Analysis: What would a turnaround season at Notre Dame really look like?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The most inconvenient truth about Notre Dame’s looming 2017 football season is that there really is no magic — or tragic — number involving Brian Kelly.

No threshold of victories that fits snugly in a Hot Seat Watch. No quantifiable steadfast formula to share with friends, along with pics of what your latest meal-out looks like, on your Facebook page.

That’s not to say there won’t be clear markers of progress or regression in which to track Year 8 of the Kelly regime of Notre Dame football this fall. But it’s impossible to uncouple victories from recruiting. Impossible to dismiss context from raw numbers.

And foolish to dismiss athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s contractual investments around Kelly that chase the knee-jerk assumption that 2017 is all about double-secret probation.

It’s not guaranteed to be about reinvention either, but that’s the best-case scenario for both Swarbrick and Kelly — that 2017 not be a stand-alone litmus test but a cornerstone to a renaissance of sorts.

Here’s a sort of deconstructed look at what such a season needs to look like:

Surviving a gauntlet of strong defenses

Kelly’s longevity as ND’s head coach is tied to defensive evolution more than any other singular factor, but in the short term the Notre Dame offense will feel the fire. Big time.

While the Irish defense faces just one team in 2017 that finished among the top 40 nationally in total offense last season (USC, at No. 20), the ND offense will be challenged by 10 teams that finished in the top 40 in total defense.

That’s more than any of the other 128 teams in the FBS will have to deal with in the upcoming season. In contrast, Oklahoma is the only Big 12 team with more than one top 40 defense looming in its future. Four of the league’s teams (Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and TCU) have zero in 2017.

And the Irish offense will have to be good out of the gate, with no easing-in period. ND faces the three best 2016 defenses on its 2017 schedule — No. 3 (Temple), No. 16 (Georgia) and No. 9 (Boston College) — in the first three weeks of the season.

There’s no guarantee those teams will be as good defensively in 2017 as they were in 2016. Temple, for instance, returns just four defensive starters and features a brand new coaching staff.

But new Owls head coach Geoff Collins presided over top 10 defenses as Florida’s defensive coordinator the past two seasons, and led Mississippi State in 2013 to a No. 18 showing in total defense.

Georgia, meanwhile, returns 10 defensive starters, while Boston College has seven coming back.

To counter that gauntlet, the Irish offense appears to be better and deeper at every position group surrounding presumptive starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush than it was last season.

But the redshirt sophomore himself, as breathtaking as his potential appears to be, has five collegiate pass attempts to his name. Wimbush's backups have none among them.

The controllable leaps of faith in this snapshot comprise the two of the many offseason hires by Kelly and two people most influential in Wimbush’s success on a day-to-day basis — play-caller/offensive coordinator Chip Long, with exactly one year of experience in each of those roles, and a 24-year-old quarterbacks coach in Tom Rees.

Kelly is banking in both cases that talent trumps a deep résumé, to the point of becoming significantly less QB-centric himself during practices and meetings.

Wimbush’s strong spring and backup QB Ian Book’s flourish the final week of spring provide some reasons for optimism with both hires and Kelly’s new role.

But that’s only part of the equation. The offensive stats that must improve significantly from 2016 are ND’s No. 80 rank nationally in rushing offense (down from 28 in 2015), a No. 85 standing in sacks allowed and No. 65 mark in third-down efficiency. A top 40 ranking in each is a bare minimum.

That means the offensive line, with two projected 2018 first-round draft choices, can’t underachieve again.

Redrawing the line

One of the most reliable metrics in determining championship teams is run defense.

Of the 29 national titlists dating back to and including ND’s 1988 national champs, the lowest one of those teams has finished in run defense nationally is 40th (Miami 2001). Only two other times in that span has the nation’s No. 1 team at season’s end failed to reach the top 25 in the run defense category (Ohio State 34th, 2014; Texas 33rd, 2005).

The Irish ranked 11th in 2012, in their most serious run at national title since the Lou Holtz Era (1986-96). Since then, they’ve been 70th, 72nd, 72nd, and 72nd in rush defense. The most mind-boggling facet of that consistent run of mediocrity is that the most talented Irish linebacker in a generation, Jaylon Smith, was a starter on three of those teams.

If Kelly’s reinvention is to be both convincing and enduring, defensive line play is where it starts. And that includes pass rush, not just run defense.

Purging new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s predecessor, Brian VanGorder, was a functional tourniquet but not a cure in and of itself. VanGorder’s flawed scheme and his inability to maximize the talent of some of his better athletes has no lasting repercussions, but both his misevaluations and indifference in recruiting does.

Recruiting then also plays a prominent role in the long-term solution, but the Irish need to show at least modest gains now with the players already on the roster.

The makeover in the strength and conditioning arm of the program should help. So should the return of Mike Elston to coaching the defensive line. Elko’s scheme and fundamental-heavy approach to player development is another layer.

Even with appreciable gains under Elston, once VanGorder was let go four games into the season (interim coordinator Greg Hudson was more figurehead than orchestrator), the bottom line in most defensive categories was lightyears from that of a playoff contender.

Sacks by? 117th. Tackles for loss? 102nd. Turnovers gained? 104th. Fix the defensive line, and some other ugly numbers go away too — pass-efficiency defense (79th) and third-down defense (60th), to name a couple.

Suddenly third-and-fours become third-and-nines. Corners and safeties don’t have to stick on their receivers as long, and opponents' completion percentages sag. And creating turnovers keeps the total plays the defense is on the field to a manageable number.

The Irish get a lucky bounce in 2017 in that they face only two top 40 rush offenses from 2016 (Navy 4th, Stanford 35th) and six rated lower than 85th.

The names to match up with the pivotal numbers for the Irish are veterans Jerry Tillery, Jay Hayes, Jonathan Bonner and Daniel Cage, spring ascenders Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara, and freshmen Darnell Ewell and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.

Watch them surge, watch the Irish surge.

Steady more than spectacular

Safety remains the position group of most concern going into August training camp, with freshman Jordan Genmark Heath the only summer addition. Another incoming safety, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, is targeted for the new rover position.

The Irish don’t necessarily need stars at free safety and strong safety, with converted cornerback Nick Coleman and former high school quarterback Jalen Elliott emerging as the top options out of spring. But they need them to be reliable.

Same goes for special teams. The expectation with the hiring of full-time special teams coach Brian Polian is dramatic improvement. But even if the Irish merely advance to average in 2017, that’s a considerable step forward.

You could argue special teams disasters cost Notre Dame four wins last season — the difference between 4-8 and 8-4.

There was the blocked punt for a touchdown in the 10-3 loss at N.C. State, the 96-yard kickoff return in a 38-35 loss to Duke, a ball careening off Miles Boykins’ leg on a punt for a turnover that led to a Spartan TD in the 36-28 loss to Michigan State, and the 97-yard Adoree’ Jackson kickoff return for a TD, a 55-yard Jackson punt return for a TD, and a missed 37-yard field goal all in a 45-27 loss at USC.

Managing perceptions

The first jagged edge in an area where Kelly was building momentous offseason karma — recruiting — floated into the Twittersphere on Saturday afternoon.

Detroit Cass Tech cornerback Kalon Gervin issued a terse statement that he was exiting what still remains a top five recruiting class nationally.

If the same caliber prospect decommits from Ohio State or Alabama these days, there’s curiosity, maybe some mild bewilderment — but there’s not the big-picture “is this the beginning of the end?” kind of speculation with which Kelly has to deal.

There will likely be other offseason unpleasantries in the weeks and months ahead that engender the same sort of apocalyptic vetting process by those on the outside looking in.

That’s what 4-8 gets you at a place where winning matters.

In the real world, Kelly's response of seismic staff and philosophical shifts to 4-8 fits. In the perceptual world, the response must be different.

What a turnaround season looks like in this abstract area is Kelly not getting so caught up in crisis management that it bleeds into his coaching. He has to trust that to others around him, and that includes Swarbrick.

The best thing Kelly himself can do to control the message is stay true to himself, choose the truth over spin, and let go what he can’t change.

Oh, and win.


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Players lift up Josh Adams after a touchdown run during the Notre Dame spring football Blue-Gold game Saturday, April 22, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN