Analysis: Kelly's destiny at Notre Dame is tethered to answers on the defensive front

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — So now that the vote of confidence received a vote of confidence — and arguably a necessary one, at that — Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly has the opportunity to control his destiny in 2017.

It’s no longer about supposed outrage written in chalk on campus sidewalks, or GoFundMe.com campaigns to raise money for anti-Jack Swarbrick/anti-Kelly rhetoric in newspaper ads and billboards, or questioning the depth or sincerity of athletic director Swarbrick’s recent wide-ranging in-house interview.

The football element is now where the real intrigue of the offseason and the power to reinforce or rearrange public opinion reside.

Not that the circus is leaving town anytime soon. But it never rises about the level of distraction if Kelly takes care of the football end of things.

The upside to having so much roster/experience turnover in 2016 is that it’s minimal in 2017 — even with quarterback Malik Zaire, offensive guard John Montelus and wide receiver Corey Holmes, all backups, announcing impending transfers.

Should junior quarterback DeShone Kizer defer the NFL Draft for another cycle and Torii Hunter Jr. exercise his fifth-year option — though neither is a probability — the Irish would return all 11 starters on offense and eight on defense, a year after bringing back a four-decade-low seven starters combined on both sides of the ball.

Kelly also adds back a dynamic player on each side of the ball, provided cornerback Shaun Crawford’s surgically repaired Achilles tendon cooperates and tight end Alizé Jones rectifies the academic shortcomings that sidelined him in the first place.

And there’s some potential impact help in a recruiting class that stands at 17 commitments with perhaps more to be added this weekend.

But all of those assets aren’t enough in and of themselves to change the narrative in 2017. There must be transformation. That’s philosophical transformation, coaching staff transformation and player development transformation.

We’ll take a look at the most overlooked of the three in the keep/dump Kelly taffy pull — player development transformation — and in its most critical area, defensive line/pass rush.

Bolstering quarterback depth, strengthening the safety positions, and recalibrating attitude and chemistry on the offensive line are also high on the offseason to-do list.

But the one offseason priority tied most closely to Kelly’s coaching destiny has catalyzed a national title run for him at ND (2012) as well as providing an apocalyptic feel to his most recent season.

Kelly’s tourniquet approach to defense, once he purged third-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder on Sept. 25, produced significant improvement statistically over the final eight games but not a lasting blueprint for him and the next defensive coordinator.

The most visible chronic issue that screams for a system overhaul is a pass rush that produced the fewest overall sacks (14) by an Irish team since 1991 and the 118th-most this season in the 128-team FBS.

It gets uglier if you include just sack production from defensive linemen. Just three of ND’s 14 sacks came from its men in the trenches (compared with 16 of 25 in 2015). That’s not only the worst production among Power 5 teams in 2016, but the two players responsible for the modest three sacks (Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell) have exhausted their eligibility.

Less visible than the pass rush dearth, but more alarming, is a national rushing defense ranking of 70 or below (currently 72nd) for the fourth straight season.

To put the importance of rush defense in perspective, the four teams in this year’s college playoff all rank in the top 22, with top seed Alabama at No. 1 in that category. The lowest a national champ has ranked in rush defense since Notre Dame captured its most recent national title, in 1988, is Miami (Fla.), 40th in 2001. And even that’s an outlier.

Twenty-five of the past 28 national champs, going back to and including ND’s '88 title team, finished in the top 25 in that category, and 20 of the 28 were in the top 15. The 1988 Irish were 10th. The lowest rush defense ranking among ND’s seven post-World War II national championship squads was 20th by the 1947 team.

The quickest possible fixes for Kelly and the Irish in this regard may be schematic, but for long-term advancement ND has to give a good hard look at evaluation in the recruiting process, the ability to sell its system to recruits and retention at the defensive line position.

The Irish have numbers to throw at the problem — 13 of 15 defensive ends/tackles/outside linebacker hybrids return, and ND will add three or more such players in the 2017 recruiting class. Freshman Jamir Jones could also grow into one. But does Notre Dame have difference-makers to pair with all that quantity?

The 2014 recruiting class is a perfect microcosm to sum up ND’s challenges and shortfalls, to date.

In that class, soon-to-be seniors academically, Notre Dame signed a total of eight interior defensive linemen and edge pass-rushers — nine if you count linebacker Nile Sykes, all 6-foot-1, 219 pounds of him at the time.

Of those eight — Daniel Cage, Pete Mokwuah, Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Grant Blankenship, Jonathan Bonner, Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes — only Hill at Texas Tech (32) and Trumbetti at ND (26) could claim more tackles in the entire 2016 season than Irish nose guard Jarron Jones amassed in a single game (10), against Virginia Tech on Nov. 19.

And those eight players, three of whom are no longer in South Bend, combined for 1.5 sacks, which falls short of matching Jones’ modest total of two sacks for the season.

Sykes, who left ND on mutual terms one month after enrolling in the summer of 2014, did have four sacks for Indiana among his 16 tackles in 2016 as a now 6-foot-2, 250-pound end.

In the same 2014 recruiting pool, Boston College plucked 2016 national sacks co-leader Harold Landry out of the heart of ACC country, Spring Lake, N.C. The Irish didn’t offer him a scholarship. This past season the 6-3, 250-pound junior had one more sack individually than the entire ND team combined.

To say ND is challenged geographically when it comes to recruiting pass-rush talent ignores top 20 sack teams nationally in nearby cold-weather states Michigan (44 sacks), Pitt (39), Penn State (39) and 2017’s season-opening opponent, Temple (37).

To say the academic bar suppresses ND’s talent pool at that position dismisses Stanford (35 sacks), Duke (29) and Northwestern (26).

Attrition also nicked the two D-Line classes that bookended the enigmatic 2014 group — Eddie Vanderdoes (2013) and Bo Wallace (2015) — though Vanderdoes had a modest 1.5 sacks among his 27 tackles in 2016 for UCLA before declaring for the NFL Draft, and Wallace left the Arizona State program, his post-ND landing spot, before the season even kicked off.

Could current defensive line coach Keith Gilmore be part of the solution?

It’s difficult to separate Gilmore’s impact or lack thereof from the big picture so influenced by VanGorder, even after the latter’s in-season departure. Using stats to definitively quantify position coaches isn’t necessarily as congruent as doing it with coordinators and doesn’t take into account personnel factors.

But at North Carolina, where Gilmore spent the 2013 and ’14 seasons, the Tar Heels were 40th in rush defense the season before he arrived, 82nd in 2013, 117th in 2014, then 121st and 113th the two seasons after he left for ND.

Carolina was 34th in sacks in 2012, then 37th in Gilmore’s first year at UNC, 92nd in his second, and 96th and 83rd in the two seasons since.

His recruiting track record gets higher marks, but he’s not considered either enough of a grinder to open the deals or dynamic enough to close them on his own.

Kelly said Sunday, whether the next defensive coordinator comes from within the ranks or from outside, he will have the power to hire his own staff.

The next coordinator will have to be a much more invested recruiter than VanGorder ever was, having landed two prospects in two full recruiting cycles and parts of two others.

And it might not hurt if the new guy is a bit of a history buff.

In February of 2011, ND landed a bounty of front-seven talent that was celebrated as the finally realized missing piece. Twenty-three months later, the Irish had the 11th best run defense, seventh best overall defense, 22nd-best team in sacks and were playing for the national title in Miami Gardens, Fla.

For history to repeat, or at least move in that direction, Kelly needs both long-term vision and a microwaveable strategy for meaningful and repaid returns.

That means putting his best athletes on the field in the front seven. No more of the “so-and-so doesn’t understand the scheme well enough” rhetoric.

Invest in freshmen Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. And light a fire under Jerry Tillery. The sophomore, who was originally recruited to be an offensive tackle and has ended each of his first two seasons with a whimper and bad pub, has the physical talent to be a star.

But does he have the heart to be?

The clock is ticking. The college football world is gaping. And the next move by Brian Kelly is about to define him.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Freshman defensive linemen Julian Okwara (42) and Daelin Hayes (9) figure to play a large role in what coach Brian Kelly's future looks like at Notre Dame. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)