Brian Kelly’s career at Notre Dame, following the disaster that was the 2016 season, could safely be described as being in great peril. His team had just gone 4-8, was embarrassed by their rival USC in the season finale, and his program was falling apart. A large portion of the fanbase wanted him fired. Ads were taken out, articles were written. After a promising start to his Notre Dame tenure, he had failed.
He was ultimately retained by athletic director Jack Swarbrick, but it was made clear he needed to make changes, and radical changes at that. He had to change the majority of his staff, and he had to change his approach. He brought in a new offensive coordinator, a new defensive coordinator, turned over the strength program, and gave up play-calling duties for good. He got rid of several friends on his staff. He and the university were taking a big chance. And wouldn’t you know, it worked.
Since the start of the 2017 season, his Fighting Irish program is 20-3, with big wins over Michigan, USC, Stanford, Michigan State, and LSU. They are currently ranked third in the College Football Playoff rankings, with an inside track at their first playoff appearance. And perhaps most unlikely of it all, Brian Kelly is, like, a cool person. The purple faced Kelly is gone, and has been replaced by a coach who is making spoof videos with his players about the movie Rudy, and his #BKHomeboy photo with his players on the way to Northwestern was a national sensation.
— Tyler James (@TJamesNDI) November 8, 2018
The best part of his transformation is it coincided with a similar transformation by four of his current players, all of whom faced a bit of a crossroads in their careers, both on the field and as Notre Dame students, in 2016. And just as their coach rose to the challenge, so did they.
At the end of 2016, Tillery had one of the roughest moments for a Notre Dame player in recent memory. During the season finale against USC, late in the fourth quarter, Tillery was seen grazing the head of a USC player with his foot, who was clearly down with a concussion. He was later spotted stomping on the leg of the opponent post play. He was pulled from the game, berated by Kelly on the sideline, then sent to the locker room.
He was already seen as an underachieving player, but for many, these actions were deeply embarrassing and warranted a heavy suspension from the team.
To his credit, Tillery publicly made amends with the player, and the two buried the hatchet. But, Tillery wasn’t someone people felt could be counted on prior to the 2017 season, as a player or a leader.
Turns out, Tillery was not only reliable in 2017, he was a borderline star. He started all 13 games, was one of the leaders on the field, and was known for hustle plays throughout the year. That has carried over into 2018, where he is one of the standouts on a Notre Dame defense that is ranked 3rd in S&P+. His stellar play is taken as a given, week in and week out.
As of today, he has made the list of semi-finalists for the Walter Camp award, given to college football’s best player. He will not win, but to even make that list is indicative of the impact he has made.
Following his uneven freshman season, Mack looked to go into 2016 as a focal point of the offense and received rave reviews following spring ball. Then the news dropped that he was going to miss the 2016 season entirely due to academic struggles. He was ineligible. While he was publicly affirming his commitment to stick around, there were grumblings that he was thinking of moving on. His future at Notre Dame was in doubt.
Mack held to his word and stayed in South Bend, although it hasn’t been smooth sailing throughout. His play has been inconsistent and many times coaches have been left wanting more. However, he has stayed the course and worked at his craft. He is currently enjoying the best season of his career, as a receiver and a blocker, just came off of the best game of his career on senior day, and is now seen as one of the teams most consistent players.
Williams, along with another member on this list, was arrested in August of 2016, and charged with possession of marijuana, with Williams and two others charged with illegally possessing a firearm. He eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation and community service. Whenever a player is arrested, questions about their ability to stay at Notre Dame arise. It’s just that way at a school like Notre Dame. There were the standard rumors about whether or not he would ultimately last. Like Mack, Williams stuck it out, but was ultimately plagued by inconsistency on the field, and an inability to stay healthy. When he was able to play, he was spectacular. But, he apparently couldn’t block, couldn’t catch, and didn’t show the type of traits Kelly needed to see.
That continued even into last spring, when the word surfaced he would be missing the first four games due to an unspecified violation. His change came over the summer, though, long before he was able to set foot on the field.
Kelly noted how locked in Williams had been, was in the best shape of his life, and had shown great focus, even in the midst of serving his suspension. Since he was inserted into the lineup, he has shown an ability as yet seen from the senior running back. He has taken every part of his game to the next level, and has lifted up his team along the way. If he continues on his current pace, he will eclipse 1,000 yards in just eight games played, while carrying the ball ~20 times a game. His previous high carry game of his career was eight.
Coney, along with Williams, was arrested in August of 2016, on the same charges, minus the gun possession. Coney played a fair amount in 2016, but was out of shape and undisciplined. And with the coaching change in 2017, he was not seen as a key player for the defense even as the season got underway against Temple in the home opener. The coaches simply didn’t have a lot of faith in him and he entered the season as a backup to Greer Martini. Nevertheless, he exploded in 2017, earned his way into the starting lineup, and had a season that rivaled something Notre Dame legend Manti Te’o might have put together.
That has continued in 2018, not simply in his level of play, but in his leadership and his steadiness on the field. He is easily one of the most dependable players on the Notre Dame team. Should he stay healthy, he will easily surpass 100 tackles for the second consecutive season, and has already broken 20 tackles for loss over the last two seasons.
Beating The Odds
Given the struggles of the Irish team in 2016, and the struggles of those four players taken as a whole, the chances of Brian Kelly and that quartet all being poised to finish 2018 as playoff members and unmitigated successes had to have been remarkably low.
This is always the part of the year where we get to the last couple of games in the regular season and realize these are the last times we get to see some of these guys play for the team we love. And it’s especially bittersweet this year, not only because Notre Dame will be saying goodbye to great players on a possibly great team, but players we’ve seen mature, and transform into men. Men who are accountable to each other and the rest of their teammates. It’s easy to be proud of them and this team. And the same goes for Coach Kelly. One thing is sure about him and his players, they aren’t what they used to be. Maybe it leads to on-field greatness, and maybe it doesn’t. But it’s been a pleasure watching their evolution over the last two seasons. This is the type of thing that makes college football great in the first place. And if you don’t think so, maybe you should.