Analysis: Finding reality in the rubble of Notre Dame's chaotic offseason

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Is perception more powerful than reality?

Some days it certainly seems that way in Brian Kelly’s world. Google the name Brian Kelly, and the second item that pops up is a rumor that the Notre Dame ninth-year head football coach interviewed recently with the Chicago Bears.

Which turned out to be a complete and utter fabrication.

Yet it still got aggregated (rewritten and passed along into the mainstream), and that version shows up as the fifth-most popular Brian Kelly search result two days after the rumor received zero corroboration from any credible source.

Image management is becoming an essential skill set, not just for college head coaches but for those around them.

Narratives, real or concocted, don’t die easily.

“It can become like Groundhog Day,” Kelly told the Tribune last offseason, referring to the 1993 movie about a man stuck in a perpetual repeat time loop and not the Feb. 2 annual event in which a rodent named Punxsutawney Phil predicts future weather patterns with a 39 percent accuracy rate.

It can also bleed into recruiting. Kelly tells the story of Navy transfer Alohi Gilman’s official visit to ND last spring in which the parents insisted on meeting Kelly in person because of his sideline reputation.

“It goes away after the first 15 minutes with the families, because they know that I’m not the guy that they see portrayed,” he said. “So it doesn’t last very long.

“That doesn’t keep people from using it against us in recruiting. But after spending 20 minutes with families like the Gilmans, they’ll say, ‘We’re coming to Notre Dame.’ ”

Defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s departure for a financial windfall at Texas A&M, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s decision to make a second run with the Chicago Bears engendered massive message board meltdowns among the Irish fan base.

Both are outstanding coaches. But their decisions alone to leave Notre Dame don’t predicate an apocalyptic next chapter for Notre Dame football any more than their replacements guarantee an abundant one.

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 was an up-and-comer Holtz plucked from Colorado State named Urban Meyer in the 1995-96 offseason.

As good as Meyer was and has since become, he couldn’t save Holtz from a divorce with ND after the 1996 season, nor could he elevate Bob Davie into a worthy successor in his four years working for him.

More on change: national champion Alabama has lost both coordinators and defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley during the current coaching carousel.

Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll left for an OC job with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt landed at Tennessee after the populist revolt in Knoxville, Tenn., over the impending hiring of Greg Schiano as head coach turned into an embarrassing power struggle.

Georgia, two years into Kirby Smart’s regime and coming off a near miss at a national title, lost special teams/tight ends coach Shane Beamer to Oklahoma and outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer to Tennessee.

Change happens. Context matters.

Here’s a look at some other Notre Dame offseason snapshots, with numbers and context that may challenge established narratives.

Fashionable early?

A record seven Notre Dame football early enrollees started school Jan. 16. That brings the total to 52 since former Irish head coach Charlie Weis was able to coax the admissions office into giving early enrollment a try in 2006.

There have been many careers positively impacted by the move, though perhaps not as universally as one might think, at least early on.

Only 14 of the previous 45 early enrollees started at least one game as a true freshman, 15 if you count that Kyle Brindza kicked off as a freshman. Just four of the 45 started six games or more in their first year on campus, with quarterback Jimmy Clausen (2007) and safety Devin Studstill (2016) tied for the most freshman starts ever among early enrollees with nine.

Wide receiver T.J. Jones made seven starts in 2010, while defensive end Aaron Lynch drew six starting assignments in 2011.

Eleven of the 45, including Lynch, eventually transferred. Kevin Stepherson, dismissed from the team earlier this month but still enrolled in school, figures to be No. 12.

Poaching season

The fact that all three prospects taking official visits to Notre Dame this weekend are verbally committed elsewhere shouldn’t come as a surprise.

In his first eight recruiting cycles, Kelly landed 42 players who spent time in another school’s recruiting class, and lost 25. The ledger in the current 2018 cycle sits at three in and three out.

Those decommitting tend to elicit a more overstated impact than the players who switched into the Irish classes, when reality over time shows both the quantity and quality favor the group that ended up at Notre Dame.

The 2017 cycle is too early to really gauge on its own. Of the six players who decommitted, only two didn’t redshirt (Cal cornerback Elijah Hicks and Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner). There are also only two non-redshirts among the five that landed in ND’s class (kicker Jonathan Doerer from Maryland’s class and safety Jordan Genmark Heath from Cal’s).

A more fair representation is the 2015 recruiting cycle, in which those players will begin their senior — or redshirt junior — seasons in the fall.

The two decommitments from that ND class were both four-star prospects — safety Prentice McKinney to Oklahoma and quarterback Blake Barnett to Alabama.

McKinney has played in 10 games over three seasons with the Sooners, with zero starts, one career pass breakup and a modest five career tackles.

Barnett left Alabama after getting beaten out in his redshirt freshman season by Jalen Hurts and landed at Arizona State, where he got beaten out this fall by a former three-star prospect, Manny Wilkins.

Barnett’s career stat line at both schools is 14-of-24 for 259 yards, two TDs and one interception. At ASU this past season, he was 3-of-5 for 40 yards with an interception. The dual-threat's career rushing total is minus-20 yards.

On the ND side, two of the six players who flipped into the class — linebacker Josh Barajas (Illinois State) and defensive back Ashton White (pending) — have or will transfer. The other four are all front-line players: cornerback Shaun Crawford, tight end Alizé Mack, running back Dexter Williams and quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

For the record

• Somewhat underappreciated after three years as Notre Dame’s place-kicker, Justin Yoon is the new career leader for field goal accuracy (.808) based on a minimum of 50 attempts. John Carney had held the record (.739) since the 1986 season.

• Sophomore cornerback Julian Love was not only ND’s most impacting player among the national statistical leaders (second in pass breakups and passes defended), the former 247Sports three-star recruit also made a big dent in the ND record book.

Love obliterated the single-season pass breakups record with 20, seven more than the previous mark. He now stands No. 5 on the career list (23), behind Clarence Ellis (32), Harrison Smith (28), Luther Bradley (27) and Shane Walton (25).

His 153 yards this season in interception returns is second only to Nick Rassas’ 197 in 1965.

• The 3,501 rushing yards by the 2017 Irish missed tying the school record set in 1973 by a single yard.

The Irish, who set a modern school record for yards per carry in 2015 (5.6), broke the non-modern record this year with 6.25, edging coach Knute Rockne’s 1921 squad (6.2).

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly walks off the field following Notre Dame's 38-20 loss to Stanford in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017, at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN