When it became clear that Charlie Weis wasn't going to cut it at Notre Dame, there was only one name on my list for the next head coach at Notre Dame ... that was Brian Kelly.
Kelly first became a name to me back in 2001, the first year of my own coaching career. I studied his Grand Valley State offenses, and he was on my radar from then on. He only added to his impressive resume at Cincinnati, and it was a no brainer to hire him back in 2009.
The problem, however, is that upon arriving at Notre Dame we saw Kelly go away from what got him to that point in the previous decade. An innovator on offense, a generator of elite, explosive offenses, Kelly at Notre Dame has become a coach either unwilling or unable to develop the explosive offenses needed to compete for and win championships.
That need has never been greater than the last five years, as college football has become a much more offensive driven enterprise. Offenses are now winning championships the way Kelly did almost twenty years ago, with innovative, explosive offenses.
For Kelly to move forward into the modern era of college football, he needs to go back to his roots, and get back the ahead-of-his-time coach that got him here in the first place.
YES, CHANGE IS NEEDED
Two of the common remarks I get when I talk about the need for change is Notre Dame lacked a quarterback that could push the ball downfield (I don't agree) and that Notre Dame lacked explosive playmakers.
What's the excuse for 2018? 2017? 2015? 2014? The excuses for why those offenses failed to score at the rate of other top teams was different, it always changes and the blame constantly shifts to the quarterback, or the line, or the playmakers.
Well, in 2015 Notre Dame had a high-NFL Draft pick talent at quarterback (DeShone Kizer), arguably the best offensive line in the country and it had explosive playmakers all over the field (Will Fuller, CJ Prosise, Josh Adams, Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle), and the points per game average was almost identical to the 2020 team (34.2 to 33.4).
Here is a fact, Notre Dame has fielded a defense capable of competing for a championship at least four times during Kelly's tenure, but it hasn't had an offense play at that level once, and that needs to change.
GETTING BACK TO HIS ROOTS
I'm a big believer in succeeding or failing by doing what you do, do what you are best at. The problem with Kelly at Notre Dame is he hasn't been the coach that won all the games that got him the job in the first place.
What I saw when I first started following Kelly's career was a coach who was ahead of his time. Brian Kelly was putting 45-50 point per game offenses on the field, and winning championships with it. His 2001 Grand Valley State team averaged 50.5 points per game, numbers that include the fact his starting quarterback went down with a season-ending injury in the second round of the playoffs.
Prior to Curt Anes going down with that injury, the offense was averaging 56.9 points per game, 591.0 yards per game and 7.7 yards per play. GVSU was balanced, passing for 329.4 yards per game while rushing for 261.6 yards per game.
A year later, GVSU won its first national title under Kelly with an offense that averaged 46.7 points per game, and once again with an offense that was over 200 rushing yards per game and nearly 300 passing yards per contest.
During that two-year stretch, GVSU went 27-1 while scoring an average of 51.2 points per game, 533.7 yards of offense, 229.6 rushing yards per game and 304.1 passing yards per game.
In his final season at Cincinnati, the Bearcats ranked fourth nationally in scoring offense at 39.8 points per game (in games Kelly coached), and they did that despite their starting quarterback (Tony Pike) missing three full games and the majority of a fourth.
For whatever reason, Kelly switched to a more pro-style offense at Notre Dame, one built around ball control and playing great defense. Running the football is great, playing great defense is a must, but Kelly has never fielded an offense at Notre Dame that played at a championship level, and he really only got close in one season (2015).
What he has done at Notre Dame has been quite good, which I've written about many, many times, but the goal is still championships. I believed Brian Kelly was the man capable of getting Notre Dame to that level back in 2009. He hasn't done so in 11 seasons, and the reason is he hasn't been true to himself.
If Kelly wants to win a championship at Notre Dame he needs to remember what it was that got him here. Being innovative on offense, being aggressive on offense and building a system that allows his team to put pressure on any defense he faces with personnel, scheme, tempo and aggressiveness.
If he can find that again it could be what gets the program over the final hurdle and makes Notre Dame a legitimate title contender ... and winner.
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