Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

Unprecedented Season Should Highlight Notre Dame HC Brian Kelly's Strengths

September 12, 2020

There was a time not too long ago, when today seemed like wishful thinking.

When college football teams officially reconvened on campuses across the country in June, there was a sense of optimism, which was only heightened as several weeks of testing revealed that players weren’t just safe within the structure of their programs, they were probably safer inside the program than outside.

Then, the students returned in August.

Within a matter of weeks, confidence levels plummeted as fast as COVID-19 test results rocketed. Speculation eventually shifted from whether or not college students across the country would be sent home to whether college football would march on when regular students were eventually sent home.

By the second weekend of August, the smart money was that we were mere days away from everything collapsing. Instead, while the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced the cancellations of their seasons, the SEC, Big 12 and ACC – spurned on by a new, albeit temporary, full-time member in Notre Dame ­– would stay the course.

There were still – and will still be more – bumps in the road, but here we are.

The Irish and the rest of the ACC open up play for the 2020 season today.

And it’s hard not to get the sense that Brian Kelly believes his program has been better situated to deal with months of turmoil than most.

Whether it was COVID-19 or the emergence massive social justice movement, Kelly always offered a measured, yet optimistic approach to what it all meant and how the sport could survive and, in some ways, thrive. His was a welcomed voice on the national stage among hysteria on both sides of the discussion.

Kelly has always viewed his role as the leader of the program as larger than anything to do with X’s and O’s – heck it’s the reason he was hired at Notre Dame in the first place – and he only doubled down on that belief following the disastrous 2016 season.

The Irish have gone 33-6 with a pair of bowl wins and a berth in the College Football Playoff since that self-reflection, yet it’d be easy to understand Kelly if he believed this season more than the previous three will highlight his strengths as a head coach.

“Football is still really a simple game,” Kelly said this offseason. “It’s about the organization, it’s about the relationships, it’s about getting the most out of your young men on a day-to-day basis.”

Kelly makes note of missing spring practice, having limited workouts this summer and even multiple missed practices during fall camp. But he mentions them almost matter-of-factly, never as excuses and always includes the fact that it’s the same for virtually everybody.

He’s expressed a quiet, yet unmistakable confidence in this year’s roster with a veteran quarterback, belief in the running game and speed and athleticism on defense. Just this week, he noted that he thinks his roster is better shape this year than last, when it was probably a win away from a repeat CFB Playoff appearance.

In fact, Kelly almost seems more concerned about how the previous several months could negatively impact the makeup of his roster in 2022 than being at a disadvantage in 2020.

This offseason was about more than hitting strength and conditioning bench marks or self-scout or installing new schematic wrinkles.

It’s been offseason that forced coaches to deal with a host of new issues, but back in June, Kelly said confidently, “I think I’ve been properly trained to do that.”

In many ways, the lead-up to the 2020 college football season has been a microcosm of the unprecedented year we’ve lived in so far.

And somehow, it seems like the offseason Kelly has been preparing for his entire career.

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