Analysis: Brian Kelly must make the best of new offensive direction — and be able to sell it
Shortly after the news that Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long and the Irish football program were mutually parting ways gained definition and momentum late Wednesday afternoon, ND tight end recruit Kevin Bauman tweeted out a photo.
In it, everyone was smiling in front of a Christmas tree in Red Bank, N.J. — the 6-foot-5, 232-pound Bauman towering over everybody else — his parents, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and Irish quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees.
Lest anyone wonder about the sincerity of their expressions — especially the guy poised to sign a National Letter of Intent with ND next week — Bauman added the caption, “Had an incredible home visit, can’t wait to get started!”
That seemed to be the prevailing sentiment Wednesday night from an incomplete sampling of the other eight offensive recruits in the 2020 class reached by the Tribune, a group that includes coveted running back recruit Chris Tyree from Chester, Va., as those expressing no change in their commitment status.
That doesn’t mean they won’t have questions.
Among them: Why was Long suddenly not a fit after three seasons with a largely palatable statistical bottom line? And, more to the point, what’s next?
Tyree gets to be among the first to hear what the post-Long offense will look like and just who will have his hands on the steering wheel. Kelly and running backs coach Lance Taylor will be in Tyree’s home Thursday during an in-home visit scheduled before Long’s departure percolated into a reality.
Then it’s up the coast for Kelly to Shrewsbury, Mass., to see Jay Brunelle — an early enrolling wide receiver who like Bauman, Tyree, wide receiver Xavier Watts, quarterback Drew Pyne and offensive tackle Michael Carmody, seemed steadfast in his plans to sign with the Irish next Wednesday, the first day of the three-day, early signing period. Even 2021 QB commit Tyler Buchner chimed in about staying the course.
An important distinction Kelly is likely to emphasize: The offense they’ll play in is the Brian Kelly offense. It was the Kelly offense before Chip Long arrived at the start of Kelly’s philosophical reboot in 2017, and it was the Kelly offense during Long’s 38 games at ND.
So the urgency in quickly naming a specific successor lessens considerably by spinning the news this way. It also happens to be the truth.
Long, 36, added his own touches to Kelly’s offensive scheme. He also got to hold the joystick on game day without interference from Kelly, though the head coach still kept his veto power, his strong voice in meetings and unilateral decision-making when it came to things like going for it on fourth down and two-point conversions.
And as a play-caller at ND, Long was actually better at it than Kelly was, when you measure it by how often the Irish offense exceeded their opponents’ defensive averages in points and yards.
Long did so 73.7 percent of his games from a scoring standpoint and 71.1 percent of his games from a yardage standpoint. That’s better than Kelly (60.9/67.1) and comparable to former ND head coach/play-caller Charlie Weis (71.7/69.8), but far less often than Long’s predecessor, Mike Denbrock (88.5/76.8), who’s currently the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati.
The shining points on this year’s résumé for Long, from a statistical standpoint, was ND’s No. 13 ranking nationally in scoring offense, its No. 12 ranking in red zone offense and a No. 7 ranking in turnovers lost. The No. 22 pass-efficiency mark as a team was a plus, too.
A rushing offense ranked 46th? Not so much, but passable. Total offense 47th? Meh. Not scoring more than 17 points against either Georgia or Michigan. That screams for improvement.
But that’s not why Long is looking for his next opportunity today instead of plotting ways to disable the Iowa State defense.
Football is a team sport in the coaches’ meeting rooms, too. There’s got to be chemistry and cooperation to go along with creativity and candor. Somewhere that formula got lost, no matter who’s fault is was.
In the short term, specifically the Dec. 28 Camping World Bowl between the AP No. 14 Irish (10-2) and Iowa State (7-5) in Orlando, Fla., an offensive collaboration that would likely have Kelly calling the plays and Rees in an elevated role make sense.
If Kelly decides to promote Rees long term — and that’s speculation — it would be wise to hire a tight ends coach with the experience to help groom the 27-year-old Rees as well as having the expertise to give the offensive line some attention along with his own position group.
Certainly there are other internal options and a world of external ones. What’s most important is that they understand Kelly’s offensive vision, be innovative enough to make the most out of it and be strong enough to disagree when necessary.
Without creating an impasse.
With quarterback Ian Book, the entire offensive line, the entire running back corps and the NFL’s top tight end prospect Cole Kmet (per draft analyst Dane Brugler of The Athletic) all coming back, along with some promising young wide receivers, it’s a much more secure and promising opportunity than the one Long checked into roughly three years ago.
And Kelly was better for having had Chip Long on the staff for those three years. Now it’s up to him to show that he’s better off … without him.