do think they did a good job modernizing the facilities, yet respecting the traditions of the past. I’ve said a million times that retro can be a positive, a cool thing. Being one of the only football teams in the country that still has slashes in the end zone is one of them. Having no names on the uniform for most games is another. Being old, having old facilities—not cool. You want 4 and 5 star recruits they are looking for state of the art facilities. And you can bet your bottom dollar if Rockne were coach today he’d want every advantage he could get his hands on to get NC’s.

    Yet it seems ND has plateaued under BK. I’m not a BK hater. If ND won a NC under BK I would be thrilled. But we can’t seem to break through to the next level. Part of that is just the current state of CFB. There is the 99%, and ND is near the top of that 99% I’ll say. Then there are the elites, and a gap the size of the Pacific Ocean seems to exist between the 99% and the elites in CFB. It’s not just ND. But as we saw it’s always teams like Oklahoma that are on the other side. Those 3 to 5 teams that are basically mini NFL factories that everyone else is far away from.

    On ND’s side they need two things. One is some 4 and 5 star recruits. When you see NC contenders these days that’s one thing they have. The other is a good slate of assistants. Just looking at Alabama for instance, they didn’t win all those NC’s just because of Saban alone. He had top assistants. ND needs to hold on to Clark Lea for one. I think he is one of those elite level assistants. And ND needs to find a top OC. I agree with Frank’s earlier column that ND needs to go outside for that one. Maybe Rees will be a top coach someday. But he’s not there yet. If ND wants to win NC’s it needs to do it with a really good OC and DC. I wouldn’t fire Rees or anything like that. He can stay where he’s at. But he needs more experience and proven success where he’s at first.

    So it’ll be interesting to see what the coaching situation is going into the spring. And keep your fingers crossed.

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    1. Damian 3 months ago

      Sorry, I meant to say “it’s also teams like Oklahoma that are on the other side”. I wish there was an edit function here, sigh. And I’ll add I agree with much of what Greg was saying in his article.

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    2. pete calco 3 months ago

      Totally agree Damian. I read somewhere that Notredame under Brian Kelly has a national recruiting average the last 10 years almost equal to Clemson. What is the difference in success superior coaching from Dabo and his staff along with them having 3 great quarterbacks Boyd Watson and Lawrence superior to Golson Reese and Kizer/ Book.

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  2. david 3 months ago

    Matt Rhule has just made the Brian Kelly version of how to handle an “NFL date” look even more pathetic.

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  3. southside 3 months ago

    Greg , I’ve said this before in past years. Kelly’s seasons were up – down. Coming out of the Weis era 8 win seasons to start — we’ll cut him some slack. Then 2012 12-0. Then back down in 2013 , 2014. I would only accept a 10 win 2015 for his ass to be saved. It happened. Then the 2016 4-8 debacle. Swarbucks let him off the hook. IMO , a double digit win season is a must — not another 8 wins will do. Kelly did a 360 about himself , coaching staff , recruiting. 33-6 ain’t too shabby. But the bar has been raised after going 12-0. 10 wins won’t do. It means losing 2 games during regular season. Irish have to get over the humps. 1. Keep beating teams their suppose to win. 2. Beat the top programs like Michigan , Wisc , USC, Stanford (they will be back) and then the elites that come on schedule now and then — like Georgia , Clemson , Ohio State (up coming soon). This past season of loss to elite Georgia , top program Michigan won’t do. Bar is raised — 10 win regular season doesn’t even gaurantee a NY 6 Bowl. I’m glad Irish finished 2019 with 6 straight wins. Players did need that 11th win heading into 2020.

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    1. ChrisJ 3 months ago

      This is good analysis and matches exactly how I have felt. Our standard is playoffs or bust. The bar was set in 2012 and again last year. We have that capability so that’s the bar. I thought the GA game this year was going to be telling of where Kelly and this team truly stand as GA has been playing with the elite bunch for the last couple years. We went in and actually competed and didn’t get blown out. I didn’t like the loss but was satisfied because we usually get blown out by elite teams. It showed continued progression like we are right there with them. Then the MI debacle happened and I’ll call that maybe the worst loss in the Kelly era. We would have made the playoffs this year if we beat them. And we get blown out on top of it. Sure we won the rest of our games but against who? No top programs or elites. That’s for sure. This season feels like another regression to me.

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  4. Subway Alum 3 months ago

    News flash…stutter-stepping Book is back. Likely, we’ll say g’bye to Brandon Clark and future 5star QB’s who are dreaming of someday becoming the #1 QB at ND.

    Evident to me, Long did not get along with Book (apparently a better judge of no-talent than Kelly)…Long gone, Book booked. We are left with BBBBBook and gutless Kelly. Smells of a Kelly plot.

    Did you all see the Book opening fiasco? If not for those forced TO’s…fiasco continues and we lose that game. Yes I can subtract 10 from 33, but let’s subtract Book’s poor throw into the EZ that resulted in 6…just barely, and that gets the difference to within 1 score of a tie.
    Without the cushion, Book folds. Even the ‘color’ commentator knew enough to test Iowa State’s safeties when Kelly-Book couldn’t get anything going with their short passes.

    2020? Another (possible) 10 win season, with zero chance at a NC.

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    1. southside 3 months ago

      “The Day The Earth Stood Still.”

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    2. Ron Burgundy 3 months ago

      News flash, the game was not close or competitive. No matter how much you’d like to rewrite history.

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      1. david 3 months ago

        News flash: Your comments are always pointless and worthless.

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      2. Bruce G Curme 3 months ago

        Newsflash, you are an insufferable jackass. National Championship on its way. Here Come the IRISH.

        BGC ’77 ’82

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    3. tommy mc donnell 3 months ago

      how do you people know that 5 star is better then 3 star? Kelly sees them everyday in practice. when do you see them.?

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  5. Bruce G Curme 3 months ago

    Sometimes it seems to me that BK tried to take on the persona of what he thought a Notre Dame head coach should be like in the early years…rather than just be himself. But that was corrected completely after the 2016 season, and now we are getting what we thought we were getting from Kelly when we hired him from Cincinnati. It works a lot better.

    BGC ’77 ’82

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  6. Bruce G Curme 3 months ago

    Sometimes it seems to me that BK tried to take on the persona of what he thought a Notre Dame head coach should be like in the early years…rather than just be himself. But that was corrected completely after the 2016 season, and now we are getting what we thought we were getting from Kelly when we hired him from Cincinnati. It works a lot better.

    BGC ’77 ’82

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  7. Sam 3 months ago

    I can see another 10+ win season next year. Clemson is the only big hurdle and probably the only game the Irish aren’t favored to win even IF Book leaves. Bring in an experienced OC and put Quinn on notice, fix the O line or it’s the door.

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    1. spiceyirish 3 months ago

      Book announced a little bit ago that he is coming back to Notre Dame for the 2020 season. Hopefully Kmet comes back too.

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  8. Robert Allard 3 months ago

    Well stated. All of the Kelly haters, which seem to fill this board, need to take note and remember that it was not too long ago that our program was in shambles and could barely compete with top tier programs. Think Arkansas or Tennessee. I was in favor of firing him after the 4-8 season but glad we didn’t. He is doing all that he can with what he has. We will never be able to get into our school those who attend Bama or OSU. We recruit only a fraction of what they do primarily because of grades. The campus is in the middle of nowhere and the weather sucks. For all of those out there who continually call for his head, tell me one person who could do a better job under these circumstances. Even Meyer knew he could not win here so he bailed to two separate programs that allowed him to do whatever he wanted. Be thankful that Notre Dame has values that we uphold no matter what. And be thankful that we have Brian Kelly. Robert Allard ’91

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    1. Ron Burgundy 3 months ago

      You’re doing great work out there!
      Enjoyed the work on Netflix. Keep it up.

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    2. tommy mc donnell 3 months ago

      these people would criticize knute Rockne. they suffer from espn think, the only team that has a good season is the team that wins the phony made for tv playoffs.

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      1. ChrisJ 3 months ago

        It’s playoffs or nothing there Tommy. Why else do you play? Do you think the players are satisfied going 11-2 and being ranked 15th? I highly doubt it. Have you ever competed in serious sports?

        It’s astounding there are fans that are satisfied with this result.

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    3. ChrisJ 3 months ago

      Robert,

      My argument is we are turning in pretty good recruiting classes each year and putting lots of players into the NFL. Kelly doesn’t seem to play the best players all the time and tends to stick with veteran guys who have lesser talent but “know the system”. I can’t agree with that. Kyle Hamilton might be our best safety already as a true freshman but I don’t think Kelly ever started him. Jalen Elliott has been there 4 years but is of lesser talent and he gets that starting spot. Book continued his regression from the last 4 games last season into this season and we have Jurkovec riding the pine who has better physical skills than Book in every aspect. Myles Boykin was virtually unknown until last season. Why wasn’t he playing all along? Love Chris Finke as he’s fellow alum from my high school but Braden Lenzy should have been our slot guy. Javon McKinley looks to me like our next best guy outside with his size and hands but hardly played. If he gets a 5th year will he be the next Boykin who comes out of nowhere?

      You see what I’m sayin? That’s my frustration with Kelly.

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