Brian Kelly was a 4-8 football coach in his seventh season at Notre Dame, and the Fighting Irish just concluded one of the worst statistical seasons in its program’s 128-year history.
Prior to this year, since taking over the program in 2010, Kelly had yet to finish a season with less than eight wins. Also on his resume maintains an undefeated regular season and National Championship appearance in 2012. More recently, he brought last year’s team to a BCS berth despite one of the most improbable series of player injuries throughout the year, completely decimating both the offensive and defensive squads. Everything was looking as if the program was on the rise and headed back to national glory.
And then, 2016 happened.
The 2016 Fighting Irish, a team which came into the fall ranked nationally in the top ten, endured a season consisting of historic disappointment, including home losses to both Duke and Michigan State, who have finished the year with a combined record of 7-17. It wasn’t long into the season before instigation occurred to painful reminders to a 3-9 endeavor under Charlie Weis in 2007. Not only were these seasons similar in a comparison of the final records, but also in the precursors present. Of last year’s starters, Notre Dame put ten players in the NFL including key offensive standouts Will Fuller and CJ Prosise who continue to make statements in the NFL as Rookies. Of Weis’ team in 2006, he saw eleven starters drafted prior to his 3-9 year. Additionally, Notre Dame went to back to back BCS games and was trending positively right before disaster struck almost a decade ago.
Examining these eerie similarities to a failed Charlie Weis era at ND, a current change at the helm may seem like a foregone conclusion. But this time, the situation deserves further examination of the complete body of work of Brian Kelly’s football program and the prospective future.
A common narrative we’ve heard this year in explanation of this year’s under-performance is that this team is young and inexperienced. The ‘youth card’ is often overlooked as a poor excuse and many believe it reflects on a failed internal player development structure. Brian Kelly deserves some of the blame here but this time, it deserves a second glance.
This roster is incredibly young. By roster grade, this is Notre Dame’s youngest team since 1972. Off the field issues ousted Max Redfield, Notre Dame’s most experienced returning defensive player and former five-star recruit out of Mission Viejo, California. This was also the fate of sophomore Cornerback Devin Butler who is facing felony charges for an incident early this fall, although Butler was unlikely to see much playing time this year due to an ankle injury suffered in summer practice. Losses of starters such as defensive back Shaun Crawford to injury early in the year certainly contributed to an overwhelming dependence on true freshman on the defensive side of the ball. Pair that with an overly complex Brian VanGorder defensive scheme, and Notre Dame’s horrendous defensive performance this year finally makes sense. Replacing VanGorder as Defensive Coordinator after the Duke loss and simplifying the defense didn’t save the season, but it improved the overall performance of the unit drastically and allowed players such as Jarron Jones come into his element and thrive. Look for Kelly to spend a considerable amount of time on the new hire for DC going into the offseason in hopes that whoever takes over can harness this young talent and continue to develop these players.
An unlikely positive aspect of Charlie Weis’ 3-9 season in 2007 was despite the miserable losses and bleak outlook, he managed to recruit the nation’s #2 ranked class of incoming freshmen. Notre Dame’s current 2017 class is not quite of the perceived caliber of 2008 which garnered NFL studs, Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, and Jonas Gray. However, they are still on track to post a top ten class despite a pair of recent four-star de-commits. Something to keep in mind when considering if Brian Kelly is the right guy to move this program forward is that since 2013, Notre Dame’s recruitment classes have an average rank of 8th nationally. It is important to consider the multitude of freshmen and sophomores who gained valuable experience this season, and the talent level of the incoming freshmen who are committed to Kelly and his system.
While the failure of 2016 ultimately falls upon Brian Kelly’s shoulders, don’t forget that on a larger scale, he is responsible for bringing Notre Dame back into the national spotlight. Be careful what you wish for, because with rising coaching stars such as Tom Herman (Houston) and Matt Rhule (Temple) in the crosshairs of power five programs and now spoken for at Texas and Baylor respectively, a coaching change must be a very calculated move. Simply put, Notre Dame would need to take a hard look at the field and assess who, of available and willing head coaches, would come in and do a better job with these developing players.
Coach Kelly, as deserved, gets one more shot to prove himself in 2017.