Analysis: Gauging the winds of change inside Notre Dame football

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Even with the last and most contorted piece still stuck in the land of unconfirmed and uncompleted, the barrage of new faces in Brian Kelly’s seismic offseason staff makeover implores a simple question:

Is the Notre Dame football program better off for it?

In the coming days, a blur of professed vision, sincere rhetoric and crafted spin from the six new faces — seven when presumably former QB Tommy Rees jumps aboard — will provide some hints.

But the layered answer won’t fully reveal itself for some time now.

It’s not so straightforward as deciphering whether DelVaughn Alexander will exact more production out of the wide receivers than Mike Denbrock did; or Mike Elston’s return to coaching the defensive line turns out to be a revelation.

The deeper significance lies in how the pieces fit together and harmonize — or not.

On game day. In meetings. In recruiting. In recreating a culture that won’t allow for detours in the classroom or the weight room — the former of which has marred earlier seasons, the latter of which bled conspicuously into the 4-8 bottom line in 2016.

The more pertinent litmus tests, the ones that address synergy, look like these: Does new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s expertise in coaching safeties help accelerate retained defensive backs coach Todd Lyght’s growth curve?

Does new director of football performance (strength coach for the old-schoolers) Matt Balis’ methods and standards give offensive line coach Harry Hiestand better material with which to reboot a rare underachieving unit?

And how challenged will eighth-year head coach Kelly be in an offensive meeting room from 33-year-old offensive coordinator Chip Long and 24-year-old Rees, the latter of whom would morph into a full-time assistant in mid-April if the NCAA legislation allowing for a 10th assistant passes the final vote, as expected?

And does Kelly even want to be challenged?

Kelly has professed, in a recent press release, that Long will call offensive plays. But will he be doing so out of Kelly’s playbook, Long’s version, or some sort of collaborative hybrid model? And will Long be sporting the coaching equivalent of training wheels?

The goal with all the newness around Kelly — Alexander, Long, special teams coach Brian Polian, linebackers coach Clark Lea, Elko, Balis, and likely Rees — is reinvention.

But change, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily spark improvement any more than continuity automatically ferments into stagnation.

Notre Dame coaching icon Lou Holtz swapped out 26 assistants in the 10 offseasons after his first, 5-6, season in 1986 and up to his departure after an 8-3 run in ‘96. Never more than five assistant coaching changes in a given offseason and always at least one.

Some jumped. Some were pushed, with or without parachutes. Some climbed the coaching ladder.

His very last hire, an up-and-comer Holtz plucked from Colorado State named Urban Meyer in the 1995-96 offseason, couldn’t save Holtz from a quasi-divorce months later with an unbending ND administration that deemed Bob Davie as an upgrade.

Long after the end came, when Holtz’s emotions abated enough where he could truly be introspective, he realized the change that he didn’t make, that could have prolonged his run at ND, was himself.

"You get on top, it feels pretty good and you say, 'Let's not change anything,' ” Holtz said in an interview with the Tribune in 2012. “Well, you don't change anything, you don't have anything you're trying to aspire to.

“You have no reason to celebrate and you have no reason to get excited. When I left Notre Dame, I thought I was tired of coaching. I was not tired of coaching. I was tired of maintaining. That’s the dumbest thing I did.

"We should have set standards that nobody thought were possible. You get pulled and tugged in so many different directions, and that's the thing I regret. Don't maintain. We maintained it well, but that was a mistake."

In that light, the changes Kelly makes in himself this offseason and the months to follow will likely be the most catalyzing of all. And the one that most signifies his seriousness about reinvention was his recent parting ways with confidante and long-time director of strength and conditioning Paul Longo.

The two had worked together since Kelly took the Central Michigan head coaching job in 2004.

The recent press release confirming Balis as Longo’s successor explains the latter’s departure as a leave of absence, which caused some confusion among the ND fan base.

If Longo does return — and it’s more likely he won’t, per a source — he won’t be connected to strength and conditioning anymore, but in a reassigned role in the football/athletic department.

That leaves recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston as the lone remaining coach or coordinator Kelly imported with him to Notre Dame when he came from Cincinnati to replaced ousted Charlie Weis in December of 2009.

Fourteen coaches and Longo have moved on, including the only holdover from the Weis regime, Tony Alford. And Kelly’s two best seasons at ND — 12-1 in 2012 and 10-3 in 2015 — followed the two offseasons with the most change, at least when it came to staff members.

Kelly has always prided himself as a coach who didn’t wait for something to break to fix it, which is why the degree of dilapidation that surfaced during and after last season was so off-putting.

Defense can cover up a lot of flaws, and not just the cosmetic kind. And Kelly’s swapping out of Brian VanGorder for Elko is the change outside the ones Kelly makes within himself that most impacts his future.

An aside regarding VanGorder, deposed four games into last season: His gig with Georgia as a consultant, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was designed to last just one game — the Georgia Tech game last November, which the Bulldogs dropped, 28-27. He is no longer working with the Georgia staff.

VanGorder’s hopes and expectations at that time were that he’d be back working in the NFL in 2017 and not working as an analyst for Georgia, as had been speculated, when the Bulldogs visit the Irish Sept. 9.

Elko, hired away from Wake Forest, certainly will and with a gigantic, sizzling spotlight on him.

"I think everything starts with defense," Holtz said. "Your offense isn't always going to be there — the wind, the rain, competition. But defense is always the basis. The best teams we ever had started with defense.”

So did Kelly’s best team at ND, in 2012.

The markers to look for that there is progress in that area start with the ability to stop the run and generate a pass rush.

So if Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara begin to emerge as front-line options in the spring, if there are answers at nose guard beyond Daniel Cage, that’s a start. But there’s many more boxes to check.

Going against yourself in practice, though, and informal workouts over the next several months can have a mirage effect. True reinvention isn’t an event. It’s a process.

The clues that emerge in spring practice will be fascinating, sometimes revealing. But don’t become intoxicated by occasional whiffs of new car smell.

The reinvention won’t truly be tested until September, when the games and the pressure become real. And so too the blueprint of Kelly’s fate at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly has engendered a seismic staff makeover since this 45-27 loss at USC on Nov. 26. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)