The 2016 Notre Dame football season was the worse of Brian Kelly’s tenure, and the worse since 2007’s 3-9 record under then-coach Charlie Weis.
Finishing just 4-8 on the year, the Irish saw themselves plagued with injuries, poor coaching decisions and a subpar defense. That’s not to say the year didn’t have it’s positives, but the negatives surely outweighed even the highest of highs for Notre Dame.
Kelly and his team entered the offseason anything but quietly. Not only did the team’s star quarterback – DeShone Kizer – declare for the NFL draft, but a slew of firings, resignations and career changes for assistants led the staff on a mission to fill six vacancies. This was on top of rumors that Kelly himself could be canned.
In a tough spot, coach Kelly had to think about his own failures as a coach and recognize his staff’s weaknesses.
Notre Dame football opened the fall camps for 2017 with a press conference Monday morning. Kelly was asked if the Irish would be having the discussion of all the coaching and culture changes had the 2016 season ended 8-4 instead of the inverse.
“Yes,” he answered. “Yeah, we are. I think that when I would have realized that, I had realized that we had some issues going into the season. Clearly, we had some off-the-field issues leading into the season.”
Kelly explained that he had done a poor job of developing leadership and the message of leadership within the program. He mentioned the hurricane conditions and poor play calling as examples.
So, where are the Irish entering the 2017 fall camps?
“As we transition into 2017, we’ve been at this process since January,” Kelly said. “A process that, for us, has really been energizing, exciting as we get ready to really work into the next phase of the development of our football team.”
Notre Dame has seen six new assistant coaches hired onto staff, including two familiar faces to Irish fans. The new staffers include defensive coordinator Mike Elko, offensive coordinator Chip Long, linebackers coach Clark Lea, wide receivers coach Del Alexander, special teams coordinator Brian Polian and quarterbacks coach Tom Rees.
Polian served as an assistant coach from 2005-2009 while Rees played QB for Kelly from 2010-2013.
When Kelly took over at Notre Dame in December 2009, he was given the option to retain Polian but chose against it. He mentioned that had things been different, he would have kept him on staff at the time, but said the decision to bring him back comes down to experience.
“So I think first and foremost, I wanted somebody with a veteran presence, somebody that had experience at the highest level, special teams experience was crucial, and then coming off his experience as a head coach,” said Kelly. “He was going to have to get in front of a room, and that room being special teams players and really take charge of a group of guys that are so crucial to our success.”
During his 26 years as a head coach, Kelly has seen a lot of continuity from his coaching staff from year-to-year. But 2017 has proven to be a change from that trend. The Irish coach said that it wasn’t so much the X’s and O’s that opened his eyes as much as it was the personalities driving the coaches.
“I don’t know that I’ve walked in and Mike Elko showed me a defense that I haven’t seen before,” Kelly said. “What he showed me was an incredible attention to detail, a great way to communicate and teach. Chip Long showed me just an incredible veracity to want to be great in everything that he does, and his ability to relay that to the players under his charge.”
Alongside coaching changes, this will be the first season Kelly doesn’t see a returning quarterback come back to the role. With Kizer in the NFL and Zaire opting to transfer to Florida, the Irish will turn to Brandon Wimbush to lead the offense.
Wimbush, a 6-foot-2 junior out of Teaneck, NY, has appeared in just two games for the Irish – both during his freshman season in 2015. He completed a total of three passes on five attempts in 2015, but rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown.
Kelly and Notre Dame are confident in his abilities, and appear focused on returning Notre Dame to the College Football Playoff hunt.