Coach Brian Kelly has all he needs to win at Notre Dame

Aug 1 2011 - 4:24pm

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". . . And, behold, it was very good." -- Genesis 1:31

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On Saturday, Notre Dame will open practice, and coach Brian Kelly will survey the steaming expanse of practice fields and his voice will spew acrid demands for drills and players to move faster, faster, faster.

This in a moment when Notre Dame is all caught up, at last.

On that practice field, Michael Floyd likely will cut and juke and snare passes when, in any other era in the history of school disciplinary matters, the All-America receiver simply wouldn't be around.

Another recruiting class will take nascent steps in its first training camp. Among them are players who made up only the sixth group of early-enrollee freshmen in school history. Among that group is an elite, prolific pass rusher who told one recruiting analyst he scored a 17 on his ACT.

There are the practice fields underfoot, a $2.5 million project that was finished in 2008. There is the imperial, 96,000-square-foot football complex that opened in 2005. There is a post-practice training table meal, a program that wasn't instituted, mind-bogglingly, until last season.

Perhaps at no point in Notre Dame football history has there been greater cooperation across campus and more abundant resources proffered in the name of sustaining a multi-multimillion-dollar operation and winning football games. Now all Brian Kelly has to do is win them.

"He's in a very enviable situation," former Irish coach Bob Davie said. "Because we all had the same pressure to win. We just had to do it in a probably more difficult manner."

All falls into place

Kelly wasn't made available for comment for this story after multiple requests to Notre Dame. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick did not respond to interview requests.

That may be moot. The situation speaks for itself.

The disciplinary reach of the football coach extends further than it ever has; Kelly is receiving leeway from admissions when it comes to welcoming necessary pieces to campus; and there is now little in the way of facilities and resources separating Notre Dame from the peers with which it aspires to compete.

Such progress at Notre Dame has been like watching a frail, elderly man cross the street with a walker, forward motion fraught with agony. Or maybe it's closer to plate tectonics, pieces rearranging themselves over a molten hot core and rattling everything when they do, but eventually settling into place. And Kelly benefits immensely from all of it.

"You talk to an NFL head coach, he talks about needing the cooperation of an owner," said Mike Mayock, NBC's game analyst for Irish broadcasts. "If you talk to a college head coach, they talk about the cooperation of administration. And if you don't have the cooperation of an administration, you probably shouldn't take the job."

This is not to say any of this is good or bad or anywhere in between. It is simply true, an institution protecting a program that brought in $64,163,063 in revenue from July 2009 to June 2010, according to the latest U.S. Department of Education data, a program that less quantitatively drives the perception and morale of the school as a whole.

Notre Dame decided to be good at football again.

This is how schools become good at football.

"You can still be an outstanding academic institution and have high morals and give your coach a little bit of flexibility," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "If they're doing those things, I would say it's about time. ... The end result is going to be a more competitive team on the field."

Best of all worlds

The dynamic that allows for the possibility of Michael Floyd playing this fall is nearly in itself sufficient proof of how good Kelly has it.

Floyd's arrest March 20 for driving under the influence was his third alcohol-related dust-up since he arrived at Notre Dame. That it appears he will suffer no meaningful football-related penalty because of it is almost beside the point; Floyd even being around to suffer or not suffer inarguably represents a hairpin turn away from punitive Residence Life precedent.

Punishment for serious infractions, ultimately left to the head coach? What's not to "du Lac" for Kelly?

"That's a huge change there," Davie said. "I think back to the situations we had and compare it to Michael Floyd's situation -- there's no chance. That's not even near what the philosophy or policy was.

"Residence Life was kind of like the dark hole. You didn't even get near it. You didn't know how it functioned. You had no control of it. You didn't even have an opinion in it. I think back to some of the issues we had and compare it to the Michael Floyd situation, that's obviously a dramatic change."

So Kelly can keep the players who can help him win. He also has leeway to acquire players who can keep him winning.

Past obstacles such as on-campus interviews of recruits, or the admissions office pre-empting scholarship offers to those recruits, are either non-existent or easier to negotiate now. CBS Sports Network's Tom Lemming, a longtime national recruiting analyst, estimates Notre Dame has made verbal offers to 200 players in the current cycle.

It doesn't make Kelly and Co. different; in fact, it means Notre Dame is more the "same" than ever.

Some schools have made offers to twice that many players, Lemming said. Kelly and his staff aren't as tethered down as predecessors when it comes to making an all-important first impression on highly sought prospects that, in turn, could become elite players down the line.

"If you can make that initial contact, if you can extend that initial offer, if you can get in with that prospect early when everybody else is -- that gives you a huge leg up in the process," ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said. "If you're not positive of (a recruit's academics), worry about that later."

Said Lemming: "Notre Dame has to go into Florida -- you offer the same time that Miami, Florida or Florida State does, or you're out of it."

And it appears Kelly can get a player if Kelly wants a player. That perhaps is no departure from indulgences that brought, say, Tony Rice to campus for Lou Holtz -- but, again, Holtz never enjoyed Kelly's total package of resources and breaks elsewhere to amplify the admissions concessions.

The Irish indeed still unearth players with both stellar athletic and academic records. In the current freshman class, a top-100 offensive lineman reportedly sported a 3.8 grade-point average, and another elite defensive end told Lemming he had a 3.6 grade-point average.

And given Notre Dame's confidence in its academic support apparatus, the school may ask a different question about recruits: Not "What are his scores?" but rather "Can he graduate?"

It may be the question they asked about their paradigm-shifting defensive line prospect, the kind the Irish have sought for years. He filled out a Lemming questionnaire during his junior year, saying he sported a 2.7 grade-point average with a 17 on his ACT. By comparison, the middle 50 percent range of ACT scores for incoming freshmen at Notre Dame in 2010 was 32 to 34, according to the school.

"What I've noticed about Notre Dame, the standards always remained near the top, but they go up and down like a yo-yo depending who the coach is, if they want to help him or don't want to help him," said Lemming, who guessed there were "four or five" breaks in the last class.

"You'll find guys with 2.5 (grade-point averages) and just barely making 17, 18 on ACT getting into Notre Dame. Not many. Some years there are six or seven of them, some years two or three, depending on an assistant's ability to get great players."

Previous Notre Dame coaches caught breaks with recruits. Kelly just enjoys his while also benefiting from advances in infrastructure, disposition of discipline policy and everything else that has his cup runneth-ing over. How is that aforementioned yo-yo bouncing for the current Irish coach?

"I would say it's in his favor," Lemming said.

On the verge

Sixteen players who started in a Sun Bowl trampling of Miami return to the Notre Dame lineup this year.

That doesn't include quarterback Dayne Crist, who started nine games before suffering a season-ending knee injury in October, or cornerback Robert Blanton, tailback Cierre Wood, linebacker Carlo Calabrese, safety Jamoris Slaughter, guard Chris Watt and nose guard Sean Cwynar -- all of whom saw significant and sometimes starting duty in 2010.

Notre Dame will be a preseason Top 25 team in Sports Illustrated's forthcoming season preview and very easily could crack the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll.

While years of mediocrity demand pause and recognition that the Irish are vulnerable to at least a half-dozen opponents on the schedule, it also is fair to say there's not a team on the 2011 slate Notre Dame can't beat.

"I believe, from a talent perspective today, they're a top-20 team, and I believe the combination of their schedule and their talent and their coaching means they could have a big year before people think they will," Mayock said. "This could be a big year if they stay healthy and things fall the right way."

They have already.

Notre Dame has made exceptions in admissions before. It has tweaked policies before. It has provided coaches with resources to win before. But cumulatively, across all areas, never has it offered more at one time to one coach than it currently offers to Kelly.

Notre Dame has decided it wants to win football games, and now all Kelly has to do is win them.

"You take Brian Kelly, his philosophical strategy, you take his work ethic, you take his proven history of winning, and now you give him the resources within the university and within academic support to do it?" Luginbill said. "It'll be 'Katy Bar the Door,' I'm telling you right now."

Said Herbstreit: "I think Brian Kelly is going to get Notre Dame back. I think he's the answer."

Right place.

Right time.

Right guy?

There's nothing to stop Brian Kelly.

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