Ahead of his eighth season at Notre Dame, coach Brian Kelly sat down with Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel to talk about how things will look different at Notre Dame in 2017. He talks about that here, in his own words.
When Jordan Spieth won the British Open in July, his performance showcased a lot of the ideals we’ve been stressing at Notre Dame the past nine months. Spieth is obviously one of the most talented players in the world. But I’ve been preaching to my players that the intangibles he showed that weekend – laser focus, attention to detail, an incredible attitude and just being smart – are more important than talent alone. When he was sitting between those trailer trucks on the 13th hole during the final round, his talent didn’t get him to make that shot. Heck, he was moving people out of the way and even calming his caddy down. He illuminated all the traits it takes to win we’ve been focused on – intellect, focus and poise.
There’s a renewed focus on process over production for Notre Dame football. And the point to my team is that we’re building those total preparation traits in you every day now – physical, technical, tactical and mental. Everyone knows that we went 4-8 last season, but I have a great deal of optimism that things will be drastically different this year. There’s been a focus on total preparation, and we’re not there yet.
But we’re functioning in those critical areas way above where we were last year. We were a team that easily could have won, seven, eight or nine games last year, as all of our losses except one ended up a one-score game. But that wouldn’t have mattered, as things needed to change. And I feel like that team, in terms of functioning in all of those areas relative to total preparation, is a shell of this team right now. That doesn’t guarantee anything, but I know where we are today compared to where we were last year, and we’re a totally different football team.
To start, you’ll see a different physical football team out on the field, both in conditioning and in a schematic sense. The poster boy of physical change is our starting right guard, Alex Bars. He’s lost about 15 pounds of weight, but went up 50 pounds in muscle to check in at 312 pounds. There’s been crazy transformations here, major changes. I sat down after the season and personally interviewed 93 of our players, trying to figure out what went wrong. That led to an overhaul in our strength and conditioning program. We brought in Matt Balis as our director of football performance to lead the department. One thing we found out from interviewing our players is that they wanted to be pushed in the weight room. We’d been making too many allowances in the weight room for a lot of different reasons. So we pushed them like they asked, and it’s really paid off. We’re not talking about, “Oh he looks a little bit different.” We’re talking about guys that completely changed the way they look physically. We feel like the physical preparation of this team is the first stage that’s been completed.
We’re going to be a totally different team on the field this year, as we have three new coordinators – Mike Elko on defense, Chip Long on offense and Brian Polian on special teams. Overall, there’s 19 new hires on the football staff, which shows the commitment that the athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, and our administration has made to getting things back on track here. They very easily could said, “Hire from within.” But there was a strong commitment to getting the right people here and doing it the right way.
Mike Elko came to us from Wake Forest, where he established himself as one of the country’s top defensive coordinators. He was our No. 1 target and has been a great fit so far in every way. The best way to sum up Mike’s impact is the drills we’re running in practice. Last year, we spent a lot of time running through our pressures on different looks. This year, there’s a lot more drills to reinforce an unwavering commitment to fundamentals and the tenets of really good football – tackling, stripping the ball and batting the ball down at the line of scrimmage. We’re going to be fundamental, smart and sound and not beat ourselves. You couldn’t have said any of those things about us last year.
On offense, Chip Long came to us from Memphis and is going to call the plays. I’m not sure how much different we’ll look schematically, but from an identity standpoint we’re certainly going to utilize our strengths – a veteran offensive line and a dynamic stable of tailbacks. Our offensive line, led by Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Quenton Nelson at left guard and Sam Mustipher at center, is going to be one of our strengths as those players are bedrocks of our program. We’re going to utilize our strengths, which means taking advantage of our physical front and dynamic backs like Josh Adams, Dexter Williams and Tony Jones Jr.
One area of change that can’t be overlooked is the caliber of players that we’ll be using on special teams. We’re playing our very best players on special teams. I give Brian Polian, who is a veteran special teams coach and head coach, a lot of credit for the job he’s done coming in and creating a positive energy around special teams. Drue Tranquill, who will play a ton of plays for us in the secondary, is going to be all over our special teams. Our starting corners are going to be our gunners. There’s a commitment that I made within the entire football program. You will not play offense and defense unless you are playing in special teams.
Until we kick off this week, it’s hard to quantify how the changes have reverberated through our program. But one area that’s received a jolt is recruiting. We’re ranked in the top 10 and have been recruiting at as high of a level as anytime since I arrived here. That’s impressive considering we’re still dealing with last year and the negativity that comes with a losing season. We believe we’re going to win a lot of games this season, and that’s only going to create a better recruiting situation.
The final changes here have come with me. I knew things needed to change from last year, and that started with me. I’ve really enjoyed creating a positive coaching environment, creating an atmosphere where our players are motivated positively to be the best they can be. The saying around here this off-season has been, “Demanding, not demeaning.” I’ve put an emphasis on creating clear expectations on both the players and the coaching staff and making sure the message of process over production resonates on a daily basis. I was all about production last year and I saw where that got me. I’ve really enjoyed changing the process and approach this off-season, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that leads to production on the field this week.
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