Notre Dame National Signing Day 2011: How Brian Kelly Found The Light on Defense

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Notre Dame National Signing Day 2011: How Brian Kelly Found The Light on Defense
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Notre Dame defenders swarm Utah

"It takes a big man to admit his mistake. And I am that big man." - Michael Scott, The Office

Following Notre Dame's devastating 28-27 loss to Tulsa, a defeat punctuated and sealed by a questionable play call, Brian Kelly looked like he was re-enacting Custer's Last Stand.

In response to a query of why he would risk throwing a ball with a freshman quarterback and a can't-miss kicker, Brian Kelly responded, "Get used to it."

Those words nearly turned into a haunting sound bite, a quote to which his detractors, whose numbers were growing by the legion at that point, could latch and never let go.

Yet in the weeks the followed, the Irish football team and Kelly seemed to shift their mentality. A new defensive focus paired with a balanced offense more willing to holster its gun-slinging ways to create a formula for success.

The results were convincing. The season ended with four consecutive wins, including the critical exorcism of a Trojan demon and a thorough dispatching of arch-rival Miami.

Now Kelly has ridden that wave of momentum to another high point on National Signing Day with one of Notre Dame's best defensive recruiting classes in its history. Complimentary defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch are the highest rated players followed closely by outside linebacker Ishaq Williams.

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A hoard of six other quality linebackers and defensive linemen also are ready to sign letters of intent. The four defensive backs that have committed to the Irish are not as highly regarded as the group in the front seven but should be serviceable and have good physical tools.

With all the promise in this defensive class, perhaps the most amazing aspect about it was the effort put in by Kelly's staff to keep it together.

The entire month of January was virtually a reality mini-series of recruiting with commitments, de-commitments and re-commitments, and changing almost hourly. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was reported to have made immediate visits before the commitments of both Tuitt and Williams at "unconventional" hours in order to keep them with Notre Dame.

But that effort that Kelly demanded speaks volumes about his transition. He could have backed into a corner with his ego and reputation as an offensive genius and simply focused on building an offensive juggernaut that would validate his brilliance (I'm looking at you, Charlie Weis).

Instead, he recognized that to be a successful coach at Notre Dame he must have a good defense. In a recent press conference, Kelly put specific emphasis on the defense telling UND.com, "If you want to win a national championship, you can't do it like we did at Cincinnati or Central Michigan. You can't just try to outscore people because they're going to get you. And I think that's probably more important than anything." 

It shouldn't be ignored that the pangs of necessity, especially on the defensive line, were growing stronger. Both starting defensive ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore will be seniors this year (although Lewis-Moore still has another year of eligibility), and the prospect of replacing both of them in one season borders on unpleasant.

Talent, even youthful talent, is a powerful anesthetic to numb the pain of filling gaps like those. In this class, thanks to Kelly's willingness to be a big man, the defensive talent isn't just big. It's huge.

UPDATE: With a pleasant signing day surprise, the light gets brighter and talent gets bigger. Add defensive end Troy Niklas to the group as well. 

Track the top 100 recruits as they make their college choices with Bleacher Report National Signing Day Central.

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