After 10 seasons as head coach at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly is measured by two opposing metrics.
There’s the 33–6 stat, which is Notre Dame’s record the past three seasons with 11, 12 and 10 victories, respectively. That’s the best three-year run at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz went 31–5–1 from 1991-93. And then there are the blowout losses to Miami (2017), Clemson in the 2018 playoffs and the never-had-a-chance loss at Michigan last year.
These are the best of times at Notre Dame in nearly three decades, while also increasingly restless times due to the raised expectations.
“We’ve got a chance to be really good next year,” said Kelly in December. “Really good.”
“Really good” will require victories over Wisconsin in Green Bay in October and a home victory against powerful Clemson in November while adding to a three-game winning streak over USC in the regular-season finale.
Previewing Notre Dame's Offense for 2020
A significant part of Kelly’s optimism hinges upon the decision by quarterback Ian Book to return for his final year of eligibility after Book led the Irish to six straight victories, including a decisive stomping of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.
“What’s great leadership? It’s when you battle through adversity,” says Kelly of Book. “After the Michigan (loss), for him to lead our team to six consecutive wins shows some resilience and leadership.”
Book, who led the Irish to the playoffs in ’18 and then struggled with his confidence and decision-making the first half of last year, was mostly sharp in victories over Virginia Tech, Duke, Navy, Boston College, Stanford and the Cyclones. Now, there’s no time to come out of the gate slowly, not with the loss of his top three pass-catchers (Chase Claypool, Chris Finke and Cole Kmet) and a rushing attack comprised of a half-dozen running backs who couldn’t distinguish themselves in 2019.
The Irish are pinning the rest of their hopes on six returning regulars along the offensive line, led by seniors Robert Hainsey, Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg and junior Aaron Banks. They’ll also count on the emergence of wideouts Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys III, as well as tight end Tommy Tremble, as the next wave of skill-position talent cycles through.
After a parting of ways with offensive coordinator Chip Long, Kelly has turned to Tommy Rees — his quarterback for the better part of the 2010-13 seasons with the Irish — to run the show. Rees’ trial run against Iowa State was a success, but he’ll be measured by what he does against Wisconsin, Clemson and USC.
Previewing Notre Dame's Defense for 2020
It took just two seasons as coordinator for Clark Lea to come within a hair of landing a head-coaching job at a Power 5 conference school. Lea finished runner-up to Jeff Hafley (Ohio State) for the head-coaching job at Boston College after fielding his second straight top-15 scoring defense.
“His consistency and teaching approach have been (easy) for the players to adapt to, regardless if it’s a player with a lot or little experience,” says Kelly of Lea.
Most of the proven pass rushers — Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Jamir Jones — are gone after combining for 14 sacks and 22.5 tackles for a loss in 2019. Another contingent of pass rushers looks promising, led by fifth-year end Ade Ogundeji.
Two of the top three linebackers are back. Drew White is the blue-collar player in the middle with budding star Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah coming off a dominant performance to conclude the ’19 season.
Lea won’t have the advantage of trotting out safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott, who turned a moribund back rung in 2017 into a difference-making pair in 2018-19. Also gone is veteran cornerback Troy Pride Jr., although the Irish do benefit from sixth-year cornerback/nickel Shaun Crawford’s return and the arrival of NC State transfer Nick McCloud.
Softening the blow of losing Gilman and Elliott is the ceiling-free promise of sophomore Kyle Hamilton, the standout safety who lived up to his billing as the playmaking third man in the rotation as a true freshman.
Previewing Notre Dame's Specialists for 2020
Concern over the loss of all-time leading scorer Justin Yoon and booming punter Tyler Newsome following the 2018 season was perfectly valid. And yet by the end of the first month of the 2019 season, kicker Jonathan Doerer and true freshman punter Jay Bramblett had relieved all concerns. Doerer made 17 of his 20 field-goal attempts in 2019, while 24 of Bramblett’s 63 punts were fair caught, and opponents averaged just 3.9 yards per return on the rest.
Speedy wide receiver Lenzy is expected to give the Irish kick return unit a boost.
With the inside track to making the College Football Playoff heading into November in three of the last five seasons, the standard for success at Notre Dame has been altered.
“This is the first team that I’ve had that has really established who they are and what they want to be,” Kelly says. “It’s hard to have a group of 18-to-21-year-olds say, ‘This is how we’re going to go to work every day.’”
Nothing short of a playoff berth — essentially, no more than one loss — will achieve the newly established expectation at Notre Dame.
National Ranking: 9
(Top photo by Aaron M. Sprecher/AP)