Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

State of the Union

February 13, 2018

With a full year under our belt after the infamous 4-8 season in 2016, I think it’s time to look back, and forward, and discuss where the Notre Dame football program is under Irish head coach, Brian Kelly.  There’s no question progress has been made.  What can we expect in the future?  

I’ll admit, I was skeptical Kelly could pull it off.  Coming off a 4-8 season, and hiring six new coaches seems like a recipe for disaster.  However, I think Kelly did the smartest thing he could do after last season, and I’ve been in a similar situation myself.  As a leader, you have to look at yourself.  If things aren’t going well, it’s your fault, and while sometimes a tough pill to swallow, it needs to be done for any progress to be made.  

When my parents died a few years ago, in back-to-back years, I’ll admit, I checked out.  Being far away from home, you feel guilty.  I could’ve done more.  I should’ve done more.  I should’ve been a better son.  I should’ve called more, although it seemed I spoke to one or the other every day.  

Just the sure magnitude of losing the two people who had the biggest impact in your life so closely together (and two beloved dogs at the same time), really made it hard for me to focus or even care.  My business suffered.  I don’t think I was a “bad boss” in that I was difficult to work for.  I just couldn’t bring myself to care and work hard like I had in the past.  My business suffered because of it, but hopefully we’re on the upswing again.  Thank you to the many of you who stuck with us during this time.  I greatly appreciate it.  

I needed to look at myself, and the job I was doing, which wasn’t a good one, and decide what I wanted to do.  I knew I had a great team, the best team I had ever assembled, and all they needed was me to get back into the game.  I decided to get back in the game, and I’m really happy I did.  

For Kelly, I think he was in a similar situation, and I respected him for admitting it.  He probably thought he was going to be “the Savior of Notre Dame Football” when he took this job, and I hope he did think that because that’s the mindset needed to fix this, but he caught some real bad luck early, and likely found out the job is a lot harder than many realize.  

Rick Kimball/ISD
Jerry Tillery

Kelly put his plan in place after such a bad season, as did I when I realized I was a big part of the problem, and I think his plan was a sound one, at least the results appear to be trending that way.  He certainly made some good hires, and addressed a lot of things that had been needing attention for quite some time like strength and conditioning, recruiting, staff, and most important, his own effort and attention to detail.  

The results were pretty good.  10-3 with an important bowl victory and strong recruiting class.  

It’s sad that a lot of Irish fans look at the 2017 season and all they seem to remember is the November collapse.  I’ll admit, I have a hard time overlooking that as well, but there were a lot of good things that happened in September and October.  In fact, there was a stretch there for a time where Notre Dame was playing the best football I had ever seen them play….think about that.  The best they had ever played.  

Was that fools gold?  Was November the real Notre Dame, or was September and October the real Notre Dame?  

Kelly made a strong, dedicated, and concentrated effort on doing the one thing the three previous coaches had failed to do…change the culture and mindset of the Notre Dame football program.

For those of you who have been reading my rantings and ramblings for 20 years, you know that I’ve been harping on this subject for over 20 years, but it’s because it’s true.  No ND head coach, no matter how successful they’ve been elsewhere, will fix this problem until they fix the culture of the Notre Dame football program.  Landing elite five-star players won’t fix it.  You need to change the mindset and attitude of how your team prepares for games and the season.  

There is both a mental and physical toughness that great teams have.  Kelly is trying to address the physical with Matt Balis, but the mental part…well, that’s a lot harder to do.  

That mental toughness and focus didn’t show up for the Miami game as it had all the previous games last season, and that mental funk hung around for the Navy game, and the air went completely out of the balloon at the end of the Stanford game.  Was it the ridiculous travel the Notre Dame football team had to endure?  Or was it the ridiculous schedule of having to play ranked teams in Georgia, Michigan State, and then back-to-back-to-back ranked teams in USC, NC State and Wake Forest before having to travel to Miami to face another top ranked team?  Was it a combination of both?  What about the academic load?  

Even great teams have bad days, and it’s too much to expect for any team to be on top of their game every week.  You just have to hope your off days are against opponents where your talent will finally take over.  

It was probably too much to expect Notre Dame football to be completely fixed in such a short period of time, but I think the real issue was the Irish were playing so well in September and October, that it was difficult to accept when they didn’t.  

Even Ara’s run in his first season ran out of gas at USC.  

I think the biggest disappointment for most Notre Dame fans from the 2017 season was how extremely unprepared the Irish appeared to be to play Miami, and then the downward slide that happened in the next two games.  

Rick Kimball/ISD
Te'Von Coney

That is the next fix for Brian Kelly, and he clearly knows this as well.  How do you get your team to be mentally focused and both physically and mentally tough for all the games?  While an occasional Miami is going to happen—look at OSU at Iowa last year—it’s what you do AFTER that turd that defines your program and who you are.  In Notre Dame’s case, more turds were yet to come.  Kelly simply needs to figure out how to get his team refocused and back to business after a poor performance.  That’s how you get from 10 to 12 wins.  More talent and better coaching keeps you at 12 wins.  

What gives me hope are two things.  One: Notre Dame came out ready to play against LSU, and they won a hard-fought game against a quality opponent when most felt they’d pack it in for the season.  That was impressive.  Two:  Kelly and his staff worked very hard to close out the 2018 recruiting class.  It was organized, it was effective, and they filled their needs and closed strong.  True, they didn’t get the two elite players left on the board, but give me another 10+ win season and I bet they do next year.  

Consistency is what Kelly needs to build.  There is no question that he’s built up this program to greater heights than any of the three previous coaches, and to Kelly’s credit, his roster is stronger in depth than it’s ever been since he’s been here.  A lot of the hard work is already done.  

Now comes the hardest job of all…finally changing the culture for good.   Understand, Kelly didn’t just fix the culture in September and October.  He and his team won in January, February, March, April, May, June and July and August to prepare them for September and October.   They just need to get over that final hump.  

But most important, when the bad game comes, and it will come, the leadership and culture need to take over and remind this team of all their hard work the previous 10 months, and not letting that go to waste because of one bad game.  That is the task at hand….the final piece for Kelly.  Fix that, and consistency will come.  With consistency comes confidence and trust in the program and coaches.  That confidence and trust brings the elite players.  

I felt there were times where Davie, Willingham and Weis were close to this crossroads as well, some a lot closer than others.  It didn’t end well for them.  What will Kelly’s Notre Dame legacy be?  

The table is set for Brian Kelly and Notre Dame football to take the next step in 2018.  The goal should not just be “consistency” and winning 10 games again.  It should be to make a statement.  

The Irish will have 10 starters returning on defense, but that doesn’t include the considerable depth Notre Dame has as well.  They have a solid two-deep front four with all eight players playing considerable minutes the previous year (and more behind them playing more than just garbage minutes).  Hardly any team will have that depth.  

They have a loaded secondary with tons of experience.  Four corners who have played many minutes for Notre Dame including an elite one in Julian Love.  Three safeties who have a lot playing and starting time, and Alohi Gillman added to the mix, and he might be the most talented and productive of them all at the end of the season.

Two of the very best players on this defense are at linebacker.  They may not have as much depth at linebacker as in the front or secondary, but two of the very best players on the entire team are linebackers.  

This should be one impressive defense in 2018.  

On offense, they essentially have four starters returning at O-line.  The Irish have two experienced running backs.  They have tight ends with experience.  Some receivers with experience.

The Irish have a quarterback with a full year of starting experience who is vastly talented.  They have a backup who has proven he’s more effective leading the offense than the starter, which will give Kelly security that at least someone can lead the offense if the starter cannot progress enough.  

While I don’t expect this group to average 40 points a game, there is enough talent and experience to be a very good offense with some good coaching behind it.  

All signs point to at least accomplishing consistency with 10 wins.  I will be disappointed if they only win 10 with this roster.  

Now is the time for the Irish to build upon the culture they created last year, and Kelly, once again, needs to show he’s there leading every step of the way.  You can’t keep jumping back in and out of the game.  Kelly needs to be fully invested again this season, and continuing to improve upon what’s already been built.  Keep tweaking and fixing what’s left to be fixed.  

Recruiting is as strong as it’s ever been in focus and timeliness in all the years I’ve been following this.  There is a lot to like about what Kelly is building with ND football.  Can he take it that next step?  I don’t know, but I’m excited to watch and find out.  


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