Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 8, 2012 Issue

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

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Upon Further Review Finally Passing The Eye Test By Todd D. Burlage “Process” and “player development” — those are the two themes Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly references devoutly when he’s asked to outline his road map and progress report for moving the Irish from ordinary to elite. On more than one occasion during Kelly’s first two seasons here, I wondered if this two-stage mission statement was actually more about deflecting attention from on-field results than it was honestly evaluating what was happening within his program. Was the “process” and “player development” Kelly continuously mentioned actually taking place during a 16‑10 record in his first two seasons here? Or was Kelly relying on coaching rhetoric to sugarcoat a pedestrian .615 winning percentage and avoid comparisons to his two predecessors, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis? Upsets by Navy, Tulsa and South Florida brought out a cynical side and made me wonder if the new boss was any different than the old ones. A solid September and the best start of Kelly’s three years at Notre Dame does not make a coaching career, or even a single season. But based on the eye test through the first segment of the Irish season, the 2012 edition of Notre Dame football is starting to show that Kelly’s “process” and “player development” message has been much more than a smokescreen. The “player development” half of Kelly’s two-part road to success has been obvious this season. Even ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit was quick to praise the remarkable improvements in team speed and roster depth during his telecast of Notre Dame’s defensive dominance at Michigan State. “This isn’t the Notre Dame team I’m used to seeing,” Herbstreit said. There were isolated glimpses of big-time player development in Kelly’s first two seasons — safety Harrison Smith rising to a first-round NFL Draft pick and tight end Tyler Eifert becoming the best player in the country at his position are examples that stand out. But this year, Kelly’s player development is rooting through the entire roster, and becoming the advantage the coach promised it would when he was hired. All-American linebacker Manti Te’o was projected to be an NFL player when he arrived at Notre Dame four years ago. But rising defensive players such as junior linebacker Prince Shembo, junior cornerback Bennett Jackson as well as defensive linemen Louis Nix, a junior, and Stephon Tuitt, a sophomore, are all building their own NFL résumés. Senior safety Zeke Motta has also grown up before our eyes, developing from a shy backup into a leader in the Irish secondary. Offensively, senior running back Cierre Wood and senior offensive linemen Braxston Cave, Zach Martin and Chris Watt are all likely to land on NFL rosters after learning and improving in Kelly’s system. The growing lineup of talented backups is also making a huge impact each week, while Kelly and his assistants grow more confident to sprinkle in the young guns, which obviously indicates a bright and sustainable future for the program. The “player development” portion of Kelly’s two-part success equation is on track, while the “process” side is a bit harder to define, but becoming clearer nonetheless. Unlike quarterback Jimmy Clausen under Weis, the Irish coaches have wisely outlined the “process” for sophomore quarterback Everett Golson to play smartly, protect the ball, manage the game and let the defense stuff the opponent. The coaches are also trying to simplify assignments for their young wide receivers by rotating them in based on a player’s strength and the situation, while waiting for future stars to emerge. Kelly talked at length recently about how a critical first step to improvement was building a championship-caliber defense. As an independent football program, Notre Dame faces the unique dynamic of playing against many offensive styles, meaning that the pile-up-points, flash-and-dash, outscore-’em style Kelly used at Cincinnati and Grand Valley State wouldn’t be a winning formula versus such a difficult and diverse schedule at Notre Dame. “I thought it was important if we wanted to compete nationally, we had to have a defense that could control the different teams that we play on a week-to-week basis,” Kelly explained. “I just think that every coaching opportunity presents different challenges. This one was to get our defense right.” Kelly’s “process” of becoming a better game-day coach is evolving this season right along with his player improvements. The Irish game strategy, play calling and critical decisions have been no-nonsense and on target, highlighted by the gutsy decision to replace Golson with veteran quarterback Tommy Rees for a late game-winning drive against Purdue. The tactical improvements were again displayed with a game plan against Michigan State that the Spartan coaches probably still haven’t figured out. My criticisms of Coach Kelly through his first two years are no secret. Watching the Irish staff get out-coached on numerous occasions often made it appear as if the jump from Cincinnati to Notre Dame may have been too great. Yet, by sticking to his two-pronged approach of “process” and “player development,” Kelly has seen his vision start to unfold, all while making one cynical writer who predicted a 6‑6 regular-season record look way off target. Todd D. Burlage has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2005. He can be reached at

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