He admitted that eight wins wasn't nearly enough, adding that the program nonetheless "Accomplished (many) of the real foundation principles of a championship program."
Aware of the clichés, he offered that the "first coat of paint" had been applied and that the "fight was back in the Fighting Irish."
Most important, he correctly pointed out that his initial charge as the head man – restoring defensive pride to the program – had come to fruition in the season's final month.
But music to the ears of Irish fans is that the process is ongoing. Kelly & Co. are involved in a 365-day coaching cycle, and 2011 preparations have begun in earnest.
Apples to orangesAsked specifically about the health of breakout sophomore tight end Tyler Eifert relative to last season (Eifert's career was in jeopardy due to a back injury at this time last winter), Kelly instead beamed about the team's overall state, relative to when he and his staff – notably Strength & Conditioning Coach Paul Longo – took over last season.
"I just talked to Coach Longo before I came down here and it's the first time I've seen him smile in a year," Kelly said. "And smile because we are so far along relative to where we were at this time. We had 15 surgeries last year. This year we have three. And (surgeries) that aren't going to hold people out for too long other than maybe Sean (Cwynar).
Those procedures include late-December shoulder surgery on Tyler Stockton and an effort to clean up bone spurs in safety Jamoris Slaughter's recurring ankle problem, one he incurred in a Game One start vs. Purdue.
"He had two bone spurs in there which really limited his ability to strike his heel," Kelly noted.
Cwynar's procedures appear to be the most serious heading into spring ball.
"He had both foot surgery – a stress fracture in his foot – as well as a discectomy (back surgery on the spine for a herniated disc)," Kelly offered. "He fought through it for most of the year, but when his reps went up when Ian (Williams) went down, he was putting a lot of load on that back which had been problematic but manageable in the role that he had (as a reserve)."
"But once he started to get past 30 reps it really took a toll on him so the procedure was done. We're feeling good about the back," Kelly continued, "but it's the foot that's probably going to keep him out for another 6-8 weeks."
Safety Dan McCarthy also had shoulder surgery following the season but Kelly noted he's already "moving around the weight room."
And apparently, he's not the only one, another major difference from this time last winter.
"The guys immediately know what to do it and how to do it," Kelly said of Longo's off-season program. "They have weight on their backs already. They're hitting the ground running. It's night and day."
Evaluation periodThe backbone of Kelly's tenure remains player development, an element he noted as a resounding success in Year One.
"The things I've pointed out and the way our team plays; how they compete; how they represent the University, and from my standpoint, the little things that don't get talked about when it comes to wins and losses – developing your players," he offered as the chief success of his first season. "Our team was better at the end of the year and they will continue to progress as we move forward to Year 2."
The next two months and a 15-practice spring session will offer the staff a chance to evaluate players in different roles. Last year's notable position switch involved promising tailback Theo Riddick's move to the slot. Could a similar front line move be in the works this winter?
"I think we're evaluating what our identity became, to where it was at the start of the season," Kelly noted of the stark difference between the team's offensive approach in September vs. November. "You could make the case now that Theo Riddick should be a running back (because the Irish began to rely on the running game). Or an offensive lineman that played tackle should play guard. Or you have 3-4 tight ends, how are you going to use them all?
"Year Two for us is less about a system of offense or defense or special teams, and more about utilizing the players we have that can help us win football games, because philosophy has been laid down," he continued. "The way we do things on a day-to-day basis has been laid down. Those ‘foundation items' are down. Now let's put our players in a position that they can help us win."
Will each player's course be set prior to August camp?
"I think you'd like to try to gain some continuity. We should be further along (than at this point last year) that we're able to say, ‘You're going to play here, and here's where we're going with that move and why we're doing it.
"So we'd like to have that stuff in position before we get into Summer Camp."
Since our first interview with Kelly last December it became apparent that off-season position switches would be the norm, not the exception. Each player will be given a chance to compete and earn field time – to the betterment of the team.
"Is a particular player better suited at left tackle (or) right tackle?" Kelly offered as part of his off-season evaluations. "Is he better suited at guard (or) center? So I think there are some decisions to be made on the offensive line.
"Wide receiver or defensive back? Those decisions have yet to be vetted out, totally."
(Note: For those attempting to read the tea leaves, remember, there are more than just first string players involved in the staff's evaluation process.)
"We're pretty certain as to where we fit relative to our defensive personnel," he continued. "I think a lot of this has to do with the way we started on offense vs. where we finished, and where the players best fit in the style of offense that we're going to play. All of those will be cleared up in short order."
Avoiding the fifth wheelThere's an old adage in pro football, "If you have two quarterbacks, you don't have a quarterback."
What if you have six?
"I have formulated in my mind some really clear guidelines as to how we're going to move forward (in the spring quarterback derby). I'm not going to share them with you right now because I haven't shared them with our quarterbacks," Kelly said.
"Suffice it to say that I'm pretty clear on the styles that we have and how to utilize those styles within our offense. Not everybody can run the style of offense that I would want us to be running, so we're going to utilize our quarterbacks to best help us win football games."
Whether each of the six scholarship competitors (Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees, Nate Montana, Andrew Hendrix, Luke Massa, and early enrollee Everett Golson) can win the Game One starting job is irrelevant. Or at least it will be by the time the first few spring practices kick-off in March.
"We can't work with six (QBs) so I can tell you right now we'll work with four quarterbacks," Kelly bluntly stated. "Again, I don't want to get into specifics but you can't work with six quarterbacks. There'll be some paring down; there'll be some guys that understand that if they're not in that top four, they're not going to be able to get reps at the position."
Is a position switch thus in the offering?
"That would be one of the options," he noted.
Awards ShowThe Irish will hold their 2010 Awards Show – an inaugural event replacing the former banquet format – today at DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.
Billed as, "A Celebration of the 2010 Fighting Irish," the event is sponsored by the Notre Dame Club of St. Joseph Valley. A reception and silent auction both begin at 3:45 p.m. EST, and the awards show program begins at 5:00 p.m. in the Leighton Concert Hall.
The reception will feature heavy hors d'oeuvres, complimentary soft drinks and water plus a cash bar for alcoholic beverages. Seating begins at 4:30 p.m. and the awards show program is scheduled to end by 6:30 p.m. so fans may attend the Notre Dame men's basketball game versus Marquette scheduled for 7 p.m. EST at Purcell Pavilion.
The program will include a video tribute to the 2010 Fighting Irish plus a series of awards honoring the Notre Dame football team and comments from head coach Brian Kelly.
Though additional awards are likely to be presented, our predictions for the traditional fare are as follows:
2010 Most Valuable Player: Michael Floyd (possibly to be shared with Manti Te'o)
Nick Pietrosante Award: Armando Allen
Knute Rockne Student-Athlete Award: David Ruffer
Lineman of the Year: Ian Williams
Guardian of the Year: Zack Martin