Notre Dame Football: Brian Kelly's Most Critical Year is 2014

By Jeff Merritt
Charles LeClaire- USA TODAY Sports

On December 28 the University of Notre Dame Football team will play in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl against a 6-6 Rutgers team. In a season after an impressive 12-1 record and a trip to the national championship game, an 8-4 finish and a non-BCS bowl game has done little to excite the Irish faithful and even less to cement in the mind of the casual Notre Dame Football fan that Brian Kelly is the man to lead the Fightin’ Irish going forward.

For Irish fans looking to get excited about something here it is.  Once the Pinstripe bowl is in the record books, fans of the program will say goodbye to the last of the Charlie Weis era recruits.  These young men have given their hearts and souls to the program for four or five years, and the program has definitely improved during their time .  For Kelly, though, the loss of these athletes signals a critical time for evaluating the program.

Going into the 2014 season, Kelly will have no excuses for a disappointing season.  In 2014, the Notre Dame Football team will be made up entirely of Kelly era recruits. There will be no Tommy Rees to blame for poor execution or limits in athleticism. There will be no Carlo Calabrese or Dan Fox to blame for the defensive struggles.

In the 2014 season the Irish faithful will truly get a glimpse of the future of Notre Dame Football.  What many fail to realize is that coaches have a particular type of player in mind when they recruit.  These players are particularly suited for the type of football the head coach wants to play.  For the last four years, Kelly and his staff have had to play the game in a way that suits his personnel.  Many of these players he did not recruit and probably would not have recruited.

That era is over now.  Of course there are many coaches who have been extremely successful coming into a program, getting the most out of existing players, and winning at a high level with inherited teams.  This is a difficult thing for a coach to do, and although this year was a huge disappointment for many, Kelly and his staff have done a pretty good job competing with many players who did not fit the profile of the type of athlete they want in their program.

Going into the spring of 2014, the athletes that Kelly will put on the field are going to be quite different than those of his predecessor.  Comparing quarterbacks for instance, in Weis’ last recruiting cycle he brought in Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and his returning quarterback was Dayne Crist.  Kelly will go into next season with Everett Golson and Malik Zaire as the first and second team quarterbacks.  Golson and Zaire have distinctly different profiles than Rees and Crist.  These two young men are much better suited to run the type of offense that Kelly favors.  These young men are athletic, mobile playmakers who should be very exciting to watch.

Defensively, at the linebacker position wholesale changes will be made.  This will be very interesting transition as well.  During Kelly’s tenure the linebacking corps has been made up entirely of Weis recruits.  This will change next season. Jarrett Grace, Jaylon Smith, Romeo Okwara, Ishaq Williams and Joe Schmidt will be in charge of the middle of the field.  Although one can’t predict how they will do, it appears that this is a significantly more athletic group than the Weis era group.

In 2014 Irish fans will finally see what they really have with a Brian Kelly led program.  On the face of it, the team appears to have a level of depth, athleticism, speed and talent that hasn’t been seen in the program since the Lou Holtz era.  The potential appears to be there for Kelly and his staff to return the program to the lofty place it once held among the college football’s elite.

Jeff Merritt is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @ merrittcoach, “like” him on Facebook or add him to your network on Google. 

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