Kelly looks like right man for the job

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Pete Fiutak

Pete Fiutak writes previews, predictions and prognostications for


Everyone is looking for the new Urban Meyer, including Notre Dame, who had a shot at the actual version and blew it before hiring Charlie Weis. This time around, the program might have gotten it right.

While many in the Irish Nation were dreaming about the possibility of Meyer's jumping ship at Florida to take his one-time dream job and Bob Stoops was in the discussions for the highest-profile coaching job in sports, the hiring of Brian Kelly was exactly what the program needed after the uncomfortable world of insufferable arrogance created by Weis. Like all top coaches, Kelly is a taskmaster who can occasionally act like he’s curing cancer. But unlike Meyer, Stoops or especially Weis, he’s missing the jerk chromosome that’s considered endearing when the coach is winning big (see Nick Saban), but offers little to no margin for error when things go wrong (see Weis).

It could be argued that Weis, after a wildly fascinating season when his offense actually worked again and with 10 games decided by seven points or fewer, might have been given more opportunities if he was Pete Carroll-warm and fuzzy, but because he didn’t have the charisma or the charm to give himself a break or a benefit of the doubt, it became time to wipe the slate clean. Instead of an established superstar like Meyer or Stoops, Kelly has a nice blend of positives with a proven track record and the hunger and drive to be defined by his Notre Dame tenure.

Michael Floyd

Michael Floyd hopes there will be plenty of cause for Notre Dame celebration in 2010.

Domenic Centofanti

Kelly is on a career arc that’s strangely similar to Meyer’s, and Irish fans are hoping for the same type of apex. Both were innovators at their respective MAC schools (Meyer at Bowling Green, Kelly at Central Michigan), both took mid-level programs to a perfect regular seasons and a BCS game by making superstars out of moderately talented quarterbacks (Meyer at Utah, Kelly at Cincinnati) and both entered situations with shelves stocked with talent. Meyer was able to win a national title early on at Florida with Ron Zook’s players, and Kelly might be able to do big things immediately with the talent Weis brought in.

Just because Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate and a few others from the high-owered offense are gone, don’t let anyone use that as an excuse if 2010 isn’t a strong year. Weis did a good job of bringing in enough top talent to win, but he wasn’t good at making them better and he wasn’t good enough at finding ways to win.

Complain all you want about the results under Weis, but the Notre Dame receiving corps over the past few years has been among the most talented in the school’s long and storied history, Clausen was everyone’s No. 1 quarterback prospect, Sam Young was everyone’s No. 1 offensive tackle prospect, budding star Manti Te’o was almost everyone’s top linebacker prospect and this year’s team is littered with player after player who had a great high school resume but failed to improve or live up to the hype.

To paraphrase former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, there isn’t much distance between a halo and a noose, and there might not be too much that needs to be done to make Notre Dame go from good to fantastic. Kelly has done wonders with teams with far less talent.

Even without Tate, the return of Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph gives the Irish the building blocks for yet another great receiving corps. There are four great running backs, led by Armando Allen, to get the ground game moving behind a line that will be patched together at times, but is big enough to open up holes on a regular basis.

The defense is loaded with veterans and the talent to be very good if the new 3-4 scheme works as expected. The three-man front has potential NFL types in Ian Williams on the nose and Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore on the outside, Te’o leads a linebacking corps that should be as productive and disruptive as the Irish have had in years. Three starters are back in a secondary that’s going to be rocky, but has the athleticism to be better.

There are major concerns that could keep the Irish from being truly special, from QB Dayne Crist’s healing knee, to the offensive tackle situation, to the corners that have never lived up to their potential, to the punting game that was among the worst in America, but Kelly has always done a great job of working through adversity to keep the wins coming (did Cincinnati use 14 quarterbacks to get through last year?).

No, the Notre Dame brand name hasn’t diminished. Yes, Notre Dame can still be a superpower and be in the hunt for national titles on a yearly basis. No, Charlie Weis wasn’t quite as bad as he was made out to be, and yes, Brian Kelly should be terrific once he can make the program truly his.

What to watch for on offense: Speed. Instead of the NFL-like pace of last year where the play was called, sent into the huddle, talked over, discussed and dissected, implemented and then run, the new Irish attack will be faster, quicker and with a better pace to get more plays in and to keep defenses on their heels. The Notre Dame offense will want to control the tempo and exploit the mismatches, and under Kelly, the offense should do a great job of taking advantage of the faster style to get the receivers into the open.

What to watch for on defense: Gap control. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will implement a 3-4 that should take advantage of the good group of linebackers and the three-man front that’s big and experienced. The job of the linemen won’t necessarily be to get into the backfield, but to hold the fort against the run and not let the lanes open up. The linebackers will be in charge of flying around and being disruptive, making the outside linebackers the pass rushing stars instead of being in charge of holding up against the run in the middle. The defense has to do something to make more big plays after giving up too many third-down chances and too many big runs.

The team will be far better if … there’s a pass rush. The Irish came up with plenty of tackles for loss but only came up with 20 sacks. The former defensive style relied on blitzing and trying to sell out at times up front to get into the backfield, but it didn’t work and the secondary was often hung out to dry. This year, the outside linebackers will be the pass rushers while the defensive linemen can try to get to the quarterback from the interior. More sacks mean better overall numbers on third-down conversion defense, pass defense and pass efficiency defense.


  • How will Notre Dame fare in its first season under Brian Kelly?
    • 10-plus wins, BCS bowl game
    • 8-plus wins and a high-profile bowl
    • 6-7 wins and a bowl bid
    • Five wins or less

The schedule: It’s a dream for any team that thinks it can do really big things. There are only three true road games, but they’re the bears of the bunch -- going to Michigan State, Boston College and the regular-season finale against USC, while the Navy game will be played in East Rutherford and the Army battle will be played in Yankee Stadium. If the Irish are any good, the back half of the schedule will be time to go on a run, facing Western Michigan, Navy, Tulsa, Utah and Army before the trip to USC. There isn’t a true road game for almost two months, while starting off with Purdue, Michigan and Stanford at home in September (wrapped around the Michigan State trip) is the break the new regime needs.

Best offensive player: Junior WR Michael Floyd. Tight end Kyle Rudolph might end up being the higher draft pick, but Floyd should be the star of the offense as he’s fully healthy again after missing time in the middle of last year with an injured shoulder. The 6-3, 220-pounder was unstoppable in the first two games, catching four passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns against Nevada and seven grabs for 131 yards and a score against Michigan. He came back roaring with three 100-yard games in a row, including a 141-yard day against Navy, and now he should go ballistic as the No. 1 option in the attack, and with a good enough supporting cast to take the heat off.

Best defensive player: Sophomore LB Manti Te’o. He needs to do more against the pass and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time way too often, but he was a true freshman last season. The 6-2, 250-pound superstar recruit is the real deal with toughness, range and blow-him-up hitting ability. He might not be a splashy pass rusher in the new defense like some of the other linebackers, but he’s ready to take the next step in what should be a special career.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore OT Zack Martin. The season might hinge on the surgically repaired knee of QB Dayne Crist, and that means he needs to be protected. Considering Jimmy Clausen was used as a tackling dummy throughout his career, the new coaching staff has to do a better job of getting the line to do more in pass blocking. The interior of the line should be fine, but the tackles have to shine with Martin needing to be a star on the left side. The 6-4, 280-pound sophomore is a good athlete with nice upside, but if he’s yelling fire too many times, Crist isn’t going to last.

The season will be a success if … the Irish win eight games. As long as everyone of note stays healthy (particularly Crist), the Irish should be as good or better than most teams on their schedule, with the possible exceptions of Boston College, Pitt, Utah and USC. Maybe throw Michigan State in that mix. As long as the Irish don’t give away any layups to the Western Michigans and Tulsas of the world, there’s no reason not to ask for a winning season and a decent bowl for a team with 18 returning starters and a favorable schedule.

Key game: Oct. 23 vs. Navy. Note to Kelly: Whatever you do, if you want to show that this is a new era and things have changed, don’t lose in the Meadowlands against what might be the best Midshipmen team in years. While the USC games might have defined the Charlie Weis era, mostly because of the 2005 classic, the two gaffes against Navy were what doomed the former coach.

Losing to USC was no big whoop, everyone got in line on that train over the last decade. But the generational winning streak over Navy was broken in 2007 in a 46-44 loss that became the low point of the 3-9 season. Last year the Irish were 6-2 with one loss coming to Michigan in the final moments and the other in a battle against USC, and then came the loss to Navy that kicked off a four-game losing streak to close out the year.

Tagged: Buffalo, Notre Dame, Dayne Crist, Kyle Rudolph, Ian Williams, Michael Floyd

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