Led by Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood, and aided expertly by a veteran offensive line, the Irish ripped off 4.8 yards per rush (a 15-year high) and 25 rushing scores (the most since the run-only days of 1999).
Following the season, position coaches Tim Hinton (running backs) and Ed Warinner (offensive line) left for Ohio State while offensive coordinator Charley Molnar took the head job at Massachusetts. Each had been with Kelly's Irish for the first two seasons of his South Bend tenure. Continuity, not to mention had been broken.
Less than 12 months later, Notre Dame fans joined Kelly in self-congratulation over one of the nation's best coaching staffs and a No. 1 regular season finish. New additions Bob Elliott (safeties), Scott Booker (tight ends), and especially Harry Hiestand (offensive line) were celebrated as key components in the team's dramatic overall improvement. (And incidentally, the rushing attack bettered its average with 4.9 yards per pop, adding 23 scores.)
Remarkably, the entire 2012 staff remained intact for 2013.
"I think, when it comes to communication, I think that's probably the biggest plus," said Kelly prior to the season of the staff's continuity. "On a day-to-day basis, we know what to expect from each other, and it allows your practices to run so effectively because everybody knows what they're looking for.
"And then the message. Look, when something is said, it is echoed across the board with all the coaches, and that is, when there's one voice and there's one message and that goes across the board all the way down to the players, that's pretty powerful."
Team-wide attrition and myyriad factors contributed to an unexpected 8-4 finish -- a complete fall from grace after the preceding title run.
Now Kelly's program faces its second major upheaval. Two coordinators are gone, both of whom were with Kelly not only during his four seasons in South Bend, but at a previous coaching stop.
It's clear change isn't a death knell (and you can bet change or a "new era" will be a pre-spring theme for the 2014 squad).
Two hires are essential, even if the team's new coordinators are promoted from within.
Delicate Situation on DThe chief concern is on the defensive side of scrimmage where departed coordinator Bob Diaco was a driving force, consistent voice, and beloved figure for a group that's know only the 2012 Broyles Award winner as its leader.
His successor has a challenge ahead.
"I would tell you that the coordinator's job at Notre Dame, having been here for four years, requires a lot of experience in defending so many different looks," said Kelly. "One of the most important things is, you don't have a lot of knowledge of your opponents, unfortunately, with so many different teams that come in and off our schedule, so you have to have a great bank of experience.
"I think you have to have a great deal of experience coming into the position, but I don't want to paint myself into a corner and say you can't be (young). I really think (experience) helps. Now, you can gain a lot of that by maintaining continuity on your staff. I expect to do that. I expect to keep all my staff, other than losing my coordinators."
Cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks, one of Kelly's remaining 2010 hires, has served as the program's co-defensive coordinator for the last two seasons. Defensive line coach Mike Elston ranks as the undervalued key to the defense's ascent under the Kelly/Diaco regime, his unit evolving from laughable program weakness under the former staff to definitive strength.
Both are familiar with Diaco's scheme, an element to consider in a new hire. That scheme is not a base 3-4 as fans and media continually proclaim.
"I think we've talked about this before," said an exasperated Kelly of the supposed "3-4" scheme. "Last year, we were almost 50-50, three-down to four-down (fronts). As long as we have the ability to play both three- and four-down, and we have the ability to adjust to playing option, playing spreads, our defensive coaches and the schedule that we have, have to have a great deal of flexibility.
"The defensive coordinator has to have that ability to handle a variety of different offenses. It can't be, 'I just do this.' We've got to have some flexibility, and to do that, you've got to be able to run both three-down and four-down."
Kelly though admitted he's not one to ignore a young coaching prospect as a coordinator.
"I would never want to close a door. I was a first-time head coach at 27 years old, so I think I always remember about those who say you can't give a guy who's 27 years old a head coaching job. So I would never close that door."
A coordinator hired from the outside could cause unnecessary ripples. If pressed to guess (and in this case, it's indeed a guess): Kelly will instead employ the gestalt philosophy (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts) to his 2014 defensive staff -- Cooks and Elston will be named co-defensive coordinators with venerable safeties coach Bob Elliott, a coordinator at multiple coaching stops over a three-decade span, having ample input and guidance.
The defensive staff would need only a linebackers coach -- Diaco's former domain -- thereafter.