Weis has seen the best and worst of Notre Dame

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Tonight could be the last time we see Charlie Weis roam the sidelines of his alma mater’s football team. If that’s the case, the man deserves a very large thank you from fans and foes alike.

Five years ago, Weis was the perfect man for Notre Dame. He had a Super Bowl winning pedigree. He not only understood the unique difficulties of the job, he embraced them. And he was one of us. He charmed us with stories from his days in the student section. He validated many of our own feelings, that we had the answers for the football program (if only we decided to commit a lifetime to coaching). And he talked a game that so many Notre Dame fans needed to hear. You just wait, he might as well have told us. We’ll back back and better than ever.

We watched him work two jobs that first winter, coordinating the Patriots offense during a Super Bowl winning run, while putting together a coaching staff and recruiting class in the wee hours of morning. He didn’t play golf or hit the tanning bed, he slept in his office and built winning football teams. This was the guy Notre Dame needed on the sidelines. This was the guy that was going to truly wake up the echoes.

And to think that he almost did…

While people forget, Weis is the same coach that brought the program out of its darkest times in 2005. With a group of players that had floundered under Ty Willingham and a school dealing with a serious PR problem after firing their coach after only three seasons, Weis stormed out of the gates, drubbing a ranked Pitt team 42-21. The Irish put up 28 points in the second quarter, before coasting to an easy win. This was the offense Notre Dame was supposed to have, many thought. And for those of you looking for a “signature win,” Weis had two those first two weeks, none bigger than the shocking 17-10 upset of #3 Michigan in Ann Arbor. As for that golden Saturday afternoon when the Irish battled USC… there’s just too much to say. But if tonight brings a close to the Charlie Weis era, the lasting remnant could be his terrible luck.

If you want to fire Charlie Weis because of his last three seasons, you need to appreciate his first two. Regardless of whose players he coached, Weis propelled a rudderless program to a 9-3 season in 2005. In 2006, he had the Irish on the cover of Sports Illustrated and had the media buying into a program that many had counted out as irrelevant. The Irish garnered 10 first place votes in the Week One AP poll, were ranked number two in the country, and placed the much yearned for bulls-eye once again on the Notre Dame football program. Weis didn’t run from it, he embraced it, challenging his players to achieve more with an infamous banner that hung in the Loftus center weight room that summer: “9-3 ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH.” And while the season ended with two disappointing losses to USC and LSU, on Thanksgiving day that 2006 team sat at 10-1, and its three losses that season were to 3rd, 4th, and 8th ranked teams in the country.

That Weis has been unable to recapture the early success he had at Notre Dame has been obvious. Yet he’s the very same coach that propelled the program to the upper stratosphere of college football and got players and recruits excited about a NFL ready system. It’s a system that will churn out two first round quarterbacks and two first round wide receivers (it would’ve been three if Jeff Samardzija decided to play football for a living). And it’s a program that is in much better shape than the top heavy one he inherited.

Like Charlie Weis or not, the man did not forget how to coach football. Whoever replaces Weis when his time at Notre Dame is finished, will also have strengths and weaknesses. Whether it’s Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer, Brian Kelly, or Jon Gruden, no coach is bullet proof. Stoops lost five games this season, the last by four touchdowns to a 7-4 Texas Tech team. And while Urban Meyer continues to be the apple in many Irish fans’ eye, if he does backpedal out of Gainesville, he’ll be forced to coach without a transcendent quarterback in Tim Tebow, and will install an offense that does nothing but hurt the professional potential of his players (ask an NFL scout if you don’t believe me… or Louis Murphy.) While Brian Kelly’s run at Cincinatti has been impressive, he’s only won three games in three seasons against BCS teams outside of the Big East and he’s another offensive guru whose team struggles to play defense. And Jon Gruden will bring another complex NFL offense to South Bend, and has a personality that doesn’t exactly fit with Notre Dame’s image. While many choose to look at these coaches with rose-colored glasses, it’s easy to find warts on any coach if you look hard enough.

If tonight is Charlie Weis’ last game on the sidelines, his successor will likely benefit from the man’s tireless work ethic and young stable of talent. They’ll also be forced to live up to the offensive standard that Weis delivered, no small task when you consider how prolific the offense has been.

More detrimental, they’ll also be forced to live up to the expectations of Notre Dame nation, a group of alumni and fans that feel like elite football is a birthright, something that goes hand-in-hand with Touchdown Jesus, Knute Rockne and gold helmets. Charlie Weis was never one to run away from those unrealistic expectations, even while they suffocated his past two football teams. While these past three seasons certainly didn’t live up to standards, he dazzled us all in that rousing beginning, a beginning that reminded everyone that Notre Dame can still be an elite team on Saturdays.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Getty
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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.

Clark Lea formally named Linebackers Coach

clark-lea
UND.com
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Notre Dame formally introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday. The press release for the 35-year-old  included the following quote from the new assistant who has worked at Bowling Green, UCLA and Wake Forest, and rejoins Mike Elko in South Bend.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

That work has already begun, with Lea on the prowl as the recruiting dead period ended and the rebuilt Irish staff hit the road. Yesterday, Lea was with defensive coordinator Mike Elko visiting commit David Adams, a key piece of the Irish puzzle on the defensive side of the ball. That starts a mad rush that’ll keep Lea’s belongs in boxes until after the first Wednesday in February, as Elko and his reshuffled defensive staff open their recruiting board, finding replacements for a handful of de-commitments and pieces that’ll fit Elko’s scheme.

If there’s any reason for optimism after a tough few weeks in recruiting, it’s the young staff that Kelly has assembled. The youth movement includes not just Lea, but the 39-year-old Elko. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is just 33, moving to Notre Dame after one season at Memphis. Running backs coach Autry Denson just turned 40 while special teams coordinator Brian Polian is practically long in the tooth at 42. (All that comes before the expected announcement of 25-year-old Tommy Rees.)

Lea’s pedigree is rock solid, earning kudos in 2012 for his work as Linebackers coach at Bowling Green, Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year.

“Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” Kelly said in the release. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system — having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

 

 

 

Reports: Lea, Alexander added to Irish coaching staff

delvaughn
ASU Sports Information
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Brian Kelly is adding to his rebuilt coaching staff, reportedly finalizing deals with Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea and Arizona State assistant DelVaughn Alexander. Lea will reunite with Mike Elko and coach linebackers and Alexander will coach wide receivers. While both hires are still going through formal university vetting, the Lea hire has long been rumored before being reported by SI’s Pete Thamel. FootballScoop.com broke the news on Alexander, before multiple outlets confirmed the report.

In Lea, Elko brings a piece of his coaching staff with him to South Bend. The 35-year-old spent last season working in Winston-Salem and spent three seasons at Syracuse before that. He worked with Elko and Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson at Bowling Green and has spent time as an assistant at UCLA as well. He earned three letters at Vanderbilt, a 2004 graduate.

Alexander is a veteran presence to help replace Mike Denbrock and fill his void coaching receivers. He’s also a coach with first-hand knowledge of new coordinator Chip Long, having worked alongside him in Tempe under Mike Norvell. The move also comes in time for the reopen of the recruiting season’s home stretch, bringing a capable West Coast recruiter to the staff at a time when Notre Dame’s 2017 class is leaking a bit of oil.

Alexander played wide receiver at USC, playing for Larry Smith and John Robinson, before breaking into the coaching ranks there as a graduate assistant. He’s also had stops at UNLV, coached for Jim Harbaugh at San Diego, and spent significant time at Wisconsin and Arizona State where he coached multiple positions, taking over tight ends after Long left for Memphis.

Chip Long in as Offensive Coordinator… and play-caller

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Notre Dame’s formal press release introducing Chip Long as the new offensive coordinator did more than confirm news that we’ve known for a few weeks. It let us in on Brian Kelly’s initial plans for his offense heading into a pivotal offseason.

After some struggles in 2016 with DeShone Kizer and an inexperienced wide receiving corps, most expected Kelly to rip back control of the offense after Mike Denbrock called the plays and Mike Sanford coordinated the offense. But Kelly is going to let Long call the plays next season, adding some intrigue to a press release that usually is vanilla.

“Chip will be given the full responsibility to call plays in 2017,” Kelly said in the release. “His offense at Memphis displayed a unique blend of physicality, athleticism, versatility and explosiveness. Chip’s play-calling created mismatches all over the field and did it in a number of different ways. He likes to use players who can fill numerous roles in an array of formations, whether that be two and three tight ends or multiple running backs.

“Chip has experience coaching at almost every position on the offensive side of the ball. He’s worked for and learned from some of the most respected offensive minds in college football — Bobby Petrino, Mike Norvell and Jeff Brohm — to name a few.”

That Kelly is handing over play-calling to Long, who called plays last year for Mike Norvell at Memphis, is a surprise on the surface. But if you listen to Kelly over the past few seasons, he’s always downplayed that responsibility. Most thought he was simply playing coy, though Kelly seems to value game plan and installation as something at least as important as calling the plays.

But after splitting the baby between Denbrock and Sanford these past two seasons (the three-man collaboration worked much better in 2015 than 2016–possibly explained by the personnel) perhaps Kelly sees a singular voice as a key to improving an Irish offense that’ll have to replace Kizer, but should welcome back the majority of offensive playmakers, as well as Alizé Jones. Giving that assignment to Long will also let Kelly dig in as a head coach, working with first-year starter Brandon Wimbush and staying connected to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko and his installation.

Long’s work on campus will likely take flight as soon as the recruiting dead period is over. Known for his tenacity on the trail, Notre Dame is in desperate need of getting back into living rooms, trying to get back some momentum as a few defections have spoiled the 2017 class, and a handful of spots are available in this upcoming signing class.

Long will also likely work with tight ends, a position he played as a D-II All-American and that he coached at Memphis last season. Scott Booker coached tight ends since 2012.

“It’s an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to serve as the offensive coordinator at the University of Notre Dame,” Long said in the statement. “The challenge to lead at a University with such high standards is incredibly motivating. I’m very grateful to Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for extending this opportunity.

“It’s Notre Dame: the values, the culture, and the leadership. My wife, Kari, and I are excited to move to South Bend and to join the Notre Dame family.”