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Where Notre Dame was & is: Coaching

Notre Dame v Michigan State

EAST LANSING, MI - SEPTEMBER 23: Head football coach Mark Dantonio of the Michigan State Spartans and head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish talk prior to the start of the game at Spartan Stadium on September 23, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

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Notre Dame welcomed five new assistants, a graduate assistant intended as an assistant coach and a new strength staff following 2016’s dismal 4-8 finish. The revamping of Irish coach Brian Kelly’s staff was part of the “blueprint for what we needed to do to be successful” that Kelly discussed with Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick last December.

The focus heading into the season was on the two new Irish coordinators. Well, three when counting special teams coordinator Brian Polian, though his influence was expected to be felt in bigger picture areas as much as on coverage units.

In looking for an offensive coordinator, Kelly sought a play-caller with a comfort using tight ends extensively, knowing Notre Dame had an abundance of talent awaiting at that position. He turned to Memphis’ Chip Long.

“Chip is going to bring some things in that I want, that we’ve already brought in that we did not have,” Kelly said when introducing the new staff. “You’re going to see some things that we didn’t have as part of our offense that you’ve never seen from this offense before, because it did not exist.”

At defensive coordinator, the Irish needed someone who would restore a penchant for forcing turnovers after managing only 14 a year ago. Landing Mike Elko from Wake Forest was considered something of a bonanza, as he was one of the most highly-sought coordinators in the country.

“I was looking for something that would take the football away, somebody that has had great success in doing so, as well as a continued successor at coordinator,” Kelly said.

Along with Long came receivers coach Del Alexander, a bit of a package deal. Similarly, linebackers coach Clark Lea accompanied Elko. In both instances, the position coach provided more institutional knowledge of the incoming schemes and a known commodity for the coordinator to lean on.

In Polian, Kelly brought aboard a special teams coordinator but also someone with head coaching experience and thus an understanding of the bigger picture, both as it pertains to recruiting and overall concerns.

“The conversations are a little bit different sometimes,” Kelly said. “Just in recruiting, sometimes we talk about things that maybe haven’t necessarily crossed the desk of an assistant coach. Maybe fit over position skill, far-reaching effects more so than maybe immediate.”

Former Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees joined the staff as a graduate assistant, serving as the quarterbacks coach but awaiting the NCAA’s implementation of 10-person staffs before taking to off-campus recruiting.

More than the tight ends, Long relied on the running backs, though the tight ends served as able blockers with frequency.

Elko indeed forced turnovers with 20 to date, split evenly between interceptions and fumbles recovered. That task was even more difficult than realized given the dearth of playmakers at safety, a fact Kelly acknowledged directly in an interview Tuesday evening with Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

The new staff’s overall strength may be best seen in its recruiting efforts. Notre Dame closed the class of 2017 cycle strongly, securing seven commitments after that 4-8 disappointment concluded, including three on National Signing Day itself. The strong finish saved a class from breaking apart as it appeared to be on the verge of doing.

With a full cycle to work, the staff has already secured 21 signed commitments in the class of 2018 and addressed the majority of the roster’s deficiencies within it. Polian’s work as recruiting director deserves much of that credit.

In regards to coaches, this boils down to the Irish win-loss figures. A 9-3 season is a distinct improvement upon 4-8, but it is still a far cry from 12-0.

Elko’s work developing the Irish defense made him a buzzing name on the couching carousel again this offseason. Apparently that won’t matter.

“It’s been a challenge, but we’ll all be together,” Kelly told Sampson. “At first glance, yeah, I think you’re always on guard [about losing a coach], especially the defensive coordinator position. Mike came in, did a really good job. His name was out there, but he’s gonna be here at Notre Dame.”

Whether Texas A&M actually touched base with Elko or not is a moot point — he’ll be at Notre Dame for at least another season. That eliminates the biggest possible question. The remaining wonderings are simple and build upon each other.

Will Kelly learn from 9-3 as he did from 4-8 just a year ago?

Will Kelly learn from the debacle handling Miami’s atmosphere as he did the embarrassment managing the literal hurricane at North Carolina State just a year ago?

Will Kelly — and Long and Rees — be able to foster a working relationship with a young quarterback as Kelly once did with Rees?

If those responses return “Yes,” “Yes,” and “Yes,” then the 2018 season may have no ceiling. But each “No” will essentially serve as a loss from the outset.

The closing run of four away games in the last five weeks with three alternating trips to coasts will be just as taxing as 2017’s finish of six weeks featuring four ranked teams. Virginia Tech has one of the rowdiest home environments in the country and will quite possibly be more intimidating then Hard Rock Stadium was this year. Overcoming these obstacles, as well as visits from Michigan, Stanford and Florida State, will require stellar play from current junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

The masses will want to ask, How many games lost would get Kelly fired? There is never a distinct number for that. Circumstances can sway the final results drastically. Rather, another year of improvement and growth — specifically as it pertains to rectifying 2017’s mistakes at Miami and Stanford — will show the program continues on the desired path.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs
Where Notre Dame was & is: Offensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Quarterbacks
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