Following five long months of failure and negativity, Brian Kelly and his new staff turned the light back on Notre Dame football, shining a positive glow on a program that was deemed extinguished when the 2016 season came to a close.
It was an uphill struggle every step of the way. The uncertainty of the coaching mix throughout December as well as the significant losses at defensive end and cornerback during the recruiting process gave the impression the Irish would not be able to recover.
For some, nothing will compensate for the decision to retain Kelly. Everything will be tainted for those who see no light at the end of the tunnel with Kelly entering his eighth season at Notre Dame. Understood.
But a quick review, now in retrospect, offers insight into just how far Notre Dame has come in the last two months plus.
The hiring of Mike Elko as defensive coordinator and Brian Polian as special teams coordinator are, by any measure, a significant upgrade. It remains to be seen what impact up-and-comer Chip Long will have on the offensive side of the football.
But a solid mesh with Kelly’s philosophy – plus a much-needed infusion of youth and fresh ideas – in and of itself is a positive step forward, particularly if Long can maximize a talented tight end corps and a more physical approach on the offensive side of the ball.
When it comes to recruiting prospects with whom you’ve had a mere window of an opportunity to land, Kelly and his staff pulled off a minor miracle down the stretch.
In a brief visit with Notre Dame recruiting coordinator Mike Elston following Wednesday’s seven-hour extravaganza, he admitted that two weeks earlier, he wasn’t sure where the next commitment would come from. Six more were added to the tally after that, and they weren’t throw-ins.
In short, Notre Dame landed two four-star prospects listed as three stars (Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa), two physically-mature three stars (Jordan Genmark Heath and Jafar Armstrong), a raw but skilled three-star defensive end (Kofi Wardlow), and an athletic kicker (Jonathan Doerer) who should immediately step in as a kickoff man to reduce the wear and tear on Justin Yoon.
Such recoveries rarely occur in the today’s two-year process of recruiting. While it doesn’t erase the loss/need of early-impact defensive ends – which ultimately separates the great from the good – and the swing-and-miss at cornerback, perspective is in order.
Once the Irish fell to 4-8 in 2016 with the inevitable defections in the recruiting class, this was no longer going to be a top 10 class. To finish a legitimate No. 13 on multiple recruiting sites is impressive. The rankings would be even more impressive – for what that’s worth – if Owusu-Koramoah and Tagovailoa-Amosa were appropriately listed as four-star prospects.
Kudos to Notre Dame’s publicity department for allowing the media exposure and a much-needed insight into the new football coaching staff Monday when the seven new assistants were introduced, and again Wednesday during the signing day extravaganza.
• Mike Elko’s game plan to maximize talent -- In addition to the implementation of what has proven to be effective at stops like Bowling Green and Wake Forest, there’s already considerable evidence that Elko has a firm grasp on how to maximize the talent on hand.
The proposed move of Drue Tranquill (and others) to the Rover position is an ideal fit, certainly compared to how he was utilized in the Brian VanGorder system. Nuances such as Devin Studstill playing strong safety to utilize his skills as a downhill defender while moving Jalen Elliott to free safety is a logical use of talent as well.
There’s talk of moving Nick Coleman and Ashton White from cornerback to safety to balance the depth chart. Using Nick Watkins and Donte Vaughn as boundary corners with Shaun Crawford, Julian Love and Troy Pride, Jr. employed at field corner is the most appropriate use of their skills, which is a trend we expect to continue.
• Chip Long and the offensive plan – Long said the Irish will be in 12 personnel, one running back and two tight ends, 60 percent of the time. Tight end is an extreme asset with the likes of Alize Jones, Durham Smythe, Nic Weishar, Tyler Luatua, Brock Wright and Cole Kmet. If you didn’t emphasize that talent, you’d be short-changing your assets.
That would not have happened with the Kelly-Mike Denbrock-Mike Stanford triumvirate.
When you first heard that Long, 33-years-old, would be the new offensive coordinator, and when you watched how his Memphis offense approached things with an offensive line not nearly as talented/physically capable as Notre Dame’s, there were huge question marks about the hire.
Now that we’ve had two excellent opportunities to pick his brain, we have a much better insight into Long. Long is not your typical 33-year-old. There’s a maturity to him that belies the perceived precociousness. His plan to use his greatest assets is impressive.
As significant of an addition as Sanford was a year ago – although Sanford was never given the responsibilities that Long has been afforded – Long is every bit as impressive if not more, particularly with the emphasis on a more physical approach.
• Polian on special teams – Polian talked to Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley about the near impossible job of coordinating special teams while having duties with the defensive backs and linebackers in his previous stint at Notre Dame. That’s too much to ask of one coach.
Kelly mentioned that if Polian contributes beyond special teams, it would be on the offensive side of the football. But most if not the vast majority of Polian’s time will be strictly on special teams.
Polian is a quality special teams coach who will infuse his special brand of motivation/insistence on excellence on a team with more than enough athletes to make it a successful venture. He’s at the one school he wanted to be if he couldn’t be a head coach. That’s noteworthy as well.
Reality sets in pretty quickly when you’re part of the best and most competitive basketball conference in the country.
Notre Dame’s flaws were masked while shooting to a 6-1 mark, due largely to “ninth-inning saves” on the road against Pittsburgh, Miami and Virginia Tech.
Those flaws were exposed against Virginia and Duke at home, and on the road against Georgia Tech. Another potential light-shining moment awaits the Irish in Chapel Hill against North Carolina Saturday.
Quality opponents have revealed Notre Dame’s blemishes on the backboards while its typical offensive efficiency has taken a hit. Mix in a sudden downturn at the free-throw line and you have the anatomy of a basketball rut.
A degree of relief is just around the corner – post-North Carolina – as the schedule turns in Notre Dame’s favor. Over the final seven games, the Irish face Wake Forest and Florida State at home, Boston College and N.C. State on the road, Georgia Tech and Boston College at home, and Louisville on the road in the regular-season finale.
Assuming a loss to the Tar Heels, the Irish will fall to 6-5 in the ACC with a legitimate chance to go 5-2 down the stretch. That would lift Notre Dame to 11-7 at the end of conference play and likely place them among the top seven – at worst – in the ACC.
That’s a far cry from what looked like a double-bye in the ACC tournament, although attrition likely will strike some of the other top six programs vying for the coveted top-four spot.
Steve Vasturia has suddenly turned cold. Matt Farrell’s dissection of defenses has been curtailed. The inability of Martin Geben and Austin Torres to provide offensive productivity commensurate to their minutes is now blatantly obvious.
Rex Pflueger and T.J. Gibbs are no longer sure things off the bench. (Gibbs came up big in the second half against Duke.) V.J. Beachem’s dry spells have been less frequent, although a player who relies on the three-pointer as his calling card can go cold against quality competition.
Wins versus Pittsburgh, Clemson, Miami, Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Louisville, a combined 25-31, and losses to Virginia, Florida State, Duke and Georgia Tech, a combined 24-14, is revealing.
And yet after North Carolina, Notre Dame’s seven remaining opponents have a current combined 29-40 ACC record, including 7-3 Florida State and 5-5 but dangerous Georgia Tech at Purcell Pavilion.
It’s when the Irish appear to be fading that Mike Brey has been at his best. Despite the exposure of recent flaws, this is when the Irish have “shocked the ACC world” in recent seasons. A similar recovery is needed – and expected – once again.