Analysis: Kelly's most important impending move is what to do with himself

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The surreal fallout from Notre Dame football team’s stunning November regression spilled off the stat sheet of a 49-14 manhandling from measuring-stick peer USC Saturday and into the social media stream on Sunday.

Prized Irish linebacker recruit Te’von Coney, within the span of a few minutes on Twitter, alternately retweeted an ND fan’s plea not to walk away from his verbal commitment and one from a Florida Gators minion persuading him to flip loyalties and career arcs.

Meanwhile, a Fire Brian Kelly Twitter account picked up all of four followers over the lost weekend for the real Brian Kelly, giving it a grand total of five presumably disgruntled souls.

It’s really nothing more than white noise for a coach who just 15 months ago signed a contract extension with ND that takes him through the 2017 season and allegedly gave Kelly a louder and more meaningful voice in matters involving his football program.

Something that seemed decidedly absent during the school’s academic fraud investigation process earlier this season.

What Kelly does have a pronounced say in is what to do about his quarterback pecking order, jumbled Saturday by the benching of senior Everett Golson in his 23rd career start and the intermittent efficiency sophomore Malik Zaire brought Saturday in Los Angeles in the first meaningful playing time of his career.

The more pressing impending dilemma than what does Kelly do with Golson is: What does Brian Kelly do with himself?

Twice before his current four-game funk, matching the longest of his career, Kelly faced four-game slides that started in one season and extended to the next, both at Division II power Grand Valley State.

The first time he repeated the pattern a year later. The second time he went 48-3 over his next 51 games with two national championships.

It generally doesn’t take a crisis for Kelly to step back and look for ways to get better. His history is as full of meaningful evolutions when things were going well as they were when he was getting booed. In fact, if there’s a discernable blind spot in his coaching, it’s maybe being a bit too stubborn when adversity strikes.

At least when it comes to his role, his touch on the program and the narrative he wants to push to explain the steps backward.

The injuries on the defense are real. The most sobering of them is that Notre Dame could be down to two scholarship safeties (Elijah Shumate and comeback kid Eilar Hardy) when it plays in the Belk, TaxSlayer, Music City, Sun or Pinstripe Bowl roughly a month from now.

But Irish fans are weary of what caused the problems. Their concern, justifiably so, is if they can be fixed and how soon.

And that’s why it makes no sense to even consider turning down a bowl bid. The upside of doing so is non-existent. To avoid further embarrassment? Really?

The Irish (7-5) were already depantsed on national TV Saturday by a team, USC (8-4), that couldn’t wiggle its way back into the Top 25. The potential of falling to 7-6 (with Tennessee, Auburn or LSU being its most probably bowl opponents) doesn’t come close to outweighing the opportunity that bowl practices — which average out to 15 but are not limited to that — afford Kelly and the Irish.

That’s as many as the Irish get in spring practice, and the impact on the 2015 season can be just as meaningful, especially for the young players forced prematurely into expanded roles. But the chance for Kelly to reflect and recalibrate is bigger.

And here are the areas where it holds the most significance:

1. Quarterbacks. If Kelly does move forward with Zaire as his No. 1 QB for the bowl game, he has to ask himself why each of the starting quarterbacks he’s had at Notre Dame — Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees and possibly Golson — eventually topped out and lost their starting jobs for reasons other than injury.

It’s a question QB prospects in the 2016 class should be asking too.

The Irish offense, unlike the defense, has not been depleted by injuries in 2014. But it sure played that way Saturday against a USC team that ranks 66th nationally in total defense, three spots ahead of the free-falling Irish D.

Golson looked tight, looked defeated before Kelly pulled him. The bigger problem is that a lot of the players around him looked similar on Saturday — wound too tight, afraid to make a mistake. Even the young players. Make that especially the young players.

Kelly hired a dedicated, full-time quarterbacks coach, Matt LaFleur, in the offseason. If he’s as good as Kelly purported him to be last winter, maybe the head coach needs to give him some room to make a difference. If not, Kelly, heavily involved with the QBs on a daily basis, needs to figure out why it isn’t working.

2. Nyles Morgan. The former elite linebacker prospect has unfairly become a de facto symbol for what’s gone wrong on defense since starting middle linebacker Joe Schmidt’s left leg and ND’s scheme both collapsed in a 49-39 survival of Navy on Nov 1.

There’s no question Morgan has been caught out of position at times, particularly on pass plays. But he had 11 tackles in the second half alone Saturday and has 43 for the season in roughly a month’s time of filling in for Schmidt.

Five tackles in the bowl game would push him into eighth place for the most tackles by a freshman in a season in Notre Dame football history, with Jaylon Smith and Manti Te’o, by comparison, recording 67 and 63, respectively, in a full season of duty.

It would be one thing if Morgan were unteachable or uncoachable. But by all accounts, he’s just the opposite, as well as resilient, humble and hard-working.

And if for some reason he were to leave the ND roster, there’d be a long line of college coaches willing to help him pick up the pieces elsewhere.

It’s really up to Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to tweak the scheme to what Morgan does best and help him improve in what he doesn’t do well right now.

That could be said of fellow freshmen Jay Hayes, Daniel Cage, Andrew Trumbetti and Grant Blankenship as well as sophomore safety Max Redfield if he can come back from the broken rib he suffered Saturday.

There are players who understandably take one step back at inopportune times. But at this point they should have their share of stretches of taking two steps forward.

3. Kyle Brindza. One of the most mentally tough, best prepared, grounded football players on the Irish roster has become a head case.

Brindza started off the season 10-of-14 on field goals and that included two misses cause by mishandled holds in the rain against Stanford on Oct. 4 by former holder Hunter Smith.

The senior and all-time leader at ND in made field goals is 3-of-9 in November, including 2-of-5 since Kelly pushed new holder Malik Zaire on him. And that could have very well cost the Irish the Northwestern and Louisville games.

In the bigger picture, special teams have been more disappointing than special in Kelly’s five seasons at ND. In the offseason he owes it to the program to ask the question whether the coaching structure around the kicking and return games is working or does he need to make a change there?

In the short term, he may need to let those coaches do their job and give Brindza some room to find himself again, even if it means going back to Hunter Smith as the holder.

4. Ben Councell. Repeatedly Kelly has been asked if the former key reserve linebacker was physically compromised. The answer continues to be no, which makes the 2014 fade of the 6-foot-5, 254-pound senior (with a fifth-year option) all the more perplexing.

If VanGorder’s scheme makes a player of his size and skill set obsolete as any outside linebacker, it would stand to reason a depleted front seven could use him at inside linebacker or as an edge pass-rusher at the very least.

VanGorder showed the college football world in September and October that with the right personnel and under the right conditions, his Rex Ryan-influenced scheme can shake up opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks.

But he hasn’t solved how to deal with uptempo offenses, not even mediocre ones. And he needs a Plan B, now that his personnel has drastically changed.

It’s up to Kelly to help him refract that vision, up to Kelly who Saturday put every starting job on the team up for grabs to do his job at a higher level as well, to transcend the white noise and to reinvent himself if necessary.


Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, right, looks on along with quarterback Everett Golson during the second half of ND's 49-14 loss to USC, Saturday in Los Angeles.  (AP Photo/MARK J. TERRILL)