Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Kelly: Two Keys to Playoff Contention

Brian Kelly has focused on a pair of key components he believes can propel Notre Dame into the third annual college football playoffs.

It’s the reality of football’s modern era: yards are easy to come by.

Notre Dame’s offense – and it’s defense – can readily attest.

Over the last two seasons, the Irish defense has surrendered 4,845 and 5,254 yards, respectively. The latter number, the total allowed in 2014, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s first season at the helm, marks the highest total in program history.

But on directly related note, head coach Brian Kelly’s offense produced 5,784 yards in 2014 (the most in program history) then obliterated that record, accruing 6,003 yards last fall.

*For the sake of reference, the previous top two offenses in terms of yardage were 2005 (5,728) and 1991 (5,460). As well, Kelly’s 2015 offense produced nearly 1,000 more yards (one thousand!) than did Brady Quinn’s 2006 squad under Charlie Weis.

As the saying goes, “’Yards’ happen.” More than at any point in the game’s history. That’s why Kelly has one charge for his defense entering the 2016 campaign.

“I think we have to keep the points down,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Yards are happening; make ‘em kick field goals.”

“We couldn’t keep the points down when we needed to last year,” he continued. “The circumstances of the Clemson game, we could have overcome, and (additionally) you probably would have had a bigger argument if we win the Stanford game (a contest in which Notre Dame yielded 38 points). The way Clemson beats up Oklahoma (in the playoffs), everyone would have said, ‘Notre Dame should have been in.’

“Keep the points down and continue to build on your quarterback.”

The former is, at least at this point, beyond Kelly’s immediate control. The latter? Turning yards into points? That fate lies with his offense once it smells the goal line.

NO MORE DEAD ZONE?

The 2014 Irish (quarterbacked by Everett Golson) reached a Kelly-era best 64.5 percent touchdown percentage rate in its 62 red zone visits (40 TD scored). Yet the more balanced and explosive 2015 offense struggled when it broached the opponents’ 20-yard line, scoring touchdowns just 58.4 percent of the time (31 TD in 53 trips).

Kelly is confident touchdowns will follow red zone forays this fall when a more mature, experienced DeShone Kizer and/or senior Malik Zaire are at the controls.

“You have to trust the route combinations and you have to understand the defensive structure,” Kelly told Irish Illustrated over the summer. “A lot of times, you’re throwing with a blindfold on. A young quarterback doesn’t trust it. He doesn’t let it go when he doesn’t see him open.

“(Receivers) are not open long. It’s like that (snaps fingers). Passing windows open and close like that. So it’s really just trusting the routes, trusting what you see, and letting it go. It comes with experience and it comes with watching a lot of film and seeing it. Just trusting it and letting it go.

“They’re very hesitant to do that. (Young) QBs don’t want to turn it over. They don’t want to be the guy that turns it over.”

Kelly focused his training camp practices to eradicate the offense’s Achilles Heel.

“I put together all the practice plans to spend almost double the time that we had last year (in camp) in the red zone. And so (Kizer’s) gotten so much more work, him and Malik in particular. I think that extra work has just afforded (Kizer) a more comfortable level in that area.

“He's working the areas in the red zone so much more efficiently, and I think he's grown to the level that I have wanted him, both him and Malik.”

As for the aforementioned 65 percent effort in 2014?

“That’s the (target) number,” Kelly noted of a red zone effort waylaid not by conversion percentages but rather the calamitous turnovers that accompanied the scattered failures. “And I’ve been at times, at 70 percent (in Cincinnati). We feel like we can be back in there.”

DEFENSE, DEPTH IS THE KEY

The pieces, new ones to be sure, are in place.

And talent – untested and nowhere near fully developed – is plentiful.

Among Notre Dame’s projected starting 11 are an aggregate 44 recruiting stars per Scout.com. The final count shows nine 4-star prospects plus one 5-star and one 3-star, assuming Devin Studstill takes the reins at free safety.

-- 16 stars among a four-man defensive front (whether the Rush End is Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, or Daelin Hayes, that does not change).
-- 13 along the three-man linebacker crew (that includes if Asmar Bilal were to start over Greer Martini.)
-- 15 in the defensive backfield with Studstill likely to replace deposed 4-star Max Redfield.

Behind them? More highly touted prospects, ones intriguing to Kelly. And if you believe in his talent evaluation, or, coincidentally, that of Scout.com, Notre Dame’s defense is poised to produce.  

“I think it starts with depth, right?” Kelly said. “You have a system that employs both three-down and four-down and now has more (options) for man, nickel, and flexible sub packages on defense. So you need depth there. I think we've recruited to the depth of that defense.

“Now, albeit that they are young players, they are talented players that are going to have to play for us early in their career. But we feel like a number of them are in a position to play this year and they will have to play this year. We don't have the luxury to wait around for them to be second-, third-year players.”

OVERCOMING THE PAST

To date, youth and VanGorder’s complicated scheme have harmonized about as well as spring break and sobriety. But beyond the collection of 18, 19, and 20-year old talents is the following reality:

Aside from the likely employment of a rookie free safety, his starting unit is full of “system” guys:

The number in parenthesis denotes total training camps played in VanGorder’s system, 2016 included:

LCB (2), RCB (3), Nickel (2), SS (3), Sam (3), Mike (3), Will (3), Big End (3), NT (3), DT (3), and Rush End (3, 2, or 1).

The question is: will form follow function?

“Certainly from a defensive standpoint, we're going to be able to be multiple and do a lot of things and cause some confusion,” said Kelly. “I think we're going to do a very good job of playing the football.

“I think up front, we'll be able to stop the run and at times get after the quarterback. So I think defensively, we'll see a lot more of the things that everybody looks for from a defense that is much more pressure-oriented.”

Kelly’s vision for 2016, one offered to Irish Illustrated earlier this summer, remains clear as game week approaches. It’s the KISS Principle in full effect:

Put points (not just yards) on the board on offense. Allow yards, but not points, defensively.

“The two most important things in college football will be the play of your quarterback and a defense that keeps your points down,” he said.

Can the latter finally accompany the former?


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