Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has plenty to be thankful for

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

When Notre Dame wins, Brian Kelly receives the credit. And in his sixth season, Kelly’s Irish have won a lot.

But to be clear, there’s plenty of credit to go around in Notre Dame’s 10-1 start. In a week devoted to giving thanks, what does Kelly have to be thankful for?

Where do we even begin?

He’s thankful for the next man, and the next man’s next man. It’s the next men, not the All-Americans, that have salvaged Notre Dame’s season. DeShone Kizer. C.J. Prosise. Josh Adams. Daniel Cage.

Once stashed in the dark crevices of Notre Dame’s depth chart, Kizer rescued the Irish in relief after Malik Zaire shattered his ankle. He found Will Fuller, and Notre Dame found a quarterback. Nine wins and thousands of Twitter followers later, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound sophomore has passed for 2,362 yards and accounted for 26 touchdowns. Not that he’s done it alone.

Prosise, previously a receiver and defensive back, has rushed for 1,029 yards and scored 12 touchdowns after Tarean Folston tore his ACL in the season opener. Adams, in an even more limited role, has contributed 592 yards and seven yards per carry. Cage has stepped in. Alizé Jones has stepped in. Alex Bars stepped in, which led to Quenton Nelson stepping (back) in.

Without the next men, this list would be a whole lot shorter.

He’s thankful for the rain, and the perception it provided. Specifically, that the 24-22 loss at No. 1 Clemson on Oct. 3 might have been a fluke. A monsoon-manufactured mirage. If not for a few waterlogged footballs, you could argue, the Irish wouldn’t have lost three fumbles, nor would they have lost the game. Is that a certain truth? Of course not. But it’s possible, and that could spell playoff.

He’s thankful for Jaylon Smith. Can he even count the reasons why? Arguably the most gifted player Kelly has ever coached, Smith has gobbled up 98 tackles through 11 games — a whopping 38 more than his next-closest teammate. The 6-3, 240-pound linebacker can be an unblockable pass rusher one play and a lockdown coverage king the next. Where Christian McCaffrey roams on Saturday, Jaylon Smith will follow.

He’s thankful for Will Fuller, because he’s (reportedly) coming back.

And he’s thankful for all the seniors that made the same decision. So thank you, Ronnie Stanley. And thank you, Sheldon Day. Stanley, who turned down the first round of the NFL Draft to chase an elusive championship, has been a predictably reliable staple on Kizer’s blind side at left tackle. Day, not to be outdone, has a staggering 14.5 tackles for loss, the most since Victor Abiamiri had 15 and Derek Landri had 15.5 in 2006.

The seniors, as expected, have been the anchor of Notre Dame’s lines.

He’s thankful for Justin Yoon — the opposite (in terms of experience), but the same (in terms of effectiveness). In the wake of Kyle Brindza’s departure, Notre Dame had no Plan B at placekicker. No alternate option. No “next man in.” Yoon had to be good, right away, or the Irish special teams would suffer.

After an undeniably shaky start, Yoon has been automatic. The freshman has knocked through 43 of 45 extra points and 12 of 14 field goals, including nine in a row. He has made clutch kicks and rainy kicks and kicks inside a baseball stadium, and he shows no signs of stopping.

Speaking of special teams, he’s thankful for Matthias Farley, who does all the little things that add up to something big. He recovers onside kicks. He downs punts in enemy territory. If you need him to start at safety, the graduate student captain can nab an interception, too.

He’s thankful for culture. No word yet on scheme.

But perhaps most of all, he’s thankful for the College Football Playoff committee, although that might change in an instant on Tuesday night.


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly sings the alma mater with his team following the 30-22 win over Georgia Tech on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN