Diaco talks personnel, transition, coaching

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Friend of the program Bruce Feldman had a nice interview with Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco covering just about everything that’s gone on since the new coaching staff has come to South Bend. Diaco strikes me as a unique guy that clearly understands how the relationship with the media works.

I caught up with Feldman to ask him about his impressions of the interview and he thought Diaco was a sharp guy. What was supposed to be a quick ten minute conversation ended up going much longer and lasted 45 minutes, which seems about right if you’ve watched or read any of Diaco’s media sessions. It’s clear that the guy loves talking football. 

One of the more interesting tidbits came when Diaco followed up on the sense of entitlement that Brian Kelly had mentioned noticing in Notre Dame players. Diaco’s observations on his defensive players was fascinating:

“I would say that, as a coach, the first thing that you see as a person
as a trained evaluator is their body type when they’re walking around.
Who has some level of fitness — tangible qualities or tangible
liabilities. That’s first as you walk in the door and are presented
with the player. You’re getting an opinion on what’s important to that
player. Is he physically fit and lean and trim, and well-dressed and
clean-cut? You can see a lot of other things in there: drive, passion
for the task, energy. If he’s overweight, out of shape, sloppy in his
appearance — things untied, things undone — right there it correlates
a lack of attention to detail in how they’re living their life.”

It’s pretty clear that Diaco is a guy who pays attention to detail, and every player on the defense has been put on notice. This reminds me a lot of the days when Mickey Marotti ruled the weight room, and everything down to the spandex you wore under your shorts was important. Marotti’s attention to the most minute detail — making sure that the “Notre Dame” on the 45-pound plates faced the right direction — set the tone for your time in the workout room. (It was a terrifying experience for an 18-year-old kid, believe me.)

Diaco also talked about his experience with legendary Iowa coach Hayden Fry and working with Al Groh, two men that played significant roles in the evolution of the 3-4 defense. While many think of the 3-4 as a new wrinkle, Diaco reminds us that it’s been around for quite some time.

“We did it in college when I played at Iowa, but we just called it
Base-50. Most of the guys with white hair will remind you that whenever
they hear the term “3-4″ that it’s just a Base-50. When I was in
college Bill Brasier was the defensive coordinator and he was just an
awesome coach and an awesome guy. My first touch was in the Hayden Fry
system there. Then to fast forward, 13 years to meeting Coach Groh, it
had elements of Base-50, but he created and built that defense with
Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells. To learn it from one of the founding
fathers of that structure was really awesome.”

Diaco also talked about the development process that has Irish fans so excited about Brian Kelly. As Paul Longo was, Diaco was hesitant to give away any trade secrets, but he did hint at a refined system that Kelly has for finding players that’ll fit in his program.

“I don’t want to be coy about this, but I don’t want to talk too much
about Coach Kelly’s development system. I don’t want to give out any
information that he doesn’t want to have out there, but it is a
scientific system of evaluation in the recruiting process. There are
specific categories. We don’t necessarily look at the player at doing
the jobs he’s doing now as correlating to college. We look at the
players that we believe show the tangible and intangible qualities that
we want them to do. They may be at different positions. There may be
tight ends who are tackles or wide receivers that are linebackers. A
lot of people talk about it but Coach really does it, and he also has
the strength and conditioning system to bring that player from one to
the next. You see that at Iowa with guys like (John) Alt, (Ross) Verba,
(Chris) Knipper, (Robert) Gallery — those were dynamic awesome tackles
that were tight ends. You see walk-ons that became great players. It’s
a very similar system with coach.”

As usual, great stuff from Feldman. While we’ve yet to see Diaco do anything, I’ve got a feeling that he’ll be a force both on the sidelines and in the living room.
 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters. 

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.