(Color me in a patriotic mood after watching last night’s State of the Union and Republican Response...)
Brian Kelly had about a week on Barack Obama, giving his “State of the Program” speech last Friday, officially putting the 2010 season in the books, while turning his gaze forward to finalizing recruiting as well as preparing for the 2011 season.
With next week surely to be focused on the finalization of a Top 10 recruiting class (not to mention the best defensive end haul since Rivals started keeping tabs), I thought it appropriate to piggy back on the President’s address to the nation last night, and take stock in where the Irish football program is 13 months after Brian Kelly took it over.
Many assumed the Irish offense would be the strong suit of the 2010 squad, even with the loss of two All-American caliber players in Jimmy Clausen and Biletnikoff winner Golden Tate, not to mention both starting tackles and center Eric Olsen. Whether or not it was blind faith in Kelly’s reputation as an offensive innovator, Dayne Crist waiting in the wings, or returning front-line players like Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph and Armando Allen, the fact that the Irish took a step back offensively seemed to surprise more people than it should have.
From a trend perspective, the Irish offense regressed in several key categories, not surprising considering the Irish offense in 2009 was one of the top units in the country, with a third-year starter at quarterback at the trigger. That said, it’s interesting to note that Kelly’s squad had more success running the football, gave up less sacks, and scored more touchdowns in the red zone. Statistically, the improvement was moderate, but it’s amazing to think that an offensive line replacing three starters and subbing Braxston Cave in for Dan Wenger, while running almost exclusively out of the shotgun, could have a better season rushing the football than an offensive with the 4th best passing efficiency in the country. While you can say that the high-tempo spread offense is less conducive to sacks than Weis’ pro-style attack, it’s hard to understand why the Irish offensive line, behind one of college football’s most veteran units, gave up 25 sacks last season, six more than the Irish did in 2010, who finished a respectable 34th in the nation while starting three first-time starters.
More incomprehensible is the (albeit slight) improvement in the red zone. The fact that Kelly’s squad, quarterbacked by Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees, and missing Kyle Rudolph and Golden Tate, could do better in the red zone scoring touchdowns defies logic. Whether it be better play-calling or just better execution, there’s no reason for Jimmy Clausen’s 2009 offense to struggle in the red zone more than the 2010 edition.
Looking to 2011, there’s every reason to believe that Kelly’s offense will take fairly large steps improving in nearly every facet. Year To do that, they’ll need a better effort on the front line from Ed Warinner’s troops running the ball, who will only replace Chris Stewart from an offensive line that improved as the season went along. They’ll also need to do better on 3rd downs, improving their conversion rate from the 38-percent clip they hit on last year. Kelly’s teams have never been great third down teams (neither have the last three Oregon teams), but if they want to play at the frenetic pace that Kelly desires, they’ll need to be able to keep drives moving. Most importantly, regardless of who wins the quarterback job, there’s a huge leap in production for quarterbacks in Year Two of a Brian Kelly system. Expect that trend to continue.
The improvements the Irish defense made in Kelly’s first season are hard to understate. The Irish improved in virtually every major defensive statistic, outside of opponent completion percentage and red zone defense (though in the latter’s case the Irish were far stouter limiting opponents to field goals, finishing 7th in the country in red zone touchdown defense). The Irish were a Top 30 defense in six major categories in 2010, they were a Top 30 defense in only one in 2009.
While the alignment changed, there weren’t many personnel changes to the defense Bob Diaco coordinated. If anything, the Irish lost their most consistent performer when Kyle McCarthy graduated. Yet playing with virtually the same players, the Irish defense transformed itself in Diaco’s multiple 3-4 system, playing its best football down the home stretch, when past Notre Dame defenses fell apart. Stepping back from statistical analysis and just relying on the eyeball test, it’s shocking to consider that Notre Dame played USC and Miami, two of college football’s most athletic programs, and dominated both teams with their defense at the end of the year.
As we look to 2011, the Irish will need to replace Ian Williams from the center of their defense, something they did successfully after Williams went down with a knee injury versus Navy. At linebacker, they’ll need to find a new starter at ‘Dog,’ where both Kerry Neal and Brian Smith graduate. Smith also doubled as a replacement in the middle, where he stepped into Carlo Calabrese spots after injuries hampered the sophomore’s ability to play. In the secondary, the Irish will lose Darrin Walls at cornerback, but have Robert Blanton ready to slide back outside after spending much of the year playing at nickel back. All three major safety contributors, Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta, and Jamoris Slaughter return, with Smith leading the secondary after a breakthrough season.
The Irish played winning defense not by doing any one thing dominantly, but by having no weak link. In 2009, the Irish had the toxic combination of the 112th ranked yards-per-completion passing defense and the 101st rated run defense, basically historic ineptitude on one-side of the football for ND. (To put it in perspective, it’s nearly a mirror-image of the 2007 Irish offense.) With players like Darius Fleming, Harrison Smith, Ethan Johnson and Manti Te’o poised for breakthrough seasons, there’s every reason to believe that the 2011 Irish defense has the chance to be something very special.
David Ruffer’s season kicking field goals was record-setting, but surprisingly it wasn’t that much better than the 19 for 22 that Ruffer and Nick Tausch combined for in 2009. But as expected, Mike Elston’s special teams statically improved in 2010, with a few major exceptions.
One of the things John Goodman isn’t is Golden Tate. That’s the best way to describe the drop in punt returns from 2009 to 2010, where the Irish went from 19th in the country to 101st, averaging an abysmal 4.9 yards per return in the punt game. The Irish also struggled in the kick return game, ranking 74th in the nation and a half-yard shorter per return than the 2009 edition, something that had to befuddle Brian Kelly, especially with some of the talented players he had on the roster. But in many cases, Kelly was limited in the return game by a rash of injuries to skill guys primed to thrive in the return game. Armando Allen battled through injuries until he was shutdown, limiting his impact on the return game. Ditto for Theo Riddick, who could’ve brought some excitement bringing back kicks and punts if not for an ankle injury. Whether it’s Bennett Jackson or not, the Irish can expect to improve in 2011, at the very least having more options to choose from.
Even though Kelly will have Ruffer and Tausch on the roster next season, Notre Dame accepted Kyle Brindza in early enrollment, bringing another powerful leg to campus. While he’s mostly thought of as a kicker, he’ll immediately challenge Ben Turk at punter, a place where the Irish know they need to do better. While Turk’s 36.3 yard net average is an improvement over last year, he struggled getting air under the ball and was the beneficiary of quite a few nice rolls, bumping that average up quite a bit.
When Kelly assembled his first staff at Notre Dame, he did it with coaches he had relationships with, something that was helpful from a familiarity perspective, but didn’t move anybody’s star-meter when judging the coaches coming to Notre Dame. Keeping Tony Alford on the staff and bringing back Mike Denbrock, Kelly made two strategic moves. Alford brought great continuity, while Denbrock gave Kelly a long-time confidante who could show him the ropes around South Bend while also bringing his ties to the West Coast.
Kelly’s decision to bring Bob Diaco in as his defensive coordinator while Chuck Martin, his successful successor at Grand Valley State coached the secondary, had people questioning the move, but 13 games later it looks like a success. Diaco, preaching principles and discipline, improved the defense, while Martin transformed a secondary while leading the charge as recruiting coordinator.
While both Martin and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar’s names swirled around some head coaching vacancies, no coach left Kelly’s inaugural staff, keeping a unit that worked very well together intact. More importantly, both Kerry Cooks’ transition to outside linebackers coach (after spending most of his career as a secondary coach) and Alford’s transition to wide receivers seemed to take, as neither unit suffered from first time position coaches.
We’ll know for sure next Wednesday, but the major concern with this unit was their recruiting prowess, something that will officially be alleviated when Notre Dame inks the most impressive defensive recruiting class of the modern era. Many already knew that Alford was dynamic on the recruiting trail, but Mike Elston, Bob Diaco, and Chuck Martin pulled some major talent, with guys like Kerry Cooks getting players out of Texas, a major priority for Kelly.
As the staff transitions into Year Two, expect more of the same -- coordinators preaching the same principles, a staff completely in sync with their head coach, and player development that’s been a hallmark of Brian Kelly football teams.