(Notre Dame Football News | The Rock Report) – As strong as Notre Dame closed the year there are still many open questions around Brian Kelly and whether he’ll be able to achieve greatness at Notre Dame, which is defined as National Championships. By any measure this season was an incomplete. And while it was heartening to see the Irish surge back after losses to Tulsa and Navy, note that the end of the season fell Notre Dame’s way. Utah wasn’t the top team many thought. USC was just coming off a beating in Corvallis and was without Matt Barkley. Miami was coach-less in the Sun Bowl. In fairness, the breaks went against Notre Dame early in the year, so you would expect them to even out.
Just over a year into the Kelly regime there are positive signs, but nothing definitive (as you would expect.) When Notre Dame hired Brian Kelly I was a strong advocate for the hire and I covered many reasons why I thought Kelly would ensure a consistent if unspectacular level of success (which I defined as regular BCS appearances) in a series of articles about his coaching practices here:
- Coaching the Coaches
- Staff Development
- Leadership Roadmap
- Kelly and the Secret Sauce (the secret sauce is the ability to motivate)
And while I didn’t find most of the big-time/small-time arguments to be valid, I listed what I did think were the six questions (read here in Questions and Kelly) that were applicable and that could limit Kelly from achieving a National Championship level of success.
- Will he emphasize control of the line of scrimmage?
- Will his pass first-offense fly against a higher level of competition?
- Can he handle the pressure cooker of Notre Dame without turning defensive?
- Will his assistants be up to the task?
- Can he recruit?
- Will he be able to motivate prima donnas?
Will he emphasize control of the line of scrimmage?
Preseason Take: When Notre Dame has been successful in modern football, it has controlled the line of scrimmage. Holtz used to always say that you knew how good his teams would be by how good the offensive line looked. It’s not of little note that the last three (now 4) BCS champions physically out-manned the opposition at key moments late in the game.
Conclusion? Unanswered. Kelly said that the offensive line asked if they could play with their hands down mid-season and that seemed to coincide with a renewed commitment to the run and a resurgence highlighted by the game winning drive against USC. Still, Kelly’s MO has been to spread the field and he’s been trending that way for almost five years. The defensive line did win the battle in the trenches later in the year. I don’t think anyone’s sure what to expect in 2011, but there were some encouraging signs.
Will his pass-first offense fly against a higher level of competition?
Preseason Take: Offensive coordinator Charlie Molnar said, “I would be disappointed if we go through this season without a 1,000-yard rusher at the running back position.” In the past Kelly has had several 200- yard rushing teams and Coach Warriner has coached three teams to the NCAA rushing title, but those were all at Grand Valley and Army.
Conclusion: Unanswered. The schedule at Cincinnati was only marginally easier than Notre Dame’s last year (and included several of the same teams,) so the level of competition isn’t that much greater. But as outlined in You Can’t WIN Unless Your Run, Kelly identified the need to run the ball more to support a new quarterback before the season and then proceeded to bet on a passing game that lacked the execution to succeed. First year quarterbacks in new systems are rarely successful and starting a true freshmen makes it even harder. Without a quarterback to run the offense effectively, we just don’t know at this point. Kelly didn’t adjust early enough, but we haven’t seen the offense operating as it will in the future. Kelly mentioned that the goal for Notre Dame will look a lot like the pace of Oregon’s offense, “We run similar offenses when they’re clicking that way.” (see Speed Freak and Kelly’s Offensive Vision.)
Can he handle the pressure cooker of Notre Dame without turning defensive?
Preseason Take: Kelly has enjoyed both low expectations and high success at his last three stops, that won’t be the case at Notre Dame. It’s hard not to be impressed by his off-season handling of the media, but that’s nothing compared to the day-in day-out examine every word scrutiny he’ll be under in South Bend during the season and especially so during hard times.
Conclusion: Unanswered. Kelly definitely felt the heat mid-year and at times began to look flustered, but with the Declan Sullivan tragedy, there was more going on than just football. He seemed to hit his stride once the wins started coming, but if he struggles through another season, I’m still not sure how Kelly will react.
Will his assistants be up to the task?
Preseason Take: At first blush, a first time offensive coordinator and a second year defensive coordinator at Notre Dame looks a bit Weisesque. And it does at second blush as well. Neither has been proven. I’ve been critical of the Diaco hire, but only because he’s unproven.
Conclusion: Unanswered. Diaco bombed against Navy and then rebounded, but four strong games does not tell the tale and you wonder when the next “Navy game” will reappear. The offense was very inconsistent and slow to adapt. Neither Diaco nor Molnar have given me much reason to change my initial impressions.
Can Kelly Recruit?
Preseason Take: There are two parts to this questions. 1. Does he value the top recruits over “RKGs” or is RKG a euphemism for “guys I can get or coach”? 2. Can he land them at the level Notre Dame needs to win a championship?
Conclusion: Answered. The staff went into hostile territory down south and landed two of the top defensive linemen in the country despite a very up and down season. The staff can recruit and more impressively, they have a very good process in place for success. Notre Dame beat out the top recruiting teams in the country and signed more four and five star players than Oklahoma. (see Recapping Notre Dame’s 2011 Recruiting Class)
Will he be able to motivate prima donnas?
Preseason Take: And by prima donna’s I really mean top players with multiple distractions. While Kelly has shown a knack for finding a way to motivate his kids, he hasn’t done so at this level with the mentality in the numbers he’ll encounter at Notre Dame.
Conclusion: Answered. Everyone on the team improved throughout the year despite a host of negative press and losses in 5 of 8 games. There was every reason to quit and the team never did finishing 7-2 after the loss to Stanford with 4 straight wins.
Will he have as much success when he’s the target every week?
Preseason Take: Things change when you move from being the hunter to the hunted. While at Cincinnati, Kelly was only really the hunted in his final games against decent schools in the 2009 season, which were all very close. He won’t be sneaking up on anyone and being the hunted at Notre Dame will be a different dynamic than he’s experienced at any of his previous stops.
Conclusion: Unanswered. Certainly the losses to Tulsa and Navy have to give anyone pause. At the same time, the team went through an unprecedented number of losses to key talent with every offensive skill starter out at some point in the season.
The Verdict? Incomplete
Overall, there are still four key questions that Kelly didn’t answer in year one. Recruiting and his ability to motivate players were pleasant surprises that bode well, but there’s still ample doubt about whether Kelly will have anything more than an above average career at Notre Dame. And perhaps there’s one more question to be answered that I never saw coming: will his aggressive game management serve him well at Notre Dame? In my opinion, Kelly’s positive traits represent a solid floor and his ceiling is high, but there’s a lot of room in the middle yet to be sorted out. The strong finish certainly has energized the fan base, but, as noted above, while four wins are encouraging and the season is in line with benchmark coach’s first years (see Comparing Coaches, Reprise,) excellence is anything but assured. I do think he’ll win at a high enough level be here for a very long time and remain convinced he was the best choice after the “home run” options.
And a small pimp for The Daily Lift Show: