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Rebuilding Notre Dame Football: 5 Years Later, Part II

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Part 2 focuses more on off the field issues.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Last week we revisited 4 guides to rebuilding Notre Dame and today we'll finish up with the remaining 6 guides. So far we've handed out a poor grade in blowing teams out but good grades in avoiding losing seasons, beating ranked teams, and avoiding bad losses. Today, we turn our focus more toward issues off the football field.

Solidify the Coaching Staff: B

A big chunk of this grade is the ability to keep good coaches on staff. At the same time there's a natural progression for good coaches seeking better jobs, including head coaching gigs.

This isn't necessarily a raw grade of how good the Irish coaches have been, although it'd probably be a very similar grade anyway, but a focus on Notre Dame's ability to preach a consistent message through a strong core of football leaders. Current associate head coach Mike Denbrock, linebacker coach Mike Elston, and strength coach Paul Longo have all been at Notre Dame since 2010 and provide a nice foundation underneath Kelly.

Thus far, the only really big mistakes have been quarterback coach Charley Molnar (2010-11) and quarterback coach Matt LaFleur (2014) neither of whom stuck around very long. The others who have left a hole in solidifying things at least did so in a positive manner. Running back coach Tim Hinton (2010-11) and offensive line coach Ed Warinner (2010-11) both jumped to Ohio State and won a title last year. Former recruiting coordinator and wide receiver/running back coach Tony Alford (2010-14) also got himself a job in Columbus. Defensive back coach Kerry Cooks (2010-14) also got a big opportunity at Oklahoma, while defensive back coach/OC Chuck Martin (2010-13) and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco (2010-13) left for head coaching jobs, albeit to low-level programs.

That's a really good list of coaches who spent a combined 22 years at Notre Dame.

The natural 5-year cycle has brought 4 new hires this off-season and Denson, Sanford, Gilmore, and Lyght will be very important pieces in determining which way this grade moves in the future. The same goes for 2nd year DC Brian VanGorder whose role within the program might be more important than all of the other assistants combined.

Also, the university committing to a bigger purse for the coaching staff, and dipping into more special assistants in other areas has been a very positive sign for the future.

Maintain Healthy Roster Depth: B+

If you asked a couple smart college football writers who cover the entire nation, like Bill Connelly and Paul Myerberg, I believe they'd agree the Notre Dame program is on very good footing largely due to a healthy and talented roster. A couple reasons why this grade isn't higher though:

  • 1 Depth Could Be Better

The safety position has been a glaring weakness for a couple years, inside linebacker was scary for a little while, defensive end has lacked an instant impact player lately, offensive line recruiting was spotty early in Kelly's tenure, running back has been hit and miss, and I'm certain no one is giving quarterback a grade of A.

Additionally, an entire collection of high profile transfers (Lynch, Kiel, Neal, Shepard, Bryant) culminating in Everett Golson this off-season have limited program health.

  • 2 Incoming Talent Needs a Boost

In other words, things aren't perfect. The Irish haven't been able to compete with the Alabama, Florida State, and USC's of the world for top-end talent and at a few positions, namely safety and defensive end, the program will soon be counting on several non-elite young players to develop and overachieve.

Also, the trend line on defensive recruiting is curious at best and concerning at worst. For the 2014-15 classes plus the current 2016 class there are 16 players as 3-star recruits with 14 players (including Jerry Tillery here) as 4-stars. To speak of the lack of top-end talent there is only 1 player from the Top 100 (Nyles Morgan) over the last 2+ recruiting classes.

Still, Notre Dame is currently sitting with 82 true scholarship players, very deep and talented at several positions, on the whole recruited at a Top 10 level (and maybe better than that on offense), found a couple good graduate transfers, highly developed the preferred walk-on program, and done a tremendous job taking athletes, moving them around, and developing them into very good starters at Notre Dame with the examples of KeiVarae Russell, Troy Niklas, C.J. Prosise, Benett Jackson, and James Onwualu.

Push the Envelope with Technology: B+

This isn't confined just to technology, after all we're talking about a college football program not Apple Inc. What this means is more about progressive and forward thinking.

We know there's a natural revulsion to this in many areas at Notre Dame, and it may always be that way. In the mid-90's I firmly believe a general malaise set in that permeated everything surrounding Irish football. A National Championship and 6-year dominant run were directly in the rear-view mirror, the stadium was enlarged and upgraded, and the NBC deal was just beginning to fill the school's coffers to hilarious levels. What more did Notre Dame need to do in order to maintain its advantages in the world?

We now know the answer to that question as within only a decade Notre Dame was severely behind the rest of college football, almost from top to bottom. To frame this another way I think there's a reflex from Notre Dame people that says "We don't need that because..."

Fill in the rest of that sentence however you want, be it tradition, standards, etc.

I don't know what became the tipping point but it's been 26 full seasons since the last national title and 21 seasons since the last major post-season win. I'm not sure a sane fan base should keep leading off with "We don't need this" anymore.

The wheels of change began under Weis and Kelly has done a very good job living an ethos of "can we make this better?" From changing the pre-game Mass routine, to bringing up the difficult topic surrounding the football players' academic workload, to championing a consistent game day surface, to fighting for a bigger pool for assistant salaries--it's this almost rebellious nature that is a strong point under Kelly. It may also give him many detractors but that's to be expected.

Any coach worth his salt is going to have be the same way in 21st Century Notre Dame. To think this is just a Brian Kelly problem that we'll be relieved of once he's gone is probably one of the more naive, and frankly stupid, ideas out there.

In a broader scope the S&C program was recently profiled by SI and shows encouraging signs, the training table continues to evolve, and the facilities have received a big injection which will culminate in Crossroads in a few years. Good things are happening, but there must be a fight against complacency.

Develop the Quarterback: C+

If you recall during the time the Guide was published Notre Dame was coming off average QB play for Kelly's first two seasons and a 3-way off-season battle was about to commence. Everyone involved with the Irish has talked a lot about this topic and I'll explain my grade with 3 reasons:

  • 1 Zero Continuity

No one has been The Guy for any point over the past 5 years. Golson had that opportunity but it wasn't meant to be. I'm not talking about forcing someone into a model citizen leadership position, just the fact that there's been too much volatility at the position. Looking back at the 2010-14 years you can't say it's an era of one player for a large stretch--it's just a jumbled mess of Crist, Rees, Golson with some Hendrix and Zaire sprinkled in there.

  • 2 Too Many "Oh No" Moments

Notre Dame could have beaten Florida State in 2011 but threw an interception in the end zone. Same thing against Tulsa in 2010. Then there was another devastating turnover to stop what could have been a historic comeback against Arizona State in 2014. I could list more bad moments but you get the point.

  • 3 Not Enough Production

Let's just look at quarterback rating, which I know is a very imperfect statistic. Golson's 2014 total finished at 143.57 which is the highest of the Kelly era. That was good for 31st nationally.

If there's a great season or two that gets interrupted by graduation, or injury, or suspension that's one thing. But Notre Dame has yet to get one really good season and would need to string together a couple to improve quarterback development.

Develop Team Mental Toughness: A-

One of the last things I like to talk about is how a team played without heart or quit playing hard. It's a super serious accusation that is really difficult to define, and too often thrown around unfairly.

Still, we know something akin to ‘playing with no heart' happens because we witness it with our eyes. I guess an easier way to put it is to ask "when bad things happen how does the team respond?" Some teams and coaches just have a difficult time picking themselves up and that was the case quite often with Kelly's predecessor. In comparison to that coach, I might give Kelly an A+ so far.

Every year we've seen at least one big game that indicated this is a program with a much stronger backbone. Kelly's first season famously ended with an improbable 4-game win streak after being in the dumps. In 2011, following a bad 0-2 start, there was a gut check win over an 11-win Michigan State team. Same season and a disappointing loss to USC brought fears of another loss to Navy but they were blitzed out of South Bend.

Of course 2012 was full of numerous examples of courage. In 2013 Notre Dame overcame an early loss to Michigan and handed Michigan State their only loss of the season. Following the Sooner win in the Bend, the Irish responded with back-to-back victories over Arizona State and USC. This past season we know all about the disastrous November finish to the end of the regular season and guess how the team responded? They surprised many by beating LSU.

Recruit Football-First Players: B

As a Notre Dame fan I'm obsessed with the power of culture and how it can have a positive or negative effect on football. This is also a difficult category to judge because we know so little about the players' personal lives, their passions, hobbies, and motivations.

You can't rely too heavily on the 40-year decision nor is it possible to wholly circumvent Notre Dame's admissions policies. A few notches in either direction and you're in trouble, and that's the tightest of ropes that most Irish coaches have had to walk and frankly it's getting tougher every year.

What I do know is that mental strength is closely tied to players who are giving football the necessary attention required to be the best team in the country. From what we've seen Notre Dame is far better than it was 5 years ago, at least. I know some will scoff at players not appreciating a Notre Dame degree but in both instances it's a good sign when Troy Niklas leaves early for the NFL or Kolin Hill transfers. It shows that the players who are recruited have passion to play football.

***

That's it for grades on the 10 guides to rebuilding based off 5 years of data. Do you agree or diagree with Notre Dame's report card since 2010?

Check in next week for the concluding Part 3 of this series which will take a look at the 2015 season, the future of Brian Kelly, and the Fighting Irish quest to keep program momentum while closing out this decade and head into the 2020's.