Blue and Gold Illustrated

February 2021

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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4 FEBRUARY 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED E very successful college football coach in every offseason faces the challenges of roster rein- forcement, assistant departures and support staff shuffling in the same way Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly does in 2021. Annual attrition and inevitable de- partures come with the job. Using these occupational hazards as a backdrop, the roster and staff churn Kelly faces before his 12th sea- son at Notre Dame will pro- vide a thorough foundation check this fall for a program that has won 43 of 51 games since 2016 and has reached the College Football Playoff in two of the past three seasons. Highlighting Kelly's offsea- son to-do list? • Replenish the production and leadership void of quarter- back Ian Book — a three-year starter, two-time team cap- tain and the signal-caller with the most starting wins (30) in Notre Dame history. • Rebuild one of the best and most experienced offen- sive lines in program history after losing four of five start- ers, among them two All- Americans in left tackle Liam Eichenberg and left guard Aaron Banks. • Replace rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a unani- mous All-American (the 35th at Notre Dame) and the Butkus Award winner as the nation's top linebacker, and Javon McKinley, the team's lead- ing wide receiver. • And lest we forget, Kelly needs to smooth the transition from defensive coordinator Clark Lea, who departed for the head coaching job at Vander- bilt, to Marcus Freeman, who comes to Notre Dame after four successful seasons in the same role at Cincinnati. Clearly, a busy offseason awaits. But Kelly insisted — and even bris- tled — during his press conference Jan. 1 after the 31-14 loss to Alabama in the CFP semifinals when asked if his program will ever reach the same plane that regulars Alabama, Clem- son and Ohio State share. "We're going back to work. We're going to keep recruiting and we're going to put ourselves back in this position again," Kelly vowed. "… I'm not taking it personal, because these questions keep coming up like we have to reinvent ourselves." Fair enough, but with a new quar- terback, a rebuilt offensive line, a first-year defensive coordinator and a challenging 2021 schedule — which includes consecutive games against Wisconsin; Cincinnati, which fin- ished No. 8 in the final 2020 Associ- ated Press poll; at Virginia Tech; and then home against improving oppo- nents USC and North Carolina — the art of reinvention might be the only way to survive. And speaking of schedules, this 2021 season not only serves as an im- mediate roster reset and litmus test for Kelly and his program, it's also a bridge to 2022 and 2023 when the Irish play both Clemson and Ohio State in those years. Not since Lou Holtz in 1994 has an Irish head coach faced such roster churn from both a production and leadership standpoint as Kelly does this year. In the six seasons from 1988-93, Holtz went 64-9-1 — a stretch that included a program-record 23-game winning streak, a national champion- ship and two other title near misses. Not only did Holtz lose both his offensive coordinator (Skip Holtz) and his defensive coordinator (Rick Minter) after the 1993 season, the Irish roster also lost captains and fu- ture NFL stars Aaron Taylor, Bryant Young, Tim Ruddy and Jeff Burris, as well as underrated starting quarter- back Kevin McDougal, and so many other superb leaders from that 1993 senior class. Popular belief in 1994 was to keep calm and carry on. Great programs run on autopilot and Holtz never rebuilt, he only re- loaded. Well, not even Holtz could survive his massive staff shift and roster reboot, going 6-5-1 in 1994 and retiring two years after that. Similar to the roster gut that Holtz faced 28 years ago, Kelly will lose all five of his captains from last season and a defen- sive coordinator who was re- garded as one of the best in the business. In addition, as of mid- January, a total of six players had entered the transfer portal. Among them were junior de- fensive back Houston Griffith and junior defensive end Ovie Oghoufo, who were in line for more playing time in 2021. Undeterred, Kelly, who has won 24 straight home games, insists he's up to the familiar chal- lenges this time of the year. "I don't have a unique problem at Notre Dame," Kelly said. "Every- body's got the same issue." After the Alabama loss, Kelly said that "you don't have to walk around and be the best team every week, you just need to be the best team on that given day." But when a head coach faces such an extreme roster overhaul accompa- nied by staff changes as Kelly does, being "the best team on that given day" is no easy task. Holtz can attest to that. ✦ Brian Kelly's Program Will Be Put To The Test In 2021 UPON FURTHER REVIEW TODD D. BURLAGE Todd D. Burlage has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2005. He can be reached at Kelly faces an offseason overhaul for his program following a 10-2 sea- son that ended in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff. PHOTO BY ANDRIS VISOCKIS

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