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O’Boyle: What Kelly can learn from 2016

| Friday, April 21, 2017

I’ll let you in on a little secret — Brian Kelly may be on the hot seat for 2017.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t that much of a secret.

After a 4-8 season, it’s not exactly surprising. Notre Dame is a program that wants to be in the playoff conversation every year, so falling seven wins short of the playoff is suboptimal.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly addresses his team on the field during halftime of Notre Dame’s 45-27 loss against USC in Los Angeles on Nov. 26 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Michael Yu | The Observer

Irish head coach Brian Kelly addresses his team on the field during halftime of Notre Dame’s 45-27 loss against USC in Los Angeles on Nov. 26 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

There’s a lot of different ways of looking at what happened in 2016, so let’s be optimistic for a second. Maybe Kelly — the coach who guided Notre Dame to a 12-0 regular season in just the third year after Charlie Weis’ disastrous tenure, the coach who was just a 2-point conversion away from the College Football Playoff in 2015 despite a slew of injuries — just had a year of bad luck and lessons he can learn from.

The Irish lost seven games by one score, and usually had the ball with a chance to win those encounters, luck may have played some role in Kelly not having a winning record. Brian VanGorder’s defense was pretty inarguably bad and couldn’t have been helped by some shocking suspensions just before the season began. It’s clear Kelly has learned to be more involved on defense, and to step in instead of continuing to trust a scheme that sounds clever but can’t get results on the field.

Playcalling was an issue, but Kelly can learn to let someone else shoulder that load, as he has done with the hiring of Chip Long as offensive coordinator. And even throughout the disaster of a season, recruiting remained strong, suggesting Kelly has done a lot less long-term damage to the program than some might claim. As far as 4-8 teams go, the Irish may be well poised to bounce back.

Of course, we could also look at 2016 in a more negative light. Kelly — the coach who has lost to the likes of Northwestern and South Florida with a talented team of highly-rated players he recruited — went 4-8 against an extremely weak schedule by Notre Dame’s standards. The team repeatedly threw away close games when it mattered, usually with the help of at least one seemingly inexplicable coaching decision. VanGorder stuck around far too long after everyone knew he was the wrong man for the job, and Paul Longo’s strength and conditioning reached a bad enough level that even the players complained about its intensity. The failings of Kelly’s staff may be, first and foremost, a problem with those now-departed coaches, but it also raises questions about how effectively Kelly can control a large program when he can’t be everywhere at once. 2016 may have provided proof that long-term results at a blue-blood school is not something Kelly can achieve.

At this point, either interpretation of Kelly’s 2016 could turn out to be true. He could be hurting this program, but with plenty of pretty legitimate-looking excuses for last year’s failure, he could equally be poised for recovery. No outcome in 2017 would be immensely surprising, because it’s still not quite clear what Brian Kelly is. That’s not ideal, but the important thing now is that all excuses are gone. Kelly knows he needs success this year or he’s going to find himself looking for a new job — and this time, probably not as an NFL head coach.

If Kelly actually is a coach worthy of leading Notre Dame, you can expect a big turnaround. Free of the problems in his staff from 2016 and having learned from his mistakes, everything looks in place for Kelly to take Notre Dame back to where it expects to be.

Unless he’s not that coach. Then, at least we’ll know it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

Contact Daniel