Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly turned to more than Xs and Os to overhaul his football program. The former Gary Hart 1984 presidential primary campaign aide recognized a fresh message was needed.
The Kelly voice that worked in 2012 for a national runner-up finish no longer resonated. The 2016 roster limped home to a 4-8 record. If Kelly returned for his eighth campaign in South Bend lacking a new direction, he risked more than a season – not to mention his job.
This fast-paced era demands keeping up with trends, but finding the right message isn’t easy. Notre Dame’s impressive start suggests Kelly’s players have bought in. The Irish (1-0) defeated a good Temple team Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, 49-16.
“There were a lot of things that had to change,” Kelly said in the postgame media session. “But it started with me, and we made some changes within.”
Election to a College Football Playoff berth is far from won, but the Irish can build off an early primary victory. The prospects of an upset of No. 15-ranked Georgia this Saturday at home are much brighter on Tuesday than a week ago, when so many questions surrounded the team.
“The traits that we’ve been working on and developing showed themselves,” said Kelly.
Since January, Kelly has repeated this message: grit and perseverance outweigh entitlement. Work ethic and practice habits decide the depth chart over talent.
“We’ll reward those guys that have an attention to detail, that have a great focus and play with grit,” he liked to say in the offseason.
Kelly didn’t mention names, but the new approach seems to have impacted the play of defensive ends Daelin Hayes and Jay Hayes. They are unrelated, other than they were underachievers in 2016 in respect to Daelin’s 5-star recruit ranking and Jay’s 4-star credentials.
But against Temple, Daelin, a 6-foot-3, 258-pound true sophomore, finished with four tackles and a sack for six yards. Jay, a 6-3, 290-pound redshirt junior, totaled five tackles and a tackle for a loss for two yards.
Those aren’t All-American stats, but they contributed to the Irish outpacing their 2016 performance as one of the weakest defensive lines in the nation. Notre Dame ranked 114th in the nation with 14 sacks.
Worse, defensive linemen accounted for only three of the 14; none of the three were from the either Hayes. Daelin Hayes had 11 tackles in 12 games, with none for a sack or a tackle for a loss; Jay Hayes had 10 tackles in 10 games with a half-sack and no other tackles for a loss.
“This was a great start,” Daelin Hayes said. “The last interview I did (after the final fall camp scrimmage) I said we were right where we needed to be. We had a great start, but obviously we have things to clean up to get ready for Georgia.”
Daelin Hayes did celebrate with a “swipe” move after his sack, but even that was more about the program than him.
Swiping the ground was the signature celebration of former Notre Dame All-American defensive end Jaylon Smith, who is now with the Dallas Cowboys. Daelin was still a senior in high school when Smith earned All-American honors in 2015, but they have spoken often. Daelin Hayes wears Smith’s No. 9 jersey.
“Big bro gave me No. 9 when he left,” Daelin Hayes said. “I was paying homage to those that paved the way. I talked to him before the game, and he told me to make a big play.”
That sounds like a guy playing with Notre Dame’s grit and perseverance message for 2017.
New team messages, and sometimes new voices, have become requisite to coaching. It may not have been that way when John Madden took over as Oakland Raiders head coach in 1969, but when he retired following the 1978 season, he cited the need for a new voice in the locker room.
At the time, it was considered a shock that Madden would retire while enjoying so much success. But now, many coaches realize that a decade is a long time. Lou Holtz won a national title at Notre Dame in 1988, but he stepped down after his 11th Irish season, an 8-3 mark in 1996.
Kelly saw the clock ticking down in his eighth year, but a new message may have bought him some more time.
Follow Tom Shanahan’s FanRag Sports stories on Twitter @shanny405