Fans and media alike chastise Brian Kelly when they see him chewing out players, specifically quarterbacks, on the sidelines. But the bottom line is Kelly understands that toughness wins in football, and if his players can’t take a little tongue lashing then they probably can’t take playing on the road at Michigan State. Tyrone Willingham didn’t do it, and neither did Charlie Weis, but then again they were players’ coaches with schematic advantage. Kelly entered Notre Dame with a high-flying offense at Cincinnati but brought in an old-school philosophy: You win with toughness and talent on the offensive and defensive lines, and you coach your kids up to rise to adversity.
A distant glance back into the future: Florida is the “King of the Hill”. Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow are undefeated, ranked no. 1 in the land and appear to be cruising towards their third National Championship and second consecutive. The Gators are the darlings of the recruiting world, and fans and pundits alike watch in amazement wondering when and how Florida could possibly lose. In steps Nick Saban and no. 2 ranked Alabama into the SEC Championship game to decide the right to play for a BCS crown. A majority of people imagined Alabama playing tough but Florida winning with speed and Meyer’s genius offensive play-calling. Bama kicked their ass up and down the field, Saban established Alabama as the premier program, and I can still remember Meyer’s face as his team was physically manhandled despite having Tebow in the shotgun and he realized he was powerless to outwit the bully in crimson. Since thenit’s all been Roll Tide, and only comparable LSU has threatened Saban’s superiority.
The spread was cute, but in order to truly dominate the college football landscape (as is Notre Dame’s goal) you need to emulate Saban and physically prepare for dominance, discipline and toughness. Notre Dame also exists in northern Indiana, all the more reason to hang your hat on line play. The Midwest (sans Ohio) isn’t a hotbed for football talent, but as Wisconsin has proved, they do grow their boys big and physical. Kelly has accepted that Notre Dame’s best chance to transcend back to an acceptable level of football play is to go back in time to where they were the biggest and strongest and imposed their will.
Since the departure of Charlie Weis, recruiting classes began to shift from wide receiver-heavy to offensive and defensive line-dominant, and after three recruiting seasons the difference is evident. The proof isn’t in the pudding, proof is a quick gander at Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt along the Irish starting defensive line. You’ll notice these are grown “SEC” type men. They are big, fast, they push the line and get after ball-carriers and quarterbacks alike. Great defenses are about toughness and discipline, but they have NFL potential at tackle and end. Nix and Tuitt are clues as to Kelly’s eventual blueprint.
Notre Dame already has five 4-star prospects committed along the lines in their 2013 class, and they will continue to recruit others who will provide depth and perpetuate the new culture. The Irish are no longer patsies in the defensive front seven, and on offense they can get tough yards along the ground. Throw away the Navy game and even the Purdue game, but Saturday night Notre Dame ran the football to burn clock, moved the ball and eventually put Michigan State (a top-10 team) away on the road. All with a redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson playing in his third career start.
I don’t believe Notre Dame is back if back means National Championship contention. I’ve seen about two hours of Bama this year, which is more than enough to know they could beat the Irish by 40 while resting their starters in the fourth quarter (which isn’t a knock on ND, it’s simply bowing to the machine Saban has constructed). But, I’ve also seen enough Notre Dame to believe good things are happening in South Bend, and Kelly won’t follow Willingham and Weis out the revolving door – he is reestablishing what Notre Dame football was, and should be.