Brian Kelly’s first year in South Bend had its fair share of ups and downs. Without mentioning the horrible off the field tragedies, by fans' standards, the season just didn’t live up to the hype.
Kelly’s high-powered spread offense floundered under inexperienced quarterback play. A painful loss to Navy reminded viewers of the inability to adjust under the previous coach—sorry, Charlie. And against Tulsa, Kelly made a decision to use an unproven freshman quarterback over one of the country's best kickers. What could go wrong?
Tommy Rees' pass was easily intercepted instead of winning by two. Kelly said he would have done the same thing again if he was given the chance.
Only Touchdown Jesus could have known why, but to fans, the Tulsa decision was an obvious mistake.
Although seemingly obstinate, Kelly turned things around. The season ended much better than it started. Ironically, the turnaround was on defense, not offense (thanks to Bob Diaco’s old-school style and focus on instilling fundamentals).
Kelly put the nightmarish start behind him, and he began to look like the savior he had been labeled as before the season. The Fighting Irish put up impressive victories over Utah, Army (okay, not that impressive, but a similar style to Navy), USC and Miami.
Now, Kelly and the Irish look to build upon the momentum of the last four games.
With the majority of a much-improved defensive unit returning, Kelly is eying a return to a BCS bowl.
The only issue Notre Dame faces on defense this year is a lack of depth at defensive back. If the team has no major injuries at the safety or cornerback positions, Notre Dame should pick up where it left off. With the newly acquired speed at defensive line and stellar linebackers, hopefully players won’t have to cover for long anyway.
Kelly’s offensive system should be better developed as well. In its second year, the team will be more familiar with it. Summer won’t be a picnic either. There will be detailed study sessions and grueling practices.
The quarterback quandary has dissipated too. Dayne Crist has something to prove, but even if he fails, Tommy Rees’ progression has been impressive. Rees certainly wasn’t outstanding last year, and he has to credit the defense for most of his wins. But it was night and day from Rees' first pass at Michigan to the victory over Miami.
Kelly also has a good young backup in Andrew Hendrix, and he brought in dual-threat Everett Golson. Both players are an upgrade from an inexperienced Rees or a struggling Nate Montana.
With a rejuvenated defense and an evolving offense chock-full of budding stars, this year should be the year. Yeah, we have all heard that before.
But Kelly’s record speaks for itself. From Grand Valley State University to Cincinnati, his final destination before South Bend, Kelly made each team he coached for better.
At Notre Dame, Kelly has the chance to bag heavily recruited talent—a luxury he was not afforded anywhere else. At Cincinnati, he was battling and winning against teams with superior recruiting prowess. He already has gotten prized talent, especially on defense, reclaiming players from other schools like Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt and scoring the New York standout Ishaq Williams (and it isn't only the top defensive recruits that are impressive).
For Kelly, and for his future at Notre Dame, the sky is the limit. Let’s hope he has learned the tough lessons from last season; I think he has.
But the only way to find out is to play the games. This should be another great NCAA season, and with all that is going on with the NFL, it can’t start soon enough.