Analysis: Will Brian Kelly's next step match up with his growing aspirations for Notre Dame?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The next step in Brian Kelly’s 10-year-run and counting as Notre Dame’s head football coach may be the most fascinating.

Because it will define him. Or redefine him. Or perhaps confirm the limits even much of his own fan base foists upon the program no matter who would be running it.

Or all of the above.

Which is why Kelly’s not-so-subtle puffs of defiance leading up to and immediately following No. 14 Notre Dame’s 33-9 pummeling of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl Saturday at Orlando, Fla., were so compelling.

• That recruiting should and will be better in the upcoming cycles, as in classes rated in the top 5-10 nationally.

• That offensive coordinator Chip Long’s coerced departure earlier this month became a situation of addition by subtraction.

• That the next step for the program after cobbling together two consecutive seasons of 11 wins or more for the first time since the 1988 national title season and the near miss at a sequel in 1989, should be another national championship.

Don’t let Kelly’s confusing postgame pretzel logic Saturday about naysayers, in which his team purportedly simultaneously ignored them and was galvanized by them, fool you. When he dreams big and out loud, he usually has a clear, coherent plan.

They’re more consistently well-intentioned and well thought-out than foolproof, but he’s strung enough of the latter together, including and since his 2016 coaching reboot, to make his recent declarations at least a collective plausible reality.

Which brings us to third-year quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees calling offensive plays Saturday from the Camping World Stadium coaches box and whether a more permanent dose of that, as Long’s successor, would fit with Kelly’s doubling down on big aspirations.

Let’s start with how Rees fared Saturday, a topic which Kelly was only willing to give a passing nod to in his postgame meeting with the media.

Rees’ first five plays called, which included a fourth-and-5 conversion, were runs. Contrast that with the very first play Kelly as head coach/play-caller in 2010 called for the then-freshman backup QB Rees: A flea-flicker. Against Michigan.

The result, with Rees filling in for an injured Dayne Crist, was an interception and, two plays later, a Wolverines TD.

Rees’ early play selection Saturday against the Cyclones (7-6) came off as someone trying to shake their nervousness, but eventually he found a nice rhythm. The 455 total yards the Irish (11-2) put on Iowa State were topped this season only by Oklahoma (499) and Kansas (463) in the offense-happy Big 12.

But this wasn’t really an audition for Rees. Kelly already had a strong idea of what he can do as an offensive coach. He also knows even considering Rees for a promotion is polarizing among Notre Dame nation — polarizing mainly because Rees is 27.

To understand why Kelly would even consider going that direction, especially with a team talent/experience/schedule quotient in 2020 that aligns with a deep run in the conversation for a College Football Playoff berth, you have to understand what Kelly sees in Rees.

And that goes back to Rees’ playing days for Kelly, when the latter was known to turn purple in his sideline conversations with his on-again, off-again starter. And don’t think Kelly didn’t notice Rees at times was booed in Notre Dame Stadium and how he handled that.

Through all that and all the other adversity Rees walked through as a player, he never let it consume him and in fact many times found a way to twist it to make him stronger and better.

And for anyone who thinks all those heated conversations with Kelly were all one-sided, think again. What Kelly is buying into now, as he did then, is Rees as a leader.

Not as a puppet.

Nor is Kelly buying into Rees as a finished product as a play-caller. Or a game-planner. But the upside, the staff chemistry, the understanding of Kelly’s vision and the ability to build upon it make this a difficult option to turn away for Kelly.

In Kelly’s mind, it’s not the convenient choice. It’s not even a safe choice. It’s one that he thinks can help him walk the walk with his recent high-bar rhetoric.

In the coming days, he’ll figure out if it’s indeed THE BEST choice.

If Kelly stays internal, don’t discount the importance of the corresponding outside hire — presumably a tight ends coach who’s a great recruiter, possibly much more — and how that might knit with an expanded role for Rees.

That’s not to say the perfect offensive coordinator hire, from the inside or plucked from the NFL or outside college ranks, means Notre Dame is ready to conquer Wisconsin Oct. 3 in Green Bay, Clemson Nov. 7 in Notre Dame Stadium and the 10 other opponents on the 2020 schedule.

Confirmed returning incumbent QB Ian Book, 28th in passing efficiency nationally at the moment, needs to evolve into a top 10 passer, as Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen did late in their careers. The offensive line needs to show more of what it did Saturday against Iowa State.

ND’s vaunted incoming offensive skill players — running back Chris Tyree, wide receiver Jordan Johnson and tight end Michael Mayer — need to be as good as advertised and need to be ALLOWED to show some of that as soon as next year instead of fermenting as freshmen.

The Irish need ascending players like junior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who had zero career tackles coming into this season and finished tied for first on the team with 80, tied for first in sacks with 5.5 and outright first in tackles for loss (13.5) to go along with two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, three QB hurries and four pass breakups.

Two players, one on each side of the ball, who could make that kind of leap in 2020? Suspended sophomore wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. and redshirting freshman defensive end Isaiah Foskey.

The defense isn’t without questions next season, but at 18th nationally in total defense currently, fifth in pass-efficiency defense, No. 12 in scoring defense and No. 1 in fumbles recovered, the 2020 version could be top 10 across the board.

Which is the most common characteristic among teams that play for and win championships.

Clemson and Alabama also win national championships in the Playoff Era, because they are both supremely talented AND supremely coached.

What Brian Kelly has in front of him is an opportunity to upgrade on both counts. Now he needs to get right what that should look like.

Thirty seasons ago, Grand Valley State head coach Tom Beck took a leap of faith on a grad assistant defensive backs coach and made him the NCAA Division II program’s defensive coordinator.

At age 27.

His name was Brian Kelly.

Two years later, when Beck left to join Lou Holtz’s staff at Notre Dame, 29-year-old Kelly became head coach and started calling offensive plays for the first time.

What he eventually became, how he adapted to Notre Dame and Notre Dame to him, how he reinvented himself has brought us to this point.

The moment of truth of whether Notre Dame football can come back — ALL THE WAY back.

The closest Notre Dame has come in the post-Holtz Era (1997-present) was 2012 and 2018, both preceded by bowl appearances in Orlando to end the previous seasons.

The real magic wasn’t that venue or the outcome of those games (one loss, one win) but what happened in the offseasons that immediately followed. The right coaching hires. The tough personnel decisions.

The ideal next step.

It’s time.

Notre Dame QB Ian Book (12) is greeted by QBs coach Tommy Rees following ND’s 33-9 rout of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl, Saturday at Orlando, Fla.
Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly envisions himself holding up more and bigger trophies in the years ahead.