SOUTH BEND — The next step in Brian Kelly’s 10-year-run and counting as Notre Dame’s head football coach may be the most fascinating.

Because it will define him. Or redefine him. Or perhaps confirm the limits even much of his own fan base foists upon the program no matter who would be running it.

Or all of the above.

Which is why Kelly’s not-so-subtle puffs of defiance leading up to and immediately following No. 14 Notre Dame’s 33-9 pummeling of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl Saturday at Orlando, Fla., were so compelling.

• That recruiting should and will be better in the upcoming cycles, as in classes rated in the top 5-10 nationally.

• That offensive coordinator Chip Long’s coerced departure earlier this month became a situation of addition by subtraction.

• That the next step for the program after cobbling together two consecutive seasons of 11 wins or more for the first time since the 1988 national title season and the near miss at a sequel in 1989, should be another national championship.

Don’t let Kelly’s confusing postgame pretzel logic Saturday about naysayers, in which his team purportedly simultaneously ignored them and was galvanized by them, fool you. When he dreams big and out loud, he usually has a clear, coherent plan.

They’re more consistently well-intentioned and well thought-out than foolproof, but he’s strung enough of the latter together, including and since his 2016 coaching reboot, to make his recent declarations at least a collective plausible reality.

Which brings us to third-year quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees calling offensive plays Saturday from the Camping World Stadium coaches box and whether a more permanent dose of that, as Long’s successor, would fit with Kelly’s doubling down on big aspirations.

Let’s start with how Rees fared Saturday, a topic which Kelly was only willing to give a passing nod to in his postgame meeting with the media.

Rees’ first five plays called, which included a fourth-and-5 conversion, were runs. Contrast that with the very first play Kelly as head coach/play-caller in 2010 called for the then-freshman backup QB Rees: A flea-flicker. Against Michigan.

The result, with Rees filling in for an injured Dayne Crist, was an interception and, two plays later, a Wolverines TD.

Rees’ early play selection Saturday against the Cyclones (7-6) came off as someone trying to shake their nervousness, but eventually he found a nice rhythm. The 455 total yards the Irish (11-2) put on Iowa State were topped this season only by Oklahoma (499) and Kansas (463) in the offense-happy Big 12.

But this wasn’t really an audition for Rees. Kelly already had a strong idea of what he can do as an offensive coach. He also knows even considering Rees for a promotion is polarizing among Notre Dame nation — polarizing mainly because Rees is 27.

To understand why Kelly would even consider going that direction, especially with a team talent/experience/schedule quotient in 2020 that aligns with a deep run in the conversation for a College Football Playoff berth, you have to understand what Kelly sees in Rees.

And that goes back to Rees’ playing days for Kelly, when the latter was known to turn purple in his sideline conversations with his on-again, off-again starter. And don’t think Kelly didn’t notice Rees at times was booed in Notre Dame Stadium and how he handled that.

Through all that and all the other adversity Rees walked through as a player, he never let it consume him and in fact many times found a way to twist it to make him stronger and better.

And for anyone who thinks all those heated conversations with Kelly were all one-sided, think again. What Kelly is buying into now, as he did then, is Rees as a leader.

Not as a puppet.

Nor is Kelly buying into Rees as a finished product as a play-caller. Or a game-planner. But the upside, the staff chemistry, the understanding of Kelly’s vision and the ability to build upon it make this a difficult option to turn away for Kelly.

In Kelly’s mind, it’s not the convenient choice. It’s not even a safe choice. It’s one that he thinks can help him walk the walk with his recent high-bar rhetoric.

In the coming days, he’ll figure out if it’s indeed THE BEST choice.

If Kelly stays internal, don’t discount the importance of the corresponding outside hire — presumably a tight ends coach who’s a great recruiter, possibly much more — and how that might knit with an expanded role for Rees.

That’s not to say the perfect offensive coordinator hire, from the inside or plucked from the NFL or outside college ranks, means Notre Dame is ready to conquer Wisconsin Oct. 3 in Green Bay, Clemson Nov. 7 in Notre Dame Stadium and the 10 other opponents on the 2020 schedule.

Confirmed returning incumbent QB Ian Book, 28th in passing efficiency nationally at the moment, needs to evolve into a top 10 passer, as Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen did late in their careers. The offensive line needs to show more of what it did Saturday against Iowa State.

ND’s vaunted incoming offensive skill players — running back Chris Tyree, wide receiver Jordan Johnson and tight end Michael Mayer — need to be as good as advertised and need to be ALLOWED to show some of that as soon as next year instead of fermenting as freshmen.

The Irish need ascending players like junior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who had zero career tackles coming into this season and finished tied for first on the team with 80, tied for first in sacks with 5.5 and outright first in tackles for loss (13.5) to go along with two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, three QB hurries and four pass breakups.

Two players, one on each side of the ball, who could make that kind of leap in 2020? Suspended sophomore wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. and redshirting freshman defensive end Isaiah Foskey.

The defense isn’t without questions next season, but at 18th nationally in total defense currently, fifth in pass-efficiency defense, No. 12 in scoring defense and No. 1 in fumbles recovered, the 2020 version could be top 10 across the board.

Which is the most common characteristic among teams that play for and win championships.

Clemson and Alabama also win national championships in the Playoff Era, because they are both supremely talented AND supremely coached.

What Brian Kelly has in front of him is an opportunity to upgrade on both counts. Now he needs to get right what that should look like.

Thirty seasons ago, Grand Valley State head coach Tom Beck took a leap of faith on a grad assistant defensive backs coach and made him the NCAA Division II program’s defensive coordinator.

At age 27.

His name was Brian Kelly.

Two years later, when Beck left to join Lou Holtz’s staff at Notre Dame, 29-year-old Kelly became head coach and started calling offensive plays for the first time.

What he eventually became, how he adapted to Notre Dame and Notre Dame to him, how he reinvented himself has brought us to this point.

The moment of truth of whether Notre Dame football can come back — ALL THE WAY back.

The closest Notre Dame has come in the post-Holtz Era (1997-present) was 2012 and 2018, both preceded by bowl appearances in Orlando to end the previous seasons.

The real magic wasn’t that venue or the outcome of those games (one loss, one win) but what happened in the offseasons that immediately followed. The right coaching hires. The tough personnel decisions.

The ideal next step.

It’s time.

ehansen@sbtinfo.com

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

(12) comments

ClementstoWeber

Just can't quite buy it, Mr. Hansen. Ian Book is a winning QB, not a national championship QB. Throw Mr. Rees into the mix and I'm sure of it. Go Irish!

jim masterson

Totally with you on this article, Eric.

I trust Kell will hit a home run either with Tom Reese, or another yet unnamed OC.

Tom Potts

100% correct! Kelly is a fine coach and a perfect fit for ND. All ND fans think they want Urban Meyer. Guess what? ND would not hire him. Too much baggage. Be happy with what we have.

Go Irish!!!

OverAll

he’s a mediocre coach and not a good fit unless you’re OK with being mediocre, which isn’t the tradition here. I don’t think most fans want urban Meyer, but a dynamic, innovative program builder who is great on game day would be a nice start. But regardless, they would have to make significant, fundamental changes if they want to win .. the coach and AD are just part of what needs to change.

Ludwig von Football

Tommy Rees isn't ready to be an offensive coordinator at this level of play. He needs more experience. The biggest mistake Kelly made at ND was not firing Brian van Gorder after his second year. Making Tommy Rees the offensive coordinator could be his second biggest mistake. Congratulations to the Irish for an 11-2 season and what should be a top ten ranking.

OverAll

sorry, I wish I could buy that even the best case scenario with all those moves would equal a championship program, but it’s just not the case. Notre Dame has had some championship level starters over the last 20-30 years, and they have a few around campus but just not the depth to win at the highest level. and I don’t see that changing. Ian book will never be an elite quarterback. Kelly will never be a great coach. We don’t have enough talent on the field or the sidelines. No running backs. Not enough defensive backs. you need at least seven or eight guys on your team on each side of the ball as talented as Kyle Hamilton, and guys behind them that are hungry and just as talented. We have maybe - maybe - two to four players that would start at Clemson/LSU/OSU/Bama/etc. It’s just not good enough. We’re a borderline top 10 – top 15 type program. Look at LSU, Ohio state, Clemson. elite players two and three deep at all 22 positions on the field. Do you really think we are a year or two away from being able to beat those squads? Please. Care to make it interesting? I’ll give you 10 to 1 we don’t win a championship in the next four years. Believe me, I wish that wasn’t the case. but Notre Dame doesn’t want to do what it takes to win at the highest level, and even if they did, I don’t think Kelly could get it done. I wish I was wrong.

Ludwig von Football

Over All - It is hard to disagree with many of the points you make. The biggest problem at ND is the academics. Too many of the elite athletes don't meet the academic requirements. Until ND offers easier majors and lowers their academic standards they will never compete with teams like Alabama, LSU, Ohio State and Clemson.

OverAll

Yeah, i know... and I do get why they don’t want to just take everybody, but I don’t even think it would take that drastic of a lowering. I think there’s still a calculus requirement, which is ridiculous. I’m sure they could open it up a little bit without compromising the culture of the school. After all, the culture does include winning in football.

champ

Listen to interviews of LSU,USC,BAMA players thugs

morons ''you know you feel me huh so you know fidgit look and listen to Kelly pulls his ears plays with water bottle ''you know you know'' Kelly is an embarrassmet keep academics high

larry D

No, not if he can't recruit in the top 5 the next three years. 10 to 15 ranking will keep them where they end up now, nice team but not a top 5 team. Go Irish.

KMD

Nice article as always Eric, but the fan base is not buying the fluff. Beating Iowa State in Orlando the way they did is good, but not a big deal...it was expected to go down like that. Come on now...it's Iowa State, not exactly a top 25 program. Great way to end the year and better than another embarrassing blow out loss. Love ND football and that will never change, but the coach, team, and talent is not as close as some think to being NC contenders. LSU, Ohio State, and Clemson would destroy this ND team. It's just the unfortunate truth. With Kelly and ND's ridiculous standards for student athletes they might break the top 10 once in a while and will hopefully remain a top 20 program, but that's the ceiling.

champ

2020 New Years Resolution

either ban Rudy from the Notre Dame campus entirely under court order and injunction against misuse of ND name,including ND on Kentucky Fried Chicken-Rudy go fund me -Rudy leader of athetists-or Make Rudy Assistant AD for Notre Dame Football,Brian Kellys Chief Assistant!

Every incompetent king deserves a jester --Coach Kelly Notre Dame deserves this fool as his Athletic Director - 2020 ? 9-3--- and Kelly gets an other contract extension and 6 million a year

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