Position Breakdown: Notre Dame coaching staff
Observer Sports Staff | Monday, May 10, 2021
Rockne. Parseghian. Holtz. Notre Dame’s football lore is closely tied to its lineage of iconic head coaches. In our last Position Breakdown of the year, we look at the Irish coaching staff heading into 2021.
Heading into his 12th season as Notre Dame head coach, the 29th head coach in program history has already amassed a 102-39 record, including 21 wins from the 2012 and 2013 seasons later vacated by the NCAA, since arriving from Cincinnati in Dec. 2009.
Kelly is just four wins away from surpassing Knute Rockne’s mark of 105 wins and becoming the program’s all-time winningest coach. If Notre Dame begins the season with three-straight wins, Kelly could earn the distinction against Wisconsin at Soldier Field on Sept. 25. Kelly passed Lou Holtz’s 100 victories at Notre Dame for second all-time on the ND win charts this past year when the Irish picked up a vital late November win over then-No. 19 UNC in Chapel Hill.
The win over then-No. 1 Clemson in early November, meanwhile, was Notre Dame’s first win against an AP No. 1 team since the Holtz era, a 1993 victory over Florida State in one of the so-called “games of the century.” Despite often facing skepticism about his chances of truly ending Notre Dame’s now 32-year national title drought, Kelly has undoubtedly been Notre Dame’s most successful coach since Holtz.
In the ten years before Kelly arrived from Cincinnati in Dec. 2019, the Irish went just 70-52 under three different permanent head coaches. Notre Dame managed just two 10-win seasons and one AP top-10 finish during that period. Kelly’s predecessor, Charlie Weis, went just 16-21 in the final three years of his tenure.
Kelly’s restoration project, however, has transformed the Irish into a perennial New Year’s Six Bowl contender. Kelly made Notre Dame’s first BCS National Championship game in 2012, which was just his third year in charge, and has made the College Football Playoff in two of the last three seasons. In both 2012 and 2018, Kelly was named AP and Home Depot National Coach of the Year following undefeated regular seasons. Kelly had also won the Home Depot award in 2009 for an undefeated season at Cincinnati.
This past season, Kelly was named ACC Coach of the Year following Notre Dame’s third undefeated regular season under Kelly in the program’s one-year stint as a full member of the conference. Kelly won three consecutive Big East head coach of the year awards in his final years with Cincinnati before taking over independent Notre Dame.
Kelly has only suffered one losing season with the Irish, a dismal 4-8 campaign in 2016. However, Kelly responded with a coaching overhaul that has largely worked out. Current Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko and then Clark Lea transformed the Irish defense into a national juggernaut before Lea left for the head coaching job at Vanderbilt, his alma mater, this offseason. The hire of Chip Long brought improvements on the offensive side of the ball as well, despite some disastrous performances against college football’s elite like the 30-3 defeat to Clemson in the 2018 Cotton Bowl. After the 2019 season, Kelly boldly parted ways with Long and promoted then-27-year old Tommy Rees.
Most of Kelly’s big decisions have appeared to pay off so far during his tenure. His Irish teams have managed six 10-win seasons and three top-10 finishes in the AP Poll. Of course, the criticism regarding some of Notre Dame’s big losses against marquee opponents will likely linger until the Irish have major success in the postseason.
Finally, Kelly has also helped Notre Dame regain its status as one of the biggest pipelines for NFL talent in college football. The Irish had nine players taken in the 2021 draft, the most Notre Dame players taken in the Kelly era and the most Irish picked in a single draft since 1994. Only Alabama and Ohio State had more players picked with 10 apiece.
One of the youngest offensive coordinators in college football largely justified Kelly’s faith in the former Irish QB in his first year as the permanent play-caller. The Irish finished 26th in the FBS in total offense and 30th in scoring offense with 33.4 points per game. Perhaps even more importantly for a team that often relied on winning the time of possession and field position battles, the Irish were No. 8 in the country on third-down with a conversion percentage just a hair under 50%.
However, Rees and the offense will certainly look to improve in the red zone. The Irish were 102nd in red zone offense in 2020, though the statistic is a bit misleading given that Kelly opted to run out the clock instead of score again after getting inside the 20 on five occasions last year. Nonetheless, the Irish only found the end zone on 58.3% of their trips to the red zone in 2020, the lowest mark for all of last year’s CFB participants.
As Notre Dame’s quarterback coach since 2017, Rees will hope the passing attack improves after the Irish finished 58th in passing yards per game this season The Irish were 43rd as a team last year in pass efficiency (Ian Book was 33rd among all QBs), while the starting quarterbacks for every other CFB program had marks within the top ten. However, Rees can certainly take pride in the development of Ian Book, who became the winningest quarterback in Notre Dame history and finished ninth in 2020 Heisman voting before being drafted by the Saints in the fourth round of this year’s draft.
However, with uncertainty at the quarterback position, Rees will likely lean on run game coordinator Lance Taylor, who won running backs coach of the year in 2015 while mentoring Christian McCaffrey. The Irish relied on its physicality in the trenches all year long, and Taylor’s group, along with the always-mobile Book, finished 24th in rushing offense with over 200 yards per game. It was the second-highest mark in the Kelly era and a marked improvement from 2019 when the Irish were 45th nationally.
Rees, the son of longtime UCLA assistant and NFL scout Bill Rees, played under Kelly from 2010-2013, starting 30 games. He is third and fourth in the Notre Dame record books in career touchdown passes and career passing yards, respectively. After failing to make an NFL roster, Rees was a graduate assistant at Northwestern in 2015 and then spent a year in the NFL as an offensive assistant for the San Diego Chargers before heading to South Bend.
In Clark Lea’s three seasons in South Bend, Notre Dame’s defense was one of the best in the country, ranking No. 16, No. 5, and No. 24 nationally in defensive efficiency per the Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) from 2018-2020, respectively. Lea’s defenses were always among the top 15 nationally in terms of scoring defense during that span, holding opponents to less than 20 points per game each of those three seasons.
Irish fans will expect similar production from Freeman, who is beginning his second coordinator job in his career after building a defensive juggernaut at Cincinnati. In his four years as the Bearcats’ defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, Freeman coached perennially one of the American Athletic Conference’s best defenses in three bowl games, but his stock really began to skyrocket during Cincinnati’s 2020 undefeated regular season that prompted many to argue that the Bearcats belonged in the Playoff.
Freeman’s defense played a massive role in Cincinnati clinching the 2020 AAC title, the program’s first conference crown since Kelly’s final year with the Bearcats in 2009, and a Peach Bowl berth. The Bearcats were ranked in the top 20 nationally in numerous categories, including being ranked third in team passing efficiency defense, eighth in scoring defense and 13th in total defense.
Before his tenure at Cincinnati, Freeman worked as a linebackers coach at Kent State and Purdue, serving as co-defensive coordinator during his last year with the Boilermakers in 2016. As a linebacker at Ohio State, Freeman helped the Buckeyes win four Big Ten titles and reach two national championship games from 2004-2008. After spending time with three NFL organizations, his pro career came to a premature end due to an enlarged heart.
Gregory McKenna — Sports Writer
For my money, this is a top-5 coaching staff in the country. Despite weathering seemingly constant criticism, Kelly brings obvious pedigree and a resume of success that only Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney unequivocally surpass. I expect Freeman to pick up where Lea left off, and given his track record at Cincinnati, I’m hopeful he might lead a quick turnaround in the secondary after a few recruiting cycles. Rees is still relatively inexperienced, of course. However, I’m sure Kelly is grateful to have one of the most promising young offensive minds in college football under his wing, and his rapport with Book — no doubt aided by his own experience as QB1 at Notre Dame — will hopefully be replicated with whoever is under center in 2021 and beyond.
These three coaches also have some accomplished assistants behind them, including offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, who deserves credit for helping Notre Dame live up to the “O-Line U” distinction over the last few seasons. If there was ever a moral victory in that Rose Bowl loss, it was the 75-yard, eight-minute touchdown drive that briefly kept the Irish in the ball game against ‘Bama. I’m sure most Irish fans would like to see more creative and explosive offense play calling, especially after a much more typical spring and summer practice, and the entry of former five-star wide receiver Jordan Johnson’s name into the transfer portal does not make for great optics, but Kelly and his staff deserve a significant amount of trust from the ND faithful.
Hayden Adams — Senior Sports Writer
When it comes to a coaching staff in college football, the big four are the head coach, the offensive and defensive coordinators and recruiting coordinator. I’d say Notre Dame is pretty set at those four — even if some would like to see a little more effort on the recruiting trail from the head coach. The fact of the matter is Kelly reinvented his program following the 2016 debacle and the expectations at Notre Dame are very healthy. The fact of the matter is that Notre Dame went from great to still great at defensive coordinator by hiring Freeman to replace Lea. And the fact of the matter is that Tommy Rees took Notre Dame to the College Football Playoff in his first season as an offensive coordinator period — and did so without a spring practice and an abbreviated fall camp.
For me, the coaching staff just seems to be consistently falling short at certain positions. I get that not every program can be like Alabama and hire an ex-NFL head coach to coach the offensive line. Lance Taylor is probably the best of the Irish position coaches, putting in work on the recruiting trail and developing great running backs, and I like what Jeff Quinn and John McNulty showed in the O-line and tight end meeting rooms, respectively, last season; Mike Elston’s work along the defensive trenches speaks for itself. But it’s guys like receivers coach Del Alexander — and safeties coach Terry Joseph and running backs coach Autry Denson before him — that have just left a lot to be desired in some form or fashion at their positions. In some regards, the entire staff can only be as great as its weakest link, and it seems like a few have been glaring weaknesses recently. That hasn’t stopped Notre Dame from making the Playoff two out of the last three years, but it may be what’s holding them back once they get to that biggest stage. I’m not calling for anyone’s head (yet), and this is a quality staff, I’d just like to see a comparable level of excellence across the board.