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Brian Kelly’s ability to develop talent key to Notre Dame’s success

SOUTH BEND IN - SEPTEMBER 22: Head coach Brian Kelly Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches along with his team as

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 22: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches along with his team as the Irish take on the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 22, 2012 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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Updated: January 1, 2013 6:36AM



As the leading returning receiver among tight ends in the Big East in 2008, Connor Barwin was looking forward to a big senior year at Cincinnati and then the NFL.

But Brian Kelly had other ideas. One phone call from Kelly changed everything. ‘‘We’re moving you to defensive end,’’ Kelly, who was in his second year at Cincinnati after Mark Dantonio left for Michigan State, told him.

‘‘I was shocked,’’ Barwin said. ‘‘I never saw that coming. I had never thought about it before. But looking back on it, it was the best thing that could have happened in my career.’’

Barwin’s trust in Kelly paid off. As a first-year defensive end, Barwin had 12 sacks, 20 quarterback pressures and eight pass deflections for the Bearcats. The Houston Texans selected him 46th overall in the 2009 NFL draft. In 2011, he had 11 1/2 sacks as a pass-rushing outside linebacker and should have made the Pro Bowl.

The Connor Barwin story is the shining example of the secret to Brian Kelly’s success from Grand Valley State to Central Michigan to Cincinnati to Notre Dame: He has a knack for putting the right player in the right place at the right time.

Beneath the sometimes off-putting public exterior as a smooth-talking, straight-shooting son-of-a-politician, Kelly has an intuition about football players. It allows him to go beyond the three, four or five stars on a recruiting list and ignore the pre-existing conditions inherited from a previous regime and get the most out of what he’s got.

‘‘[He knows] how to find good football players,’’ said Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who came to the NFL from Wisconsin but committed to Kelly at Central Michigan in 2006, when Watt was a lightly recruited prospect from Pewaukee, Wis.

‘‘He believed in me. And he showed that he believed in me. He was willing to give me a scholarship when not many others teams were. He’s a heckuva a coach and a heckuva a recruiter. I’m not surprised to see him have success.’’

Kelly has made a living out of finding overlooked players like Watt and Frank Zombo (Central Michigan), reinventing players and retro-fitting offenses and defenses to give those players the best chance to succeed. And he strikes gold more than most. Dan Bazuin was a good defensive end at Central Michigan who became great under Kelly — he led the nation with 26 1/2 tackles for loss and was second with 16 sacks in 2005. Joe Staley was just another young tight end at Central Michigan until Kelly moved him to offensive tackle. Staley became a first-round draft pick in 2007 and made the Pro Bowl for the 49ers last season.

At Notre Dame, Kelly hired his former Grand Valley State assistant Chuck Martin as recruiting coordinator (Martin recruited current NFL players Brandon Carr, Dan Skuta and Nick McDonald to Grand Valley). And he put Martin in the right position — moving him from defensive backs coach to offensive coordinator this year, providing Kelly with some much-needed breathing room.

The Kelly impact started slowly but is picking up steam. Harrison Smith bounced between safety and linebacker and was dogged by inconsistency on a defense that ranked 86th in the country under Charlie Weis. In two seasons under Kelly and Bob Diaco, Smith became a ballhawking safety who was drafted 29th overall by the Minnesota Vikings in April. Did anybody see that coming in 2009? Even the great Manti Te’o — he was a prep All-American and a star-in-the-making from the time he set foot on campus. But did anyone think he’d be a Heisman Trophy candidate as a senior? Notre Dame had a better chance of going undefeated than that happening.

It is Te’o who exemplifies Kelly’s impact on Notre Dame football and its rise from irrelevancy to an impossible dream season more than anyone or any thing. A soft-spoken, mild-mannered, fundamentally sound tackler in his first year with Kelly in 2010, Te’o is a demonstrative, playmaking leader in 2012 — exhorting himself and his teammates with overt displays of emotion thoroughout the Irish’s magnificent unbeaten season. His seven interceptions this season, by the way, are seven more than he had in his first three combined at Notre Dame.

Maybe the quiet kid just grew up. More likely, Te’o owes much of his success to not only Diaco and all the other assistant coaches he thanked after Notre Dame’s 22-13 victory over USC on Saturday night, but also to Brian Kelly. A year ago, Te’o was among those most insulted by Kelly’s lament that he needed the players he inherited from Weis to play with the same verve as the football-gene players he recruited in order to accelerate the program’s development.

The next exhortation from Manti Te’o should include something along the lines of, ‘Coach Kelly was right.’ Because while Te’o might still have been an All-America linebacker and still headed to the NFL after four years under Charlie Weis, he’s a serious Heisman Trophy contender and on the cusp of a national championship because of Kelly.

There’s no doubt that Te’o and other Weis recruits such as tight end Tyler Eifert, offensive linemen Braxton Cave and Zack Martin, defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore and running backs Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick have played leading roles. But Notre Dame has become a winner as Kelly’s influence has dominated the lineup. Not just the players he recruited, but the holdovers Kelly and his staff — particularly Diaco, offensive coordinator Chuck Martin and strength coach/right-hand man Paul Longo — have developed.

Notre Dame’s defense, for instance, lost four of its top five tacklers from 2011 — three of whom are on NFL rosters today — and also lost freshman star Aaron Lynch. Yet the Irish improved from 28th in the country in points allowed to second this season. When a rebuilt secondary lost cornerback Lo Wood in August and safety Jamoris Slaughter in September, freshman KeiVarae Russell and sophomore Matthias Farley stepped in without a dropoff. Farley, by the way, is a converted wide receiver. So is Bennett Jackson, the other starting cornerback.

And after losing All-America wide receiver Michael Floyd to the NFL and starting inexperienced sophomore Everett Golson at quarterback, the Notre Dame offense, while obviously a work-in-progress, still is averaging more yards per game and per play than it did in 2011.

If Kelly gets the quarterback right — like he has at ever other stop prior to arriving in South Bend — Notre Dame will be even better next season. But whatever level the Irish have reached — whether they are national champions or three touchdowns worse than Alabama — they have a better chance of staying there with Kelly than the fool’s-gold teams of 2002 under Tyrone Willingham and 2005 and 2006 under Weis.

It would help if he can keep players like Aaron Lynch around — it will always be a challenge to maintain success without players like that. But as this season has proven, Kelly doesn’t need them as much as others do. Not as long as he can turn a tight end into a playmaking defensive lineman or an NFL-bound offensive tackle.

‘‘You know Brian Kelly, he can sell anything,’’ Connor Barwin said. ‘‘He’s a really confident person. I always liked coaches like that. You believe in coaches like that. And I believed in him. He always makes you think you’re the best at what you do. It makes you a more confident player. And a better player.’’



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