In just a few short days the college football season will start and the Brian Kelly era will officially begin at the University of Notre Dame.
What can we really expect from the Irish this year?
For the most part, the predictions for the season have all been in the same neighborhood, rounding out to an expected eight win season or so.
Some say there is BCS potential, while others envision a struggle to stay above a .500 winning percentage.
Given the way this program has played the last three years it’s probably right to not expect a BCS game this year, but I will guarantee that the Irish do not repeat last year’s disaster of a season when they finished 6-6 after limping 0-4 down the last month of the season.
The heart-breaking disappointment will stop because there are two critical issues to understand when we’re talking about Notre Dame football and the coming future.
1. The coaching in the past has been at best, average.
2. The program is full of elite talent
The first issue is fairly obvious.
Last year particularly, Notre Dame was such a confused, out of shape and mentally weak team that it is surprising that they even won as many games as they did.
And yet, with so many problems plaguing the team before they even stepped onto the field each Saturday, they competed in every game, won six contests and could have easily won a handful more.
With a proven coach like Brian Kelly, there’s finally someone with experience who has taken a hold of the program and is starting to control and manage the chaos that has surrounded the team for so many years.
And the second issue is just as important.
Most outsiders look at Notre Dame’s 13-12 record over the past two seasons as an affirmation that the Irish lack talent all over the field.
But this is simply not the case.
In fact, without the amount of talent in South Bend, the Irish could have been much worse in recent years.
This goes back to my article Why Can’t the Irish Win Ten Games?
In that piece I mentioned how there is a perceived notion that Notre Dame is no longer underachieving but is simply playing at or just below their talent level.
Again, this is utter nonsense.
How about the recent Wall Street Journal piece that labeled the Irish as the third most talented team in the country?
Out of well over a hundred teams Notre Dame is third people!
The past handful of recruiting classes haven’t been decent, above average, or even good…they’ve been among the best of the best.
Now we can sit here and debate the usefulness (or lack thereof) of Rivals’ rating system, but regardless, the truth is Notre Dame is very close to having national championship talent, or at the very least, talent that should consistently win 10 games each season.
And that means Notre Dame has been underachieving on a massive scale over the past couple of seasons. It would be like the Red Sox playing like the Blue Jays, the Magic playing like the Clippers and the Patriots playing like the Bills.
And the real question you have to ask yourself as we head into 2010 with Brian Kelly at the helm is, will Notre Dame continue to be one of the most underachieving programs over the past 30 years of North American sports?
And the answer to that question has to be, absolutely not.
With that said, what kind of improvements will we see from the Irish this year?
And maybe more importantly, how quickly will we see these improvements?
A lot of people have talked about these issues and they are sure to be in most lists of what to expect this season and beyond, but I thought I’d give you my take on what I envision for 2010.
Improvement No. 1 (Powerful Offense)
Now I know what you’re thinking, Charlie Weis led Notre Dame with some prolific offensive play and he ended up biting the dust as hard as his two predecessors.
But Weis’ offenses weren’t nearly as powerful as some of the numbers would suggest.
Sure he re-wrote a good portion of the record books, but the offense struggled to run the ball (umm, Weis has three of the worst YPC in Irish history) for three out of his five years and anytime the Irish played something even resembling a strong defense, the offense struggled to put points on the board.
What’s more, Weis’ offense infamously came out strong and faded down the stretch even against the most pedestrian of defenses. There’s no bigger proof than in the example of the losses to Syracuse in 2008 or to UConn in 2009, where Notre Dame looked like they would blow those teams off the field in the first quarter.
You can argue that the defense played poorly in those contests, but those were games in which the opponent should have been buried in an avalanche of offensive scoring from the Irish and from which the Orange and Huskies should have never recovered.
And the record book at Notre Dame is relatively skewed anyway. For decades the Irish were a run-first team that played tough defense to win games and the school never had a big-time passing game until Weis showed up.
Under Davie and Willingham, Notre Dame had some of the most inept offenses in school history, offenses so bad that even throwing for a first down sometimes felt like a big accomplishment.
Under those circumstances, Weis came in and appeared to revolutionize the Irish offense or bring it into the modern world of college football.
But he probably only brought Notre Dame half way there in the modernization process.
The Notre Dame schedule doesn’t lend itself to a nice cupcake blowout or two every year and Weis was notorious for letting off the gas against truly inferior opponents, but still, you have to score 50 points at least once in a while.
And Weis didn’t do it once in five full seasons in South Bend.
Brian Kelly on the other hand, should complete the process and bring the Irish fully into the modern world of offense.
The 2010 Notre Dame offense may be one of the best in school history and could eclipse anything that Weis put out from 2005 to 2009.
The Irish will run the ball better, they will be better prepared in the red zone and the horses are all there for a dynamic attack that should be among the best in the country.
As soon as this year we will see Notre Dame score a lot of points and the offense will surely be more consistently dominant than under the previous regime.
School records for total points in a season and points per game will be seriously challenged and possibly broken, while this team will score 50 points on more than one occasion and possibly as many as three times.
Brian Kelly has said it over and over again, the goal in his offense is to score points, score points quickly and score points often.
This offense is not about breeding a quarterback for the NFL, it’s about scoring points.
And scoring points wins football games.
Improvement No. 2 (More Energy)
What exactly do I mean by more energy?
Well it covers a lot of issues really.
First of all, improved strength and conditioning from Paul Longo.
Now add in a training table and a young and hungry coaching staff.
Once again, we see Notre Dame coming out of the dark ages and joining the modern world with some of these badly needed changes that were never implemented in the past and weighed an already academically inclined team down even more.
This subject is inherently vague, but anyone who watches college football can tell you how important it is for a team to play with motivation, strength and high energy for all four quarters.
From a mental standpoint, the running out of the tunnel should be more passionate and exhilarating, while the coaches should be more active on the sidelines. Maybe these things don’t matter in the NFL, but they matter in college.
All of those things help a team play harder and stay focused. And with increased strength and stamina, those mental edges grow even more powerful.
My example during the off-season was how the offensive line is benefiting from the coaching change because they are now focused on one system and one goal in terms of body weight, strength and the type of plays they will be running.
No more tugging back and forth between beefing up into power running linemen one year and then dropping weight to meet the demands of a new annual game plan the following spring.
One clearly defined system will equal more energy for the offensive linemen, and thus, better results on the field.
Moreover, the experience that Brian Kelly brings to the table could give the team a boost of energy in so many ways. His ability to talk to people and get them to believe in a common goal, to get them to believe in themselves and the team’s future is something that cannot be underestimated.
Even his precise program framework should give the players extra focus and the ability to be more productive with their time as major college football players in an intense academic environment.
Sometimes it can be this simple.
More energy means attacking opponents harder and for longer periods of time.
It means playing smarter and more precise.
It means no more fourth quarter flameouts.
Improvement No. 3 (Friskier Defense)
I’ve chosen my words here very carefully and instead of "improved" or "better" I am going with "friskier" defense.
Let’s remember, last year’s defense was statistically the worst in school history.
Now we can attribute a lot of that futility to the coaching staff. You don’t generally see players moving around so much just seconds before the snap of the ball trying to figure out where they should be, who they should cover and what their responsibilities entail.
But that happened all the time last year.
Due to the constant blitzing schemes, it was far too easy to move the ball on the Irish last year. Opposing quarterbacks like Matt Barkley and David Shinskie, who otherwise struggled all year long against the rest of their competition, dropped back and found receivers wide open against Notre Dame like it was a pre-game run through.
There is no doubt that the bulk of the team’s struggles last year can be pinned squarely on the coaching staff and defensive coordinators.
Still, this is a defense that does not know what it’s like to be dominant and it may take some time to clean the stink of the previous coaching regime off of them.
The offense under players like Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph and Armando Allen know what it’s like to charge down the field and put the ball in the end zone on a regular basis.
The defense has no such success to build upon.
Before the spring, Brian Kelly talked a little bit about tearing the players down and building them back up again and this is especially true for the vast majority of the defenders who are used to being abused on the field.
That is why I think the defense will be a work in progress, definitely more so than the offense where Notre Dame has a little bit better talent anyway.
Based on improvement number two for the season in increased energy, the defense should be at least a little better. All of those off the field things (S&C, eating right, clear goals, and efficient use of time) can play a big part in improving this programs defense in a hurry.
Even without proper teaching and coaching, gaining an advantage in those areas (which appeared to be disadvantages against every team the Irish played in the past) will allow the players to simply get better of their own accord.
There will be fewer arm tackles, more receivers covered and more balls swatted away because the players will have the energy to be in the right spot and keep up with their opponents.
Not to mention having more energy allows players to think more clearly and achieve unconscious competence, something that Brian Kelly is very demanding about.
However, the real wildcard in this is how good of a teacher and coach Bob Diaco will be.
He has the potential to be an outstanding coordinator and the philosophy change alone signals to me that Notre Dame has upgraded in this coaching department.
But I’d feel a whole lot better if the Irish had brought in a Nick Saban-type of defensive coach.
Nevertheless, Diaco is a young coordinator who could be a diamond in the rough and it is somewhat comforting to know that Brian Kelly believes he is a great coach.
That has to count for something.
Plus, Diaco has a very solid resume as a former All-Big Ten linebacker and as a coach who had some decent success at a few stops in the lower levels of major college football before really earning his chops at Virginia under Al Groh.
And let’s not discount what Diaco was able to do last year at Cincinnati either.
He had to replace his entire front seven and was still able to coach the Bearcats to the third most tackles for loss in the country, tenth most sacks in the nation as well as only giving up a stingy 3.6 yards per carry from opponents.
He was part of that team’s undefeated regular season too.
So don’t be fooled completely by my Nick Saban comment because Diaco could very well be one of the best young football minds in the country.
Nonetheless, a complete transformation on defense is going to take time and it will take a while for these defenders to get comfortable in this new system and take their game to the next level.
Even so, the defense really can’t play any worse than it did last year.
So I expect a decent amount of improvement from this unit.
Teams may still move the ball on the Irish, but they will tackle a little better, create a few more turnovers, buckle down harder in the red zone, get off the field more often following third and long attempts and give up fewer big plays.
The talent level on defense is just a bit short, particularly in the secondary, where I think they could really improve dramatically and become a top 20 defense.
This is especially true since Notre Dame won’t be playing a truly weak opponent until half way through the season and won’t get the added bonus of pitching a 125 yard shutout against a FCS team.
What Does 2010 Hold for the Irish?
I expect a lot of good things this year for the Irish.
It seems like Irish fans are saying that every year (what fan base isn’t?) and the program’s detractors certainly will not be slow to point out Notre Dame’s last three coaching failures.
But Brian Kelly really is different.
When Mark May predicts a ten-win season, you know the Irish must have done something right.
There’s so much to like about Kelly including his experience, winning percentage, penchant for building programs, media savvy and high-octane offense. The reality is none of the past three coaches came even close to the tools Brian Kelly is now bringing to the table in South Bend, and that is a very exciting prospect for Irish fans.
Yet, there’s nothing we can do but sit and wait to see how his tenure plays out. And since the last two Irish coaches had successful first seasons, we may have to wait another two years or longer to finally be able to confidently declare that Kelly is all we hoped he would be.
With that said, I expect nine wins this season and no more than four losses (bowl game included).
I’ve reiterated over and over during the off-season that a lot of factors have come together rather nicely over the past eight months or so, and it shouldn’t be that surprising if the Irish are in BCS bowl contention this year.
I’ve been even more adamant that we will not see Notre Dame struggle and go 7-5 or 6-6 in 2010. As long as Dayne Crist stays healthy at the quarterback position, five or six losses would catastrophically bad and easily the worst coaching performances of Brian Kelly’s career given that he’s working with four and five star players across the entire two-deep.
Do not expect the underachieving to continue.
On offense, I expect one of the best in the country and an improvement over last year’s unit that piled up a lot of yards but struggled putting the ball in the end zone.
Averaging 40 points per game (about what Cincinnati averaged last year) is a realistic goal for the amount of weapons available to Brian Kelly.
An improved offensive line, a deep receiver core led by Michael Floyd, the best tight end depth in the country and perhaps the most explosive set of running backs since Lou Holtz should produce points at an ultra-high level.
As long as Crist stays healthy, the sky is the limit.
I prefer a comparison to Cincinnati’s Zach Collaros instead of the Bearcats Tony Pike when looking at what a quarterback can do in Kelly’s system because Collaros and Crist are around the same age and have similar styles on the field.
Collaros barely played in 2008 and last year stepped in for the injured Pike for four starts. In those four starts Collaros set the world on fire and averaged out to a full season he would have thrown for 4,300 yards with 30 touchdowns and only six interceptions.
He also completed 75 percent of his passes and would have rushed for over 1,000 yards and another 12 touchdowns on the ground.
Now, Collaros had the benefit of being in Kelly’s system for over two years and it doesn’t seem realistic to expect Crist to do that much damage on the ground, but this gives you an idea of how explosive Brian Kelly’s quarterbacks have been in the past (see also Mauk, Ben).
Collaros is a great player in his own right, but Crist is pretty talented himself and I expect a very productive year from the junior.
On defense, my expectations are obviously tempered but I think a realistic goal is to drop the total defense stat line down below the 60’s and hope the team can push towards getting into the top 40.
I’m pretty sure our first six opponents will all gain some yards so this side of the ball will be behind the eight ball when the second half of the season comes around. It will take an incredible shut down of Western Michigan, Tulsa and Army in order to bring the team defense averages down.
Even so, a drop into the 50’s or 60’s has to be considered a very admirable improvement seeing as how Notre Dame was nearing 100 in a lot of defensive categories in 2009.
If there is modest improvement, 2010 should be a very good year for the Fighting Irish.
Brian Kelly has always had strong special teams so that is another positive heading into Saturday’s home opener. We know Ben Turk has a big leg as a punter and all indications from the coaching staff are that he has ironed out his inconsistency.
Kelly has been very pleased with the consistency from both kickers with Nick Tausch holding down the field goal responsibilities and David Ruffer apparently kicking the snot out of the ball on kickoffs. Both are young, talented and clearly improving.
In the return game, the trio of Armando Allen, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood have to contain the most playmaking ability the Irish have seen in years on special teams.
Add it all together and Notre Dame should see improvement nearly across the board, especially if the coaching staff excels at reestablishing fundamentals and fixing some of the relatively simple issues that have plagued the program in recent years.
As for the Purdue game, well they certainly aren’t Southeast Missouri State, nor are they that intimidating either.
It will be interesting to see how quarterback Robert Marve performs and I expect the Purdue offense to have some success in this game. However, the Boilermaker defense does not match up well with the many weapons Notre Dame will be putting on the field and the fast-pace no-huddle offense is sure to tire Purdue out.
Back in 2005 for Charlie Weis’ first game as head coach at Notre Dame, the Irish came out and roughed up a decent Pittsburgh team 42-21. Last season, Brian Kelly led his Cincinnati squad against Rutgers in Piscataway and came away with a convincing 47-15 victory.
I can’t find many reasons to think that Notre Dame won’t do much of the same against Purdue on Saturday. The offense will show its promise early and often, while the defense will play good but not great.
Notre Dame 42