Notre Dame's Brian Kelly Making an Early Case for Coach of the Year

Greg CouchNational ColumnistSeptember 24, 2015

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly yells from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against the Georgia Tech in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Brian Kelly could have been Charlie Strong right now. He might have even been Steve Sarkisian. That's to say, he could have been Dead Coach Walking. But it all turned so fast.

You take a traditionally elite football program and mix it with notoriously wealthy, impatient and entitled boosters and backers—like Strong has at Texas and Sarkisian at USC—and then you lose a few games they expect you to win, and what do you get?

You get replaced. You get program implosion.

It's already a theme this season.

Kelly and Notre Dame were so close to being there. Instead, three games into the season, Kelly is clearly the national coach of the year.

Or the quarter-year, anyway.

"Coach Kelly has won everywhere he has been," said Chuck Martin, head coach at Miami (Ohio) and former Notre Dame offensive coordinator. "So he knows what it takes to keep the needle moving."

True. But it seems as if it has moved so quickly since last year's collapse. So many of the blue bloods of college football are already wobbling this year, but Notre Dame has shown incredible stability. That comes after last year's failures, after losing the starting quarterback and running back already this year.

I have to admit: I didn't think we'd be here right now. Last season, I wrote that the future looked scary for Kelly and that he should check out an NFL job, remind everyone that he stabilized Notre Dame after Charlie Weis left it in ruins and then "Run. Now. Claim victory, then RUUUUUNNNN to the NFL."

I was WROOOOONNNNG.

He would be a good fit for the NFL, of course. Kelly comes across as one of those coaches who likes to think about football and only football. That's fine in the NFL, where off-field issues are the problem of the general manager, not the coach. But this year, we're getting a reminder about how great Kelly can be when he can focus on football. Not on cheating scandals. Not on trying to straighten out the Manti Te'o or Everett Golson messes. Not on students being allowed to videotape practices on aerial lifts during dangerous winds.

Let's go back to the national championship game on Jan. 7, 2013, one specific night that took away all of Kelly's and Notre Dame's momentum. In fact, it only took the first five minutes of the game to do it. By then, the Irish's powerful defense had already been pushed left, right, backward and any which way Alabama's massive offensive line wanted to push it. It ended in humiliation for Notre Dame, 42-14.

In his postgame press conference, Kelly said his team got a firsthand view of "what it looks like" to be a champion. "We've got to get physically stronger, continue to close the gap."

Someone asked if the offense would continue to develop, and Kelly lightened up: "Well, if Everett [Golson, the freshman quarterback] would come back for another year. Are you coming back?"

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

"Yeah," Golson replied to his coach. "I'm coming back."

He didn't come back the next year.

But this is about momentum in college football. It's also about learning from your worst moments. Somehow, Kelly, in such an emotional time, was able to see clearly and coolly diagnose. Nothing in sports goes in a straight line, but somehow Kelly managed to take two years of ups and downs of Notre Dame football and keep it focused in one direction.

People just didn't see it; I didn't see it.

And here we are, 33 months later, and Notre Dame "looks like" it, looks like a championship team. Ranked No. 6 at 3-0. Notre Dame's offensive line is Alabama big, and the defense is loaded.

Momentum goes so fast. You can't count on anything. TCU was supposed to be in the national title picture but has suffered so many injuries, and now arrests, that its fall is inevitable. Auburn doesn't "look like" it anymore. Alabama is human, and even Ohio State wobbled against Northern Illinois.

What about Notre Dame? Golson didn't come back in 2013 after being kicked out of school for a year on an academic cheating scandal. The heart of the defensive line, which was supposed to carry the team, came back bigger not so much from working out as eating out. The Irish went 9-4. Last year, they started 6-0 until Golson strangely lost his confidence and dragged the team down with him for five losses in six games.

This year, Golson and Malik Zaire were both top quarterbacks, but Golson left for Florida State to avoid the competition. Now, Zaire is already out for the year.

And nothing. No wobbles. No sign of trouble.

Kelly says the team can't shoulder many more key injuries, but whatever happens the Irish have their mojo back, having crushed Texas and handled Georgia Tech.

But I asked Kelly about the lessons he was talking about right after that championship-game loss to Alabama. Is this year's team the result of what he'd learned that night?

"I don't know if we'd have been able to do some of the things [then] that we are doing [now] with the number of injuries that we have currently have," he said. "Matter of fact, I'm certain we wouldn't have. … So I think that's probably the crux of it—the depth and quality depth that allows you to continue to win."

That was part of it.

Martin said Notre Dame left that championship game thinking three things: 1) To be a champion, you have to have a loaded offensive line; 2) you also have to have a lot of depth; and 3) "We've come a long way but we haven't reached the top yet."

Kelly made an effort to make sure no one could push around his offensive and defensive lines anymore. He was still cleaning up Weis' mess. This year, he brought in young Mike Sanford, the former Boise State offensive coordinator, to help modernize the offense. But the obvious difference is in the offensive line.

It's big, and even somewhat quick. You don't see guys anymore who come to Notre Dame at 245 pounds, bulk up to 290 and play with all heart. Think this way: Mike McGlinchey, 6'7 ½", 310 pounds. Quenton Nelson, 6'5", 325.

Kelly said Nelson "can bench-press a truck. He's physically strong and he moves his feet. When you see a kid that big, it's hard to envision a kid running out the way he runs."

Sep 12, 2015; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish offensive lineman Quenton Nelson (56) blocks against the Virginia Cavaliers at Scott Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

That's why the Irish have allowed just four sacks. It's why backup running back C.J. Prosise can rush for 198 yards against Georgia Tech.

"[Last year] we experienced some confidence issues relative to some new players and young players being forced to play probably before they were really ready," Kelly said. "And therefore we lacked some on-field leadership and direction at times. Then, offensively we were really built last year to prop up a defense that was experiencing a number of injuries and lost some leadership. We didn't get the job done on offense."

That's why Kelly was dangerously close to being in trouble. What if Notre Dame had lost to Texas to open the season? There is just too much money in the game now from ESPN and the College Football Playoff. And there's so much immediacy in social media. The heights are so high and the boosters more impatient than ever.

Things would look different if quarterback DeShone Kizer hadn't completed the long, game-winning pass at the end of the Virginia game. But credit Kelly with beating out Alabama for a quarterback willing to wait his turn.

In fact, at this point for shaky Alabama to look like a championship team, it could use someone who looks like Kizer.

 

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.

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