I felt it was prudent to review what I feel stands between Notre Dame and its pursuit of being a top-10 program again. Just outside the top five on my list: injuries, God, lake effect snow prior to National Signing Day, and the Board of Trustees.
Over the past 15 years there have been holes on the team at different positions. A prime example? Willingham's last couple years when he left the Offensive Line cupboard bare for Weis' early tenure. And boy did Weis' porridge end up being cold...
Now that the Irish offensive line has depth, the secondary, defensive line, and quarterback positions are (or recently were) depleted. Championship (read: even top 25) teams are at least three deep at most positions. At one point this year, the Irish were arguably not even one deep at the safety position.
With Jamoris Slaughter and Dan McCarthy nursing injuries, Zeke Motta and Harrison Smith were forced into playing essentially the entire game against Michigan State. Add that to having only five scholarship cornerbacks—three of whom being seniors—and you have your bare bones Irish secondary. Note: Chris Badger, a safety, is in his first year of a two-year mormon mission.
Ian Williams has been a very bright spot for the Irish in the middle of the 3-4. And 3-4 NT studs are not easy to find. It is yet to be seen if someone on the current roster will be able to step up in that role (Sean Cwynar and Hafis Williams are currently 1-2 on the depth chart with high hopes for Louis Nix down the road).
The Irish have several other scholarship athletes on the DL (Ethan Johnson, Kona Schwenke, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Emeka Nwankwo, Bruce Heggie, Brandon Newman, Tyler Stockton) but can any of them be disruptive forces? Can any of them be the next Justin Tuck? Incoming recruits Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt were tauted as the next big bookend D-ends at ND but Lynch has since decommitted.
Finally, with Jimmy Clausen leaving for the NFL, the offense's future was placed squarely on Dayne Crist's shoulders. The backups? Three freshmen and Nate Montana, a junior who transferred back to ND out of community college (whose stats there were not very impressive: 31/88, 2 TDs, 5 INTs). Not exactly the kind of experienced backups you would hope for at a storied program.
This leads to...
Even through the tumultuous past 10-15 years, Notre Dame has continued to recruit well. Since 2002 Notre Dame has only had two recruiting classes outside the top 25 per Scout and Rivals (2004 and 2005) with an average ranking of 15 per Scout and 17.8 per Rivals.
But you can't recruit 85 offensive linemen (well I guess you could, but I would not recommend it). You need to recruit to fill holes and with foresight. Do not let the quarterback, defensive line, or secondary situations happen again.
You have 85 scholarships, allowing you to go four-deep at roughly every position. Fill holes in the short term with the best players you can and be able to adjust depending on attrition, fifth years, availability of a blue chip recruit at a position without need, etc.
Along with depth, this appears to be the most glaring reason for ND's decline. For a school that regularly recruits in the top 25, you would expect the team would sit in the top 25 year in and year out with average coaching. Ty "Smoke" Willingham and Charlie "Mirrors" Weis increased expectations early but fizzled out.
So we have come to Brian Kelly.
To his credit so far, Kelly plays to win the game, and not to "not lose" the game. To his deficit, Kelly plays to win the game and not to "not lose" the game.
My point is this: There is a balance between aggressiveness and recklessness. We have crossed this a couple times this season. Specifically the interception heard round the ND world at the end of the Tulsa game and not running out the clock against Pittsburgh with two or three minutes left, opting to pass on 2nd and 4 and 3rd and 4 with the lead.
Kelly wants his team to learn to be aggressive. But you do not need to pass the ball to step on an opponent's throat. Kelly has shown late in games at Cincinnati he can run the ball consistently with a lead and eat up clock (2009: last drive against Oregon State up by 10—6 rush and 2 pass. Last drive against West Virginia, up by 7—5 rush and 1 pass) so there is hope.
The main question moving forward will be this: Is Kelly's playcalling indicative of poor decision-making that will characterize his tenure OR does he feel this is the best way for his team to develop a killer instinct at the sacrifice of short-term results?
And yes, I'm well aware also that people are calling for DC Bob Diaco's head—another question will be whether or not Kelly will be able to make staff changes where necessary in the years to come.
This is something that comes with practice and time. You hope the team is being taught fundamentals (the tackling has been visibly better this year in general) so when the system is in place, it is second nature for the players to make plays and for them to instinctively be in position to make those plays.
This is the toughest one for the die-hard ND fan. You mean we have to wait some more?
Like it or not, Brian Kelly isn't going anywhere for football reasons for at least three years (I say this pending findings of the current investigation). Rome wasn't built in a year (actually I don't know how long it took, I'll be honest).
Inconsistency reigns when a new coach takes over. Frankly, I was surprised that Willingham and Weis did so well in their first years. The loss to Syracuse in Weis' fourth year was more damning to me than first year losses under Kelly [insert your favorite excuses or your rage here].
Firing Brian Kelly based on this year's results would be a bad football and business decision. You show other potential candidates they will have minimal job security. The chances you will be able to hire a superior coach drop even more as a result (did I mention the 15 years of mediocrity with extremely high expectations?).
Recruits prefer to play for someone they know will be there for at least a couple years. And Kelly would become the 10th or so former coach on the current payroll (number may be slightly inflated).
Unfortunately the top college coaches aren't chomping at the bit to coach the Irish like they were in the glory days. The short-term expectations need to be realistic. And three to five years is plenty of time to show you can get the place going in the right direction. Sadly that last comment sounds more like a jail sentence, doesn't it?
So Irish fans must be patient. Again. And hopefully that patience means two to three years and not another 15.