How does Brian Kelly's squad reverse course after a disappointing 4-8 campaign?
Notre Dame officially kicks off what is a crucial year for the program Wednesday, as Brian Kelly enters Year 8 in South Bend, Ind., looking to engineer a massive turnaround from last season. That starts with spring ball.
The Fighting Irish are coming off a tumultuous 4-8 campaign and will turn to plenty of new faces — both on the sideline and on the playing field — to get back on their feet in 2017.
Will all of the new staff hires pan out? Can a (likely) first-round draft pick at quarterback be replaced? Those questions and more are among the Irish’s biggest storylines this spring.
5 Storylines to Watch in Notre Dame’s Spring Practice
1. Brandon Wimbush
The former four-star quarterback enters his redshirt sophomore season as the assumed starter, after sitting last season and gaining only spot duty as a true freshman in 2015. A dual threat, Wimbush has earned rave reviews behind the scenes but is stepping into the spotlight for the first time. And the man he is replacing, DeShone Kizer, left really big shoes to fill. The good news for Wimbush is that the Irish currently have just one other scholarship signal-caller on the roster, Ian Book, so there will be plenty of time for both guys to get acquainted. But the bad news is that means there are no other viable options if both look overwhelmed. Kelly said the reps will be split 60-40 in favor of Wimbush this spring.
2. Mike Elko’s defense
The Irish’s biggest shortcomings last season came on the defensive side of the ball. By the time coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired after a 1-3 start, Notre Dame ranked 103rd nationally in total defense, 101st in scoring defense and 104th in yards per play. Interim coordinator Greg Hudson oversaw a nice in-season turnaround, with the Irish improving to 42nd, 61st and 45th in those respective categories. But now it’s Elko’s time to shine, and the former Wake Forest coordinator is looking to replicate his success with the Demon Deacons, who finished the 2016 regular season 20th in scoring defense and 33rd in total defense. He has brought aboard linebackers coach Clark Lea as well, and the blend of those two, along with incumbent Irish defensive assistants Mike Elston (defensive line) and Todd Lyght (defensive backs), should have a veteran Notre Dame defense playing much better in 2017. Even if the Irish lack the necessary pass rushers of most national powers.
3. What’s the offensive coaching room look like?
Kelly has cut his teeth in his coaching career on the offensive side of the ball. But he brought in a new coordinator in Chip Long from Memphis, and he added former Irish signal caller Tommy Rees as QB coach. How will all of this shake out, especially with a new starting QB? Kelly said Tuesday to look for a quicker tempo, with the 33-year-old Long in charge.
“Chip will be allowed to put all of his time and effort in running the offense and playing fast,” Kelly said. “I’m going to give him that autonomy to do that. I think that over the last few years it's been a committee running the offense. There is no committee now. It's one guy that can kind of turn it loose and run it. When I was at Cincinnati, I was the guy. I was running it by myself. So I think going back to what I believe is the most efficient way to do it and get out of the way and let Chip run it.”
4. Special teams improvement
Seven of Notre Dame’s eight losses in 2016 came by one possession or fewer, and the Irish’s special teams play was responsible for plenty of crucial miscues. Their return game was decent — at least when they weren’t coughing the ball up — but the Irish finished the season ranked 96th in opponent kick returns and 123rd in opponent punt returns, to say nothing of their comedy of errors. They brought in former Nevada head coach Brian Polian to fix the issues, and while he may be overqualified for the post, there is this: He held the same position with the Irish from 2005-09.
5. How does this team get after it after a disappointing year?
This may be an overarching, generic question with a vague tangible response, but the fact of the matter is the Irish gave away a number of late leads last season and are now working with a new strength and conditioning coach in Matt Balis, who replaces long-time Kelly right-hand man Paul Longo. Kelly said he himself attended many 5:45 a.m. conditioning workouts to make his presence felt after players asked him to be more involved. Now it’s time to see that renewed focus translate to the field of play.
“I love it. You can't get up at 4:30 in the morning if you don't like it,” Kelly said. “If you don't love getting up and spending time with your players and are not energized to do that, you can't do this job. But I can't wait to get in here in the morning. I can't wait to spend time with our guys. They're incredible to work with. There's such a desire to want to be great. That's the only way you can continually, five days a week, get up early and get in here, because there is an incredible passion by our guys to want to be great.”
Pre-Spring Outlook for Notre Dame
There’s nowhere to go but up, right? But therein lies the rub for Notre Dame: A four- or even five-game turnaround may be a massive improvement, but no one is throwing any parades in South Bend for an eight- or nine-win season. So, Brian Kelly and his staff have some work cut out for them. If quarterback Brandon Wimbush develops nicely, starting this spring, that is a great first step. He has a talented group of skill players and a veteran offensive line protecting him. The defense needs to get after the quarterback better, but the secondary has several promising pieces.
The big question, of course, is how the DNA of this team takes shape. Last year’s team was certainly good enough to win a lot more games than it did — a preseason No. 10 ranking suggests as much — but the Irish ultimately went 4-8. Kelly named captains in December, so the leadership corps will have a longer time to develop.
Ultimately, it’s wait-and-see for Notre Dame. The fan base is (rightfully) antsy, and after last year’s meltdown, seeing will ultimately lead to believing. Fortunately for the Irish, there are some good pieces to work with.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.