Head coach Brian Kelly taking a more active role in Notre Dame's defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly insisted Tuesday that a shift in his focus to the defensive side of the ball won’t entail micromanagement.

But already you can see the Notre Dame head football coach’s fingerprints all over the statistical albatross in his team’s 1-2 stumble out of the gate.

A defense that ranks no higher than 89th nationally out of 128 in any significant category heading into Saturday’s first dip of the season into ND’s annual ACC commitment, against Duke (1-2), was scheduled for more contact, more work against the No. 1 offense and more reps at full speed in Tuesday’s practice.

“I’m just looking to coach better,” Kelly said. “So we’re going to thud everybody up.”

The desired byproduct of “thudding” is supposed to be surer tackling and sounder fundamentals from a team that surrendered more than 200 yards rushing Saturday night in a 36-28 home loss to Michigan State and more than 500 yards of total offense, both for the second time this season.

“I tracked all of our missed tackles,” Kelly said. “Every single one of them is just poor fundamentally, not being in control of their body.

“And if we’re just in better position — a better football position, If we just put ourselves in front of the ball carrier and get run over and hold on for dear life, they’re only going to get another yard or two.

“They’re just too anxious. They’re either behind the play and they were late in recognizing and trying to make up for it and they’re out of control, or they’re trying to block/tackle. And they should be in a good fit, tackle position.”

In Kelly’s seven seasons at ND and at all three of his previous head coaching stops, he has spent most of this time in the offensive meeting rooms, and disproportionately with the quarterbacks. And it’s paid off big for him.

Former Irish coach Lou Holtz carried those same offensive tendencies in his big-picture coaching, but he did have occasions in which he felt it necessary to cross over to the defense to help fix a problem.

The three Irish head coaches in between Holtz and Kelly couldn’t do that. Bob Davie was all defense and Charlie Weis was all offense. And Tyrone Willingham never rose to the level of coordinator on either side of the ball before he landed his first head coaching job, at Stanford.

Kelly’s introduction into coaching came on the defensive side of the ball. And so did the first big coaching break for the undersized small-college linebacker. He was named defensive coordinator at Division II power Grand Valley State at age 26, then head coach two years later.

The man he hired to replaced himself as defensive coordinator?

Brian VanGorder, the same man who 25 years later under Kelly is being inspected by an impatient fan base for obsolescence.

His challenge this week is a Duke team that ran off a school-record 49 first-half points in a 49-6 rout of FCS school North Carolina Central in its opener but has labored offensively since in losses to Wake Forest and Northwestern.

The Blue Devils will come to Notre Dame Stadium sporting the nation’s 94th-ranked scoring offense.

Kelly’s involvement in the defense will entail more time in defensive meetings, he said.

“I have to be aware of what the game plan is,” Kelly said. “It means I have to know how we’re teaching things and communicating them, which I do.

“I don’t need a headset. I don’t need to be on the defensive side of the ball, coaching tackling. I’m very confident I’ve got very outstanding coaches to do that. But I’m the head coach, and I better be certain that I know exactly what’s going on in all facets of my program — offense, defense, special teams, recruiting.”

“If we weren’t teaching those things, if I didn’t see them with my own eyes, I’d be over there wearing a hat and a whistle and coaching it myself.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly exits the field following Notre Dame's 36-28 loss to Michigan State in an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

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Line: Notre Dame by 15