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  • Questions, Kelly and Some Answers

    by SEE

    (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:

    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:

    25 Responses to “Questions, Kelly and Some Answers”

    1. Whiskeyjack says:

      You wrote: “When Notre Dame hired Brian Kelly I covered many reasons why I thought Kelly would ensure a consistent if unspectacular level of success which I defined as regular BCS appearances.”

      With the level of parity in college football these days, you can’t realistically expect anything better than that; I agree that ND under Kelly will enjoy regular BCS appearances, which is why I’m convinced that he’s our guy.

      Take a look at the teams that have hit up the coaching carousel early and often over the last couple decades; how are they doing? What’s the record of successes vs. failures? We’ve obviously went 0 for 3 over the last 13 years, and for the first time during that period, our jaded fan base has genuine reason to be optimistic.

      It’s obviously foolish to anoint Kelly after an 8-5 season, and the team will have to continue to improve to reach it’s potential. But articles like these seem to say that “I’m still ready to call for Kelly’s job if they don’t do X, Y, and Z.” Really? I don’t want to go back to the coaching carousel; if Kelly can’t do it, we’re probably done.

    2. Thanks for keeping this honest assessment after NSD.


    4. Thanks for keeping the fan base grounded. We are all energized by the IRISH strong finish to the season. Now, we have to sit back, take a deep breath, and patiently wait and watch while BK and his staff prove that they can work their magic at this level. Meanwhile, they, and our TEAM, deserve our full support. GO IRISH!

    5. I hold only one thing against Kelly from his first year: the loss to Tulsa. I will never understand the decision at game’s end to throw the ball instead of having Ruffer kick the winning FG.

      I want to see three things next year:

      1. A dominant, unstoppable offensive line.
      2. A consistent running game that controls the game by controlling the clock. Perhaps it is wrong to expect this from the spread offense, but I have fond memories of what players like Bettis, Brooks, Bullock, Best, and Penick achieved for the Irish.
      3. Significantly better outside pursuit and tackling on defense. I always felt as if we were slow and very vulnerable to the sweep, quick pitch, or option.

      The conclusion of the 2010 season, regardless of the quality of competition, was very encouraging. It would have been very easy to throw in the towel and write off 2010. Persistence and mental toughness mean a great deal.

      The recruiting was outstanding. I don’t place much faith in high school highlight films, but a “never-say-die” attitude and the ability to pull elite players out of FL, TX, CA, OH, and PA say great things about Kelly and his staff. And one has to love the story about Diaco and Ishaq; it will be fun to see how this legend is embellished in the years ahead. Savon Huggins has the opportunity to play for ND and he chooses Rutgers? Well, not everybody loves ND, and he might not have been comfortable with a running back’s role in the spread. Still, Rutgers over ND? Doesn’t make sense to me.

      I’d like to say I’m cautiously optimistic about 2011, but I am not. I am recklessly optimistic, and I hope we beat the snot out of everyone.

      • 1. A dominant, unstoppable offensive line.
        2. A consistent running game that controls the game by controlling the clock. Perhaps it is wrong to expect this from the spread offense, but I have fond memories of what players like Bettis, Brooks, Bullock, Best, and Penick achieved for the Irish.

        I’m sorry, but I don’t see either of these from BK. His offense one doesn’t require it and two is not attractive to the types of lineman that you’re looking for.

    6. Halfway through last season I thought that the Irish were done. They were routed – physically beaten up every which way – by Stanford and then by Navy – there was NO fight in that team that day. And then beaten by TULSA, of all things.

      Then came Utah.

      They turned the corner that day. They were physically dominant in the rest of their games. They beat USC in Los Angeles – to me that means they are BACK.

      The landscape in college football has changed radically in the 23 years since ND’s last N C. 23 years ago who had even heard of Cincinatti (#5 in Kelly’s last season there) or Boise State or Utah?

      There was a time when, if N.D. were undefeated they would (almost) automatically be ranked #1. That time has passed.

      “I’m ready to call for Kelly’s job.” What a hell of a thing to say.

    7. Will you ever be happy with a coach at ND?

    8. Dan Stockrahm says:

      No offense – but don’t you think this article is a bit premature? Every question is really unanswered because you don’t have the sample needed to evaluate the questions, or you said answered when it just happens for this year he did a decent job. Who knows how Kelly will handle this new group of Army All-Americans? What happens if ND falls flat and next year’s recruiting class is a dud? There isn’t enough of a track record to evaluate his coaches or how he handles the pressure of ND. He didn’t have his own recruits or the time to develop his current team to determine if the trenches are going to be emphasized. He didn’t have a seasoned QB or the experience needed to see if his pass happy attack will work. Unfortunately, this is the equivalent of handing out grades after a pop quiz in week one of your Calculus class.

      Sorry, I like the questions and I don’t disagree with your answers, but printing “Don’t know” after the title would have saved a lot of words. Please write this article again at the end of next year when we have a larger body of work to support the analysis.

      Things we do know: 1) BK went 8-5 against a tough schedule with a first year and/or freshman QB and a new system with someone else’s players and despite a bagful of injuries to key players 2) Kelly’s team didn’t fold after a rough start and actually got stronger late in the year and in 4th quarters 3) On paper, Kelly’s first full recruiting class stocks the defensive trench – a glaring weakness of ND for the past ten years or more 4) There are no red flags he can’t compete for a national title based on hat happened this year, but there are no green flags that says he can either.

      See you in a year.

      • We disagree, Dan (which is fine.) The question around recruiting is part targeting and part ability to close. Those were both demonstrated. They won’t go away. If a season implodes, that will affect recruiting, but that says nothing about his staff’s ability to recruit. As for motivating, he took over players who weren’t his, who were highly recruited (in fact a #1 class) and drove improvement and ultimately performance. Again, that won’t change. Two of those are off the list for me. You can keep the jury out, your prerogative, but my criteria are statisfied. He has these. You can wait a year or three, I’m not out to convince, just sharing my opinion.



    10. Good analysis.

    11. Doc Possum says:

      A better question to add is, “Can Kelly learn and adapt to what is required?” In recruiting he and his staff certainly learned and adapted from 2010 to 2011. ND’s offensive scheme refocused on running late in the season after the O-line got stronger and injuries dictated more runs and coaches got to Hughes about using his strengths. Hiring Warriner was a nod (and a great addition by the way) to adding more running schemes within a spread context (Kansas). Teaching them to current and future players continues, but running certainly got better late in the season. Bo Pelini is interested in hiring Warriner or Frost (Oregon) to incorporate running concepts into Nebraska’s spread. Our attack will improve with practice and experience. The whole coaching staff did well and improved during the year. Why did Kelly make such a point about the Bowl Game and 15 more practices? Were the needs and results not evident? the team kept improving all year. Kelly, the coaches, the players, the AD, and the institution( better facilities, training table, and physical development) are all getting better. Kelly handled the media and external distractions well. Many of these are unique to ND. Kelly, his coaches, and most importantly his players have learned and adapted.

      Your questions cannot be answered in one season. That is why head coaches sign multiple year contracts. I think we got the “right kind of coach” who “gets it” and who seems to be able to transfer it extremely well to future ND men. The wins will come because we now have a system (or O, D, and ST systems that fit together), the BCS games will come, and should be able to grab a title or two. Go Irish!

    12. No Trojan Horse Here says:

      4-8, 5-7, 8-5, 12-1…Stanford’s record under Jim Harbaugh. Similar starting point to Kelly in terms of talent, system change, academic restrictions, new staff, etc. 8-5 looks pretty good in year one for the late recruiting start, the amount of changes, early defections, key injuries and off-field issues this team went through.

      I choose to be “grounded” by comparing similar coaching situations and I’m delighted with where BK is taking this program.

    13. Beresford says:

      Rock, as former president Regan once said “there you go again”. What is “this level” that you keep referring to? I assume you mean the upper echelon of college football. Well, we have not been at the upper echelon of college football for well over 15 years now. Because we were once there does not mean that we have a permanent place there. It has to be earned. So when Kelly walked through the door at ND he did not walk into a upper echelon program. He walked into a middling program.

      His job is to get us back into the upper echelon, but please down act like we are a upper echelon program until we’ve earned the right. We lost the right to talk about at “this level” years ago, and we haven’t earned it back yet.

    14. A big plus for Coach Kelly is the fact that you can see how his teams will react to bad times. With the prior 2 coaches that got off to good starts, we did not know how they would pull their teams out of the abyss once things starting going bad. When we found out they did not have the ability, it was too late.
      Also, his recruiting class this year tells you all you need to know about his concern for the line of scrimmage.

    15. “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.”

      Are you sure it’s an incomplete by any measure? Because there’s one measure, the one you mention in your first sentence, where I don’t think he got an incomplete. He got an F.

      Dan is right. If Kelly did well at something, you declared the question answered. If he did poorly at it, you said he gets to try again next year. If you want to argue that you need to see more before you can answer your questions, you’re arguing why writing the article now is pointless.

    16. “After “home run” options.”? What “home run” options? Kelly was the “home run” option and he was at the top of the list of coaches ND could actually get. He was the “IT” coach at the end of 2009 just like Harbaugh was this year and Meyer was when we tried to hire him. Some ND fans are still under the delusion that a top tier coach was itching to come here and we somehow missed out. No decent coach that already has a great coaching gig , even Stoops, was going to take the ND job. You can throw NFL money at Saban, Meyer, etc and they are not going to take a step down from their established programs to come to a rebuilding job where academic restrictions are a hindrance. No rebuilding job or job with pending restrictions (USC) is a top job. It only has the potential to be.

    17. The ability to recruit, develop and motiviate players is probably more important than anything else. You have to consider that ND suffered catastophic injuries at nearly every skilled offensive position during the year. Floyd was the only guy who missed time (Navy) and wasn’t bascially done the rest of the year (like Crist, Allen, Rudolph, and to a lesser extent Jones and Wood). I have a hard time thinking recruiting would have gone so well had they not won the last four games. Sure, those teams had weaknesses, but so did the four teams ND choked on to close out Weis’s tenure in 2009. The way recruiting was orchestrated also speaks well of Kelly’s leadership.

    18. Clock management – Michigan – clock expires when you’re on your opponent’s 30 yard line and you have timeouts left. Why weren’t they used when MI was inside the 10 yard line?

      Attention to detail – Michigan State – play clock runs out before the dreadful fake. Had someone been tracking the clock, the play could have been challenged on the spot it would have been called back, regardless of what the Big East said after the fact.

      Acceptance of responsibility and preparation – Michigan State – paraphrasing the postgame comments: We knew they had that play (re: the fake) – our guys fell down… I’ve rewatched that play 50 times, and every time I notice the defense on that side is in a 3 point stance. That’s not preparation.

      After all those years in the business this should all be automatic. The fact that it isn’t is a bit scary. Great recruits are great but on game day the good coaches don’t leave wins on the field.

      • Watch any coach over the course of a year and you will see these mistakes. Saban and Stoops included had some bonehead moves this year. Its never automatic, You will always have mistakes. Against mSU they were going for a block but still had Smith assigned to mark the fake. He was taken down. They werent in full fake protection, but neither would most teams.

        If all they did was play the fake, I’m not sure that’s the right call. Maybe if the special teams coach was there you can make that call, but Elston was out all week.

        Fair to be critical and same cause for concern, but you’re going to have coaching misses in any year, you have to be good enough coach as a team to overcome those. The fact that you’re focused on a play here and a play there actually means the big pieces were working pretty well.

    19. SEE: Nice article, though I’m not sure I fully agree with it. I read this Sunday and again today and my response is the same: How would you have graded Lou Holtz’s first year? Bad breaks early, a nice win in the end against USC that hinged on a very questionable 4th and inches ball spot, etc. A loss to a bad Pitt team, etc.

    20. All you posters share one trait – you take yourselves MUCH too seriously.

      After a (predictably) rocky start Coach and the (our) team did just fine. Remember that Coach Ara “Ara stop the snow” Parseghian has said that a great defense is the first thing you worry about, and Coach K has brought in some doozers in his first recruiting class.

      Is he a big time coach? Yes. Is he the right man for the job? Yes.

      Is it just a game? Yes.

      206 days until the season starts!