The Zen of Diaco

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Bob Diaco is a tough man to define. He is what a lot of young, former players are: a high energy, whirling dervish of a coach that brings an intensity to the field and a youthful nature that’s makes him someone easy to relate to for players.

He is also the type of coach you’d never expect from someone that looks like Don Draper’s doppelganger. Diaco is a passionate coach, he runs a meeting room like a reverend from his pulpit, and the messages he relays aren’t just about the Xs and Os of football, but on lessons that his players will take with them throughout life.

For a coach that turned a unit that was one of the worst in Notre Dame’s history into a group that played some of the best November football in the country, Diaco hardly received a heroes’ welcome from some members of ND Nation. Most of the ill will stems from the defense’s performance against Navy, when the Irish were undressed by Ricky Dobbs and company, and Kelly and Diaco’s solution for stopping the option was worst than anything Jon Tenuta engineered.

After an overly candid interview with media after Notre Dame’s dispiriting loss to Navy, Diaco came off sounding like a coach that lacked answers — a very bad thing to sound like, especially at Notre Dame. From that point forward, Brian Kelly kept his coordinators off limits to the media, under the auspices that it’d help the do their job.It apparently worked.

To his credit, Diaco let his players do the talking. The Irish defense stiffened, putting together a string of performances that were among the most dominant in the country. While messageboard mongers took to conspiracy theories — Diaco spoke to Lou Holtz, Chuck Martin had taken over, the young defensive coordinator was on his way out the door — Diaco continued to stress the same message to his players, a consistency that helped instill belief in a unit that had suffered a crisis in confidence year after year in November.

Diaco has resumed speaking to the media, but his responses, while always thoughtful, rarely give you much insight into what the Irish are doing on the field to stop an offense. Rather, Diaco has taken to discussing defense in a way that’s philosophical. While you’d expect it out of Phil Jackson, you wouldn’t from a coach that flies around the practice field like the All-Big Ten linebacker he was. While he’s certainly more careful in his word choices, this isn’t just coachspeak from Diaco, but rather the thoughts of a pretty unique guy that’s evolved the Irish’s way of playing defense.

For those looking for a taste of what a Diaco press session looks like, UND.com has a great exchange during Diaco’s kickoff with the media for the 2011 season.  Here’s a classic bit between reporter and defensive coordinator:

Reporter: Talk about the confidence among that group of starters especially. They seem to feel like they can be an elite group this year.

Diaco: Well, you’ve got multiple things going on in that question right there. Personal confidence is just a frame of mind. We want our players to have self belief, and really ultimate self belief that’ll create a real persistence to their goals. That’s something that’s a part of our day that we’re working towards, that the players have self belief.

Reporter: Are you confident in them at this point? Let me ask you that?

Diaco: I’m confident that they’re going to come to work every day and really, really want to get better. They’re focused on the things we’ve as a whole unit, players and coaches, because we’re growing together, we’re focused on the things that we believe create great defense and we’re working towards those things.”

Diaco caught grief from his players last season, encapsulated by Darius Fleming, who described some of the obscure ways his defensive coordinator related to his players.

“We’ll just be going to 11 on 11,” Fleming said before the Sun Bowl, “and then he’ll just bring up some kind of story that he feels relates to the topic. But we don’t. So we’ll just go along with it. Just like ‘yeah, yeah, that’s really good coach.’

“I mean, he’ll talk about turtles. He’ll talk about scorpions. I think he might have read a lot of books when he was younger or something like that. But he’s always got a story for something.”

The story Diaco was referencing was a fable about the scorpion and the turtle, an allegory that tells of a scorpion that asks a turtle for a ride across a river. While the turtle is afraid to give the dangerous scorpion a ride, in fear that he may sting him and die, the scorpion convinces him otherwise, only to sting him halfway across the river, dooming them both. Dating back centuries, the fable illustrates that some behavior is irrepressible, and you can’t fight the character of who you are. (Wikipedia also mentions that the fable sometimes ends with “it is better that we should both perish than that my enemy should live.” So Diaco’s got that angle going for him as well.)

It’s teaching points like that one that make Diaco a different kind of defensive coordinator. Earlier in the week, Diaco looked to Gandhi when he talked about what he took away from last season as he looks to his second with the Irish.

“It was 1922 Gandhi to young India where he talked about satisfaction being in the effort,” Diaco said. “That it’s not in the attainment, but true victory is full effort, to paraphrase. So we’re interested in focusing on full effort, and that becomes tough, cause there’s a lot of questions, and everybody’s asking a lot of questions. So there needs to be installation. There needs to be a refocusing daily on the things that need to get done today to create winning. Today. And tomorrow is tomorrow. So I’d say that focus intensified is something that we need to move forward with.”

For some skeptics, regardless of what Gandhi said, true victory will only come when Diaco’s troops stop a Navy option attack that marked one of the worst Saturday’s in Diaco’s career. While that Saturday certainly matters to Diaco as well, it’s clear that he and his defense have looked to much deeper places for the answers.

 

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”