Duranko’s Digest: Year End Outlook, State of the Irish

November 24, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly leads the team out the field before playing against the Southern California Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

This is an evaluation of the long-term outlook of the Notre Dame football program. It attempts to answer the question “Was 2012 a one-hit wonder or are the Irish back?”

We will examine 5 major areas:

  1. Recruiting
    1. Targeting
    2. Acquisition
    3. Retention
    4. Roster Balance
  2. Assistant coaches
  3. Player Development
    1. as Notre Dame men
    2. Physically-(Longo)
    3. Skill development
    4. Schematic awareness
  4. Brian Kelly
    1. Leadership
    2. Management
    3. Focus
    4. Potential for continued success
  5. Game Day performance

At the end, we will reprise the Boise analogy.


“It ain’t  the X’s and O’s, it’s the Jimmys and the Joes!”
(dozens of coaches through history)

Does Notre Dame target the right prospects?

-A BIAS toward size for the position profile. This is a key aspect of what the Irish do, in that they quickly write off great players who don’t fit the size profile.  It is merely a form of qualifying a recruiting prospect, but it aligns with the emphases on coaching and on the field, creating efficiency and effective leverage of scheme and talent.

-NDRKGS-this is new nomenclature, which, while not adopted by the staff, is de facto, occurring.  Adjusting after the Lynch recruitment, the staff is QUICKLY qualifying prospects for athletes who are the Right Kind of Guy for NOTRE DAME.  There will be no round pegs inserted into square holes.  This simplifies targeting, but has the short term dividend of easing the admission process.  It has  long term dividends of not having prospects who didn’t fit leave and of having intrinsic unity within the team, and extrinsic unity with the student body and the Notre Dame community. This is the case at few universities, and has, too often, even at Notre Dame not been the case.  So, if you observe a prospect with nice “measurables” and see the staff not move, it may be because the player is not an NDRKG as easily as academic concerns.

-Geographical focus-America, at least the lower 48 plus Hawaii.  This regime has been intrepid in poaching the parochial reserves of Florida, Texas and California.  Success is spotty, but they will go in any program’s back yard and fight the big dog for the bone.

The staff is aggressive early and persistent late.  And they don’t blink. The sagas of Lynch, Tuitt, Kiel and Anzalone illustrate this. They won’t be outwitted or outworked.  Certainly, there are differences in closing skills, as ever. There will be misses and late switches, but not many. In sum, Notre Dame should have, at a minimum, Top 10 talent for the foreseeable future.

There is not a lot of player attrition, and there will not be, relative to the rest of college football.  Sure, Lynch and Prestwood left, but you must ask: Was that foreseeable based on their recruitment? But the combination of qualifying recruits as NDRKG’s, honest follow through on representations, personal, academic, and pigskin, made in the process, will lessen disappointed players and departures.  Do not underestimate the importance of the Ernest Jones role.

Roster Balance
With the arrival of the OL recruits and the Cornerback class of Luke, Kinlaw and Butler, the roster will have about as much balance as you get in college football. The staff is very disciplined about filling needs and not over recruiting a particular position in a particular year.  Certainly, imbalances will occur in an imperfect world, but they will occur less frequently and dramatically at Notre Dame than they will at most places.

The outlook is excellent that Notre Dame will have BCS level talent for the foreseeable future.  Regardless of annual recruiting rankings the Irish will easily have one of the ten most talented rosters in America for the immediate future.

Assistant Coaches

Is Notre Dame a good place to attract assistant coaches?

Yes, though pay scale, at this moment, is not the Notre Dame strong point.  You are in the limelight, get to work with first rate players, and can recruit cleanly and within the purview of the rules, without getting ensnared in illegal and immoral recruiting techniques.  Kelly is communicative and honest with his assistant coaches.  His demands are high, but reasonable, and his years of experience give him patience in developing players and units while simultaneously raising the bar.  Historically, when Notre Dame has been at the top, assistants have had an easy time moving on and moving up.

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Kelly has been astute at collecting associates and hiring coaches.  While his initial Notre Dame staff was sub-optimal, much can be learned from observing his activity in the 2011-2012 coach hiring cycle.

The opinion here is that the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen is an astute observer of the Notre Dame football scene.  He noted that when he and his confreres initially interacted with Kelly’s initial staff, that the three that seemed to not fit in as well were Charley Molnar, Tim Hinton and Ed Warriner.  Voila!  They were gone, sua sponte or otherwise, after the 2011 season.

With the shift of Martin to Offensive coordinator, the staff was filled with the hires of Harry Hiestand, Bob Elliott and Scott Booker.  All have coached to fine reviews, and Booker seems to be an emerging star as a recruiter. Vets like Elliott and Hiestand are comfortable in the Kelly millieu, which is not the case for many staffs.  Kelly seems  not to jerk coach’s chains overmuch, as was witnessed by the toxic cocktail of sloppy due diligence and schematic frenzy (4-3 to 3-4 to 4-3) and role frenzy (Haywood calling plays or not?) under the previous coach.

We should soon  begin losing assistants to head coaching positions to venues more pigskinesque than Amherst, Massachusetts.  But Kelly has demonstrated the skill set in identifying, attracting, and working smoothly with first rate assistants.

Player Development

This is the flip side of retention, because as players see that their development in multiple areas pretty much matches what was advertised, they trust the staff and the school more and are less likely to move because of surprise.

As Notre Dame men
Kelly and his whole staff (note well Diaco’s citation of the school’s mission statement during his Broyles award speech) increase connectivity of the players to the school community.  Again, the proper nomenclature is NDRKG, not generic RKG.  This increases trust and another strand of unity within the team and between the team and the larger Notre Dame organism.

(Longo)-Again, Kelly may have been the first to establish Longo’s position as coeval in pay, perks and status with the offensive and defensive coordinator slots.  There is little question that when the coaches can not observe the players, that Longo is Kelly’s  eyes and ears.

Notwithstanding, Longo is effective.  No further proof is needed than to compare the film of Stanford-ND 2010 with that of Stanford-ND 2012.  The plateau has been reached.  And Notre Dame is not going back. The result here is the combination of the discipline of recruiting to the size profile with the Longo discipline on physical development: mass, useful muscle, agility and stamina.

Any team that plays the Irish will be in for a tough physical afternoon. Of course, it’s not just mass, the team is quicker, better lateral movement and in some cases faster.  Mostly the team looks sleeker and more athletic.  However, despite his pay grade, skill and expertise, Longo can not fundamentally change the Rubinesque Irish Chocolate!!

Skill development
The individual player progress is extraordinary.  Even with a veteran front seven, the player improvement was astounding.  Seriously, try this yourself.  Rate the front seven from top to bottom on who improved the most.  Then look at your bottom three and see how you feel.  This is player development, and it occurs at every position.  On offense, players such as T.J.Jones, Riddick, Daniels are just a few samples.

Schematic awareness
As each year passes, and the fundamental skeleton of the offense and defense remains the same, the number of coverage and assignment errors approaches the asymptote. The likelihood of giving up big plays is also reduced.

Brian Kelly

Kelly has first rate leadership qualities, both of his players and of his coaches. He does not have a small heart and is not threatened by strong personalities on his coaching staff or of uniqueness, individuality and excellence on the part of his players.  He empowers and is not threatened by what many micromanager coaches would interpret as a loss of control. He does not have the need, or insecurity that requires him to tear people down first, before he builds them up, cf. Patton, Knight.  He is equally comfortable with players with as differing souls as Te’o, Nix, Spond, Tuitt, Calabrese and Riddick.  He is not tight, and creates no stress in addition to that inherent in the fabric of college football.

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Leadership and vision go to having the correct priorities, goals and motivation.  Management is the ability to create the structure and processes and then EXECUTE against the plan to reach the goals.  American enterprises are full of great planners who can create marvelous structures and processes and who have a fatal inability to EXECUTE.

Kelly’s management is thorough.  It creates the structures, such as recruiting process, Jones, Longo, but Kelly, whether because of DNA, talent, experience of having been the sole resource at places like Grand Valley is as good as anyone Notre Dame has ever had at executing his plans.  Execution is taken for granted but seldom occurs.

Bill Parcells used to say that there are three kinds of folks.  Those who ride on the bus, those who drive the bus and those who watch the bus go by.  Parcells said he was looking for drivers.  Well, Kelly is driving this bus.  He has taken the rope in both hands, as Alan Page once famously did in a celebrity tug of war, and has both hands on it marching forward, one robust step at a time.

Kelly is able to stay focused on what is the next important priority.  Note his post game speeches are always guiding the players and staff to begin thinking about the next game.  He refuses to be thrown off track.

While the nicompoopery was electronically frothing at the mouth about the BCS rankings in October, Kelly refused to engage with the dialogue. HE DOES NOT MAJOR IN MINORS.  Compare and contrast with Mack Brown, who is not so dense (or is he) that he does not realize that a part of his pay package is revenue from the Longhorn Network (the watching of which is considered “cruel and unusual punishment” in some jurisdictions.)   Yet Brown, chowderhead, was whining about the Longhorn Network providing too much information about his ‘Horns. Less sense than Bevo.

Nor does Kelly, as Saban and Meyer often have, tried to manage and control the press, a time, energy and focus-wasting exercise. Kelly’s “Ignore the Noise” sign is not some mere ruse for the players.  It is a talk which he walks.

Potential for continued success
This is one of the most elusive. Coming from failure to success, there are different endorphins released.  Once you have achieved success, the expectations and challenges and energy are different.

“Success is more dangerous than failure; its ripples break over a wider coastline.” Graham Greene

The only guide we have is history.  Kelly has found the way to get there, and more importantly, he has FOUND THE WAY TO STAY THERE.  At Grand Valley, he got his team to the championship game in ’01, but lost 17-14.  He RETURNED there in ’02 and ’03 and won both times.

At Cincinnati, he finished third in his first year, then won it the next year, and REPEATED as Big East Champs with a BETTER record in the third.

He’s not likely to backslide here.

Game Performance

There are great “programs” who don’t play worth a lick on Saturdays.

Football is football, and letdowns happen.  It is the world we root in.

But by and large the Irish play with consistent effort and wit each Saturday. This year there was great progress in both sides of the turnover equation, and a big improvement in penalties and penalty minutes.  In 2012, for the first time in this regime, the Irish became the kind of team that doesn’t beat itself.

Right now, the team is a bit better at rising to the occasion:
MSU, Michigan, Stanford, OU, USC, Ala—-…..
than it is in methodically and swiftly crushing an inferior foe.
But that may come with offensive maturity.

REPRISE: Boise: a case study.

Boise has won two BCS games in this century, Oklahoma in 2006, TCU in 2009. It has spoiled the season opener for teams like Virginia Tech (2010) and Georgia (2011). Since 2004 Boise has been 6-2 against teams in the Pac-12.  In the last five years, Boise has achieved the following ranking in Rivals team rankings, from 2008-2012, respectively: #89, #72, #82, #53, #59.

How do they do it?

The expertariat suggest the following apply to Boise State
(1) Careful prospect identification, for suitability for the school and the football program
(2) first rate coaching and player development
(3) first rate fitness and weight training
(4) disciplined, smart football. Boise does not beat itself.
(5) great team unity and trust.

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That’s how the cognoscenti think Boise gets it done. Now, we would not dare to hint that there is one scintilla of comparison between Boise State and Notre Dame.  But infer away, as you choose.  If you examine those five standards, they’re not bad things to have attributed to a football program. They seem simple and tautological, but many teams just do not execute them. You have to ask yourself: What if Notre Dame, with the talent level being recruited, can, by following principles similar to those Boise is using, achieve a similar multiplier of “overachievement”?  just sayin…


This is a fair capsule of what the Irish will be for the next foreseeable years.

“Notre Dame has one of the ten most talented rosters in College Football.  They are bigger and stronger than most.  The defense does not give up easy yards or touchdowns.  The Irish do not beat themselves with penalties and turnovers. The Irish are fundamentally sound and block and tackle as well as any team in football.  The offense is diverse, attacking with both elements.  The Irish should be in a BCS bowl this year.”

It’s been a long drought since ’93 lads.  But it looks like order has been restored in the universe.  The Mayans were wrong, but the Irish are Just Right!

Go Irish!!

With Alabama coming out on top in the SEC championship game, demand for BCS National Championship Game tickets are likely to see another significant spike in the average price of secondary market tickets. As for the primary market, there are still some tickets available limited to 300 & 400 level sections. For those seats click here for primary market BCS tickets.  Other ticket related links: BCS National Championship Tickets

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  1. Mike Sullivan 5 years ago

    Wonderful analysis, especially of individuals. Same enlightened skills a sales manager could use in evaluating and leading a field sales force. Creative, profound, comprehensive in-depth analysis with forward thinking. You have done another great job. Keep it up.


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  2. JTRAIN 5 years ago

    Merry Christmas to all of you! (yes even you buckeye) Celebrate the day and enjoy your families.
    God bless.


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  3. JTRAIN 5 years ago


    Merry Christmas to you as well.

    Not going to even BS, I thought 10 wins was the ceiling for this team. I was wrong about Rees’s playing time and Kelly’s approach to the qb situation. But let me say this, DAMN it feels good to be wrong haha. I do remember Andre Ware saying this was a 5 win team and thinking you have to be joking. Regressing was definitely not in the cards. I told you guys this year was going to be fun but I had no idea it would be like this.


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    1. JC 5 years ago

      Amen JTRAIN,

      Well, the good news is you definately predicted a fun year! Yes, it does indeed feel spectacular! Moreover, the above picture certainly exemplifies our coach and team are on a relentless mission!

      However, now, not only is BK driving the bus, BK definately has the right players and coaching staff riding the bus!

      Pinch me! ND’s future is definately brighter as described by Duranko.

      Merry Christmas to you and your family!

      Here come our beloved Irish!

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  4. JC 5 years ago

    Kudos Damian,
    Excellent assessment, Duranko!

    Early on, I was accused of having expectations that were merely visions of grandeur for this team to win 10 games! I was told I was the problem fan base expecting to win a National Championship every year! I was told we were not going to be in the National Championship game anytime soon! I was told it’s never going to happen with a 1st year QB! Where-are-those- expert-bloggers-on-this-board-now? Surely, they are on a vacation in Hawaii?

    Sure, I was wrong about Kelly’s early QB derby motivations, however, I never lost faith in our team. Now, based your superior outline of successful execution, it should be crystal clear that no one should lose faith in Brian Kelly! Again, outstanding outline!

    Nicompoopery? Hahaha! I can’t afford to miss-out on this creative word-smithing! Again, excellent article!

    Merry Christmas guys!

    Here come our beloved Irish!

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  5. henry . f. espinoza 5 years ago


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  6. Lou 5 years ago

    Great read, just great to that we have a coach who has a plan and not trying to figure it out as he goes. When Diaco leaves I hope ND stays in touch, I can easily see him roaming the sidelines as our next head coach. He reminds me a bit of Harbaugh with more the air of confidence than arrogance.

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  7. Damian 5 years ago

    Good article. I have to admit, prior to the start of the season I started to have just a few seeds of doubt about Kelly. I wanted to believe, but was seeing some disturbing signs. We’ve been through 3 coaches since Holtz left. They came with promise and left with disappointment. It’s easy to lose hope as an Irish fan. But Kelly quickly got the train back on tracks. Win or lose, Kelly and the Irish coaches did an amazing job this year. Many pundits predicted ND would be lucky to have a 6 win season (even many of us fans thought an 8-4 year would be a good year with this schedule). I never predicted they would be in the NC bowl. I would have laughed at someone who would have suggested it. I probably would have told them there was more of a chance of the basketball team going to a NC game. This just wasn’t going to be the year, not yet. Like any good fan I always hope, but in my mind, I knew that was just being unreasonable (or so I thought).

    Weis could recruit, their’s no doubt of that. I would even argue he could coach an experience offense. In 2009, ND was scoring points. They just couldn’t stop other teams from scoring. Kelly has that intangible quality that Weis does not. He can develop players. He’ll be tougher on experienced players (last year with Tommy Rees) and groom younger players (this year with Golson). Also, he understands that a great defense wins championships. The SEC has won 7 championships due to defense. The Big 10 used to win the big bowls with defense. Kelly gets that. The media was trying to portray Kelly’s hire as hiring another offensive guy but would the defense match. They forget, Kelly started as a defensive coach. He also understands, to win the NC against Alabama, the defense will need to play their best game of the year.

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