Brian Kelly working to get Notre Dame back in shape

Brian Kelly Notre Dame Georgia
Brian Kelly and his Notre Dame fighting Irish held their final open practice of the spring Wednesday. The Fighting Irish, who play host to Georgia in Week 2, will conduct their annual Blue-Gold spring game on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — He’s looking fit and trim. He’s working out. He’s doing yoga. Brian Kelly won’t say how much weight he’s lost — unofficial estimates put it at 20 pounds — but the Notre Dame head football coach is looking much better these days.

He hopes the same will be said of his football program come December.

Kelly has been in the midst of one of the most extensive overhauls ever of a team of his own making. The eighth-year coach has changed offensive coordinators, defensive coordinators, half of his assistants and all of his strength coaches. In all there are 17 new members of the football hierarchy, an obvious indication of dissatisfaction with what was going on.

The Fighting Irish conducted their final full-pads practice of the spring early Wednesday morning under partly-cloudy skies and cool temps. CHIP TOWERS / DAWGNATION

The staff overhaul is one way Kelly aims to fix the problems that contributed to a 4-8 record for the Fighting Irish last year. Georgia will get an up close and personal look at how the transition is going when it faces the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 9.

Kelly’s pretty eager to get a look at the finished product, too. He’ll get his first glimpse this Saturday when Notre Dame conducts its annual Blue-Gold spring game. Seating capacity for the game has been capped at 25,000 due to ongoing construction at the stadium.

The football team is undergoing a pretty extensive makeover as well. Both the offense and defense are being totally revamped. Now under the guidance of Chip Long (Memphis, Arizona State), the offense is converting to the spread-based, run-pass-option offense roundly favored in college football these days. Defensively, Mike Elko (Wake Forest) has been asked to simplify the complicated schemes employed to poor effect the past few years by former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. VanGorder was fired after the fourth game of last season and actually served Georgia as a defensive consultant the last couple of games last season.

At his post-practice briefing Wednesday, Kelly was asked how well the team has progressed from this offseason of mass change.

Notre Dame deals with change in 2017

“I think it the players have been energized by it,” Kelly said following a two-hour morning practice that was opened to media. “There’s new faces and there’s a clear mission in front of them and a clear path that we’ve kind of gone down. I think you have an all-in kind of sense among the group.”

The Irish have some very good parts to work with. That starts at quarterback, where redshirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush is succeeding DeShone Kizer, who turned pro to enter the NFL draft.

Kizer was extremely good, completing 59 percent of his passes and accounting for 3,397 total yards, and 26 TD passes to nine interceptions. But Wimbush has flourished in his absence and appears perfectly suited for Long’s quick-paced, spread option. On the first play from scrimmage in 11-on-11 competition with the No. 1 defense Wednesday, Wimbush pulled the ball down under heavy pressure on a pass play and rambled 65 yards for a touchdown. He also exhibited a lively arm and connected often with the Irish’s tall and physical receivers on fades and quick out-routes.

“His presence, he runs that offense like he’s been running it for a few years,” Kelly remarked Wednesday. “There’s no panic. There’s a calmness, an organization to him. In those areas he runs it as if he’s been doing it for quite some time.”

Wimbush inherits a solid surrounding cast, with the entire offensive line returning — led by 6-foot-8, 310-pound left tackle Mike McGlinchey — leading receiver Equinemeous St. Brown back (58 catches, 961 yards, 9 TDs) and also running back Josh Adams (6-1, 220, 955 yards rushing, 5 TDs).

It’s on the defensive side of the ball where there are a lot of question marks. Notre Dame ranked 100th or worse in total defense (103rd), scoring defense (101st) and yards per play (104th) before VanGorder was let go. And the Irish ended the season ranked 104th in turnovers gained, with only 14. The good news is there are seven starters back. That’s the bad news, too.

Elko is a relatively young coach (39) who has made his mark the past eight seasons at Bowling Green and Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons finished 23rd in scoring defense (22.2 points per game) and made its first bowl in five years. More notably, their 27 forced turnovers were tied for 10th nationally, an area in which Notre Dame is seeking immediate improvement. The Irish  forced just 14 turnovers in 2016, tied for 104th nationally.

Linebacker and leading tackler Nyles Morgan (94 stops) and safety Drue Tranquill (79) are back. But they are having to fill in at a lot of other spots, including defensive tackle, where McDonough’s Isaac Rochell has graduated and is expected to be drafted.

But that change, players say, has been good. And needed.

“Change is hard, regardless,” said Tranquill, a senior from Fort Wayne, Ind., by way of Chattanooga. “But when you go 4-8 everyone realized it needed to happen. Guys, especially myself, saw areas where change needed to happen. Coach Kelly addressed those issues after meeting with every single member of the team and I really respect that of him.”

New QB not only new face in the crowd

Whatever happens this year, the long-term prognosis of Notre Dame football looks good. The Fighting Irish are in the midst of a $400 million renovation of the stadium. And Kelly apparently slipped up at his news conference on Wednesday when he mentioned that the Notre Dame trustees recently approved a motion for an expansion of the football complex that would include the addition of a new indoor facility. The Irish added their current indoor building after Lou Holtz won the last national championship in 1988.

“We have a project here that has been approved by our board of trustees that will grow this building and add a new indoor,” Kelly said when asked Wednesday if there were any other football facilities’ projects in the works. “We’re excited about that. It’s needed, obviously. With the Crossroads project and that (new) project opening up this fall, the following fall we hope to have the work completed here that we need with the new indoor facility.

“So that’s exciting to have back-to-back years of new projects that enhance your programs. Those are pretty significant.”

With a .667 winning percentage and no championships in seven seasons with the Irish, Kelly can only hope for significant improvement this year or he might not be around to enjoy the new digs.

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