SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly’s title still reads Notre Dame head football coach. His sole on-field objective is to win the national championship. But recently, his job description changed.
“Look, I used to be in meeting rooms all day,” Kelly told ESPN.com last week in his office. “I used to call the plays. I used to coach the quarterbacks. That took all my time. My time now is dedicated strictly to messaging and creating that culture.”
Kelly delivered his first message to the 2019 Fighting Irish moments after a dispiriting end to the 2018 season. Notre Dame’s debut in the College Football Playoff had become, fairly or unfairly, a referendum on the program’s claim for elite status. The Irish were making their first championship-level appearance since the BCS title game six years earlier, when they lost to Alabama 42-14 — a score too compassionate to the gulf separating the teams.
Notre Dame’s 30-3 loss to Clemson in the CFP semifinal on Dec. 29 appeared to reinforce the program’s second-tier standing. In addition to the margin of victory, Clemson held major edges in yards (538-248), first downs (26-17) and average yards per play (6.9-3.6). Notre Dame, two wins away from its first national title in 30 years, again seemed so far away.
But Kelly didn’t share that belief. After the game, he credited Clemson for a definitive victory. He detailed Notre Dame’s mistakes. He also made it clear that the result, while disappointing, was not an Alabama repeat or a reflection of the state of his program. Despite the setback, Kelly repeatedly described Notre Dame as “on the brink.”
“I did not feel like there was an overwhelming difference in terms of talent,” Kelly said following the semifinal loss. “They have extremely talented players, but if we were better tactically and technically today, if we coached better, if we made plays today that we had been making all year, we would have had a pretty darn good football game going into the fourth quarter.”
Kelly’s comments immediately sparked questions. Was he talking about the same game — the one seemingly over at halftime, the one in which his team couldn’t muster a touchdown? Maybe he had no other choice in the moment. No coach in his position gets up there and says: “Well, we really had no business being here. Hey, on the bright side, you don’t have to worry about us messing up your precious playoff again.”
But Kelly isn’t the type to sugarcoat a sour loss. If anything, he has been too direct after games. He has also been doing this too long to bluff his players.
“You don’t trick these guys,” Kelly said. “They’ll know.”
Now in spring practice, Kelly sticks by his message. He doesn’t think Notre Dame will disappear from CFP contention. The Clemson loss knocked back the Irish and exposed some flaws, but it didn’t undo the previous 25 games, in which they went 22-3 with seven wins over top-25 opponents.
The next step, though, won’t be easy.
“For me, it’s about reminding them every single day how hard it is to get back there, if they don’t follow the path that we’ve laid for them,” Kelly said. “You’ve got to roll this ball back up the hill again, and it’s freaking hard.”
The attitude toward Kelly’s post-semifinal comments changed nine days later, when Clemson throttled Alabama by an even wider margin, 28 points, in the national championship. Some joked on social media that two teams won that night: Clemson and Notre Dame.
“I wasn’t looking for vindication,” Kelly said. “Probably those that follow it were going, ‘OK, maybe we were a little too hard on Notre Dame after all.'”
The title game, however, didn’t bring much relief to Notre Dame players and coaches. The sting from the Clemson defeat hadn’t worn off. Defensive end Julian Okwara still hasn’t watched the semifinal. Others did so reluctantly after returning to campus.
“We set a pretty high standard last year. But now we see what we did is not enough.” Notre Dame WR Chris Finke
Though they agree with Kelly that they are more equipped to compete this coming year, they didn’t hold back this spring when assessing the game.
Quarterback Ian Book: “Hard to watch, obviously.”
Wide receiver Chris Finke: “It hurt pretty bad getting blown out like that.”
Offensive coordinator Chip Long: “I felt disgusted.”
Defensive coordinator Clark Lea: “It was embarrassing. We didn’t represent ourselves the way we wanted to.”
Lea rewatched the game that night. He watched it several more times the next few weeks and again while out recruiting. Certain things resonated: Notre Dame trailed by just six points with 1:51 left in the first half. Then came a coverage breakdown on a 42-yard touchdown pass, followed by a 56-second Irish possession and a four-play, 80-yard Clemson touchdown drive in 46 seconds.
Notre Dame played most of the semifinal without its best defensive back, Julian Love, and it showed. The Irish now must restock without Love, co-sacks leader Jerry Tillery at defensive tackle, prolific linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill, and several valuable role players.
The defensive unit will lean on a line boasting Okwara and several other effective pass-rushers and, Kelly said, possibly more athleticism inside with Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa. Although the linebacker lineup will be fluid for some time, the secondary returns good production with safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott and cornerback Troy Pride Jr.
“Though we’ve lost a lot of individual talent,” Lea said, “we can be collectively a lot better in execution, in fundamentals, in our effort.”
During a two-minute drill in Notre Dame’s first spring scrimmage, Ian Book stood his ground. Rather than ditch the pocket — Book was an effective runner last season — he threw to a spot, trusting Chase Claypool would be there to receive the ball. He was.
Later in the scrimmage, Book twice hit tight ends on vertical seam routes, passes he simply didn’t throw in 2018.
“Yes, you’re 5-foot-11, 6-foot-1, whatever you are, those [defenders] are monsters, but you’ve got to see through those windows and find a way to get the ball out,” Kelly said. “That was kind of an aha moment for him, that this is the guy we need him to be to take that next step.”
It’s that simple: Notre Dame doesn’t take that next step without a better Book. The thing is, he blew away expectations after becoming a surprise starter in Week 4 last season, ranking fifth nationally in completion percentage (70.4) and eighth in efficiency (162.5) entering the CFP. He eclipsed 260 passing yards and had at least two passing touchdowns in each of the final eight regular-season games.
But against Clemson, Book completed just half of his 34 attempts, with no completion longer than 23 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. He took six sacks. The offense’s woes touched everyone: the receivers couldn’t separate, there were no runs longer than 11 yards, the team was 5-of-17 on third down. But Book’s struggles dredged up doubt — about his height and his recruiting profile and any other convenient dig.
“He wants to be considered an elite quarterback, and you’re only considered an elite quarterback if you play elite in big games,” Long said. “He works his ass off. He’s up here all the time with me. Has a nice chip on his shoulder because nobody believes he can do it.”
Book’s priorities are attacking the deep middle more effectively and resisting the urge to run when blitzed. Tempo is a big theme this spring for the offense and for Book, who views himself as a facilitator, trying to get the ball to Notre Dame’s playmakers as quickly and as often as possible.
The Irish return two proven receivers in Claypool and Finke. Tight end Cole Kmet is expected to become a dominant vertical threat, like former Notre Dame star Kyle Rudolph. After the Clemson game, Long knows Notre Dame needs more top-end speed and run-after-catch ability. He hopes a four-pack of sophomore receivers (Joe Wilkins, Lawrence Keys III, Kevin Austin Jr. and Braden Lenzy) and two pass-catching running backs (Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr.) will help in those areas.
Three years into a new offense, the Irish are “getting into more of the in-depth parts” of the system, Finke said.
“Last year, we set the standard for what it’s got to be, but obviously not enough,” Book said. “You can tell the guys are motivated … just getting back there and feeling like we truly belonged in the playoffs, no matter what people say.”
Notre Dame will never make the playoff with two losses. An 11-1 Irish squad is no guarantee, either, especially with champions from the Big Ten and Pac-12 left out for multiple years. While the CFP selection committee stresses that it evaluates each season independently, Notre Dame likely lost some benefit of the doubt with the Clemson game.
The path back probably requires perfection. Notre Dame hasn’t had consecutive undefeated regular seasons since 1948-49.
For the 2019 Irish, that means winning at Georgia, Michigan and Stanford, as well as winning some potentially tricky home games. But perfection isn’t a daily burden around South Bend. It can’t be.
“If you get caught up in outcomes and wins and all those things, s—, the pressure here,” Kelly said, “we would definitely slip up.”
“I believe in our guys that we can win a national championship with this team.” Notre Dame DE Julian Okwara
Instead, Notre Dame talks about the process, the term Nick Saban popularized in college football. Standard is another buzzword.
“We set a pretty high standard last year,” Finke said. “But now we see what we did is not enough. That standard is not what we’re reaching for. It’s our baseline now. It’s not a ceiling. It’s a floor level.”
A fifth-year senior, Finke embraces the urgency and encourages younger teammates to view this season as their last shot, too. He thinks if the Irish somehow make it back to the CFP, they will have a different attitude. As Kelly notes, “Everybody sharpened themselves by being there.”
The loss cut deep, but it didn’t shake Notre Dame’s confidence.
“I definitely see a 12-0 season coming,” Okwara said. “I believe in our guys that we can win a national championship with this team. The possibilities are endless.”
For Okwara, Finke and others who were around when Notre Dame went 4-8 in 2016, there’s no going back. There’s only getting back to the CFP. They will either validate Kelly’s claim about being close or match the majority view that they are far away from a national championship.
“If you’re looking at the transformation of the program, the Cotton Bowl could be the finish point of something, but it also could be the most important moment of what’s to come,” Lea said. “Part of that is the awareness of, ‘Wow, for all that we did, we didn’t quite close the gap.’
“Let that be what frames our work for the next five months.”