by John Vannie
For the third time in the past decade, a new football head coach will lead the Fighting Irish into battle. While the players and coaches have changed, the lofty expectations and glowing reports from “insiders” remain a constant. I’m reminded that Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis created an instant buzz with promising first seasons, but were unable to continue that success. Brian Kelly’s track record of high achievement at lower tier programs has rekindled hope for Notre Dame’s long-awaited return to glory, but Irish fans should be willing to trade instant gratification for sustained improvement over the long term.
Word of Kelly’s no-nonsense approach, coupled with the requisite off-season gains in weight and strength among several players gives rise to the wave of optimism in South Bend. I believe there is substance in many of these tales; however my own giddiness is tempered by the enormity of the task that Kelly faces.
The team he inherited is arguably weaker on paper than its 2009 predecessor. Its two best offensive players are now competing in the NFL, and the leading tackler and interceptor on defense has graduated. Besides, this is a group that has lost 21 games in the past three years, and has mailed in consistently lackluster performances throughout the last two winless Novembers.
To Kelly’s credit, he immediately recognized and took steps to cure this malaise. We will see the initial fruits of his labor in a few weeks, but one should refrain from drawing any conclusions regarding the trajectory of the program until at least one full season is in the books. A cautious approach is the correct prescription for long term Notre Dame Loyalists, as the 8-0 start by Willingham and Weis’ near-defeat of mighty USC in 2005 were followed by a precipitous and unrelenting decline.
While it’s possible for the Irish to string together a series of victories against a relatively weak 2010 schedule, the win-loss record of Kelly’s first team is not necessarily the most reliable indicator of future success. There simply won’t be sufficient data to determine if an 8-0 start means that Kelly should be compared to Ara Parseghian or Willingham. Perhaps the best answer would be “neither”. Similarly, if Kelly delivers a 6-6 campaign, fans may not be sure whether to associate it with Lou Holtz’ first season or Weis’ last. The answer will lie in the details.
The barometer for this year’s team, if I may steal a cliché, will not be whether it wins or loses but how it plays the game. That’s admittedly an unacceptable concept to Notre Dame and Kelly would never publicly settle for fewer than 12 wins, but it’s more important that this group of players shows steady progress throughout the season and does not fall victim to the mindset that has crept into the program during the last three years: losing is no big deal. Watching the team sway to the alma mater after being punked by the likes of Navy, Connecticut and Syracuse is not my idea of must-see TV.
Installing new offensive and defensive schemes is a chore for any football coach, but perhaps the biggest challenge facing Kelly is to motivate the players he inherited. Many will welcome new leadership and attempt to seize an opportunity to climb the depth chart, but there is no guarantee that players who previously cut corners on the field and in the weight room will embrace a more demanding culture. Each will judge whether if Kelly treats them equally and learn if there are real consequences for poor play and mental errors before deciding whether or not to buy in. Kelly’s candid remarks early in his regime regarding the “sense of entitlement” among the players tell me that some of them have to do a bit of soul-searching.
Coaxing higher productivity from athletes that have previously performed below their talent level is indeed a target of opportunity for any competent new coach, but that is not the only issue facing this new coaching staff. Some of the players are simply not as good as their high school press clippings once suggested, and there are a number of weak areas on the roster that cannot be adequately addressed in the short term. This group has not demonstrated the physical brand of football that is historically associated with Notre Dame, and a noticeable lack of size in key areas is a contributing factor. Even with Western Michigan and Army on the schedule and assuming a generous amount of pure Irish luck, the ceiling of this team in 2010 would appear to reside below the Top Ten.
Everyone understands that an injury to quarterback Dayne Crist would be a catastrophe, but even Crist has limited playing time under his belt and his throwing accuracy is not likely to match that of Jimmy Clausen. Both offensive tackles have not started a game and are not battle-tested. The receiving corps is abundant in terms of quantity but otherwise a question mark after Michael Floyd. Golden Tate’s departure leaves no obvious deep threat to create space in which the others can more easily operate.
The defense is even more problematic. The question of depth along the line will be answered by a group of unproven players such as Brandon Newman, Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams and Emeka Nwankwo. There is talent at linebacker, although one of the inside slots will be up for grabs until late into the preseason. It is hoped that a more aggressive scheme will enable the cornerbacks to erase last year’s disappointments, but the new pair of safeties behind them may not provide much help.
Kelly has wisely maintained a fairly low profile regarding his special teams, but he must see an opportunity here. His predecessor advertised but never delivered exceptional or even mediocre results, not only due to poor practice habits but also because there was a shortage of players on the roster who wanted to run down the field at full speed and hit someone. The kickoff coverage unit surrendered two costly touchdowns last season, and the return game lacked energy by anyone not named Tate. Finally, Kelly will still be constrained by the punters and place kickers at his disposal. None has shown anything above average ability and leg strength.
In summary, the effectiveness of this coaching change will take time to measure, but the long-suffering fan base is more than ready to declare an end to its nightmare. Objectivity and a reasonable amount of patience are recommended before forming any hard conclusions, especially if we pay attention to recent history. Kelly’s prior record suggests he is capable of moving the needle well beyond the level of Weis and Willingham, but it will take a few significant wins and a couple of recruiting classes to determine if we can unequivocally call him a success.