Tucked into the broadcast of Notre Dame’s week one victory over Duke was the announcement that Notre Dame extended Brian Kelly’s contract through 2024. It was a rather unceremonious announcement given the circumstances in which the Irish, and the rest of college football, are currently operating both logistically and financially. Still, Notre Dame was wise to extend Kelly when they did – which was well before the pandemic.
Terms of Kelly’s extension were agreed to back in December but weren’t announced until last weekend because originally, Notre Dame had a more grand announcement planned for the Blue & Gold game that never happened. Whether December or September, though, it doesn’t matter. Notre Dame made a wise move to extend Kelly for another three years (his original contract expired at the end of 2021).
Kelly’s resurgence over the last three seasons has been quite remarkable given where he and the program were just four years ago. It looked like Kelly cratered out at the time and wouldn’t be able to crawl out of the hole he dug. He did something most coaches with his much experience and stubbornness don’t do, though – he admitted where he was wrong and went about changing the culture that he spent seven priors building.
The results have spoken for themselves even if the ultimate goal – winning a national championship – has not been met. However, a record of 34-6 over the last 40 games is what most felt Notre Dame was signing up for at a minimum a decade ago when Kelly was hired. It took longer than anyone hoped for, but Kelly has Notre Dame back to be a perennially 10+ win program.
The next and final step for Kelly is getting the program over the hump and into elite status. And this is why I think Notre Dame was smart to extend Kelly now. He’s got Notre Dame on the cusp of taking that next step, and this year’s freshman class, along with the incoming class of 2021, may just have the elite skill position players Notre Dame’s been lacking to take that step.
To beat the Clemsons and Alabamas of the world, Notre Dame needs elite skill positions players. Without them, they have no chance even if they have a defense that now ranks among the best in the country annually under Clark Lea. Offensively though, Notre Dame’s been just OK even in their post-2016 resurgence. Good enough to beat almost everyone on the schedule, not good enough to beat an elite defense.
We’ve already gotten a glimpse of Chris Tyree and Michael Mayer last week. Hopefully, we see Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts this weekend. If Notre Dame closes the class of 2021 out how it looks like they will – by adding Jayden Thomas and re-adding Deion Colzie – that’s when things will get even more exciting.
A wide receiver trio of Colize, Thomas, and Lorenzo Styles is the kind of haul Notre Dame simply hasn’t made at wide receiver. It’s the kind of haul that the Irish offense needs to take the next step, though.
The real missing piece for Kelly all these years, however, has been the quarterback. In the 10+ seasons that Kelly has been at Notre Dame, the Irish have not had a single season where you could classify the quarterback as elite. Last year was probably the closest Notre Dame’s come to that during Kelly’s era, but even that level didn’t get it done in Athens or even Ann Arbor.
Class of 2021 quarterback Tyler Buchner could be that missing piece. That’s a lot to put on any single recruit, but the stars seem to be aligning for Buchner to be the make or break quarterback for Kelly’s tenure. If Buchner arrives and has the goods, well then Kelly and Notre Dame have a real shot at a national championship over the length of Kelly’s recent extension.
If Buchner turns out not to be the elite quarterback many think he will be, well then, this could very well be the last extension Notre Dame and Kelly agree to.
Let’s forget, for a second, that there isn’t any sure-fire, no-brainer coaching candidate it out there right now that Notre Dame could somehow lure to South Bend who could step in and immediately get the Irish over the hump. Even if there was (and there isn’t), with Notre Dame so close, it made perfect sense for Notre Dame to extend Kelly now and see if Notre Dame is finally ready to take that final step under his guidance. It also provided assurance on the recruiting front, so there are no questions about Kelly’s stability in the next few years.
Over the last ten years, there have been many good things Kelly’s done for the program in terms of modernizing it and just getting the Irish to the place they are now. There’s been a lot of not so good things too; however, Kelly’s detractors (and remember, it wasn’t long ago I was one) point to why he shouldn’t have been extended. When you have an investment that you’ve put so many resources and time into, and it looks like that investment has a chance to really pay off, though, you keep it. That’s what Notre Dame did by extending Kelly, and it very well could pay off big time.