One aspect of the tempest over Brian Kelly’s comments regarding the players he inherited at Notre Dame and those he recruited that can’t be overlooked is that he’s absolutely right.
There’s a significant difference between the players he recruited and those he inherited and you can see it on the field in almost every game this season. In more cases than not, the players’ impact on Notre Dame’s football team this season is inversely proportionate to the amount of time they’ve been coached by Charlie Weis.
By and large, those who played for Weis are on one level; those who were recruited by Weis but never played for him are on another; and those who were recruited by Kelly from the start — this year’s freshman class — are making a bigger impact in their first year than Weis’ players are making in their fourth and fifth years.
Let’s put it this way: Notre Dame has played three teams it lost to last season: Michigan, Michigan State and Navy. The Irish beat Michigan State 31-13 when freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch had six quarterback hurries and five tackles, including a sack that forced a fumble; and freshman running back George Atkinson III returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown to give the Irish a 14-3 lead.
They beat Navy 56-14 last week, when freshman defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt (seven tackles, two quarterback hurries) and sophomore defensive tackle Louis Nix (six tackles, a shared sack) dominated the middle to stymie the Navy triple-option. A Navy offense that rushed for 367 yards against Notre Dame in 2010 — much of it up the middle — rushed for 196 yards last Saturday.
That Navy was without its starting quarterback is duly noted. But backup Trey Miller wasn’t incapable. On one third-and-10 play in the third quarter, Lynch was double-teamed at the line of scrimmage, but Miller ran right around unblocked safety Jamoris Slaughter — he’s a senior — for 12 yards and a first down.
Notre Dame’s one missed opportunity for retribution so far was against Michigan, when the Irish played much better than in 2010, but couldn’t finish — Michigan scored 28 fourth-quarter points, including two touchdowns in the final 1:16 to win 35-31. It raised more than a few eyebrows that neither Lynch nor Tuitt played in that game after having played against South Florida in their college debuts the previous week. They’ve both been playing ever since. Notre Dame is 4-1 after the 0-2 start.
The fact of the matter is that Kelly knows what he likes — and what he needs — in a football player. And it’s not the same kind of player Weis recruited. Kelly had much better luck with the players he inherited from Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati. He took Dantonio’s 8-5 team in 2006 and went 10-3 in 2007. It helped that he picked up an experienced quarterback who didn’t have to be ”retrained” — Ben Mauk, who had run the spread in high school and at Wake Forest before transferring to Cincinnati, never played for Dantonio.
We’ve seen the kind of player Dantonio recruits — Michigan State has players who straddle the line of fair play, ”60 minutes of unnecessary roughness” as defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi called it. That’s the kind of player Kelly can win with. He inherited that at Cincinnati. He didn’t inherit it at Notre Dame.
But he’s getting there. Kelly knows what it takes to win. He’s already changed the culture at Notre Dame — a third-offense alcohol transgression didn’t cost All-America wide receiver Michael Floyd even one game; but the freshman Tuitt was suspended for the Purdue game for missing a class. That’s a disciplinary policy that doesn’t seem very fair. But that’s how you win national championships. Oregon’s Chip Kelly and former Florida coach Urban Meyer were the featured speakers at Notre Dame’s spring football coaching clinic. Just connect the dots and you can see the direction Kelly wants to go.
Now it’s a matter of how quickly Kelly accelerates ”his” players into the lineup. When freshman Troy Niklas recovered a fumble on a kickoff against Navy last week, he was part of a kickoff team that included five sophomores, four freshmen and just two seniors — and one of the seniors was walk-on Chris Salvi, the pride of Carmel High School in Mundelein. Salvi is Kelly’s kind of guy — a well-adjusted kid from Lake Forest with a blue-collar attitude and a hunger to make plays. On a punt return against Michigan State, he blocked two guys at once to help spring Atkinson for his 89-yard touchdown. Who said Charlie Weis’ kids didn’t have it?
Unfortunately, players like Chris Salvi generally don’t inspire a team with their aggressiveness. But players like Aaron Lynch do. When Lynch sacked Kirk Cousins and forced a fumble that Notre Dame recovered against Michigan State, linebacker Manti Te’o was so fired up in the aftermath that he got into it with with the Spartans’ 6-4, 315-pound guard Joel Foreman and refused to back down. Te’o is Notre Dame’s best defensive player, but when’s the last time he went facemask-to-facemask with an opponent like that?
That’s the residual affect of having an impact player like Lynch. Notre Dame’s problem is that the Te’os and Dayne Crists are the leaders on this team and the Lynches and Tuitts and Ishaq Williamses are in the background. When that dynamic reverses, that’s when Brian Kelly will have his best opportunity to return Notre Dame to elite status in college football.
Until then, Kelly will have to clean up what in reality is a minor spill. In this era of social media and on that sensitive campus, Kelly probably should have kept it to himself. Consider it a lesson learned. In college football, transition is awkward. And the truth hurts.