Notre Dame is ready to become powerhouse program once again
Last week turned out to be a pretty good one for Brian Kelly. On Thursday night, the Notre Dame head coach took part in the Irish Legends Gala, along with ND greats Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz, raising some $350,000 for their foundations. Earlier in the week, Kelly watched as eight of his old players were selected in the NFL Draft, the highest number the Fighting Irish had produced in 20 years.
The hefty influx from ND, which included five draftees in the first three rounds, gave the Irish a total of 14 in the past two drafts, a strong statement on Kelly’s ability to develop players. It is also a barometer the Irish finally may be ready to become a consistent powerhouse program again.
"In terms of building stability and consistency within your program, when you’re talking about program building it has to start there with graduating your players, being successful on the field and having your guys move on to the NFL," Kelly said on FOX Sports’ college football podcast. "All of those things have to happen year in, year out. We’ve had four No. 1 (draft picks) the last three years. All of those things point to developing players and building consistency within your program, and when you can build that within your program, then you can raise the expectations and start looking towards championships."
It’s been over 20 years since the Irish had even three consecutive seasons finishing in the top 20, but Kelly, the first Notre Dame coach to lead the program to bowl games in each of his first four seasons, has a good shot to do that.
Kelly, who won two Division II national titles at Grand Valley State, a MAC title at Central Michigan and led Cincinnati to two Big East titles, is dealing with quite a bit of transition as he enters Year 5 in South Bend. He lost defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who left to become the head coach at UConn, and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, who left to become the head coach at Miami of Ohio. Kelly opted to take back the play-calling responsibilities and that, along with the return of QB Everett Golson, who missed the 2013 season after violating the school’s honor code, has created an interesting dynamic.
Kelly’s offenses thrived in his previous FBS coaching stops with QBs who could extend plays and keep defenses on their heels, as Golson can. Without him, savvy senior Tommy Rees had some good moments but was limited and the ND offense lacked a spark, ranking No. 74 in scoring and No. 80 in rushing despite another good O-line. Golson spent most of his fall in San Diego with private QB coach George Whitfield working on his consistency as a passer. He also learned to throw with his fingers across the laces, something he had been reluctant to do before, and bulked up 15 pounds.
But it turns out, Golson will have to really battle to win back his starting job because of how quickly young Malik Zaire has emerged this spring. Zaire doesn’t quite have Golson’s arm strength, but he has similar ability to make plays outside the pocket and Kelly says the second-year player is up to almost 220 pounds.
"This isn’t a situation where we’re trying to put pressure on Everett," said Kelly. "The pressure has been put on Everett because of Malik’s ability to play the game. He retains information. He’s a playmaker. He has shown himself that when we get into an 11-on-11 situation, he plays his best football. We’ve got to get more consistent in the practice setting. But he has really made it a very interesting quarterback situation as we go into the summer and preseason camp."
No matter who wins the starting job, Kelly said he’s excited to be more connected with the QBs since he’s around them more in the meetings because of his added offensive responsibility. "It’s back to what I’m used to doing and very energizing for me."
Another young player who started to blossom this spring in South Bend is former five-star recruit Greg Bryant, a 204-pounder who medically redshirted in 2013. ND’s had some solid running backs over the past two decades, but it’s been a long time since the Fighting Irish have had a truly special running back. Kelly said Bryant was a bit behind classmate Tarean Folston in the playbook last year before getting injured, but keep an eye on the former blue-chipper this fall.
"He’s an electrifying back," Kelly said of Bryant.
Defensively, Brian VanGorder takes over a unit that does have to replace two difference-makers up front in Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, a pair of high draft picks. However, there is a lot of buzz inside the program about 290-pound junior DT Sheldon Day, a budding star.
Kelly raved about Day’s first-step quickness and intensity. "He has incredible ability to rush the passer for an interior defensive lineman," Kelly said. "He’s very unique in that sense. Most of those guys are two-down players, where you get ’em off the field on third downs. He could arguably be our best pass rusher as an inside guy. We may have to move him outside on third down. He has a unique skill set. He can be great against the run on first and second downs, and then on third downs can offer the ability to rush the passer. He’s got a very good work volume for us. I think he’s gonna be a terrific defensive lineman for us."
The bad news? The Fighting Irish schedule is brutal, which has become the norm. There are road trips to defending national champ Florida State, Arizona State and arch-rival USC — teams that went a combined 34-8 last season — and home games against Stanford, Louisville, Michigan and North Carolina. Against a lineup like that, it’s tough getting some traction.
Scheduling is a hot topic these days with the College Football Playoff coming this year and strength of schedule talk coming into more focus. With Notre Dame’s impending shift to the ACC in its other sports, which also factors into its football scheduling, the Irish will see recent rivals Michigan and Michigan State drift off their radar.
Asked how much juice he has in pushing to get the Wolverines and Spartans back in the mix with the Irish, Kelly replied, "Very little."
"As a football coach, especially one that has been in the Midwest, I love the ability to play Michigan and Michigan State and the tradition of it, but the reality of it is for our athletic department to enter in the agreement with the ACC, we had to give up a little bit from a football perspective relative to scheduling to make our athletic department whole relative to soccer and lacrosse and basketball,” Kelly said. “That ACC agreement was absolutely crucial for our athletic teams. Football had to give up a little bit relative to flexibility in scheduling by taking on a commitment with the ACC.
“Therefore, it’s put us in a very difficult situation in scheduling. Unfortunately, it’s taken some of those schools like a Michigan and Michigan State off our schedule because we’re gonna keep Navy and Stanford and USC. Those three schools are not coming off. So now add those schools with your ACC schools, and you’re really limited as to where you can go."
That said, Kelly sounded optimistic that ND would be able to find some room for a SEC program, preferably Georgia.
"I don’t think that’s something that’s too hard (to fit in)," Kelly said. "One of our wishes — (ND athletic director) Jack (Swarbrick) and I — is we want to get an SEC team on our schedule. Of course, we’ve got a home-and-home with Texas. The discussions have been to include an SEC opponent.
"We want one that we feel makes sense, that has a very good geographical draw for us in the SEC. We’re in Florida already with Florida State. So you can probably figure out pretty easily what SEC team would be the best draw as it relates to recruiting and the alumni base."
One other thing Kelly has gotten more control of since arriving in South Bend is budgeting his offseason demands.
"It’s gotten easier," said Kelly, who is very active with Kelly Cares, a foundation he and his wife Paqui established. "We’ve been able to focus on those things that are most important. Early on, everything was important. Now, I think it’s pretty clear that we have to prioritize those things. Foundation work is extremely important. Alumni work is equally there, as well as development work, and recruiting.
"There’s still a major piece that I have to be able to pick up. Even though I can’t be on the road, there’s a lot of decisions that need to be made in recruiting. May is about that, and that’s all it’s about for me."
For more from our interview with Kelly, check out this week’s podcast below:
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.