This is the first of three parts to a series which will closely analyze the Notre Dame 2010 football season. The objective is to take a look back on what went down this last year and see how things look in retrospective, see what changes need to be made for next year and determine how the 2011 edition of the Fightin' Irish will look.
After all, those who can't learn from the past are certain to repeat it.
Our journey begins in Palo Alto, California on November 28th, 2009. Jimmy Clausen had thrown for over 400 yards and five touchdowns, but his last Hail Mary attempt was batted down to seal a 45-38 Stanford victory over the Irish. Charlie Weis' team was now 6-6 and had lost their last four regular season games by a combined 17 points, marking an end to a season which saw 10 of the 12 games the Irish played come down to the last minutes.
A week later at Heinz Field, Brian Kelly's fifth-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats pulled off an incredible 45-44 victory over the fourteenth-ranked Pittsburgh Panthers in the de facto Big East Championship Game. The Bearcats ended the regular season 12-0, ranked third in the country and were invited to the Sugar Bowl to play Florida. At this point, Brian Kelly was a blistering 34-6 (.850 winning percentage) in his career at Cincinnati with two Big East Championships in just three seasons.
Back in South Bend, Charlie Weis was 35-27 in five seasons and only 16-21 his last three. Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick made the decision to pull the plug on the Weis Era, which ended with two losses to Navy, no wins against USC and a 5-15 record against teams ranked in the AP Top 25. Kelly (who was being targeted by multiple schools) quickly emerged as the top candidate for the vacant job. And while the Bearcats tried desperately to keep Kelly in Cincinnati, Notre Dame was clearly the only place he wanted to be.
On December 10th, Brian Kelly officially accepted the head coaching position at Notre Dame, becoming the 29th head coach.
What He Found
Kelly quickly found that the problem at Notre Dame wasn't a talent deficiency, it was an attitude of entitlement.
The 2009 Irish offense was one of the best in the country averaging around 30 points a game and over 450 yards per game. However, the Irish also had one of the worst red zone offenses in the country as well (ranking 97th in touchdowns scored). The passing attack was especially lethal as Jimmy Clausen threw for 28 touchdowns and only four interceptions while Golden Tate was a one-man machine as he accounted for almost 2000 yards of total offense and won the Biletnikoff Award. However, both of those players chose to forgo their senior seasons at Notre Dame and enter the NFL Draft. Despite the loss of two of the biggest playmakers in the country, Brian Kelly still had plenty to work with.
Wide receiver Michael Floyd was the top player back for the Irish after a season which saw him start off on a record setting pace, break his collarbone, miss five games and return to end the year the way he started it. The offensive line returned four of five starters, and the running back position was solid with seniors Armando Allen and Robert Hughes. However, redshirt junior Dayne Crist was immediately thrust into the starting role when Kelly arrived being the only quarterback on roster who had game experience. Tommy Rees and Nate Montana were tagged as back-ups. Overall, the Irish offense was mostly comprised of experienced players (omitting Crist) and was expected to be one of the better offenses in the country.
The defense was the opposite of the offense. The 2009 Irish defense was the worst in school history, ranking 86th in the country and gave up an average of almost 400 yards a game. Despite returning almost all their starters, there was a general lack of playmakers on the defense. Sophomore OLB Manti Te'o was expected to be the leader of the defense after finishing up a solid freshman year. However, the rest of the defense had been in constant flux ever since Charlie Weis hired Jon Tenuta to complement Corwin Brown as co-defensive coordinators and what resulted was a giant mass of confusion on the sidelines during Irish games.
Kelly quickly asserted his control by making the players organize their lockers and the appropriate way to use their equipment, stopped playing music during spring practices and made the players go through a grueling winter workout program which became known as Camp Kelly. He noticed a feeling of entitlement amongst many players and moved to squash it. After the first spring practice, Kelly was quoted as saying, "We aren't even close to getting there," which basically confirmed that the team was clearly not up to Kelly's standards when he arrived on campus.
The first step for Kelly was to implement his system as quickly as possible. Coaches like Bob Diaco, Chick Martin and Paul Longo were brought in to help with the transition from an NFL mentality to the one that defined Kelly at Cincinnati. The practices got "faster," and the results showed with players like Michael Floyd who dropped 10 pounds as well as many offensive linemen who quickly lost body fat and gained muscle. On the special teams front, walk-on kicker David Ruffer surprised incumbent Nick Tausch and won the starting role despite Tausch being a record-setting kicker the year before. The defense was drilled hard by Diaco's staff and initial signs out of spring practice were that they were much improved. Manti Te'o and Michael Floyd had also seemed to embrace their new leadership roles as well.
The spring game was evident of the changing times. The Gold's 27-19 victory over the Blue was the highest scoring spring game in over ten years at Notre Dame and Crist showed remarkable arm strength and release while going 20-31 for 172 yards and a touchdown. Another telling sign was the emergence of Cierre Wood who broke off a long touchdown run and was incredibly elusive when finding space. Freshman TJ Jones emerged as a playmaker at wide receiver, catching a beautifully thrown ball from Crist for a 26 yard touchdown. Te'o had an interception as the defenses of both units forced four turnovers altogether. There was not much expected from the defense and it showed, as the unit (while, to be fair, couldn't fully unleash what it had) struggled on pass and run defense during the game despite forcing turnovers.
At this point many pundits began making their predictions. Many such as Mark May saw the Irish winning 10 games or more in Brian Kelly's first season, while others were more conservative and went with 7 or 8 wins. The general consensus was the the Irish offense (given Coach Kelly's prior experiences) would lead the team while the defense would be the difference-maker between another mediocre year to one that would signal forward progress. As the season opener against Purdue rapidly approached, many wondered what the Irish would look like, the same team that they had seen the past decade which couldn't get the job done, or a completely new unit which began to achieve at their potential.
Part Two Coming Soon!