Turning the Page on 4-8

Photo courtesy of Karen Mallonee

It has been just over 8 months since Notre Dame staggered off the field following an embarrassing 45-27 defeat at the hands of USC. The loss was the final nail in the coffin of an ugly 4-8 season, the worst since 2007. In the time since that game, the program has undergone a complete turnover. Yes, Brian Kelly remains at the helm and numerous players return. However, seven new assistant coaches have been hired who could completely alter the look and feel of this Notre Dame program. That’s not to say Brian Kelly hasn’t changed either. Entering his eighth season at Notre Dame, Coach Kelly has said, “I’m going to make sure this never happens again.” According to Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel, Kelly has taken a greater effort to get to know the entire roster and even started doing yoga. While these changes seem to have made a positive impact in the offseason, only time will tell if they will result in more wins. With fall camp beginning this week, here are 5 keys to successful 2017 season for the Irish.

1. Mental and Physical Toughness

When you see a 4-8 record without looking at final scores your first thought may be that the Irish were blown off the field. The reality is that 7 of their 8 losses were by 8 points or less. Simply put, Notre Dame could not finish games in the 4th quarter. In fact, Notre Dame lost 4 games in which it held double digit leads. In a 5th game, against Miami, Notre Dame bolted out to a 20-0 lead, only to allow the Hurricanes to score 27 straight points. The Irish managed to escape with a victory, but what should have been a laugher became a nail biter. Endurance and conditioning were clearly major problems for Notre Dame in 2016.

Enter new strength coach Matt Balis. In his previous stops at Mississippi State and UConn, Balis has developed a reputation for completely reshaping the bodies of his players. After a couple of months of working out with Balis, the Irish players seem excited about their progress with tweets and Instagram posts saying #bodybyBalis. Pictures on social media are nice and all, but the real progress will be shown if Notre Dame is able to impose their will on opponents in the 4th quarter.

2. Improvement on Special Teams

The third phase of the game is certainly less scrutinized than the play of the offense or defense. However, the consequences of poor special team play bear just as large an impact on the outcome of a game. In 2016, poor special teams play had a major role in at least 4 losses, and affected others. A Duke kickoff return touchdown changed the momentum of the game and allowed the Blue Devils to come back and win. NC State returned a blocked punt for a game-winning touchdown. Against Navy, a too many men on the field penalty on a punt allowed the Midshipmen to continue a game-winning drive. To finish it all off Adoree Jackson returned both a punt and a kickoff to lead USC to an 18-point win over the Irish.

In total, Notre Dame ranked 95th in kickoff return defense, 106th in net punting, 84th in blocked kicks allowed, 112th in blocked punts allowed, and 123rd out of 128 in punt return defense. Undoubtedly, Notre Dame had one of the worst special teams units among FBS teams. That is why Brian Polian was brought in as the team’s new special teams coordinator. Polian has previous experience at Notre Dame, as he served under Charlie Weis from 2005-2009. Most recently, Polian was head coach at Nevada. While he did not succeed in Reno, Polian has tremendous experience as a special teams coach with stops at Stanford and Texas A&M. The Polian hire illustrates Notre Dame’s renewed commitment to special teams. It will be easy to tell early on if the increased focus on special teams will pay off.

3. Creating a Pass Rush

In 12 games last season, Notre Dame totaled just 14 sacks. That put the Irish in 117th nationally. While last year’s sack leader Nyles Morgan returns, he only totaled 4 sacks. Not to mention, you usually wouldn’t prefer for your Mike linebacker to be leading your team in sacks. Among returning defensive lineman there were 0 sacks last season. Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell were the only defensive lineman to record to sacks for the Irish in 2016.

Although the sack numbers from last season are frightening, 2017 could be a much different story. New defensive coordinator Mike Elko is known for his ability to create pressure. Last season, Elko’s Wake Forest defense ranked 11th in the country in sacks and averaged over 3 per game. While it would be unrealistic to expect Elko to create that kind of success in year one, his presence should have a positive impact. The x-factor in creating a pass rush for Notre Dame is the development of Daelin Hayes. The former five star recruit showed flashes of his potential last season, but was unable to come away with a sack. As the expected starter at weak side defensive end, the Irish need Hayes to make a habit of getting to the quarterback.

4. The Play of Brandon Wimbush

Brandon Wimbush will be the highest rated recruit to start at quarterback for Brian Kelly. The junior from New Jersey was the #3 Dual-Threat QB and #46 Overall player in 247 Sports 2015 Composite Ratings. Now in his third year in the program, Wimbush should be given credit for being willing to wait his turn. With his speed and arm strength, Wimbush would’ve been a prized commodity had he decided to transfer. However, his patience has paid off and Wimbush has an opportunity to be an at least 2 and possibly 3 year starter at QB for the Irish. (Wimbush preserved a year of eligibility in 2016.)

As a first year starting quarterback playing under new offensive coordinator Chip Long and new quarterback coach Tommy Rees, there are questions about what kind of expectations should be placed on Wimbush. Last season, a number of analysts noted that Notre Dame may have put too much on the shoulders of DeShone Kizer. Plus, with an elite offensive line and deep stable of running backs, the Irish should be able to control the ground game. Still, with a schedule featuring the likes of Georgia, USC, Miami, and Stanford there is no doubt that Wimbush himself will have to steal a game for the Irish. Although he may be eased into the offense, don’t be surprised to see Wimbush let loose by midseason. Brian Kelly has had success in the past with first-year starting quarterbacks by limiting the playbook and keeping things easy for them. But with Wimbush’s three years in the program and pure talent, don’t expect the Irish coaches to hold him back.

5. Developing Leaders

There are two common themes among Brian Kelly’s most successful teams at Notre Dame: 1st year starting quarterbacks and an outstanding group of leaders. In both 2012 and 2015 the captains were tremendous, but also Notre Dame had leaders at nearly every position on the field. If you go back to 2012, it wasn’t just Manti Te’o leading that team. It was Kapron Lewis-Moore, Zack Martin, Braxston Cave, Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick, Zeke Motta, Tommy Rees, Chris Watt, and I’m sure a few others. In 2015, it was Sheldon Day, Joe Schmidt, Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, Matthias Farley, Chris Brown, Ronnie Stanley, Will Fuller, Keivarae Russell and by the end of the season DeShone Kizer. Certainly, Notre Dame has had great leaders in other seasons, but it was clear in both 2012 and 2015 that Notre Dame did not just win on talent alone. The leadership on both of those teams created the perfect mentality and chemistry for successful seasons.

Acknowledging the importance of leadership, Brian Kelly named six captains for the 2017 season way back in December 2016 (seven before Kizer declared for the NFL draft). The six captains are: Linebacker Greer Martini, left tackle Mike McGlinchey, linebacker Nyles Morgan, left guard Quenton Nelson, safety Drue Tranquill and wide receiver Austin Webster. For McGlinchey, it will be his second consecutive season as a captain. Austin Webster is also a notable captain, as he is a walk-on. When asked about other leaders who emerged in the offseason at his opening press conference Brian Kelly named Nick Watkins, Sam Mustipher, Brandon Wimbush, Josh Adams, Dexter Williams, and Nick Coleman. While some would argue that you don’t want too many voices in a locker room, that has never been the case for Notre Dame. Maintaining a large group of vocal leaders is vital to a successful season for the Irish.