SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly settled into a comfortable couch in his office, just having mixed with participants in the school’s Fantasy Football Camp moments earlier.
Even in fantasy land, there were plenty of curious minds who wanted to pepper the seventh-year Notre Dame head football coach about who his No. 1 quarterback might be in the real world on opening night, Sept. 4, and how he’ll determine it.
The reality is that Kelly won’t look for discernible separation until August training camp, so he considers the impressions formed up until that time valuable but incomplete.
Still there were plenty of other football topics for him to ponder over the summer. Here’s a sampling of where he stands on some of the non-quarterback issues:
Q: Is defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder adapting back to the college game or are the defense’s growing pains, including a No. 72 ranking nationally in rush defense during his first two seasons at ND, more about having the right players to plug into his system?
BK: “There’s a task that has to be completed and that has to be communicated by the defensive coordinator. That’s being communicated by the defensive coordinator. I like how it’s being taught. I like how it’s being communicated.
“The task then has to be accomplished. So how do you get that task accomplished? That’s the bridge. And we’re starting to see it, and I think we saw a little bit of that in the spring, that we’re moving more toward that.
“If I saw that the task couldn’t be completed because it was not being communicated effectively or there was a resistance of wanting to do it, we’d be having a different discussion right now. We’re getting to where we want to be, but 70-something in run defense is not going to fly after this year.”
Q: Are VanGorder and his system evolving?
BK: “I like the fact that Brian truly understands what Notre Dame is about. He understands it on the recruiting trail and what we need to do to recruit players here.
“He’s not under the illusion that we can go down and steal guys that don’t fit just because they’re an ‘SEC-type player.’ Sometimes they don’t fit the profile of Notre Dame. He clearly gets that.
“I think that the struggles have been more of a system change that we’re fighting through, more than anything else.”
Q: Associate head coach/wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock seems to be a guy who is underappreciated by those on the outside looking in, in part because there might not be a clear understanding of what he does. What does he bring to the program?
BK: “I think first and foremost a great deal of experience. Here’s a guy that was an offensive line coach, has a great understanding of line play, coaches the wide receivers. Experience in all facets of offensive play. And then has been with me off and on for over 25 years, so he knows the offense so well.
“So you have a guy that has incredible experience, knows my offense very, very well and has a long-standing relationship with me. So what do you get there? “You get trust. You get experience and you get somebody that you can kind of just turn it over to and know that the job’s going to get done, because he’s a hard-working guy.”
Q: Is he head-coaching material?
BK: “Oh absolutely. I think the one thing that has been disappointing for me is that time and place is so important in this business, and because he’s a little bit older, people don’t maybe see him as a hot coaching commodity, but he’s more than ready to be a head football coach.”
Q: Play-calling last year was framed as a collaboration of sorts between you, Denbrock and offensive coordinator/ quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford. Is Mike Denbrock actually the one calling the offensive plays?
BK: “He was intimately involved in what was going on offensively. And so you have to understand the way I wanted it set up this year. We pretty much had openers, down-and-distance calls that Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford shared during the week.
“In other words, they crafted and scripted the offense together. I would get asked all the time, ‘Who’s calling the plays?’ They’re really talking on every play.
“And I put Mike Sanford in the box, up top, because he could be the eyes for Mike Denbrock on every down. And they shared in that responsibility. But in actuality giving the play out, Mike Denbrock was giving every single play out.
“Yet if you took Sanford out of the mix, it would be a different dynamic. And if you took Denbrock out of the mix, it would be a different dynamic. I couldn’t tell you who would be calling the plays if they weren’t working together.
“There has to be both of those guys working together, but Mike Denbrock was physically calling the plays.”
Q: The analyst roles on a coaching staff are sometimes low-impact hires. You, on the other hand, have had some noteworthy hires in terms of your analysts — as well as adding a former college head coach and longtime offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn to the strength staff after a year as an offensive analyst. It seems that you’ve really maximized those positions that maybe other coaches take for granted. Can you discuss the analyst roles and how they make your staff and team better?
BK: “With the analyst roles, we want to be in a position to bring as much brain power and experience into our offense, defense and special teams. Whereas our graduate assistants are going to be those entry-level positions that are learning the craft and learning the trade, the analysts are going to have done that, been there and are going to provide a different element to the room.
“So what is that element then? Well what I’ve crafted with the analyst position is an expertise in certain areas. Bobby Elliott has taken over a role as a senior analyst. He’s really focusing on the analytics of the game and providing that information. And that really hits us in a number of different ways.
“It helps us in preparing our practices and what we should be looking at and working on. And then in terms of game management, it helps us there too.
“As it relates to special teams, we’ve augmented that position with somebody that’s experienced in working with kickers and punters, something we didn’t have. So we’ve added a specialist that has worked with the punters and kickers before.
“On defense, adding a Jeff Burris, who has played and is experienced in the back end of the defense, gives us more depth in developing the safeties and the corners. So if we need more brain power in the room, we’ve got that now.
“And then on the offensive side of the ball, we had Jeff Quinn, who’s a former head coach and offensive analyst last season, providing a lot of guidance and insight into how we look at opponents and what we should be looking for on a week-to-week basis.”
Q: I know former Notre Dame All-American Jeff Burris, your recent hire as an analyst, has battled clinical depression — as so many people do — and also had a DUI arrest. How did you frame that to your administration when you wanted to hire him and how does his past perhaps work for you and your team, moving forward?
BK: “First of all, there was full disclosure in all of his medical history and his background. As you know, our vetting process here is where all of those things are looked at, even in an analyst role. You don’t get a free pass by calling it an analyst role. That’s the first thing.
“I think what I saw more than anything else is somebody that really wanted to be part of Notre Dame football. And what I was looking for is somebody who had high character, loved Notre Dame and would really do a great job of positively influencing our players.
“And his background only helps in making it real for some of our players.”
Q: The private quarterback tutors, such as George Whitfield, have kind of become a cottage industry. What’s your take on your quarterbacks jumping out and training with those guys in their free time?
BK: “I don’t think it really has much of an impact for quarterbacks already in college. It’s like having a swing coach if you’re a golfer or somebody that’s keeping an eye on your fundamentals, but it still comes down to, ‘Do you have the ability to lead the team?’
“They don’t work on leadership. They don’t work on your ability to make that big play when it’s counted on. They work on mechanics. I really don’t think it’s something I get too caught up in. The players are going to go when they have free time and find somebody to work with.
“They’re going to do what we ask them to do when we get back here, so I’m fine with it. If I feel like there’s resistance from a quarterback to do the things we’re asking them to do, then we’ll have a conversation. But I haven’t found that to be the case with any of our players.”
Q: There’s been talk recently about taking the Shamrock Series game out of the country occasionally. As a coach, how do you view that prospect when you factor in both the wow factor with the logistical challenges?
BK: “The logistical concerns on face value you would think are real, but the way the Dublin game (a neutral-site game with Navy in 2012) went, it was easier than going to Los Angeles. Customs, moving our team in and out was as seamless as making the travel across the country, so I think we’ve eliminated that concern. However, that does not mean we’re ready to sign a deal with anybody out of the country. All it means is that we’ve kept that door open.
“So I can’t tell you that we’re close to signing anything outside of the country, but we haven’t crossed that off our list. And the reason for it is because the Dublin game went so well.”
Q: How do you maintain balance in your life in such a demanding job where you’re constantly pulled in all kinds of different directions?
BK: “I take about an hour a day for myself, work out. I’ve learned over 26 years that I need about an hour during the day to just not carry any of the job with me. That hour is for me. (Director of Football Administration) Beth (Rex) clears my schedule. The coaches know they can’t get to me. They get a little bit antsy.
“Bob Elliott’s at my door after the hour is over. Mike Denbrock’s looking for me. Sanford’s looking for me. VanGorder … they’re all looking for me, but they know they can’t get me for that hour. But that hour I need to decompress and be the best I can be for the 105 players and the 35 support staff members, too.”
Q: We had a conversation last June about lessons learned in the aftermath of the academic dishonesty investigation and suspension. At the time you felt like you, Jack Swarbrick and the university were involved in trying to be proactive with the at-risk element of the football program, moving forward. Where does that sit a year later?
BK: “So a couple of things happened. No. 1, the university did a very comprehensive study of where we are with athletic/academic advising. We brought in a number of highly trained people that were able to evaluate our program and give us some really good information as to where our strengths and where our weaknesses were.
“That study has allowed us to now go about and really craft kind of the things necessary for us to get better at those areas. Some of them involve manpower. Some of them are in time management.
“To answer your question, the university acted on it. (President) Father John (Jenkins) acted on it when I became pretty public about it. Then we met with him. And we’re in the process of closing in on the needs that we have — and we have them for our student-athletes.”