The most important season of Brian Kelly’s coaching career might be several months away. In the midst of a tumultuous offseason, and spring around the corner, there is much to speculate about.
Here are two major reasons why Notre Dame will succeed this fall
Notre Dame Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick came out to the media last week to discuss and confirm how Brian Kelly has implemented corrective action to address the program’s recent struggles. This was manifested no more than in the overhaul of coaching changes that have taken place since the surprisingly premature culmination to the 2016 Irish football season.
A new Offensive Coordinator in Chip Long brings life to a Notre Dame offense that struggled to execute in times of adversity. Long, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, comes to South Bend after transforming the Memphis Tigers’ offensive into a top 20 unit. Some will also be glad to hear that Coach Kelly will be delegating all play calling duties to Long.
On the defensive side, Notre Dame has welcomed a new coordinator in Mike Elko. Elko comes to the Irish most recently as the Defensive Coordinator at Wake Forest, a familiar ACC opponent of Notre Dame. His defensive leadership propelled the Demon Deacons into a class of defensive performance previously unrealized by that program. Elko has received high praise from many successful past players, including now Tampa Bay Buccaneer, Jude Adjei-Barimah who tweeted at Elko following the hire, calling him ‘the best kept secret in college football’. A new defensive mindset will be the largest breath of fresh air for Notre Dame faithful.
Another area of criticism that has been addressed this offseason is the Strength and Conditioning program. Time and time again over the previous season, it appeared that the Irish would simply run out of gas in the fourth quarter. This prompted Coach Kelly to relieve Paul Longo of his duties as the Director of the program in December. This paved the way for Matt Ballis to step in, and he has already made an impact on his players through winter workouts. The positive reception of Coach Ballis has been seen consistently on social media by Irish players.
Last, but not least: The Achilles heel of this season, Special Teams. A unit that was plagued by costly mental mistakes throughout the season is in need of serious change before it takes the field against Temple. Overseen by Scott Booker last year, a new, yet familiar face will assume the role of Special Teams Coach next season. Brian Polian, who held this same role under Charlie Weis, will be back in South Bend after a four year stint as Head Coach of the Nevada Wolfpack
Following the 2015 Notre Dame season, this team put ten departing players into the NFL, and saw additional seasoned veterans move on. This mass exodus of the cornerstone of the Irish roster proved to be extremely impactful, as the roster was then left as one of the youngest in Notre Dame football history.
Recently, Notre Dame’s roster has lacked key playmakers and leadership figures that we would see close out games and propel the team to victory. This was no secret, and was acknowledged by Brian Kelly himself. Being such a young and inexperienced roster, a true leader was hard to come by and this team was forced to grow up and mature at a much quicker pace than the typical progression.
A silver lining of the injury and player dismissal issues that have plagued Notre Dame over the last two seasons is the amount of game experience garnered by true freshman and sophomores. Players such as Julian Love, Josh Adams, and Daelin Hayes show promise as the young guns looking to make an impact this coming season. Notre Dame will return a large majority of its starting lineup on both offense and defense this coming year which should translate to a well-rounded product on the field.
Now, a couple reasons why Notre Dame will fail to meet expectations in 2017
Bleacher Report recently ranked college football’s top 25 toughest schedules for the coming season. Notre Dame’s came in at 10th. The Irish open up the season at home against Temple, a program that continues to raise eyebrows, but will be a question mark this year without Matt Rhule who left the Owls for the head coaching job at Baylor. But that’s the least of Notre Dame’s concerns. Elite opponents such as Georgia, USC, Stanford, and teams on the rise such as Miami and North Carolina on the road will be difficult obstacles for the Irish to overcome. Notre Dame is no stranger to difficult schedules and perhaps got off easy last season with some familiar foes having down years, but the Irish couldn’t capitalize. Don’t count on this story repeating for next year. A talented young team and a new batch of coaches might not be enough to survive this gauntlet of opponents.
Seemingly contradicting to point number two on the list above, this aspect is more in reference to questions surrounding player development. There is also a consideration to be made around recruiting gaps on defense, specifically the defensive secondary dating back a couple years which created a hiccup in the typical progression of talent and tenure.
While in-game experience is one thing that every returning Irish player has now gained from the season prior, what remains in question is the degree of development and the overall talent capacity. There will still be a lot for these young players to learn in order to be competitive against the best teams in the nation.
Whether the blame lies in prescribed scheme or the execution, it was apparent that the output of player performance was far below expectations in 2016, especially on the defensive side of the ball. There is reason to believe this can improve through the coaching staff changes taking place, but will simpler, more player specific sets and schemes be enough to bring a defense that ranked in the bottom tier of Division 1 to the top?