After a 4-8 season, the 2nd worst record in the past 60 years of ND football, coach Brian Kelly deservedly finds himself on the hot seat. At times Kelly did not handle the hot seat well last year as he shifted blame to the players multiple times while showing an inability to adapt within his own coaching staff and schemes, or waiting until it was too late (i.e. Brian Van Gorder).
But Kelly returns this season to coach his 8th season at ND. In 8 seasons Kelly has led ND to a 3-3 bowl game record, the schools first bowl win since 1993, and took them to the 2002 national championship. But Kelly’s Irish are going to have to do better than the recurring 8-5 record of years past in order for Kelly to keep his job. And that all started with a mass turnover to the coaching staff.
Towards the end of the 2016 season Kelly fired defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder. While this was a good decision, it was a year too late. In December it was announced that Kelly would hire Wake Forrest’s DC Mike Elko to take over the defense in South Bend. In previous stops, Elko coached Bowling Green and Wake Forrest to better statistical seasons than Notre Dame in almost every defensive category, including two top 10 defensive seasons at Bowling Green. While Van Gorder was known to run an overly complex defensive scheme, Elko tends to keep things simple and rely on player’s instincts with some fancy twists among the front 7. Without a doubt, Elko is as close to a homerun hire at DC as was available and may single-handedly save Brian Kelly from his own demise.
Offensive guru Mike Sanford left the offensive coordinator position to take the head-coaching gig at Western Kentucky. This was a great decision on his part as coach Kelly had shown an inability to let Sanford have full reigns of the offense and ex-Western Kentucky HC Brian Brohm (now at Purdue) left W. Kentucky with plenty of talent. Sanford’s recruiting benefits at ND will also be sorely missed.
To replace Sanford, Kelly brought in former Memphis OC and TE coach Chip Long. While not a sexy pick at first glance, Long has a resume that impresses. Most importantly, Kelly has vowed to hand over all aspects of the offense to Long. Coach Long will bring a diverse and explosive scheme to Notre Dame where he looks to exploit whatever weaknesses he finds in opposing defenses. Look for the new ND offense to come out in formations from 3 TE sets, to empty backfields, to multi-running back sets. To top it off, Chip Long has been rated as a top 25 recruiter throughout his coaching career.
There were many more position coach changes made by Kelly over the off-season, but none were more important than that of the strength and conditioning program. Kelly hired a new strength and conditioning trainer and Director of Performance Sciences. I highly highly suggest that you read the following article on this topic: http://www.scout.com/college/notre-dame/story/1674568-meet-notre-dame-s-new-scientific-formula
From making a change at DC, to changes to multiple position coaches, to bringing in a new strength coach, to letting go of the reigns on offensive; it appears that coach Kelly has the self-awareness that he must makes major changes and improvements this season if he wants to stick around another season in South Bend.
OFF-SEASON CHANGES GRADE: A- (losing Sanford keeps this from an A)
QB: With the Irish losing starting QB DeShone Kizer to the NFL and ex-starter turned backup Malik Zaire transferring to Florida, one would expect a set back at the QB position. But redshirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush came to Notre Dame as a high-5-star and top 5 QB out of high school. Since the day he stepped foot on campus some have said he is the best QB at ND since Jimmy Clausen. Wimbush will bring explosiveness in the run and pass game, but will have time to adjust if needed as he is surrounded by talent at all offensive positions around him. Wimbush will be backed up by Ian Book and incoming freshman Avery Davis.
QB Grade: B
RB: The Irish return the bulk of their rushing yards as they pair juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams together in what could be a top-10 backfield in the nation. Adams has his name in the record books for a number of ND freshman rushing categories and looks to finish the season as a Doak Walker Award finalist. Despite this, Dexter Williams is considered the most explosive of the bunch. Williams will look to have a break out year as he will pick up more carries with Tarean Folston off to the NFL.
Tony Jones Jr is a versatile RS Freshman that may pick up plays especially on third down as he has shown the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and pick up pass rushers. Star recruit CJ Holmes suffered a shoulder injury in spring practice and will spend time recovering and playing catch up.
RB Grade: A-
WR: Wide Receiver has long been a strong position for Notre Dame and this year expect Equanimeous St. Brown (EQSB) to step into the legion of distinguished WRs. EQSB is 6-5, explosive, and should rank as one of the top WRs in the nation by the end of the season as long as his nagging shoulder injury is fully healed. Beyond EQSB, ND has a stable of tall and strong WRs (Myles Boykin, Chase Claypool, and Javon McKinley) and average-to-short but fast WRs (CJ Sanders, Kevin Stepherson, and Chris Finke). With the recent addition of Arizona State grad transfer Cameron Smith, this year WR corpse should rival any other team in the nation as far as depth at the position. Enjoy watching EQSB this season, because it very well could be his last. He is easily an early round NFL talent.
WR Grade: A
TE: For being known as Tight End U, Notre Dame severely lacked production at the position the last 2 seasons as Alize Jones sat out with academic issues. With Alize returning and backed up by Durham Smyth and Nic Weishar, expect ND’s TEs to get back to TE U production. The Irish also bring in 2 of the nations top recruits at TE so look for Brock Wright to earn increased playing time late in the season. With new offensive coordinator being a former TE coach, the TEs will be utilized in many different ways next season. Lack of the experienced production is the only thing holding the TE corpse back, but they have just as much potential as any other position group on the offense.
TE Grade: B
OL: Notre Dame should start seniors at 3 of the 4 offensive line positions. Mike McGlinchy and Quentin Nelson return for their senior seasons after turning down the opportunity to be an early round pick in the NFL. Quentin Nelson is expected to be one of the top OL in the nation this season. OL Coach Harry Heistand has turned the OL production around, long gone are the days of watching Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen get assaulted on every drop back. Heistand has also proven himself to be one of the best OL recruiters in the nation. However, depth at OL has taken a hit recently due to transfers out of the program. While many have the ND O-line ranked as a top 5 unit in the nation, I need to see them step up to the next level and prove that they can block some of the top defensive fronts in the nation before I rank them that high. That starts with the early season match-up against Georgia.
OL Grade: A-
OVERALL OFFENSE GRADE: A-
Offensive MVP: Josh Adams. With an inexperienced QB, but major talent all around (St. Brown, McGlinchey, Nelson, Alize) – ND’s offense will look to ride on the back of Adams. Adams should easily eclipse 1,000 yards.
DL: For years, if not decades, the DL has been a weak spot for the Irish. Many attribute this to academic rigors hindering ND from being able to recruit some of the top high school D-linemen. Regardless, ND’s DL should benefit from new D Coordinator Mike Elko. Will Jerry Tillery finally reach his potential in the middle? Can Andrew Trumbetti return to the player he showed flashes of prior to his concussion his freshman season? One thing is for certain; sophomore Jaelin Hayes will break out this season as ND’s best D Lineman since Stephon Tiutt and Louis Nix in 2014. The addition of DC Mike Elko moves this unit from a C to a C+.
DL Grade: C+
LB: Consistency and leadership can be expected from the LB unit. Nyles Morgan is a lock in the middle and may have a season similar to Manti T’eo and Jaylon Smith in terms of total tackles. Greer Martini and Te’Von Coney should get equal time at the outside LB spot. The most interesting change to the defense will the Rover position, which is a hybrid LB/SS spot. Drue Tranquill looks to be born to play this position as he has started most of his career as a strong safety, but moved down to LB against option attack teams. If Tranquill can stay healthy, he may be the most improved player on the team. Overall, ND’s LB unit returns close to 500 total tackles and will look to be the strength of the defense.
LB Grade: B+
DB: Young with tons of upside. Due to injuries, ND was forced to play many freshman and sophomores in the defensive backfield over the past 2 seasons. Crawford, Watkins, Love, Vaughn, Studsill, Coleman, and Fertitta all return with plenty of expereience. ND also landed an impact transfer when Navy safety Alohi Gilman announced he would play for Notre Dame. Gilman comes from the same high school as Manti T’eo and Robby Toma and will have 3 years of eligibility left and had offers from USC, Arizona, Notre Dame, and Michigan. ND is pursuing a waiver that would potentially allow Gilman to play next season.
DB Grade: B
OVERALL DEFENSE GRADE: B
Defensive MVP: Nyles Morgan. Morgan will be the emotional and physical leader of the defense, but it will be the DL and DBs that will need to step up to make this defense a playoff contender.
Kicker Justin Yoon had an off year in his second season after having a stellar freshman season. Look for Yoon to return to the success of his freshman season. Punter Tyler Newsome will continue to be one of the top punters in the Midwest. CJ Sanders could have a breakout year returning kicks after returning a punt for a TD his freshman season. Former walk-on WR Chris Finke backs him up. Don’t be surprised if transfer Cameron Smith or RB Dexter Williams return some kicks as well. Brian Polian returns to ND as the special teams coordinator after a few years as head coach at Nevada. Polian was on staff at ND in 2005-2009 and was instrumental in getting Manti T’eo to sign with ND.
ST Grade: B+
I refuse to predict a record for ND next season. In years that ND should have been good (i.e. last season), they were terrible. In years that ND should not have been good (i.e. 2012, 2015), they were great. The Irish will go as far as rookie QB Brandon Wimbush takes them as he has the talent and consistency surrounding him. With that said, I think ND should beat every team on their schedule with the exception of Georgia and USC. If ND can squeak out a win verse either of those two teams and finish 11-1, they should be in the conversation for the Playoffs at the end of the season. The more interesting question is how many wins does Brian Kelly need to attain in order to get off the hot seat and keep his job in 2018.