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Painful changes give Notre Dame program a 'first coat of paint'

Brian Kelly made changes to his coaching staff that resulted in a team that was tougher and more opportunistic. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Notre Dame can skip the tutorial about the next step.

It’s the one the program has tried to take for nearly three decades, only to trip and fall. Notre Dame needs its roster to max out, its coaching moves to click and a healthy dose of luck to break through, particularly because of its schedule (more on that later). Everyone in the program understands the degree of difficulty that lies ahead, mainly because they know the degree of difficulty it took to get back to this place.

A year ago, Notre Dame sat at 4-8, an easy and deserving target for national ridicule. Many fans wanted coach Brian Kelly out. The team couldn’t win close games or stop anyone consistently.

It took necessary but painful changes from Kelly to the staff to the schemes to the players. The result was a more cohesive, more opportunistic, tougher team that rose to No. 3 nationally after a splendid October, only to have reality set in during November. Notre Dame didn’t end up with a playoff spot, but it emerged with a stable foundation after a gut-rehab.

“There’s different work to be done now,” Kelly told ESPN.com. “If I could be as basic as saying this was the first coat of paint, using that analogy, we now really can get into some detailed work with our football team. That’s what will be exciting.”

Notre Dame completes its season Monday against No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl presented by Overton’s. A victory would mark Notre Dame’s first in a Jan. 1 bowl since the 1994 Cotton, secure its second 10-win season in the past three, and possibly its first final AP Top 10 ranking since 2012 and just its second since 1993. It would be a good sendoff for a team that didn’t finish the regular season well.

“It’s a little bit more of getting to the 10-win plateau than having any long-term significance,” Kelly said. “Big picture, we’re not going to lose momentum.”

The upcoming offseason should be more about muscle memory than system shock, and not just in the weight room. That was where the Irish received their first jolt of change last winter as Kelly replaced Paul Longo, his close friend and strength coach at three schools over 13 years, with Matt Balis.

Longtime Kelly assistants Mike Denbrock and Keith Gilmore moved on, and Kelly brought in three new on-field coordinators -- Mike Elko (defense), Chip Long (offense) and Brian Polian (special teams) -- in addition to Balis and other new staffers.

“Badass dudes who came in here ready to change and bring this place back to where it’s supposed to be,” senior offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “The first time you hear Matt Balis speak, you know what this guy’s about. He’s an intense, fiery, passionate dude. This is his dream school, his dream job.

“The mindset that those coordinators had going into this year was infectious on every player.”

The new coaches shook up an environment labeled “stale” by McGlinchey and “complacent” by linebacker Drue Tranquill. Neither element should exist when the team reconvenes after the bowl game.

Tranquill, who likely will become a two-time captain in 2018, expects his teammates to be less resistant and more motivated as they spin it forward.

“We’ll be able to attack it even harder, honestly,” Tranquill said. “Guys are more accustomed to this is how it’s going to be from now on.”

There are no guarantees. A year ago, Notre Dame players didn’t know if the changes would yield better results until the games began. After crushing USC and NC State on consecutive weekends by a combined score of 84-28, the team’s playoff path seemed clear and, considering its performance, realistic.

Tranquill, who grew up an Auburn fan, thought of how the Tigers went from 5-7 in 2008 to the national champions two years later. Notre Dame’s dramatic spike in performance, at least in late October, “felt powerful.” What followed was a reminder that complete turnarounds in college football take time. Notre Dame lost by 33 at Miami and by 18 at Stanford. Even its two November wins, over Wake Forest and Navy, lacked the traits displayed during the first two months.

“Weren’t ready just yet,” Kelly said. “Four of our last six games were against top-25 teams. Probably a little tough to [overcome] that with this being kind of that foundational year for us. But again, if you look at it in its entirety, this group did some incredible things to put us back in the right position to grow into a playoff team next year.”

Phase 2 starts, Kelly said, with upgrading the athleticism on defense. Elko delivered in his first season, upgrading Notre Dame’s takeaways (20, an increase of six) and negative-yardage plays (75, an increase of 14). Players such as Tranquill, used incorrectly in the previous system, blossomed under Elko at the rover position. But the Irish can get sturdier and more explosive, especially if young linemen such as Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara blossom. Getting linebacker Te’von Coney and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery back for one more year -- ESPN’s Mel Kiper pegs Tillery as the No. 7 draft-eligible tackle for 2018 -- would be big.

Kelly likes the offensive identity Notre Dame built under Long this season: “A Midwest, physical, hit-you-in-the-mouth group.” The Irish lose McGlinchey and guard Quenton Nelson, arguably the nation’s best offensive-line tandem. Top rusher Josh Adams and top wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown both have draft decisions, and the coaches expect incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec to push Brandon Wimbush at quarterback. But the run game shouldn’t take a major dip, and Notre Dame’s 2018 recruiting class, currently ranked 10th nationally by ESPN, should help in several areas.

Beyond the personnel is the belief about competing nationally, rather than hoping to do so. “You’re moving off of a big rock when you do that,” Kelly said. That’s what 2017 created for Notre Dame.

But the biggest boulder has seemingly grown during the playoff era: The schedule. Kelly believes Notre Dame must scrutinize its unique scheduling approach. There are many competing interests -- the ACC, three annual rivals, the desire to be the sport’s main intersectional event every Saturday -- but to Kelly, making the playoff should be chief among them.

“You can’t keep everybody happy,” he said.

Notre Dame opens 2018 against a Michigan team built to be the best in coach Jim Harbaugh’s tenure. It ends September with Pac-12 runner-up Stanford, followed by a trip to improving Virginia Tech. The stretch run includes trips to Northwestern, a 10-win team this season, and to defending Pac-12 champ USC. After Oct. 13, Notre Dame has only one home game, against a Florida State team filled with four-star and five-star recruits. Four years into the CFP, it’s clear Notre Dame needs to run the table or suffer one respectable loss and hope other contenders stumble.

“We schedule big games, prime-time games, because that’s what our players want to play in, but that makes for a very tough season,” Tranquill said. “It takes a really mature group to consistently step on the big stage and perform to the level we needed to. I don’t know that we had that down the stretch this year. That’s something we’re continuing to build.”

The build continues for Kelly, too. The self-assessment won’t be as severe as what happened after his second losing season in 26 years as a head coach. But Kelly must figure out how to avoid a November similar to the one Notre Dame just had.

“It was a rewarding year, but a very difficult year,” Kelly said. “As we sit back and get ready to play this game, I’m sure we’ve put it back into the right position. There’s more growth. There’s a next step for us.

“It’s now time to elevate.”