Grading Brian Kelly in 2017

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly celebrates with the championship trophy after defeating LSU 21-17 in the Citrus Bowl NCAA college football game, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. Notre Dame won 21-17. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Brian Kelly has been the subject of much scrutiny in his time as Head Coach of the University of Notre Dame. Some of that scrutiny simply comes with the territory. More of it has to do with the fact that Notre Dame, one of college football’s most storied programs, has had its fair share of struggles under Kelly’s supervision.

After an up and down 2017, Kelly’s team entered Monday’s Overton’s Citrus Bowl with plenty of questions to be answered. Following a disappointing November and December, it is not a far stretch to say that Kelly’s seat was once again warming.

Notre Dame’s win over LSU on Monday is indicative of a job well done for Kelly.

Entering 2017, Kelly was dismissive when it came to discussing his previous 4-win, 8-loss campaign. Kelly plead with the media, trying to convince anyone who would listen that this team was different. Last year was just that: Last year. 

To his credit, Kelly’s talk was met with a great deal of action.

After losing a slugfest to Georgia in the second week of the season, the Irish rattled off a dominating six-game stretch. During that time, the Irish defeated opponents by an average of more than 22 points per game. Kelly’s critics were put to bed.

But then came November: The Irish lost in embarrassing fashion at Miami, squeaked by Navy, and collapsed in the second half against Stanford.

To make matters worse, December was littered with off-the-field issues, which saw four players suspended for the bowl game. Kelly’s critics were out again in full force.

But Notre Dame’s bounce-back allowed the Irish to finish the season on a high note. It’s a high note that shows that shows a positive state of the program entering perhaps Brian Kelly’s most telling season in South Bend.

Kelly’s biggest critics feel as if 10-3 should be the benchmark–as opposed to the peak–for the Irish. They’re not wrong. But Kelly should be praised for reaching this benchmark just one season removed from a 4-8 season.

As inexcusable as a 4-8 season is at Notre Dame, Kelly showed the resolve necessary to make necessary changes to the program, and fast.

All Kelly was able to do this offseason was keep together a top-10 recruiting class, hire multiple highly-sought-after coordinators and and position coaches, re-assign the role of recruiting coordinator, hire a new Director of Football Performance to re-vamp the strength and conditioning program, and begin to put together another top-10 recruiting class in 2018.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Kelly listened to his players and changed his own attitude. He delegated more in 2017 and was more accessible for his players, at their request. The benefits were evident on the field.

Kelly’s offseason actions showed that he is not above reproach when it comes to taking responsibility.

Looking ahead, the 2018 season will be perhaps Kelly’s biggest test. With questions surrounding the quarterback position and a benchmark of high expectations being re-established, the Notre Dame coach will have a major test in front of him.

In 2017, he passed the test.

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