Notre Dame closed out the 2019 season with a resounding bowl victory over Iowa State. Brian Kelly has led the Irish to three straight seasons of 10+ wins. This remarkable feat got me to thinking back to Kelly’s 4-8 season and what turned the tide. Here were my thoughts after 2016
December and January brought major change to the Notre Dame football program. Kelly parted ways with special teams and tight end coach Scott Booker, Mike Sanford took the head coaching job at Western Kentucky, Mike Elko took over as the defensive coordinator, Brian Polian is back as special teams coach, Mike Denbrock left for Cincinnati, Chip Long took over as offensive coordinator, and strength coach Paul Longo is being reassigned.
- Inexperienced wideouts blossom
Prior to the year, the wideout group had big question marks. Notre Dame lost Will Fuller, Chris Brown, and Amir Carlisle. Equanimeous St. Brown burst onto the scene and led the Irish wide receivers, while freshman Kevin Stepherson developed into a vertical threat as the season progressed. Expectations are high in 2017.
- Young defensive backs gain valuable experience
Max Redfield’s dismissal may have been an omen for the season, and for the Irish secondary. An injury to Shaun Crawford in game one did not help either. Without Redfield, Crawford, and Nick Watkins, the secondary was forced into a youth movement quickly. Growing pains were evident, but with Mike Elko’s 4-2-5 on the way, players like Donte Vaughn, Julian Love, Troy Pride, Devin Studstill, and Jalen Elliott should parlay their experience into improved play next fall.
- Glimpse of electricity on special teams
Overall, Notre Dame’s special teams units struggled, but CJ Sanders showed what he is capable of, and the combo of Nicco Ferttitta and Chase Claypool embodied the mentality that more Irish players need to embrace under new coach Brian Polian.
- Defensive inconsistency, zero pass rush, missed tackles, and explosive plays
Poor scheme, poor execution. Pretty simply, really, and it cost VanGorder his job, and almost cost Kelly his as well. The firing happened, but the damage had already been done. By then, it was simply survival mode. Much of the same, areas that Notre Dame must fix. Most importantly, stopping explosive plays and rushing the passer.
- Inability to win at the line of scrimmage, lack of killer instinct
Blame the strength and conditioning program, blame the type of scheme because both attributed to a lack of strength at the line of scrimmage. Notre Dame got beat up most games, and were unable to physically close out games in the fourth quarter.
- Special teams mistakes largely alter game outcomes
A mistake per game, at the very least, characterized the season. Poor communication, bad tackles, fumbles, etc.
Looking to the future, major questions
- Will Elko save the Notre Dame defense?
A lot of pressure, and he knows it. How many games does he get? The 4-2-5 has a lot of potential with the current personnel.
- What role will Long play in Brian Kelly’s offense?
Kelly’s job is on the line, and two of the cooks from last year’s kitchen are gone. Expect Kelly to take control of the offense. Will Long be a pawn, or have any actual control of the offense?
- How will the strength and conditioning program be revamped?
Things have to change. A complete shift in training, and in building a tougher mentality must occur.
I argued during the spring thatIt all starts at the top and that Kelly had to change if the Irish were going to make a leap.
Losing football games has a way of changing a coach. Either curl up in a ball, refuse to change, or rewrite the script. To the surprise of many, Kelly was hugely proactive following the 2016 debacle, one of the worst seasons in recent memory. Change had to occur, and in his opening spring presser Kelly noted it needed to begin with him. The evolution occurred thanks to his players, and Kelly’s willingness to listen and then act.
“93 interviews with our players,” Kelly said. “And their want and desire for me to be more involved with the team. So I took a lot of my -- a lot of the things that we're doing were based upon the feedback that I got from the players.”
Perhaps most eye opening was Kelly’s admission that his role as head coach was much less of a focus on the players, and more on fundraising. Certainly must have been a tough pill to swallow for a veteran coach.
“There weren't enough hours in the day,” Kelly said. “It became a situation where I was involved in the offense. I was worried about raising money for our new facility. I was not focused on the traits that I needed to build in this football team. And I'm not worried about that anymore. I'm going to let other people take care of that.”
A piece of humble pie, or cake, as it were, has set Kelly on path to reconnect with his team. It was clear the student athletes wanted more from their coach, a larger presence during the offense. In turn, the players have felt a greater sense of accountability and resolve with their head man roaming the weight room at 5:45 in the morning.
“It's pretty clear that my players want me to be more involved with the entire football team. They like it when I'm there in the morning. They like when I'm around. They like when I'm having breakfast with them. They like when I'm available to them. So I want to be able to do the things that help our football team win in any way that I can.
It all starts at the top, and Kelly is doing his part to push past the status quo, to evolve with the next generation of collegiate players.
“I love it. You can't get up at 4:30 in the morning if you don't like it,” Kelly said. “You know? If you don't love getting up and spending time with your players and are not energized to do that, you can't do this job.
“They're incredible to work with. There's such a desire to want to be great. That's the only way you can continually, five days a week, get up early and get in here, because there is an incredible passion by our guys to want to be great.”
Balis revamps the culture
Kelly tasked Matt Balis with forging a culture centered around grit and mental toughness, to give the players something that had been lacking: a challenge.
“They were craving a challenge,” Kelly said. “We could not give them what they wanted. It was something that needed, and we are giving them exactly what they want.”
Even in an eight week period, the results have been pleasing to Kelly. Players are seeing physical results, building a sense of brotherhood, and developing a sense of mental toughness that was throughout lacking.
“The charge that I gave Matt Balis down there was to create an environment down there that we could build the traits necessary for excellence,” Kelly said. “Our mission for excellence is to graduate our players and to play for championships. I think he's done a great job. I think his staff has done a great job collectively of building those traits within a very positive environment, one that challenges our players in a positive way and gets the performance necessary of building those traits of excellence.”
The change in mentality has been done in way that promotes competition, in a positive manner. Kelly cites grit, the sustained effort over a long period of time, and dealing with adversity. In past, little was done to put players in uncomfortable positions, and it showed on the field. Balis is forcing the competition, putting fatigue and stress on the athletes during competitive situations to see how each player will respond when times are tough. Behind Balis’ watchful eye is Kelly.
Incorporating layers of training
Balis, tasked with making the Irish more mentally tough and physically capable to close out football games, is mastering a blend of training techniques within the competitive atmosphere.
The broad approach that Balis uses pulls from a number of different methods, and the mixture of them is what has the potential for special results. Instead of focusing on one sole method, which is common in old school strength and conditioning, Balis incorporates olympic, Westside Barbell, Elite Form, and high intensity training. The focus is on effort, creating monsters that get after it in the weightroom and transfer that onto the field.
“The way we put the staff together is that we wanted the combination of a high-intensity training with some velocity-based training, Olympic lifts,” Kelly said. “We wanted correctives immediately with some individual position-specific lifts. Then, obviously, some speed, agility, and quickness. So those five layers of training have already been implemented, and I think we've already seen that through just the workouts, preliminary workouts with our guys.”
Players have responded well, several note they are in the best shape of their lives. With most collegiate athletes, the limits are self imposed, and they don’t know their capabilities unless pushed to the edge. Balis and David Ballou are getting to the edge, and encouraging players to jump. To jump higher, run faster, and push harder than they ever hard. It’s early in the program, but foundation is moving in the right direction.
There is excitement around the Irish football program, no doubt about it, but the new staff changes, the evolution of Kelly, and a fresh strength program won’t hold water unless it translates into wins on the field.
"We'll see how that translates on the field, certainly,” Kelly said. “We've got to be able to take it out of the weight room and put it on the football field.”
Kelly won’t have to wait long to find out.
Kudos to Kelly, now 33-6 since the 2016 season of 4-8, for recognizing the issues and making some tough calls. He’s built stability within the program, but if he wants to leave his mark, it’s likely he will have to add a championship to his resume. Can he get it done?