Analysis: Selling the future and the challenges for ND's Brian Kelly in making it work
SOUTH BEND — The faint gleam in the distance is the unembellished promise of what 2017 might look like.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s biggest challenge over the final five regular-season games of this season is to make sure that vision isn’t perceived to be reeking of snake oil by the time it finally arrives, something his detractors will assert that the 17-10 come-from-ahead loss to underdog Stanford Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium didn’t contradict or even mildly mitigate.
Not only does that mean selling 2016 as an outlier, but finding the same alchemy that Kelly concocted last season when he and the Irish transcended the loss of 19 of the 44 players in the August 25 two-deeps to injury, minimally for the better part of a game and most for much longer than that.
It’s not just recruits that need to hear and buy into the message — and the impending bye week sort of serves as a recruiting extravaganza for the Irish coaching staff. It’s the influential movers and shakers with thick checkbooks and itchy trigger fingers who can try to hijack the ND administration’s more measured posture.
It’s also a national media that see the 2-5 record Notre Dame will take into a home matchup with old rival Miami (4-2) on Oct. 29 and naturally gape and feed the speculation frenzy instead of relegating the Irish to irrelevance.
That’s unlike TV viewers and ticket-buyers, whose habits suddenly are saturated in reflected irrelevance.
Notre Dame-Stanford, per the overnight ratings, drew 2.43 million viewers in prime time. That’s slightly less than what the Irish and Nevada pulled in for a 3:30 EDT start on Sept. 10, less than half of what ND’s prime-time matchup with Michigan State generated on Sept. 17, and less than a third of what the two teams gleaned on FOX last November with much more than the obscure Legends Trophy at stake.
As far as the secondary ticket market goes, at one point last week, you could buy your way into Notre Dame Stadium for $27, or $98 below face value.
The potential for a reverse narrative in 2017, though, is every bit as dramatic and every bit as real.
There will be transfers, early NFL Draft entries, injuries and other attrition — there always are. But without trying to nail down those numbers at the present time, Notre Dame has only nine players who exhaust their eligibility after this season, and only four of them are current starters or heavy time-share reserves.
The Irish could return as many as 21 of the 22 offensive players in the current two-deeps — including all 11 starters — and 18 of the 22 in the defensive two-deeps.
So that means even if junior quarterback DeShone Kizer jumps into the draft pool with two seasons of college eligibility left and Malik Zaire grad-transfers out, relatively inexperienced sophomore Brandon Wimbush theoretically would be surrounded by experience, depth and talent at every offensive position.
They’ll also add two dynamic players back into the mix, one on each side of the ball in tight end Alizé Jones and cornerback Shaun Crawford, both juniors academically and sophomore eligibility-wise in 2017.
Junior Nick Watkins, another cornerback with starting experience, and perhaps even legally embroiled senior corner Devin Butler could also be in the mix.
Among the prospects in the 2017 recruiting class, those with the talent/opportunity quotient to positively impact next season, are defensive linemen Donovan Jeter and Darnell Ewell, cornerback Paulson Adebo, and the nation’s top two tight end prospects, Cole Kmet and Brock Wright.
So how does Kelly get to year eight of his regime with the momentum to take advantage of those stacked assets?
It starts with improving in the five statistical metrics in which excelling at are the common threads among the 18 national champions in the BCS/Playoff Era: Total defense, rushing defense, rushing offense, turnover margin and passing efficiency.
In 2012, the Irish checked three of the five boxes and were respectable in a fourth: Total defense 7th, rushing defense 11th, rushing offense 38th, turnover margin 27th and passing-efficiency 74th. Their current rankings look like this: total defense 65th, rushing defense 83rd, rushing offense 89th, turnover margin 106th and team passing efficiency 48th.
It still starts with defense
And Notre Dame has improved, albeit subtly in some, in every significant defensive category since Brian VanGorder was fired as defensive coordinator on Sept. 25: rush, pass-efficiency, total, scoring and third-down defense as well as sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers gained.
The most dramatic spikes are in total defense (106th to 65th) and turnovers gained (108th to 67th).
That improvement, though, will be tested on a weekly basis for the balance of the regular season, starting with Miami. Though the Irish don’t face a total offense higher than 40, all five opponents have elements that make them more dangerous than those rankings suggest.
All five run the ball better than the Irish, and Army is the top rushing team in the nation. Three of those teams — Miami, Virginia Tech and USC — feature quarterbacks ranked in the top 25 in pass-efficiency. In fact, Tech’s Jerod Evans and USC replacement part Sam Darnold are in the top 10.
The two triple-option curveballs, Navy and Army, come in the midst of those precision passers and back to back.
And Navy quarterback Will Worth, not even the first choice to replace graduated star QB Keenan Reynolds, would rank 15th nationally in passing efficiency if he has 17 more attempts to meet the minimum qualifying standard.
All but Navy are elite in protecting their quarterbacks. Miami, Navy and Army are all ranked in the top 10 nationally in fewest turnovers lost.
Why defense matters, big picture and long term, is that of the 18 national champs in the BCS/Playoff Era, only Auburn in 2010 has a total defense ranking south of 25th nationally.
And the Tigers were extremely strong in the other four must-have metrics, including a No. 9 standing in rush defense.
Kelly’s challenge is to decide where he wants to go philosophically with his scheme in 2017 and beyond, and how or if replacement coordinator Greg Hudson fits long term. If not, who can he bring in to make the Irish elite on that side of the ball?
Straightening the line
Notre Dame’s chronic and perplexing offensive line woes actually are ND’s most pressing short-term concern.
They tie into a less-potent rushing attack than last season and Kizer’s recent regression. The shortcomings also indirectly affect the defense, given that ball control — think keep-away — is not a consistent option.
“I don't think we have any choice that we have to improve in some of the fundamentals in terms of our sets, in terms of the standing blocks, recognition, composure, penalties,” Kelly said Sunday during his weekly tele-review.
“I think that all of those are the basic fundamentals and (the) foundation of playing winning football. If we don't improve those, we're not going to win at the level that we need to.”
Kelly said no personnel changes are in the works at this time.
“We vetted this out,” he said. “They're the best players that we have. They're all players that will return for us. They're all players that are going to be here for at least another year, so this is a commitment toward this year and getting them better so we can get through this skid that we're on.”
Hurricane Matthew and N.C. State’s defense helped coax Kizer from No. 9 nationally in passing efficiency to No. 20 in a week’s time, but facing the nation’s then-No. 99 pass defense in near-perfect weather conditions Saturday night doesn’t explain the subsequent slide to No. 35 for the projected first-round draft pick. (Malik Zaire’s number added in account for the disparate No. 48 team ranking.)
“I think that everybody's got to improve around him,” Kelly said when asked about it Sunday. “I really don't think it's just about DeShone Kizer.
“We have got to protect him better. I think we have got to run more precise routes. I think the play-calling has to improve. I just think it's always the quarterback who is going to be the center of the storm and that certainly comes with the position, but he can do things better and he knows that as well.
“This is collectively an entire offensive issue. It's not just one thing. So, I think as the offense gets better at the details across the board, I think we'll see improvement in his position.”
But why the step backward now? Until N.C. State and the hurricane game on Oct. 8, the Irish went through an 18-game stretch in which they failed to reach the 400-yard mark in total offense just once. Kizer played as a backup or starter in all 18 of those games.
Prior to 2015, the fewest sub-400-yard games the Irish have experienced in a single-season in the 20 seasons since the end of the Lou Holtz Era is three (2005, Charlie Weis’ first year). And they’ve had as many as 11 (2002, 2003 — Tyrone Willingham’s first two seasons).
The Irish not only fell short of 400 each of the past two weeks, they haven’t been close.
And it’s not just a pragmatic point of getting Kizer back in improving mode, it’s an important perceptual one too.
Every one but linebacker Jaylon Smith of ND’s seven NFL draftees last spring — all non-quarterbacks — carried a higher draft position than their recruiting ranking coming out of high school, and some — like Ronnie Stanley, Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise — dramatically so.
And had Smith not been seriously injured, he would have fit right in with the feel-good player development theme.
Now Kelly needs one at quarterback. Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees, Everett Golson, Malik Zaire and Kizer can’t all be square pegs.
Outside the lines
The hardest thing to measure, the hardest to manufacture, the hardest to tangibly and authentically show to the outside world is how a team processes losing.
It can be as potentially galvanizing long term as it can be divisive. And sometimes it’s purely player-driven. What Kelly can control is to avoid breaking trust, breaking spirits and breaking dreams.
And also learning from 2016 and applying those lessons moving forward.
“I think if there's one thing, honestly, I think that probably prepare to play these young guys and getting them more work, even more work in our preseason camp,” Kelly said of the revelations that have struck him so far.
“And I mean preparing them to play, actually you got to run with the first group, because you're going to play. I know it's early, and finding things that they can do early on and master those. Because they're in high pressure situations right now and they have got a lot on their plate.”
So does their coach. And the learning never ends.