Brian Kelly's plan for Notre Dame football renovation starts at home

Sporting News
Brian Kelly looks to renovate the Notre Dame program after a 4-8 season. That project starts at home in 2017.

Brian Kelly's plan for Notre Dame football renovation starts at home

Brian Kelly looks to renovate the Notre Dame program after a 4-8 season. That project starts at home in 2017.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly detailed the next step for the coaching staff after the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. He knows the next place on the schedule.

"On the road," Kelly said. "We'll hit the road immediately, recruit and rally back here mid-May."

Notre Dame can't go 4-8 again. Kelly can't go 4-8 again. The Blue-Gold Game showed the look of a team that won't go 4-8 again. A fan in the stands on Saturday even reminded Kelly of that 4-8 record in not-so-endearing terms.

Don't worry. Notre Dame will do better than 4-8 with the talent it brings back. How much better is the big question. The Gold team won 27-14 and unveiled a few get-to-know playmakers for the Irish, but Kelly's challenge is implementing a plan with new offensive coordinator Chip Long and defensive coordinator Mike Elko that works on an accelerated curve. That also comes with a new quarterback in Brandon Wimbush, who follows in the footsteps of potential first-round pick DeShone Kizer. How did Wimbush feel in his first action as the starter?

"It was amazing," he said of the spring-game experience. "It's an experience just to run out of the tunnel."

For Notre Dame, that's where this starts. In the tunnel. The renovation — and perhaps revelation — for a FBS blueblood looking to find its place in the College Football Playoff era must start in the one place it matters.



Yellow fencing quarantined half of Notre Dame Stadium; leaving a half-empty look for the Blue-Gold Game because of ongoing renovations inside. The changes are visible. New blue bleachers are in the stands. There is a visitor's tunnel, new brick in the north tunnel and a giant video board on display in the south end zone. Even the most classic cathedrals need a facelift, and that has created anticipation for what will be revealed on Sept. 2 when the Irish play Temple.

"All of the renovations look tremendous," Kelly said. "Particularly the north end zone, what they have done down there, it's going to be a great feel for us to come out of that tunnel the way it's put together, the new locker room obviously gives you a great feel."

MORE: Five Notre Dame spring game standouts

Notre Dame will always have that feel. It's impossible to walk around the stadium and not recognize the classic college football vibe emitted from the campus. Fans stopped and clicked selfies with "The Word of Life" mural on the Hesburgh Library, also known as "Touchdown Jesus." Knute Rockne's statue still greets visitors with the accompanying inscription:

"Knute Rockne, Head Coach, 1918-1930. 105 wins, 12 losses, 5 ties. National champions: 1924, 1929, 1930."

Chances are you've heard the legends.

That also comes with the expectations of playing in that stadium. Rockne coached Notre Dame for 13 seasons; longer than any other coach in school history. Lou Holtz was the last coach to last more than a decade. Kelly enters his eighth season, coming off Notre Dame's fifth losing season since Holtz left. Kelly knows a better chapter must follow. That starts at home.

"There has to be a great sense of pride when you walk into that stadium and that pride has to carry over in your preparation and being focused and locked in every time we come into the stadium," Kelly said. "It's a stadium that is rich in tradition and our guys need to know that they play football at the University of Notre Dame and it's just a great, great thing that they have and appreciate it."


Drue Tranquill needed a moment. Kelly was the only coach to offer Tranquill a scholarship. The senior suffered torn ACLs in 2014 and 15. Now he's the "rover" in Elko's new 4-2-5 scheme. Tranquill put the "C" on his jersey, and the captain went out in the Blue-Gold Game and showed why he could be an impact performer.

He put a spin move on All-American guard Quenton Nelson to get in the backfield. Tranquill made two backside tackles for loss. This is the max-effort player Notre Dame loves to embrace.

Chances are you've seen the movies.

The defense needs a better showing in 2017. The Irish allowed 27.8 points per game in 2016, and Tranquill is one of the playmakers being counted on to change that. He's not the only one. Defensive end Daelin Hayes showed breakout potential with three sacks. Seven players return who started at least seven games last season. Tranquill sees the optimism from an offseason of training with new strength coach Matt Balis and learning Elko's scheme. There is free-flow style to this unit now.

"A lot of guys are a lot more confident than they were in previous years," Tranquill said. "A lot of guys playing with passion, energy and love for the game that seemed at times lost last year."

MORE: Wimbush's next step will set direction for ND

Wimbush is part of the offensive half of the equation with Long. Wimbush had an up-and-down spring game. He had 303 passing yards to a 6-4-and-over receiving corps of Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin and Alize Mack. Wimbush, but that came with a pair of interceptions. Wimbush will face just as much as scrutiny as Kelly this season, especially with Ian Book looming in the backup spot.

"If you guys have followed us long enough we've used our No. 2 here," Kelly said before a short chuckle. "Quite a bit."

Yet Kelly assured reporters there is no quarterback controversy. Wimbush is the starter, and the next time he comes out of that tunnel the stadium will be full.


Mystique. That's the word that doesn't collide with Notre Dame enough in the College Football Playoff era. There's the constant debate about whether the Irish should join a Power 5 conference and how much relevance they have on the college football landscape.

Notre Dame will always be relevant, but re-establishing that home mystique would help. It's not that the Irish are bad at home. Kelly is 31-12 at Notre Dame Stadium, and that includes a 6-3 record against ranked teams.

But everybody remembers those make-someone-else's-day-home-losses to teams such as Tulsa, South Florida, Northwestern and Duke during the Kelly era more. Notre Dame finished 2-4 at home in 2016.

That just can't happen again. Notre Dame needs to be an inhospitable environment for opponents.

The success in neutral-site games and struggles on the road exist, and Kelly will need to improve on that record in true road games. The Irish came close to making one of those program-defining statements in close losses at Florida State in 2014 and Clemson in 2015.

Perhaps that statement could come at home instead. The Irish haven't played a top five team at home since losing to Matt Ryan-led Boston College, 27-14, on Oct. 13, 2007. That was two years after the "Bush Push" game against No. 1 USC.

MORE: Three questions for Notre Dame this offseason

Notre Dame could get a few cracks at the top five — or at least shots at the top 10 — this season. Georgia and USC both come to South Bend.

That's how you recreate the mystique.

"We want to play a certain style, and we don't ever want to give football games away," Kelly said. "We feel that, you know, our process and preparation should put us in a position where we don't give games away."


Tranquill calls the current period "halftime" now. He's hoping the Irish build on that momentum in the offseason, and he said the team's mental strength training has improved.

"We focus on focusing on the moment," he said. "I can't control what happened last year. I can't control what's going to happen (vs.) Temple, but I can control what I do today, and I think the mindset had allowed every guy to get the most out of each and every day."

Wimbush, meanwhile, was asked about the fourth quarter. Notre Dame lost seven one-score games last year. That's how you get to 4-8. Tranquill, Wimbush and others insisted that record doesn't come up much, even in the film room.

"We don't like to talk about it too much, but developing grit is what we've been saying and coming into the fourth quarter and having the confidence that we're going to pull the game out," Wimbush said. "Even if it comes down to the last drive and knowing and trusting each other when it comes down to that time."

The rest is on Kelly, a coach whose seat temperature will be measured with each quarter in 2017, to come up with that plan. That blur is coming. Kelly will need a few more wins for job security, but a two-year plan with the new coordinators seems more realistic. Things certainly will look different on the field, too. When Kelly gets back from the road, the focus needs to be on home.

"Just building good habits on a day-to-day basis is probably the most important thing, you know, in everything that we do," Kelly said. "We'll continue to work on that process and that's — the great thing about it is, you know, a lot of this is hard for our guys. You know, it's delayed gratification. They want it right now. And you can't get it right now. It takes time to build all those."

How long do the Irish have? That clock will start around the time Tranquill, Wimbush and their teammates take the field behind Kelly in the opener against Temple when the band fires up for the first time.

Chances are you've heard the fight song.

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