Heading into Year 5, does Kelly have Notre Dame in good place?

Heading into Year 5, does Kelly have Notre Dame in good place?
March 3, 2014, 10:45 am
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With Brian Kelly entering Year 5 on the job, it's worth noting no Notre Dame coach since Lou Holtz has lasted longer than five years in South Bend. But four of the five men who've coached the Irish six or more years have statues outside Notre Dame Stadium.

It was after five years that Notre Dame parted ways with Charlie Weis, Bob Davie and Gerry Faust. But Kelly, who signed a contract extension last year, doesn't appear to be on that same doomed path.

[MORE: Catch 'Inside Look: Brian Kelly' Monday night on CSN]

In Kelly's four seasons, the Irish have had records of 8-5, 8-5, 12-1 and 9-4, respectively. That's one great year slapped between three mediocre ones, at least by Notre Dame's standards.

But Kelly wasn't going to instantly build a winner the moment he set foot in South Bend. If the first two years were about building a base for the program, then 2012 was the ceiling of how well a Kelly team can perform.

"Coach Kelly, his staff has done a great job putting it in place what it takes to be great, and the guys have bought into that and understand that," former quarterback Tommy Rees said last year.

2013's result may look like a step back on paper, but consider this: Notre Dame was without Everett Golson (due to academics) and had to replace him with Rees, a highly intelligent but hardly a dynamic playmaker. Manti Te'o, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Zeke Motta proved difficult to replace on defense. The Irish had some rough injury luck last fall, too.

[RELATED: Notre Dame hoping Golson can take his game to the next level]

And yet, players from last year's team said over and over they felt only a few plays away from having 10 or 11 wins and contending for a BCS berth.

"We're very close to being able to put double-digit wins each year," Kelly said in December. "And that's really the goal, in terms of getting your program to double-digit wins and competing for BCS opportunities. That's where we need to be. We're close, we're not there consistently yet. Certainly the record is what it is."

While Notre Dame has to replace plenty of keys players in 2014 — Zack Martin, Chris Watt, T.J. Jones, Troy Niklas, Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Bennett Jackson, to highlight a few — there's plenty of talent rising through the ranks. Jaylon Smith had an outstanding debut, while a slew of fellow freshmen flashed tantalizing potential in 2013. Notre Dame's 2014 recruiting class, headlined by linebacker Nyles Morgan and offensive lineman Quenton Nelson, was rated by Rivals as a Top 15 group.

But getting talent to Notre Dame hasn't been the issue in the past even if Irish coaches have to shop down a different aisle, as Kelly likes to put it. It's coaching up that talent while helping 18-to-22-year-olds adjust to college life at Notre Dame.

[MORE: Notre Dame aims to put Matthias Farley in a better position]

In talking to some of 2013's departing seniors, there's a confidence among that group — which saw the entirety of Kelly's coaching tenure to date — that the right foundation is in place for success at Notre Dame. Unless Kelly leaves on his own, he'll at least hit the six-year mark in South Bend.

That won't guarantee Kelly a statue — he has to win a championship before that becomes a discussion. But there's a confidence at Notre Dame that Kelly's foundation is one that could eventually produce a title.

And that's something Notre Dame hasn't had in quite some time.