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Moving Forward: Changes Afoot for Irish

Jan. 30, 2017

By John Heisler

Media members covering Notre Dame don’t normally expect to hear Shakespeare quoted in the course of analyzation of the Irish football scene.

But that’s what they got Monday as Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, in the course of introducing new members of his staff, referenced a soliloquy from Hamlet:

“The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune . . .” noted Kelly, in reference to the regular surveillance he and his Irish program are under by fans, alumni and lots more.

Said the Irish head coach, “I know there’s more scrutiny on us this year, but I am focused on the present. I know there’s going to be a ton of talk about that, and I get that. That comes with this.

“I think every year that I’ve gone into this position (as Notre Dame head coach) that it’s about excellence. It’s about championships. If you fall short of that, it’s the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune. I mean, that’s what happened. And, so, I get that.

“My focus is on the present and on this football team and that will drive me every single day.”

Kelly had made all his new hires known over recent weeks with the announcement of new offensive and defensive coordinators, a new strength and conditioning coach, a new special teams coach and three additional assistant coaches.

So, today, beyond officially presenting the newcomers in person (and even if special teams coach Brian Polian and quarterback coach Tom Rees are no strangers), it became about clarifying Kelly’s take on the evaluation process.

Consider Notre Dame’s head coach a relative stranger to such circumstances (the closest season on his resume to 2016 was a 4-7 mark at Central Michigan in 2004, Kelly’s first season there)-and that’s a good thing.

His seven seasons in South Bend have shown him the passion and expectations of the Irish fan base-and that’s why he put particular care into the evaluation process. He spent extensive time with Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick in the period after the 2016 finale at USC, and Kelly noted Monday that he met individually with all 96 players to ask for their thoughts and feedback.

So, while some postseason evaluations may occur more routinely, Kelly “gets it”-as he said several times-in terms of the heightened external interest this time around.

“I think it’s important to certainly look at where you are and where you were,” said Kelly.

“For me, I know I’m going to always be reminded about last year, and I clearly understand that. But I’m living in the present and building for the future.Having said that, there always are going to be changes when you look hard and look at yourself and look at where your program needs to be.

“Last year we didn’t live up to those expectations and that falls on me first and foremost–and so we needed to make some significant changes, not just in terms of personnel but on how we do things on a day-to-day basis. And it starts with me.”

Kelly offered a cornucopia of thoughts on the staff additions:

–On defensive coordinator Mike Elko: “I was looking for someone that would take the football away, somebody that has had great success in doing so, as well as continued success as a coordinator. Mike Elko’s name just kept coming up at the top of the list.

“I was going to look for somebody that could work both at a three-down and a four-down fashion, but he had to understand who we were going to be able to recruit to Notre Dame and needed to have the ability to play a defense shaped around the kids that we can recruit.

“He attacks protections as well as anybody out there. What stood out to me was his ability to dissect an offense, its strengths and weaknesses. Take away their strengths and attack their weaknesses. And then eliminating the big plays.

“Mike does a lot of things that are hard to decipher, but easily taught. He does an incredibly efficient job at communicating what he’s teaching.”

–On offensive coordinator Chip Long: “I was looking for, first and foremost, a play-caller. One of the things that was pretty consistent across the board (when he talked to players) was that when I spent time on defense, our defensive personnel and players in particular really enjoyed having me part of that day-to-day schedule. That’s one that I’m not normally part of–most of the time I’m on the offensive side of the ball.

“So it really sent a message to me that I needed to be more involved in both sides, offense, defense and special teams. The only way to do that is to have somebody calling plays. And as I looked around the country, I was able to compile a very short list of guys that called plays through my eyes. In other words, the way I like our offense to look.

“Not only did Chip call offenses in a similar fashion, but I loved the way he called the game. He was able to use the run late in games-he didn’t rely heavily on a passing game when he was forced to make up ground late in games. He utilized two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move towards with the great depth that we have at that position.

“Chip is going to bring some things in that we did not have. At the end of the day, we’re not going to change the entire offense and teach a new system to this group. But you’re going to see some things that you’ve never seen from this offense before. And it’s going to be inclusion of the backs and the tight ends in the passing game.

“There will be some things that we change in terms of verbiage to make it cleaner, more streamlined and easier to call so we can move a little bit faster.”

On director of football performance Matt Balis: “He’s already made a very big impact on our football team. Developing that environment is so crucial to all the elements that are needed: Strength, toughness, the ability to handle stress and mental fatigue moving forward. You can see the passion that he has on a day-to-day basis for being here at Notre Dame is felt every single morning with our football team.”

On linebacker coach Clark Lea: “Since he previously had worked with Mike Elko, he knows him well, knows the system we’ll be employing defensively. He has built great relationships early on that have come to fruition for us in recruiting.”

On receiver coach DelVaughn Alexander: “What I loved about DelVaughn are his organizational skills and his ability to teach the wide receivers. He’s a veteran coach who has built great relationships with his players.”

On Polian: “That was a position that I thought was important to immediately address and upgrade-and we were able to hit a home run with Brian. As a head coach, he brings such a great perspective on the overall workings on a day-to-day basis in developing players. He’s also an outstanding recruiter and he’s able to recruit from coast to coast.”

On Rees: “He is officially in a graduate assistant’s role (and could become full-time if NCAA legislation approving a 10th full-time assistant passes), but he is fully empowered to coach them (the Irish quarterbacks). He will have the room. There are not many guys that have walked out on that field with the score tied, with the game on the line, with the pressure on and have turned it around to victories for Notre Dame. There’s nobody better to be able to teach that position than somebody who has done it here at Notre Dame, and he’ll be able to mentor our quarterback group in a manner and fashion that nobody else in the country can.”

Ultimately, Kelly determined he was not going to stand pat after the 2016 campaign:

“That’s really what this is about–how much change versus continuity. I think where we were as a program, we needed some change. Change in personnel relative to our staff, and then messaging. And so both of those are happening at the same time.

“With Jack (Swarbrick) we discussed a blueprint for what we needed to do to be successful. What are the tough decisions that need to be made to ensure success?

“The great thing about Notre Dame is that you’re not defined by what happened in the past–it’s about what you do in the future. And we all know that we did not live up to the expectations. Our mission is a mission of excellence. It’s to win championships and to graduate our players. We fell short of that.

“But we didn’t sit around talking about what we didn’t do. We spent all of our time thinking about what we needed to do to be successful. We didn’t waste time on discussions that were not tangible or specific to how do we get better.

I know I’m going to be reminded about the past, and yet I’ve focused so much of my time on the present. As I reflect at it, there are no bad football teams. There are just poorly-led football teams–and I think I led this team poorly. And I think that’s probably what I learned more than anything else.”

Kelly understands there will be plenty of eyes on the 2017 Irish-to see if they can inject themselves back into the national conversation.

“I would tell you that every year that I’ve stood before you, that it’s a make-or-break year. I don’t think I’ve gone into a year going, hey, I can take this year off. Not going to worry about it.

I think it’s energizing. When you know that you didn’t do the job that you expect, that your expectations have been set for you, then you’re more energized, you’re more focused.

“That’s what envelops me on a day-to-day basis-and it’s not worrying about what the perception is. It’s more about how I can’t wait to get this team on the field.”

Even if it takes a little Shakespeare to get his point across.

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been part of the Notre Dame athletics communication team since 1978.