Analysis: Brian Kelly's next step at Notre Dame must be out of his comfort zone

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The danger typically for a college head football coach at the crossroads is too much knee-jerk in his response to it.

Too much change for change sake. Too many fear-driven decisions. Too much groping in the dark, just to make the noise go away.

Then the noise instead gets louder. And the trap door opens.

To this point, Brian Kelly has staved off the urge to push the overreact button, for the most part. The offseason is the proper time for real soul-searching and meaningful reinvention. Not that bursts of epiphany when the losing hurts the most shouldn’t be embraced and thrown into the cauldron to let simmer.

But the potential misstep the seventh-year Irish head coach can’t afford to make in the coming weeks is to let the pendulum swing too far the other way.

Kelly has to fight the urge to solve the problems exposed in a heretofore 4-7 season, with 17-point favorite and 12th-ranked USC (8-3) awaiting, by running to his comfort zone.

Doing so, beyond moderation, is part of the reason why he stands on the cusp of joining Terry Brennan, Joe Kuharich and Charlie Weis and becoming just the fourth head coach in Notre Dame’s proud history to experience an eighth loss within a single season.

And that starts, but doesn’t end, with both the hiring and staying too long with deposed defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, a familiar face and philosophy from Kelly’s past.

That’s not to dismiss the greatest roster turnover at ND in terms of starters since freshman eligibility was restored across college football in 1972, or that Notre Dame lacks some of the quick-fix options available to other schools — case in point, Virginia Tech’s transformative quarterback, Jerod Evans, a junior college transfer.

But Kelly, who has been so good at clearing his blind spot up until this season, has let too much collect there in 2016.

A small sampling from Sunday’s weekly tele-review:

• He summarized Notre Dame’s offensive stagnation in the second half of a 34-31 come-from-ahead loss to Virginia Tech Saturday as self-inflicted, rather than a brilliant countermove from Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster for which the Irish couldn’t concoct an answer.

“You know, I'd like to credit Virginia Tech,” Kelly said, “but looking at the film, we executed a whole lot better in the first half than we did in the second half.”

• When pressed Sunday about a running game that exudes more finesse than physicality, Kelly pointed to the 200 yards it collected against Virginia Tech’s defense.

“I don't know where that perception has come from, really, to be honest with you,” he said. “If we had to do it all over again, we should have thrown the ball a little bit more.

“They were in a lot more pressure fronts, especially in the third and fourth quarter, a lot more man-to-man coverage, and that was the nature of the game.”

True, Notre Dame rushed for 200 yards (against a defense that was gashed for more than that each of the past two weeks), but what about failing to protect a 31-21 fourth-quarter lead by imposing their will — and shortening the game — on the ground?

And what about shotgun snaps with the ball inside the opponents’ 2-yard line that fizzled and turned into a field goal try?

“It's what we do,” Kelly said. “I mean, you know, that's what we're comfortable with. That's what we practice every day.”

Ah, the comfort zone.

• And when asked if anything in Saturday’s loss sparked some insight into what direction the program needs to go in the months ahead, Kelly held the line.

“No. I mean, this is not a program issue,” he said. “You saw this football team play, how well it can play. This is about consistency.

“This is about the second-half, false-start penalties and missing a catch here or there. This is how do you play consistent football for four quarters. Some of that is guys growing up, getting more experience. Some of that is better coaching, better teaching the techniques.

“But yeah, there's nothing endemic within the program as much as it is a team that has not executed consistently for four quarters.”

And that’s where he’s wrong. It’s a blend of circumstances unique to this year and this team, but there are program roots to it and program solutions to it as well.

The most obvious potential solution is the hiring of ND’s next defensive coordinator. And Kelly acknowledged Sunday that both an internal candidate and external candidates would be under consideration.

Less obvious, but still urgent, are personnel issues. For example, a potential crisis is percolating that Kelly has a chance to head off in the months ahead. And that involves the nose guard position.

Junior Daniel Cage, who tag-teamed most of the season with departing Jarron Jones, is back for one more year in 2017. But Cage’s concussion symptoms that have sidelined him three weeks already underscore how important it is to have a Plan B and a Plan C.

When asked about that last week, Kelly offered up junior Pete Mokwuah and sophomore Brandon Tiassum. Between them they have six cameos and one tackle in a combined five years on campus.

Incoming freshman Darnell Ewell has the pedigree to move up fast, and it would be wise to invest heavily in the Virginia High school standout the moment he steps on campus in June instead of waiting until an October crises to do so, then lamenting his inexperience.

If Kelly is as committed to going back to the 3-4 as his base defense as he appears to be, he needs a nose guard that can command double teams, or the rest of the defensive concepts suffer. And too many recruiting misses means there’s limited inventory of that kind of player.

That’s the “program” part of the equation in the lost season of 2016. A transition year may have been inevitable, but there were opportunities missed in past seasons and offseasons that could have mitigated the ugliness of it.

At a couple of key points in his career, Kelly learned that the cliché, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” doesn’t work in evolutionary world of college football. Actually, sometimes by the time it’s broken, it’s too late to fix.

In 2001, Kelly’s 11th as head coach at Division II school Grand Valley State, he went outside his comfort zone and installed the spread offense when there wasn’t a pressing need to change. Yet it helped turn a coach that consistently won at the Division II level to one who won championships there.

Then in February 2013, a month after Alabama destroyed the Irish in the 2012 BCS National Championship game, a chance meeting with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick on the golf course gave Kelly another philosophical jolt when he could have coasted.

“He has a way of looking at the game of football where he can take away all of the scrutiny and he can look at it without all the pressure,” Kelly said of Belichick. “At Notre Dame, you have all these interest groups. Everybody has an opinion. Everybody’s got, ‘I like this guy. I like that guy.’

“He has a way of looking at it and of stripping away that, and focusing on what gets you to win and what prevents you from winning.”

And that’s the place Kelly has to find the moment they turn out the lights Saturday at L.A. Memorial Coliseum.

It’s not about saving his job. It’s about thriving.

It’s about getting ahead of the curve again, no matter how uncomfortable it feels to get back there.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly exits the field following the Notre Dame's 34-31 loss to Virginia Tech, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

KICKOFF: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EST

WHERE: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

TV: ABC

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LINE: USC by 17