SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly is entering his sixth season as Notre Dame coach, just the seventh in the program’s long and storied history to make it that far.
That doesn’t mean the 53-year-old coach is feeling anywhere near settled, not with a 45-20 record at Notre Dame and the Fighting Irish not yet back among college football’s elite — their 2012 run to the national title game notwithstanding. He is confident the Irish have more talent this year than that squad three years ago, but he isn’t quite comfortable.
“I don’t know if you ever get comfortable in the seat at Notre Dame. Comfortable wouldn’t be a word that I would use,” he said. “I think what I would probably say is that the picture is a lot clearer in the sense that I really know where our strengths and weaknesses are as a program.”
The other Irish coaches in the group are Knute Rockne (13 seasons), Frank Leahy, Ara Paresghian and Lou Holtz (11 seasons each), Elmer Layden (seven seasons) and Dan Devine (six seasons). Kelly has the lowest winning percentage of that group at .692, and he and Layden (1934-40) are the only coaches in the group without a national title.
When Kelly was introduced as Notre Dame coach, he said he didn’t have a five-year plan, he had a five-minute plan. He also said he would restore Notre Dame’s traditions.
“Those aren’t 8-4 years. Those are national championship years,” he said at that introductory news conference.
The Irish have made one run at a national championship under Kelly, losing 42-14 to Alabama three years ago. In four other seasons under Kelly, the Irish have posted three 8-5 records and a 9-4 mark.
The Irish appeared to be on the verge of vying for a playoff berth last season at 6-0 before turnovers and injuries sent them into a tailspin, finishing 8-5. Kelly believes the difference this season is depth, saying he thinks this year’s team is deeper than the 2012 team led by linebacker Manti Te’o.
“It’s a faster team. It’s a more athletic team. We’re deeper at virtually all positions across the board, both on the offensive line and the defensive line. Maybe we don’t have singularly one superstar here or there, but the depth of the group is a whole different football team than that group,” Kelly said.
The challenge for the Irish is to turn that depth into victories and there few breathers on the schedule: Five of Notre Dame’s first seven games are at home, but the opponents include Texas, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Southern California.
Some other things to watch at Notre Dame this season:
QUARTERBACK DEVELOPMENT: Malik Zaire will be Notre Dame’s third starting quarterback in three years. The Irish are counting on Zaire, who carried the ball 22 times in his lone start against LSU in the Music City Bowl, to shoulder more of the running load and to cut down on the 22 turnovers committed by Everett Golson.
LEADERSHIP: The Irish had communication problems on defense last year, especially after linebacker Joe Schmidt broke his ankle. With the returns of Schmidt, cornerback KeiVarae Russell and linebacker Jarrett Grace, and the emergence of safety Matthias Farley and defensive lineman Sheldon Day, Kelly believes the Irish have improved.
RECEIVER DEPTH: The Irish return six of their top seven receivers and expect big things from junior Torii Hunter Jr., whose career got off to a slow start as he recovered from a broken leg. The Irish also expect freshmen Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders and tight end Alize Jones to contribute.
SECONDARY SECURED: Kelly believes the Irish have one of the better cornerback tandems in Russell, back from a one-year suspension, and Cole Luke, who had four interceptions and broke up 11 passes last season. The emergence of junior safety Max Redfield, a former five-star recruit who struggled to learn the Irish defense until late last season, also should solidify the secondary.
SHOWTIME: Notre Dame has agreed to let Showtime air a weekly documentary-style program about the team, a sign the university expects a good season. Previous efforts haven’t gone well, though. In 2003, coming off a 10-3 season under first-year coach Tyrone Willingham, ESPN aired a weekly show as the Irish went 5-7. ESPN was scheduled to have a week of behind-the-scenes access late in the 2001 season as the Irish were struggling to a 5-6 finish, but coach Bob Davie pulled the plug after a day because of what he described as an overly aggressive crew.