Analysis: Kelly's culture reboot after 2016 still paying off for Notre Dame in 2021

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Head coach Brian Kelly during Notre Dame football practice Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, at the Irish Athletics Center.

SOUTH BEND — To hear Brian Kelly so jovially roll through his training camp obstacles this month and his pre-Florida State to-do list Wednesday night, you’d think his only problems were First World problems.

Or maybe it’s just what a thriving college football culture looks and sounds like.

Cosmetically, there are more than a few similarities between the 2016 Irish who returned seven starters and opened that season ranked 10th on a Labor Day Sunday night in Texas — then cratered — and this year’s nine returning starters (128th out of 130 in the FBS on the Phil Steele experience scale) who kick off Labor Day Sunday night ranked ninth in Tallahassee, Fla.

What ensued five seasons ago, after a 50-47 double-overtime loss to the unranked Longhorns that sounded the false alarm that ‘Texas was back,’ was a 4-8 finish followed by one of the most thorough coaching makeovers in recent college football history that didn’t involve purging the head coach.

The Irish are 43-8 since, with 25 NFL Draft picks and two playoff appearances.

And grinding in 2021 for something more.

"I think from everything that we've talked about it's been maintaining the high standards that have been set,” Kelly said Wednesday night after practice.

“And it's not good enough being part of the playoffs, but winning the playoffs. We talked about that a couple of times already. So, high standards and meeting the standards and exceeding the standards. 

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“I think more than anything else is players understanding that at Notre Dame we're playing for championships. And that's been our mission — graduating champions. So I think they kind of understand that on a day-to-day basis, and we reminded them of that again (Wednesday)."

Kelly’s rebooted culture is more ingrained than it has been in the previous four seasons, and yet it’ll be tested more than ever before.

Because of the large pool of untested/unproven players, but also by how college football has seismically changed around Notre Dame in the past few months.

Here’s a sampling of how its playing out in real time: 

New transfer portal overhaul

Eliminating the one-year, sit-out period in virtually all cases won’t leverage Kelly into playing freshmen in prominent roles before they’re ready or have earned it.

When the Irish release their official offense/defense two-deeps on Monday for the Sept. 5 opener at Florida State, there figures to be just two freshmen on it: Starting left tackle Blake Fisher and No. 2 left guard Rocco Spindler.

From a class of 27 in which a school-record 14 enrolled early.

That’s not to say freshmen such as wide receivers Lorenzo Styles Jr. and Deion Colzie, vyper end Kahanu Kia, one or both of the freshman pairs of running backs (Audric Estime and Logan Diggs) and tight ends (Mitchell Evans and Cane Berrong), safety Justin Walters and quarterback Tyler Buchner won’t push for complementary or niche roles sooner than later.

But Kelly isn’t going to force it because he’s trying to make a potential knee-jerk transfer less attractive. His rationale is that the culture will keep most of those with high potential and good institutional fits on the Irish roster.

"They choose Notre Dame for the degree and wanting to graduate from Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “And we're pretty transparent up front about why you should choose us.

"'Don't come here just for the football. If you're just coming here for football, this is not the right place for you.’ That obviously takes us out of consideration for some guys that are interested in parlaying football and whatever they can into a degree to the NFL.

“We're telling the kids, ‘Look, it's both here. You're going to go into a classroom with extremely talented five-star students and so you've got to be able to understand that.’ So for us, it works best that way."

Before you can say, “But Jordan Johnson” … The former five-star wide receiver prospect who parachuted out to UCF in May turned out not to be a fit. And while the coaching staff could have handled things better at certain junctures last season, it was right to not compromise on culture in the end.

Meanwhile, the Irish have Styles and Colzie on the 2021 roster, who might be both better short-term and long-term prospects, and arguably their best wide receiver class of the Kelly Era on the way in the 2022 class, led by California’s C.J. Williams.

Quarterback Brendon Clark is finally back to 100 percent, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Wednesday.

Return of QB Brendon Clark

Roughly nine months after Brendon Clark’s right knee started to deteriorate and his depth chart standing along with it, Kelly proclaimed Wednesday night that the 6-2, 225-pound junior was 100 percent, and ready and willing to be the scout team QB in preparation for Florida State.

“He's made really, really good progress the last couple of weeks,” Kelly said. “Look, a lot of this is confidence, too.

“He wants to get in there, so I think we’ve got to get him in there and let him go down there (to the scout team) and obviously keep a pretty good cylinder around him. But let him go down there and get some work.”

A healthy Clark without the knee regression likely would have been in the mix to be the starter in 2021. When he fell to No. 4 on the depth chart and became kind of an afterthought in the 2022 starting scenario, Clark rather than transferring has found a way to help his team while getting to the bottom of what his future might look like long term at ND.

Emergency surgery for Tommy Rees

The three-sentence statement issued Tuesday about Tommy Rees’ absence from practice was barely longer than Rees’ formal job title — John and Bobbie Arlotta offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

It also didn’t capture the seriousness involving his Monday night appendectomy.

Notre Dame running backs coach Lance Taylor took over offensive play-calling when offensive coordinator Tommy Rees was recovering from an emergency appendectomy.

“He's lucky,” Kelly said Wednesday. “Really appreciate the work Dr. (Matt) Leiszler did in forcing him to get over there and get checked out.

“It wasn't your standard, ‘Hey, we have plenty of time here.’ If this was left unattended a little bit longer, we could have had a much more serious situation."

As expected, Rees was back to work Wednesday, but he sat above practice near the media observing from the second floor of the Irish Athletics Center rather than being actively involved in coaching.

Running backs coach and run game coordinator Lance Taylor took over calling plays. Veteran tight ends coach John McNulty, who has offensive coordinator experience, also made pivoting away from Rees briefly a fairly seamless and painless operation.

“We have a great staff on the offensive side of the ball that makes it a lot easier when you have your offensive coordinator, who's not available for a day or two.”

Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams (23) has the right kind of high energy and central nervous system apparently to be a team captain.

Matt Balis continues to make a difference

The hiring of Matt Balis as director of football performance after the 2016 season turned Notre Dame’s player development model into one of college football’s finest.

The undersold aspects of his influence remain the influx of sports science and the inception of a structured offseason leadership/accountability system.

Junior running back Kyren Williams’ rise to become one of Notre Dame’s seven captains combines both aspects.

The SWAT teams Balis monitors in the offseason gave Williams a test run for the coaching staff to see how his loud, unapologetic style would play. The results were positively tangible and palpable.

And backed up by sports science.

Now generally that shows up most often and visibly in injury prevention and recovery. But it’s not limited to that.

“We test our kids, their central nervous system, on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “And (Williams;) fitness level was off the charts. He's just wired that he's high energy. 

“With that high energy, it has to be pointed in the right direction. He's still young and there'll be times that that youthful energy needs to be redirected, but as a whole it's extremely beneficial for that offense.

"You’ve got a quarterback (in Jack Coan) that is not necessarily the rah-rah kind of guy. (Williams) is business-detailed, respected.”

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI