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The Paradox of Brian Kelly Continues: Learning on the Job & Winning with Defense

Brian Kelly's tenure at Notre Dame has had many twist and turns and his .666 winning percentage in South Bend has come about on the back of a strong defense instead of his typical explosive offense.

Gregory Shamus - Getty Images

In the intro to the OFD preseason magazine I wrote the following about the paradox surrounding Brian Kelly at Notre Dame.

Kelly was a noted quarterback developer but has struggled finding a quality signal caller at Notre Dame. There were fears that Kelly wouldn't pay attention to defense but he's dramatically improved that side of the ball.

He runs a pass first spread offense that is very friendly to receivers but has struggled developing wideouts. He runs a pass first spread offense but has built tremendous depth at running back and had one of the most productive rushing seasons in recent school history in 2011.

Kelly's offense is typically run at hyper speed but has been run mostly at a normal pace for two years in South Bend. Notre Dame's biggest weakness prior to his arrival was the defensive line, but now it is the strength of the defense even with the loss of Aaron Lynch.

What's more, the advanced stats tell us that Notre Dame is a very good team but this hasn't manifested itself into more victories and a better win-loss record.

So far in the 2012 season the paradox is manifesting itself into more wins.

Notre Dame has struggled offensively in 2012, especially over the past two games, but this team has been led by a suffocating and explosive defense.

Not many would have expected those kinds of adjectives for a Brian Kelly defense when he was first hired, and maybe even less would have been convinced the Irish would sweep the Big Ten teams this season while only averaging slightly over 16 points in those wins.

Further, after a season of turnover problems in 2011, the Irish head into their fifth game in 2012 with just 4 turnovers and their turnover ratio has swung 112 spots to 6th nationally.

Of course that positive turnover ratio and lack of turnovers is directly tied to a conservative offensive gameplan built around tight ends and running backs in an effort to break in a new redshirt freshman quarterback. But even that kind of gameplan is not what many Irish fans expected from Brian Kelly as few as 8 or 10 months ago.

It may not seem like much, but the offense is running the ball 56.5% of the time this season (up 9.6% from Kelly's first two years in South Bend) and the staff is more than willing to sit back, grind out yards, and play field position while putting the game on the shoulders of the defense.

Yes, Brian Kelly is playing TresselBall™ and it's kind of mind-blowing when you think about it.

The paradox continues.

There are still a lot of questions to be answered for the future, but there's something important happening with Brian Kelly.

He's learning on the job.

Most of the time learning on the job is a negative, particularly when it's being applied to the head coach at Notre Dame. But for Kelly, he's learning from past mistakes and figuring out the mystery of how to win at Notre Dame.

A large part of that mystery is fielding a dominating defense and Kelly has been true to that goal since day one. He's preached improved defense, dominating the line of scrimmage, sticking with a system, targeting athletes to play in that system, and got his players executing at a high level.

Also from the intro to the OFD preseason magazine I wrote:

If the defense remains stout, as it has for the majority of the Kelly-era, the future may still be bright despite a record that might not be terribly shiny in 2012. At One Foot Down we believe that the progress made on defense is a very positive indicator, at some point Brian Kelly and his staff are going to find the right fit at quarterback, and once that happens the offense and program are going to experience a significant bump in victories.

It appears so far this season, the Irish are a little ahead of schedule primarily due to the defense being just that good. It's still a little premature to declare that the 2012 record is going to be shiny, but Brian Kelly has appeared to set this program up for success.

We can debate what level of success that will be both this year and in the future, but Kelly deserves a lot of credit for building the Irish program in a more sustainable and respectable fashion. He's realized that defense and taking care of the ball are paramount when every team on the schedule is giving you their best shot at Notre Dame.

If he keeps it up perhaps we won't view Kelly's path to success as we've seen it so far in South Bend as such a paradox. Nearly every coach will struggle and meet road blocks at Notre Dame, and Brian Kelly is no different. However, he's proving to stick to his core program building principles while also making necessary adjustments to adapt to the incredibly competitive nature of Notre Dame football.

Sometimes learning on the job isn't such a bad thing.