Notre Dame

Brian Kelly rides into pivotal 2017 with plenty of new faces on coaching staff

Brian Kelly rides into pivotal 2017 with plenty of new faces on coaching staff

Brian Kelly raised a few eyebrows earlier this month when, in announcing the hiring of offensive coordinator Chip Long, said he would not be calling plays for Notre Dame's offense in 2017.

Instead, the 33-year-old Long — who spent 2016 as Memphis' offensive coordinator — will handle play calling duties for a Notre Dame team desperately needing to reverse course after last year's disastrous 4-8 record. Kelly's decision to hand over play-calling duties to someone with whom he's never worked — something he'd never done at Notre Dame — is perhaps the most interesting development in a hectic two-month stretch for the Irish coaching staff. 

In announcing Notre Dame's 2017 coaching staff on Monday, Kelly explained why he won't be calling plays in a pivotal year for the veteran coach's legacy. In conducting exit interviews with 96 players in the days after Notre Dame's season-ending loss to USC, Kelly noticed a common theme: The defensive players said they liked having him work on that side of the ball, which Kelly did after firing defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder four games into the season. 

"Most of the time I'm on the offensive side of the ball," Kelly said. "So it really sent a message to me that I needed to be more involved in both sides, offensive, defensive and special teams. The only way to do that is to have somebody calling plays. If you're calling plays, you have to spend so much time on one side of the ball, and so after making the decision that I would not have the influence on a day-to-day basis, it was simply easy for me to know what I was looking for offensively and that was a play caller."

All of Notre Dame's assistant coaches had previously been announced by the program, but a refresher of who's who on the staff:

Offensive coordinator: Chip Long
Quarterbacks: Tom Rees (who will be a graduate assistant until, as Notre Dame expects, the NCAA allows for a 10th full-time assistant coach)
Running backs: Autry Denson
Wide receivers: DelVaughn Alexander
Tight Ends: Chip Long
Offensive line: Harry Hiestand
Defensive coordinator: Mike Elko
Defensive line: Mike Elston
Linebackers: Clark Lea
Defensive backs: Todd Lyght
Special teams: Brian Polian
Strength & conditioning: Matt Balis

Only Denson, Hiestand, Elston and Lyght are back from last year's coaching staff, with no surprises on any. Denson is an ace recruiter with strong contacts in talent-rich Florida; Hiestand has a sparkling reputation as a recruiter and developer of offensive linemen; Elston also serves as the team's recruiting coordinator; and Lyght, while inexperienced as a coach, presided over promising development from a number of Notre Dame's freshmen defensive backs last year. 

Longtime Kelly lieutenants Mike Denbrock (now the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati) and Paul Longo (who, Kelly said, was unable to fulfill his dues as strength coordinator due to a long-term disability) are no longer around. Mike Sanford cashed in on his up-and-coming coaching stock and accepted the head coaching position at Western Kentucky, where he got his first assistant job. Scott Booker (tight ends/special teams), Keith Gilmore (defensive line) and Greg Hudson (interim defensive coordinator) were all relieved of their duties, though Kelly said he'd like Hudson to still have a role in the program. Hudson was a defensive analyst last year before being promoted to defensive coordinator after VanGorder was jettisoned.

From a player standpoint, there's not the same level of drastic turnover that hit Kelly's coaching staff. DeShone Kizer is gone for the NFL, but redshirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush has a tantalizingly high ceiling and both the mental and physical attributes to be an excellent quarterback. Torii Hunter Jr. and Tarean Folston are the only other key offensive players to not return in 2017, but the injection of receiver/tight end hybrid Alize Jones (who was ineligible in 2016) and running back Dexter Williams (who flashed potential in limited use last year) should cover for those losses. 

On defense, losing defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, linebacker James Onwualu and cornerback Cole Luke create holes, but perhaps a more teachable defensive scheme implemented by Elko will help shore up a group that's been a weakness since Bob Diaco left for UConn. 

"Mike Elko does a lot of things that are hard to decipher, but easily taught," Kelly said. "And his experiences in college and coaching and teaching and communicating; and he does an incredibly efficient job at communicating what he's teaching. And we're teachers. He's a really good teacher at the end of the day."

The weakest link for Notre Dame last year was special teams, though, but Kelly was able to convince a former head coach and Irish assistant under Charlie Weis to return to South Bend to solely focus on that unit. The hiring of Polian may ultimately be the most important hire Kelly made after the 2016 season: the Irish ranked 36th in offensive S&P+, 28th in defensive S&P+ (though that's skewed by facing two option teams and playing in a hurricane) and 80th in special teams S&P+ in 2016. Even a modest improvement in special teams could've got Notre Dame at least six, maybe more, wins last year. 

"To have somebody with his experience, with his knowledge, with his background coaching our special teams and focusing primarily on that, without another position to pull his focus away," Kelly said, "I think it's just an upgrade and allows us to really think about excelling and gaining an advantage in that area."

So this is the coaching staff Kelly will ride with in 2017, as the pressure to win swells with every day that someone remembers the team went 4-8 last year. That lack of success is unacceptable in South Bend, and not significantly improving off it is a fireable offense. 

Notre Dame couldn't stand pat after last year. Whether this new mix of coaches buoys a nine- or 10-win season (at the least) remains to be seen, but make no mistake: The buck stops with Kelly, who will sink or swim with this coaching staff.

But for now, with kickoff of the 2017 season still over seven months away, Kelly isn't viewing this as a make-or-break year. Instead, he's content to paraphrase Shakespeare and focus on the more immediate future. 

"I know there's more scrutiny on this year because of last year's poor performance, but I am focused on the present," Kelly said. "And I know that there's going to be a ton of talk about that, and I get that. That comes with this.

"But I think every year that I've gone into this position that it's about excellence. It's about championships. And if you fall short of that, it's the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune."

Notre Dame - Navy football game scheduled in Dublin moved back to U.S.

Notre Dame - Navy football game scheduled in Dublin moved back to U.S.

The Navy-Notre Dame football game that was set to be played in Ireland has been relocated to the United States, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Notre Dame announced on Tuesday that the game which was originally going to take place in Dublin on Aug. 29 will “likely” be played over Labor Day weekend, either on Saturday or Sunday.

The teams plan on playing at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, which will be a first in the 94-year rivalry history. Every previous matchup hosted by Navy has been played at a neutral site.

“We are obviously disappointed not to be traveling to Ireland this August,” said Naval Academy Director of Athletics Chet Gladchuk. “But, as expected, our priority must be ensuring the health and safety of all involved.

“I am expecting that we will still be able to play Notre Dame as our season opener, but there is still much to be determined by health officials and those that govern college football at large.”

Jack Swarbrick, Vice President of Notre Dame, and James E. Rorh, Director of Athletics at Notre made a joint statement as well.

“Our student-athletes have had great experiences competing in Ireland and are very disappointed not to be returning to Dublin in 2020,” they said. “The change of venue has been a very difficult decision for our colleagues at the Naval Academy, but we are in full support of their choice. We are also grateful for everything our partners in Ireland have done to make this a smooth transition. We look forward to going back to Ireland for a game in the not too distant future.”

RELATED: Notre Dame will allow students back on campus this fall

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Notre Dame will allow students back on campus for 2020 fall semester

Notre Dame will allow students back on campus for 2020 fall semester

Notre Dame University announced on Monday that it will welcome students back on campus on August 10. That’s two weeks earlier than the fall semester was initially scheduled to begin. In addition, Notre Dame will forgo a fall break in October, and will instead end the semester before Thanksgiving.

In the announcement Notre Dame said they consulted with experts for months to develop their plan to welcome students back onto campus.

The plan to return includes comprehensive COVID-19 testing for students, faculty and staff. It also includes contact tracing, quarantine and isolation protocols, social distancing and mask requirements, and enhanced cleaning of all campus spaces.

“By far the most complex challenge before us is the return of our students to campus for the resumption of classes in the fall semester,” Notre Dame’s president Rev. John I. Jenkins wrote in a letter to students. “Bringing our students back is in effect assembling a small city of people from many parts of the nation and the world, who may bring with them pathogens to which they have been exposed. We recognize the challenge, but we believe it is one we can meet.”

Father Jenkins also wrote that the university is currently developing a plan to reopen research labs, studios and libraries in coming weeks.

In case of an outbreak, or if the university is unable to provide adequate testing, Notre Dame faculty have been asked to prepare both in-person and remote curricula for their classes. The remote curricula would also help any student keep up with classwork if they need to be quarantined.

The university is also developing criteria to determine whether or not to offer study abroad programs in the fall. That decision will be announced in June.

Notre Dame sent home all students in mid-March to complete their spring semesters remotely. They also canceled all summer classes, except for a small number of students who needed to complete summer work to prepare for the fall semester.