CULVER – For all the critics of eighth-year Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly – and there has been no shortage of them through the years – this much can be said, the guy has been brutally honest in his assessment of himself and his program through the first week of training camp at Culver Academy.
The Fighting Irish will wrap-up the road portion of camp with a practice at the idyllic campus along the northeastern shoreline of Lake Maxinkuckee this morning before breaking camp and heading back to South Bend.
Depending on your perspective, Kelly's self-analysis has either been terribly frustrating (for much of the Irish Nation) or incredibly refreshing (for the media), and that self-critiquing has been in abundance from the outset of camp.
“Clearly we had some off-the-field issues leading into (the 2016) season,” Kelly said prior to camp. “We had some things that I had done a poor job in developing our leadership and the message was not clear within the program.”
Kelly's “message was not clear” to the players, which begs the question as to how that happens seven years into overseeing the program.
To Kelly's credit, he overhauled his program in a myriad of ways over the past eight months. But again, it makes one wonder how the Fighting Irish program drifted into such disarray.
Is it a positive that Kelly recognized the “issues” that were inhibiting the program and has resulted in five seasons of at least four defeats during his reign? Or is it a negative that so many things were failing within the structure of the program?
There were seismic changes that Kelly instituted within the Notre Dame strength and conditioning program this off-season, which is a positive, but former Fighting Irish defensive lineman Brandon Newman told me years ago of the needed changes in that regard.
How did I know that the strength program left a lot to be desired years ago, but Kelly only reacted to that eight months ago?
One of the more discussed topics of camp has been the position switch of redshirt junior Drue Tranquill from safety to rover linebacker. A move that both Kelly and Tranquill have praised as taking better advantage of his skill set.
“Obviously,” Tranquill said recently, “it brings out my skill set more. Being a bigger safety, at 230 pounds, to be able to get down (closer to the line of scrimmage), allows me to use my physicality.
“In previous defenses, I was asked to be more of a finesse player and play off the hash.”
Again, praise to Kelly and the Irish defensive coaches for making the adjustment, but why did this just now occur three years into Tranquill's career if it was indeed so obvious, as Tranquill noted?
In Saturday's practice, it was noteworthy that sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson didn't take a live snap during 11-on-11 work. After all, this was a guy that played in all 12 games a year ago and even started three times.
“We're not going to reward talent here,” Kelly said following Saturday's practice. “I did that last year and it was a mistake. I'm going to reward those guys that have attention to detail and have a great focus and play with grit.
“We lost a lot of games last year with guys that I did not develop in the right way and we're going to develop them in the right way.”
Kudos to Kelly for implementing that disciplined approach, but we are 26 years into his career, so how did he reach this point of poor player development?
Senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti is probably asking himself that exact question.
During Saturday's practice, the Notre Dame coaching staff had their team work through the infamous “Oklahoma drill,” of which Trumbetti looked like a beast in over-powering his opposition.
“Andrew Trumbetti,” Kelly noted following the workout, “I'd like to point him out. He's up to 263 pounds and he looks like the guy that we recruited out of high school. He was a dominating player in high school.”
Trumbetti may have been “dominating in high school,” but he's been virtually non-existent at Notre Dame.
In his 36 career games, he has averaged less than two tackles per game and has just one more career sack than “Rudy” Ruettiger recorded. But Kelly said that lack of production isn't all on Trumbetti.
“(Trumbetti) had an edge about him,” Kelly said. “We did a poor job of developing him until this year. He is at that point where he is going to make an impact.”
Trumbetti has to, this is his final season.
The Notre Dame football program has undergone massive and numerous changes this off-season and Kelly truly deserves his share of credit for making those. But he certainly deserves the criticism for not only the frequency of defeats during his era, but all of the aforementioned oversights.
“For me,” Kelly said to open camp, “there was a lot of growth as a head coach after 26 years. I learned a lot. I got a great amount of feedback that allowed me to put our football team in the position that they need to be, where we are right now.”
Time will tell if that is a positive or not.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.
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