Undefeated Through Six

Part I of IrishEyes' review of Brian Kelly's first six months on the job.

Three years of football-driven heartache has given way to six months of marital bliss between Notre Dame's 29th head coach and the bulk of the program's followers.

Though his first 187 days, Brian Kelly has roused the increasingly cynical Irish fan base, a old-school Notre Dame fans have invoked the name 'Parseghian' whilst waxing poetic of the program's new leader.

The initially spoiled but suddenly sullen 35-40-year old sect: those that came of age in the Holtz years, now eagerly reminisce about times past and returning to the level of play achieved yearly from '87 through '93.

A lost generation of Irish fans, those forced to define the phrase "moral victory" and elicit potential positives therein, have allowed themselves to believe a winner has finally taken the reigns.

Students of Notre Dame Football history – another way of describing members of each group above that have simply been beaten down by one…or five-too-many 30-point defeats over the past decade – remain understandably wary, but nonetheless optimistic regarding the horizon.

Kelly immediately endeared himself to the Irish fan base, both through his singular focus on playing championship football and with his infectious attitude on the alumni speaking circuit.

He's undefeated and untied at Notre Dame, and hasn't lost a college football game in the last 18 months.

That first loss will likely occur after month 21, 22, or 23 this fall. But before that eventuality, we have a chance to examine the story lines that have defined Kelly's first six months at the helm.

Formation of a staff takes precedent

It was one of the first questions posted in our 4-on-1 interview with the new head man in December: What was Kelly's initial day-to-day priority upon accepting the job?

The coach rightly (in this reader's opinion) placed an emphasis on staff assembly rather than scrambling for across-the-board contact with each existing high school senior who had verbally committed to the former staff.

Though that course of action likely sent prior prospects elsewhere, and though Irish fans can't form an accurate assessment of the 2010 group of assembled assistants until at least next January, the thought-process was sound: Kelly couldn't develop players over the next four-plus years without tutors he could trust.

The group included the retention and reassignment of former running backs coach Tony Alford to the wide receiver unit, as well as the addition of an experienced offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Ed Warinner to guide Kelly's first offensive line through the transition to a spread system.

Six of the staff additions (Chuck Martin, Mike Denbrock, Bob Diaco, Charley Molnar, Tim Hinton, and Mike Elston) had worked with Kelly previously; the latter four at his previous stop in Cincinnati. Another (Kerry Cooks) nearly worked with Kelly at Central Michigan, but a BCS job opportunity (at Minnesota) took precedent.

He publicly named another trusted assistant, Strength & Conditioning coach Paul Longo, to one of his three leadership positions (along with the team's coordinators, Diaco and Molnar).

Early opinions and observations lean heavily positive as players appear to respond to the singular message preached from the staff as well as its individual instruction, but no coaching staff has proved its wares after completing 15 spring practices and a controlled Stadium scrimmage.

Recruitniks are apt to disagree, pointing to power programs' consistent ability to hoard talent as the key to on-field success and college football supremacy, but I believe Kelly's emphasis and trust in his own player evaluation methods, and subsequent approach to player development will key to the rebirth of the Irish program.

Class on the Fly – 2010 Recruiting

"We hope that this becomes a class like the 1946 class…that 1946 class came in and graduated without losing a football game here at the University of Notre Dame. That is the only way we want our guys to think. That they're coming in here to win."

– Brian Kelly, National Signing Day 2010.

I'm certain Kelly's first recruiting class will fall short of his expectations. I'm equally sure they'll exceed the level of on-field success achieved by each of the previous six (dating back through 2004), and optimistic they'll rank as the most successful group at the school since at least the recruiting class of ‘93 (12 losses in four seasons).

If Kelly has suffered a perceived misstep in his first six months it would be among the recruiting community for the final signed product of 2010.

Scout.com ranked the 23-player class of 2010 No. 19 overall (it would rank lower at present due to the death of Matt James and forthcoming transfer of Spencer Boyd). Kelly and the program's lone retained assistant, Tony Alford, embarked on the ‘10 recruiting process in its final stages and with a pair of distinct disadvantages to overcome: staff uncertainty (and all elements contained therein) and a tattered, formerly respected product to sell.

The former is no longer an issue; the latter, TBD.

If four and five-star recruits do indeed make Kelly wary as he indicated in April 2009, his first recruiting haul should allow him sleep at night: Kona Schwenke, Louis Nix, Christian Lombard and Alex Welch are the only such athletes set to arrive on campus this summer, while the already impressive Tai-ler Jones has lived up to that billing through 15 career practices.

The class's ultimate success lies in the hands of the 14 remaining supposed 3-star-level athletes that await Kelly's guidance. (Or, however unlikely, in the emergence of the tandem of two-star diamonds hoping to fight through the five-year rough that awaits.)

Its unlikely Kelly's first class will be his best or most successful…then again, few predicted the current collection of Irish seniors would threaten the program record for futility, either.

Coach-speak 101: mission accomplished

The next Notre Dame head coach to step in and offer nothing but effusive praise of the existing situation and personnel will likely be the program's first.

Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz were forced to change the culture; Dan Devine brought professionalism (and considering the legendary figure whom he replaced, grit and a thick skin, en route to a National Title). Bob Davie brought a breath of fresh air and youthful exuberance; Tyrone Willingham offered much-needed organization and discipline; Charlie Weis infused a quick dose of confidence and offensive precision.

In other words: something's always broken and in a state of disrepair…or so we're told.

Brian Kelly's task is likely closest to that of Parseghian and Holtz – two coaches who took over floundering programs not bereft of talent, but in need of a cultural °180.

The new sheriff hit the ground running, with a pointed focus at the perceived top of the Irish talent pool:

Kelly on Manti Te'o: "He has to get much better as a football player. He wasn't very good (last year) and he understands that."

Kelly adroitly complimented Te'o prior to and after those statements. But the point was well-taken: Te'o was a freshman with untapped talent, not Everybody's All-American.

Kelly on Michael Floyd: "Michael Floyd has work to do as well. The volume that we're going to throw at him is new. He's lost a lot of weight; he's down into the 216 to 217-range from 233 when we got here because he just would not have been able to stay on field with our pace of play."

Kelly didn't single out either player; he was asked direct questions regarding both and took the opportunity to make it public that two perceived Irish deities were part of the existing 15-21 W/L culture. Neither player could (or should) have taken the criticisms as a personal affront – and if they had, Kelly would know to look elsewhere for team leadership in the spring.

The Irish head coach is reportedly a taskmaster of quarterbacks…you can bet Michael Floyd will receive similar treatment as the key cog in Kelly's spread offense in Year One.

Kelly regarding the wide receivers: A respected quartet of summer college football annuals (Lindy's, Athlon, The Sporting News, and Phil Steele) offered enthusiastic praise for the Notre Dame pass catching unit, with Lindy's ranking the group as the nation's best unit.

The group's head coach failed to embrace outside enthusiasm.

"…But boy we just need time at that position. That's one area that's a work in progress, Kelly noted midway through the spring session."

Prior to the Blue Gold Game, Kelly added of the group: "We need more time. We need all summer and we need pre-season camp. They're working hard (but) I can tell you this: the one thing that will be absolutely crucial is their work volume will have to go up this summer. Coach Longo knows that those receivers just got tired for us too quickly in our offense and we'll work hard on that."

Challenging every roster member, from the perceived No. 1 (Floyd) to No. 85 is Kelly's approach. And it remains necessary if the Irish are to emerge from mediocrity.

It Happens Every Spring – Mike Ragone

What's that they say about idle hands?

Nary will an off-season or semester break pass without disciplinary action befalling an athlete at Notre Dame or one from the majority of the football program's nationwide.

Ragone's May arrest for marijuana possession has yet to be adjudicated in either the court system or the University's Office of Residence Life. Baseless speculation – each Res Life case is treated individually, thus, no precedent has been set for Ragone's individual disciplinary hearing – points to a semester suspension for Ragone, though action will technically be determined by the senior's disciplinary history at the University (which is not a matter of public record).

One of the stars of the Blue Gold Game in April, if Ragone is allowed to return to the field in 2010 he'll likely see quality playing time in two-tight end sets with junior starter Kyle Rudolph. Ragone possesses solid hands and near-receiver speed in a 6'3" 250-pound frame and was lauded by Kelly for his spring efforts.

If Ragone must endure a fall semester suspension from the University, he could apply to return in the spring and would have another season of eligibility remaining (due both to the suspension and a 2008 season lost to injury).

If fortunate enough to return next fall or in the future, the first serious disciplinary case of Kelly's Irish tenure will then be forced to answer to his head coach, as well.

Ragone's already truncated career is at a crossroads and will remain in limbo until at least the outset of the University's summer semester later this month.

Note: Part II of our review of Kelly's first six months will be published Tuesday.

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