Catching up with… Kory Minor

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(Catching Up will be a regular feature at Inside the Irish. Feel free to send along suggestions or nominees for future weeks.)

Kory Minor is a fascinating person. A five-star recruit before there were five-star recruits, Minor was USA Today’s national player of the year coming out of high school in Inglewood, California. Minor signed with coach Lou Holtz and the Irish and spent four years as a starter playing under both coach Holtz and head coach Bob Davie.

If you had to find a person that embodies what Notre Dame wants in its student-athletes, Kory Minor is that person. His unbridled love and passion for Notre Dame and what it stands for was clear from the start of our hour-long conversation that ran until almost midnight last night.

He spoke candidly about his time at Notre Dame, what it was like during the transition between Lou Holtz and Bob Davie, his four years in the NFL, and what he’s doing with his life after football.

On the transition from Lou Holtz to Bob Davie:

No one has ever asked me about that… I’m not going to lie, for me, it was tough. I was a Lou Holtz guy. Besides academics and football, he was the main reason I went there. When he left, I actually thought about transferring for a little bit, then I realized that the institution where I was at, that was the right place for me to be.

Lou leaving just caught all of us off guard. I remember being in the office when he was clearing it out. I remember talking it through, shedding a few tears with him and saying goodbye. We had Davie as a coordinator, but he was nothing like Lou Holtz. I’m sure the guys at Penn State or Florida State they understand, there aren’t any coaches like Joe Paterno or Bobby Bowden. And there certainly aren’t any coaches like Lou Holtz.

On recruiting, and the changes between then and now:

It’s tough to say because I’m so far removed from it, but I’m getting back to following all of it. It’s so weird. I keep reading stuff, about Top 10 classes, Top 5 classes, but I don’t see it on the field yet. I’m not sure if it’s development, or what’s going on. We have our standards, we have our criteria, I know that. But you’re telling me we can’t find great athletes who are great students, too? When I was coming in, we had 8 or 9 guys in our class highly ranked, and that included Randy Moss, who didn’t end up coming. We were all great players and we were all smart.

I just don’t know enough on it from the recruiting side of the business, but I do know that we’ve got some great guys coming in and some great young guys on the roster, and I’m really excited to see the maturation going on, and seeing Notre Dame being up to speed and seeing what it’s all about. I’m in the middle of SC country, and I hate it. I want to see the guys that are coming turn out to be the guys that they’re built up to be. We can get guys that are great athletes and that can live up to great academic standards.

On the Ty Willingham situation:

I don’t think he got his just due. He had a great inaugural season. He didn’t have the second season that he wanted. But I don’t think he got his just due. We talked on the phone quite a bit, and any time I can meet a person and the guy can look me eye to eye and say to me ‘It’s not just my roll to win football games, but to make these players better men and people,’ that’s what Notre Dame stands for.

I was a little upset when he left, but I wish him the best, and I would’ve liked to see him have more time there, only because he embodied what Notre Dame was all about. All the principles that he stood for, you don’t get many men that say that. Those were the same principles that Coach Holtz stood for.

Do I think race was a factor? I can’t say that it was or it wasn’t. I think his time was short, but maybe they just wanted to go in another direction, and they totally had that right.

One (okay, maybe a couple) quintessential Lou Holtz story:

You don’t find many coaches that say they have an open door policy and actually mean it. It didn’t matter what it was — a school problem, family, girlfriend, it didn’t matter, his door was open. I remember a time when a player would say, ‘I’m going to talk to Coach Holtz,’ and he’d have someone else in with him, and he’d kick him out.

When a coach comes to your house and he tells your mother that he’s going to take care of your son, and tells me all about life at Notre Dame, I got to the campus and it was the same thing.

On the field, Lou used to drive a golf cart when he watched practice. If he’d see something wrong, he’d jump off the cart and just start yelling at someone, but the cart would just keep going. Man, it was hilarious. He’s a small guy, but his voice, his persona, it was commanding. He’d be yelling at someone and that cart was still running, and you’d be dodging that cart because it was coming and going to hit you.

He is a guy that I truly love and care for. He really loved and cared for me. Everything he came out and told my mom, it was 100 percent true and then some. It was everything he said it was going to be and more.

On his four years in the NFL, and the transition to life after football:

The transition from high school to college is enormous. The transition from college to the NFL, it there’s a word that’s way bigger than enormous, that’s what it would be. The speed, the size, you’re playing against veterans, against real pros. It’s tough not to be shell-shocked.

The NFL was one of the best experiences I ever had. I played a total of four years in the NFL, and played in some great games. Won some, lost some, but it was a great game. I always told myself that if it ever got to be a job that it was time to go. I had done a lot of things in the community, had gotten some internships that really got entrepreneurship running through my blood. And the game started to feel like work. I had a chance to keep playing with the Cleveland Browns but I knew it was time to go.

On his life as a Domino’s Pizza franchisee and pitchman:

I’ve been a franchisee for two years now, and worked my way through the business. We have a rally every year for Domino’s people, and people know I’m an outspoken guy, so they asked me to come down and say a few words. I said ‘Okay, no big deal,’ got up there, said a few words, and they didn’t think anything of it. A couple days later, I get a call and they say they want to put me in a commercial. ‘Oh, you do? Okay, sweet.’ They shot it downtown Los Angeles, it was a lot of fun, but a long day — 180 takes because I talk so fast. But I tell you what, I wouldn’t mind getting paid like that on a regular basis.

His advice for Manti Te’o:

He’s just got to come in and not worry about it. Come in, play well,
and don’t believe the hype. Good or bad, just come in, be you, and let
the talent take care of itself.

His expectations for this season’s Irish:

This is the first time that we’ve got a schedule that can help get the program in the right direction. I believe that we need to get the team developed and get some wins. A ‘W’ is a ‘W,’ I don’t care who we play. This is the first year since I’ve been following ND that we’ve played a schedule that is easier. And other schools do it every year. This is the first time that we’re almost there, and that we’ve got a schedule where we can do it. I think we’re at a place that we can win 9 or 10 games.

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.