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.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)