Spring marks start of Brian Kelly's judgment year

AP photoNotre Dame head coach Brian Kelly runs drills during spring football practice at the Loftus Sports Center last month.

After four seasons playing quarterback at Notre Dame almost 10 years ago, Evan Sharpley learned a thing or two about the two ways to measure the importance and mission of a spring football season.

"If things are going well, it's, 'We have this well-oiled machine, let's keep it going,'" Sharpley said of the preferred spring strategy.

"But as we saw here (at Notre Dame) this spring, instead it was, 'We're going to tear this machine down, now we have to put it back together,'" said Sharpley, who owns Sharpley Training in Elkhart and is a football analyst for Irish247.com.

With six new on-field coaches this year at Notre Dame, along with an overhauled strength and conditioning staff, and the stench of a 4-8 season still fresh around campus, Sharpley called this spring season "huge" as Brian Kelly tweaked and twisted his practice routine to try saving his job in the fall.

The Notre Dame head coach stuck to his attitude-before-aptitude renovation theme throughout spring ball and continually raved about the dedication and improvement the players displayed through the 15 practices.

Yet, when asked this week what to expect in Saturday's 88th annual Blue-Gold Game (12:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network), Kelly awkwardly warned ND Nation that it wouldn't "see much of a difference" in the caliber of play compared to last year, at least not now. Any visual improvement must wait until the season opener in September.

"That's not important to me," Kelly explained when asked about the level of importance player production would carry heading into the exhibition.

Kelly approached this spring season like a puzzle, fine-tuning each position group separately, holding hope that when all the pieces are put together during fall camp, the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts for his defining season.

"And when we get to Temple," Kelly said of the season opener on Sept. 2, "we'll see everything come together."

With every team in the country still undefeated, hope forever springs eternal this time of year, never more than at Notre Dame, though a coach's assessment was still hard to follow at times during the last couple of months.

"I don't think anybody's taken a step back, nobody's going in the wrong direction," Kelly said of his players. "We haven't looked at anyone and said, 'He's thrown in the towel.'"

Let's hope not in April!

A couple of weeks earlier, Kelly explained how during this spring season, his practices were no longer disjointed but instead more consistent, as to not confuse the players with a changing routine.

"They know what the programming is going to be about every single day," Kelly said in a revelation seemingly reserved more for a rookie coach than a veteran skipper. "So there is an understanding that they're not going to get a curve ball thrown at them in practice."

Curve balls will come, but with a 2017 schedule that includes Temple, Miami (Ohio), North Carolina State, Wake Forest, Navy and Boston College, Notre Dame should be 6-0 before the season even starts.

Games against North Carolina and Miami (Fla.) are also winnable as those two teams look to replace NFL-caliber quarterbacks, Mitch Trubisky and Brad Kaaya, respectively.

Difficult games against heavyweights Georgia and USC are both at home.

The point is, with a steady stream of NFL-caliber recruits and a coaching staff paid multi-millions each year to develop them, this is an Irish program that is talented enough to win at least 10 games every season, including this one.

See, elite teams don't start from scratch eight years into a coaching regime. So, to suggest that a 7-5 or 8-4 record will show marked improvement this season after last year — as many fans already have indicated — is misguided, because the bar for this program shouldn't be lowered because of the four-win setback in 2016.

We're left with no choice but to pardon Kelly for last season. After all, six games were lost by seven points or fewer, first-year players built the bulk the of the depth chart, and the team did make some late-season strides.

But that's it, Coach Kelly.

Massive improvement in the win column is the only measure of success this season — not the eye test or a coach's explanation that progress is being made even in defeat. Blaming a first-year quarterback, or a new coaching staff, or a revamped defense won't cut it.

Evan Sharpley is right when he said sometimes during the spring the machine needs to be torn down and rebuilt. Let's hope Brian Kelly brought the right toolbox in the last two months to get things humming four months from now.

Todd Burlage is a freelance columnist covering Notre Dame athletics.


When: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.

Tickets: $15 for same-day general admission ($10 for ages 18 and under). Gates open at 11:30 a.m.

Note: Only the west side of Notre Dame Stadium will be open due to construction. Capacity will be 25,000.


Live stream: NBCSports.com/Live


(2) comments


keep dreaming of mathematicians and engineers winning brute force sports. Brains and magnificent brawn rarely, and I do mean rarely, form at the same time in utero.


LOL! THEY deserve each other ...him and ND

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