Kelly faces strategic tug-of-war vs. Orange

Elkhart Truth photo/Russ DraperGetting more players more involved is part of Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly's plan going forward. The 1-3 Fighting Irish face 2-2 Syracuse at noon Saturday (ESPN) at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

NOTRE DAME — After the events of this past week, Brian Kelly faces a strategic tug-of-war Saturday against Syracuse unlike any put before him during his seven seasons coaching football at Notre Dame.

Kelly made a difficult but necessary move last Sunday when he launched his restoration project by firing his defensive coordinator and vowing to finally take a keener interest in improving a defensive unit that dragged down this Irish program for most of the last three seasons under Brian VanGorder.

"We look to do that in very short order," Kelly vowed of a quick fix.

VanGorder's dismissal put Kelly squarely in charge this week of leading any strategic and attitude adjustments needed for some defensive improvement.

Kelly provided last week a long list of reasons to explain the defensive deficiencies this season, but most of his blame game and improvement outline centered on bettering the balance on the team's disproportionate player reps.

"There are too many good football players that haven't been playing, in my estimation," Kelly explained. "… And they gotta get in the game."

And that's where Kelly's strategic tug-of-war comes into play.

Promising more player participation is the easy part, while preparing for more player participation is much more difficult, especially against a Syracuse offense that will move as quickly as any the Irish defense will see all season.

The Orange average 86.3 offensive plays per game — the fourth-highest mark in the country — not the ideal opponent to introduce a new scheme built on a deeper player rotation and quick substitution packages that will include several players who have received high practice praise but few in-game reps.

Junior defensive lineman Jay Hayes and sophomore linebacker Asmar Bilal both earned lots of reps, rave reviews, and big playing-time projections throughout spring ball and fall camp. Yet, both have played sparingly this season and neither was in on a single defensive play against Duke.

Meanwhile, defensive linemen Isaac Rochell and Jerry Tillery, along with cornerback Cole Luke and others, routinely take 60, 70 or more reps per game.

"So you can see the disparity right there," Kelly explained. "It then becomes a one-dimensional football team, the haves and the have-nots, and that does not do well with morale."

Kelly believes that tired legs because of "overexposure" slowed safety Devin Studstill last Saturday against Duke and contributed to a missed sideline tackle by the rookie DB that allowed the Blue Devils to score an easy 64-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to tie the game and set up the upset win.

"Devin Studstill had 67 plays in him when he missed that play, and that was a simple play on the sideline," Kelly said. "He's a true freshman. Fatigue was a part of that."

All the events from early this season are reminiscent to last season when VanGorder became so substitutionally stubborn that physically challenged senior linebacker Joe Schmidt played 828 plays (about 64 a game) while healthy standout sophomore Nyles Morgan followed a terrific freshman season with only 41 reps (about three a game) in his backup role.

"What we can start to do," Kelly said, "is put a depth chart together that gives a young man a look at saying, 'I got a shot here. I'm part of the solution.'"

All of which begs the question as to why it took so long for Kelly to address a problem he admitted to tracking back in 2015 when substitutions were few while opponent points were many in consecutive losses to Stanford and Ohio State to finish last season?

It's a question Kelly offers no clear answers to, but presumably a coaching dilemma that must've crossed his mind long before he fired VanGorder just four games into this season.

Kelly stopped short this week of admitting he should have taken a more active role in the Irish defense a long time ago. But he did take full responsibility for his team's passive play during the slow start.

"I'm a 1-3 coach," he said.

After entering this season with a top-10 ranking and playoff prospects, Notre Dame fans aren't overly interested in chatting about the second- and third-tier bowl options the Irish are left to chase.

But with so much confusion, chaos and change running through this program, securing those 15 postseason bowl practices may be more important than any of the wins or losses that will come during the rest of this regular season.

Todd Burlage is a freelance columnist covering Notre Dame sports.

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