Corbett Family Head Football Coach Brian Kelly can look back on 2016 and enjoy the moment. With seven players selected in the most recent NFL draft, a solid recruiting class (ranked twelfth by Rivals, sixteenth by ESPN), and a ten-win season behind him, the case that Coach Kelly belongs in the pantheon with Lou and Ara and Knute has only gotten stronger.
In addition to the seven drafted players, which included Notre Dame’s highest pick since 1993, Ronnie Stanley, six players signed free agent contracts with NFL teams over the weekend, giving Notre Dame thirteen players with opportunities to play professionally. That the Dallas Cowboys’ were willing to take such a chance with their pick on Jaylon Smith speaks to the quality of the emergency orthopedic care Smith received at the Fiesta Bowl and to the player’s strength, both physical and mental.
Brian Kelly’s motto for the 2015 season was “culture beats scheme.” From his earliest days in South Bend, when he mandated locker organization, Brian Kelly has been instilling a championship mentality in his players. At the same time, he has had to deal with circumstantial challenges unlike any faced by his coaching predecessors.
This is where KeiVarae Russell’s selection as the Chief’s second pick comes in. Russell was one of 2014’s “Frozen Five,” players who were suspended for violations of school policy that likely involved the honor code and something called “peer editing.” Sidelined for an entire season, Russell roared back in 2015 as a starter, notching two interceptions, four pass breakups, and sixty tackles. While Russell will not graduate before going pro, he’s made enough remarks about being the first in his family to graduate from college “when” he does, that he can rightly be considered one of the better redemption stories to come out of the locker room in a long time.
Sure, the Irish lost to tOSU in the Fiesta Bowl. But they did so without Jaylon Smith and Jerry Tillery on defense, and that they got there at all was due to the depth Coach Kelly developed at the quarterback position. No one thought a playoff spot within reach when Zaire went down at Virginia, but there was Kizer, ready for prime time. He wouldn’t have been without Coach Kelly and his staff.
With fifty-five wins in six seasons, Brian Kelly is just one shy of Lou Holtz’s win total, and while he lacks the national championship Lou, Ara, Devine, and Leahy were all able to manage by their third-season, you have the sense that Coach Kelly has the Irish were the program needs to be to compete for championships every couple of seasons. I wouldn’t bet against 2016 being one of them.