Kelly tunnel

The perfect coaching staff for the perfect season

16 Comments

To know what this 2012 Notre Dame coaching staff is, you first need to know what it isn’t.

So let’s turn back the clock seven years.

It was imagery that Notre Dame fans took to like catnip. Newly hired head coach Charlie Weis, slaving away in his office in Foxboro. Weis was building a Super Bowl winning game plan for the Patriots by day and putting together an elite Notre Dame coaching staff by night.

When the staff was announced, it looked to Irish fans that Weis had built a veritable all-star team, assembled from places far and wide, with pedigrees and resumes difficult to poke holes in.

The initial staff was as follows:

David Cutcliffe: Asst. Head Coach (Offense) / Quarterbacks — Former head coach at Ole Miss.
John Latina: Offensive Line — Offensive Coordinator at Ole Miss.
Bill Lewis: Asst. Head Coach (Defense) / Defensive Backs — Former Georgia Tech head coach.
Mike Haywood: Offensive Coordinator / Running Backs — Texas recruiting coordinator, ND grad.
Rick Minter: Defensive Coordinator / Linebackers — Former Cincinnati head coach.
Rob Ianello: Receivers / Recruiting Coordinator — Arizona WR coach, Recruiting whiz, Barry Alvarez asst.
Jappy Oliver: Defensive Line – South Carolina defensive line coach
Bernie Parmalee:- Tight Ends / Special Teams – NFL TE, Miami Dolphins coach
Brian Polian: Head Special Teams Coach / DB Asst. — Central Florida Asst., son of Bill Polian.
Ruben Mendoza: Strength and Conditioning — Ole Miss strength coach.

Strong on paper was an understatement. Twenty-five seasons of experience as a collegiate head coach. Twenty-nine seasons as an offensive or defensive coordinator. Over a decade of NFL experience to go along with Weis’ NFL career.

While the staff suffered a major blow when heart bypass surgery forced Cutcliffe to resign over the summer before ever coaching in a game, the first edition of Weis’ staff still looked like the one he designed — a collection of coaches brought together to help Notre Dame win.

Of course, that didn’t exactly happen. Latina was pushed out after mediocre line play in favor of Frank Verducci. Bill Lewis retired to take an administration job. Haywood moved on to a head coaching job. Minter was dismissed in favor of Corwin Brown and a 3-4 scheme, who gave way to Jon Tenuta. Oliver was the scapegoat for an underwhelming defensive front, replaced by grizzled veteran Randy Hart and the upstart former All-Pro Bryant Young.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that instability atop the Irish football program played a huge role in some of the struggles that took place in Weis’ final three seasons. But the high profile nature of the coaching staff — a group of mostly veteran coaches that had each reached professional heights before coming to South Bend — also colored the lenses through which the average fan looked at Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame staff as he began assembling it.

Kelly’s plan was basically the antithesis of what his predecessor laid out. Every member of Kelly’s staff, with the exception of holdover Tony Alford and offensive line coach Ed Warinner, had a direct connection to Notre Dame’s new head coach. While Weis favored resumes, Kelly built a core staff that was young and hungry.

This is the 2009 coaching staff that Kelly announced.

Bob Diaco: Defensive Coordinator / Inside Linebackers — DC under Kelly at Cincinnati
Charley Molnar: Offensive Coordinator / Quarterbacks — Passing Game coordinator at Cincinnati
Tony Alford: Wide Receivers — Kelly holdover.
Kerry Cooks: Outside Linebackers — Hired by Kelly at CMU, played with Diaco at Iowa.
Mike Denbrock: Tight Ends — Coached at Grand Valley with Kelly, Former ND asst.
Mike Elston: Defensive Line / Special Teams Coordinator — With Kelly at CMU and Cincinnati
Tim Hinton: Running Backs — With Kelly at Cincinnati
Chuck Martin: Defensive Backs / Recruiting Coordinator — Took over Grand Valley State program
Ed Warinner: Offensive Line — No connection to Kelly. Ohio native & former Kansas OC
Paul Longo: Director of Strength and Conditioning — With Kelly at CMU and Cincinnati.

A group that was initially labeled as “small timey” by skeptical fans has stayed mostly in place. It has also earned its place in college football as one of the hardest working, most energetic staffs in the game.

While this group hasn’t stayed completely in tact, the changes in the group feel more evolutionary than anything else. Molnar, who made the only climb up the ranks when he ascended to offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, exited to take the UMass head job, no golden parachute, but a timely exit after Kelly had all but assured sweeping changes to the offense after 2010. Hinton and Warinner, who left Kelly’s staff to move to Urban Meyer’s at Ohio State, always felt more like outsiders compared to the core of the staff, and Warinner’s departure also likely factored into him being bypassed for the vacant offensive coordinator position.

Kelly didn’t reach far outside his network to make hires. He promoted from within, moving Chuck Martin to offensive coordinator and pulling Scott Booker up from the offensive intern ranks to tight ends coach. He also relied on Bob Diaco and Kerry Cooks’ relationship with Bobby Elliott to solidify the defense, bringing in a veteran coach that wasn’t exactly the norm on the staff, but was beloved by his two superiors after mentoring the duo at Iowa. The hiring of Harry Hiestand was another reach outside of the network, but Kelly said he talked with a large group of contacts before deciding to bring in the former Chicago Bears, Cincinnati and Illinois coach, and the Joe Moore disciple has rewarded his head coach with strong line play and immediate praise from the players.

After two years of building cohesiveness and ironing out some kinks, the 2012 coaching staff is as close to perfect as you can be in college football.

In Bob Diaco, Kelly has a rising star in the ranks, a passionate leader that is beloved by his players and embodies the effort and determination he expects from his team. With Chuck Martin coordinating the offense under Kelly’s direction, they have a leader that won’t flinch in critical moments, with Martin deserving massive amounts of credit for preparing Everett Golson and bringing the best out of him on the big stage.

The continuity on the staff has also been key. If Diaco ends up Barry Alvarez’s choice at Wisconsin, Kelly has the opportunity to promote from within, with three capable choices in Cooks, already his co-defensive coordinator, Elliott or Mike Elston. Offensively, character assistants like Hiestand and Denbrock, who has done a tremendous job in his second tour at Notre Dame, don’t seem like candidates to bolt at the next big offer, and Tony Alford’s ability to cross-train on Kelly’s staff should give him the opportunity to move to coordinator if and when Martin gets a head coaching opportunity.

Just as important, Kelly is building a farm system of coaches that will be ready to step into a role. Ernest Jones was brought into the fold to take a non-coaching role, but rest assured he’ll have a job on staff when one opens up. Bill Brechin has spent three years as an offensive intern and graduate assistant, and he’ll likely work his way to a promotion as well. David Grimes is working with the staff as well as a defensive intern, adding another ND graduate to the bullpen. While there are certainly scary scenarios out there if coaches move on, Kelly has built in provisions that should help keep continuity and keep the head coach from spending time coaching his coaches.

While there’s still one very big game left, the 2012 season will be remember as a year where the Irish caught lightning in a bottle. But Kelly seems to have done the same with his coaching staff, putting together the perfect combination of assistants to help propel Notre Dame to a perfect regular season.

Path to the Draft: Jaylon Smith

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 06:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a tackle for a loss against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 6, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan 31-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

Part three of our Path to the Draft series. See earlier entries on Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller

 

JAYLON SMITH
No. 34 to the Dallas Cowboys

From the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus, most saw the linebacker’s NFL future clearly. A physically gifted freak athlete who excelled as the exact type of linebacker the NFL covets, Smith’s rare mix of size and speed—not to mention a clean on and off-field reputation—made him the closest thing to a lock we’ve seen at Notre Dame in decades.

So while Smith did all we could’ve ever asked from him—Butkus Award and All-American status on his way to a three-and-out career at Notre Dame—we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that he did exactly that.

Set aside the knee injury that’s hogging all the headlines. That Smith went from being one of the best high school football players in the country to being one of the top players at his position drafted (even with a “career threatening” knee injury) is an extraordinary accomplishment.

At pick No. 34, only Ohio State’s Darron Lee came off the board ahead of Smith as a true linebacker. Considering that a healthy Smith would’ve been in competition to be the first overall pick, that’s probably the best barometer of the player that he’s become under head coach Brian Kelly and two different defensive coordinators.

Do you credit the program for developing Smith? You have to. Especially when you look at the other top-of-the-pile recruits that didn’t do as well after being heralded as high school players.

The 2013 recruiting class is a rare group that saw their Top 10 talents play up to their potential—and even that needs some qualifying. Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Hargreaves, Laquon Treadwell and Jalen Ramsey all turned into first round picks. Kendall Fuller went in the third round.

From there, it remains to be seen. Auburn’s Carl Lawson needs to put a healthy season together to play up to his reputation. Kenny Bigelow and Max Browne need to kick-start (and turn around) their careers at USC to establish NFL dreams.  Derrick Green has proven to be a washout, leaving Michigan after failing to make an impact and hoping to succeed as a graduate transfer.

The point of that exercise isn’t to cry about Smith’s injury but rather to compliment his development. Especially when the track record of five-star recruits is hardly a smooth path to NFL success.

Now consider some of the challenges Smith faced. He came into the program as a drop linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme. It’s a position where sometimes the best work went uncredited on the stat sheet. But even as a freshman learning a difficult spot on the job, he was one of the defense’s best playmakers.

From there, Smith was asked to transition under Brian VanGorder. A natural outside linebacker, Smith retrained himself, play inside-out in a new scheme that also forced Smith to learn how to play in the trenches, not just as an exceptional athlete in space. Regardless of the assignment or scheme, Smith’s elite traits were always evident.

Named a captain heading into his junior season, Smith was given a leadership position because he was clearly a standout on the field. And that added responsibility only seemed to mature the Fort Wayne native, growing into that leadership role and also turning into a assignment-correct football player who lost some of his free-styling tendencies as a sophomore.

Deficiencies in personnel (and structure) likely limited Smith from doing some of the things that could’ve turned his impressive numbers into something even more game-wrecking. For all the skills many expect Smith to flash in the pass rush game, his value in coverage—especially after Notre Dame’s nickel and dime packages went up in smoke—kept him from chasing down quarterbacks. Also limiting Smith’s productivity? The fact that teams wanted nothing to do with the Irish All-American.

Take this quote from Navy’s Keenan Reynolds:

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played against,” Reynolds told The Sports Junkies (via Irish247). “He had the mental and the physical. I mean, mentally he was on another level. Physically, he was a freak. He was faster than everybody. Stronger than everybody. He was bigger than everybody. He just dominated. We centered our offense away from him when we played them.”

Smith’s knee was protected by a loss of value insurance policy that kicked in after he wasn’t selected in the first round. But Dallas made sure to lock up Smith in the opening minutes of round two, leaning on their team doctor’s look at Smith on the operating table before making the gamble.

All those doomsday reports we heard during the run-up to the draft? Sure, they could end up being true. But more likely? They were NFL reporters being played by teams wanting the chance to gamble on Smith.

Already, the news is trending in the right direction, with Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones saying he’ll keep Smith off the I.R. so he could “be back for the playoffs.”

That’s a long way off for a linebacker who is still waiting for his nerve to fully recover and allow him full functionality with his foot. But not many people have succeeded by doubting Jaylon Smith.

So as we continue to see Smith attack rehab in the days and weeks following his life-changing injury, the former Notre Dame linebacker is well on his way back to being the football star we knew he was from the moment we first spotted him.

Path to the Draft: Will Fuller

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 14: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on November 14, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won 28-7. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
6 Comments

Part two of a seven-part series looking back at Notre Dame’s impressive 2016 draft class. 

 

Will Fuller
No. 21 overall to the Houston Texans

For as much flack as Will Fuller took from the moment he declared for the NFL Draft until his named was called after Houston traded up to land him with the 21st pick, most of it missed the biggest story of them all. We were talking about Will Fuller.

Perhaps Notre Dame’s least likely All-American since Shane Walton ditched his soccer cleats for the gridiron, Fuller was an unlikely superstar, all but a recruiting afterthought who had a mostly anonymous freshman season before two years of productivity never seen in South Bend.

While Fuller ended up a four-star prospect, he was a regional recruit if there ever was one. Pulled away from a Penn State program that was amidst chaos, Fuller picked Notre Dame over other offers from schools like Boston College, UMass, Rutgers, Temple and Delaware. Like Ronnie Stanley, he was another invite to the Semper Fidelis All-American game—a second-tier All-Star game— but on Signing Day, Kelly sounded like he knew that his staff had landed a big-time talent.

“He’s also a young man that we believe that if there’s a guy that flew under the radar a little bit, it was William Fuller,” Kelly said. “The thing that really clearly stands out is his ball skills. He can run and catch the football. Any time that we got a chance to observe him, he was running and catching, just terrific ball skills. We think as he develops physically, he also has that speed, that top‑end speed that can obviously impact football games.”

Kelly’s crystal ball couldn’t have looked more prescient than it did in that moment. While he only managed to make six catches as a freshman, the 46-yard deep ball Fuller reeled in from Tommy Rees after play-action was a sign of things to come.

Fuller’s development was hardly just an arrow up proposition. The drops that had so many draft analysts talking about his hands plagued him throughout both his prolific sophomore and junior seasons. But even amidst that self-inflicted inconsistency, the game-to-game productivity is astonishing when you look at the two-season run Fuller put together.

You can learn a lot about how little analysts have seen Fuller by the criticisms they lay on him. Ted Ginn? Former top-ten bust Troy Williamson? Fuller’s hardly a one-trick pony—playing opposite DeAndre Hopkins won’t just make life easier for the Texans’ Pro Bowler, it’ll allow Fuller to see man coverage and get back to terrorizing defenses in the screen game as well.

Selected at No. 21 as just the second receiver off the board, Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after just his third season looks to be a great one. With a blazing forty time and his lack of size not changing with another season in college football, Fuller struck while the iron was hot after two of the best receiving seasons we’ve ever seen.

Not bad for a skinny kid out of the Philadelphia Catholic League.

***

Looking for more discussion on Notre Dame’s 2016 NFL Draft (as well as a bunch of other stuff), here’s John Walters and I chopping it up on our latest episode of Blown Coverage. 

 

Path to the draft: Ronnie Stanley

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)
Getty
2 Comments

Your name didn’t have to be Mel Kiper or Mike Mayock to understand that from the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus at Notre Dame he was destined to be an early-round NFL draft pick. But as the dust settles on the Irish’s impressive 2016 draft haul, a look back at the developmental process of the team’s seven draft picks serves as a wonderful testament to Brian Kelly and the program he has built.

Notre Dame’s draftees come in all shapes and sizes. Fifth-year seniors like Nick Martin. Three-and-out stars like Jaylon Smith and Will Fuller. Consistent four-year performers like Sheldon Day and one-year wonders like C.J. Prosise.

But each followed a unique path to the NFL, one that was fostered by a coaching staff that allowed each athlete to develop at their own pace and ascend into a role where an NFL team thought highly enough to select each player in the first 103 picks of the draft.

Let’s take a trip down (recent) memory lane, as we connect the dots from recruitment, development and playing career as we look at Notre Dame’s seven success stories.

 

Ronnie Stanley
No. 6 overall to Baltimore Ravens

The first offensive lineman selected in the 2016 draft, Stanley’s recruitment saw the Irish find their first bit of success at Bishop Gorman High School, leading the way to Nicco Fertitta and Alizé Jones. A four-star prospect who hovered between a Top 100 and Top 250 player depending on the evaluation, Stanley was invited to the Semper Fidelis All-Star game, a second-tier game that all but signified his status outside of the elite, at least on the recruiting circuit.

That’s not how Notre Dame’s coaching staff felt about him, though.

“He’s probably as gifted of an offensive linemen that we have seen in many years,” Kelly said on Signing Day in 2012.

Stanley proved early that Kelly wasn’t blowing smoke. He saw the field in 2012’s first two games, earning reps against Navy and Michigan before he suffered an elbow injury that allowed him to save a year of eligibility.

But even offseason surgery didn’t prevent Stanley from stepping into the starting lineup, flipping to right tackle and playing 13 games in a very successful sophomore campaign across from first rounder Zack Martin.

Even though Stanley was blossoming into one of college football’s best players, we still openly wondered who would slide to fill Martin’s left tackle spot. (That’s how it goes with offensive linemen, their work only truly appreciated by those with either inside information or a coach’s eye of evaluation.)

In his opening comments before spring practice in 2014, Kelly named Steve Elmer, Christian Lombard and Mike McGlinchey as candidates along with Stanley, so it wasn’t necessarily a lock for the staff yet either. But it took just a few practices for the Las Vegas native to solidify his spot on the left side.

Stanley’s first season at left tackle was so solid that some wondered if there’d be two. While some of the online analysts saw Stanley as a potentially elite draft pick, the NFL Advisory Board came back with a second-round grade, perhaps all Stanley needed as he made his decision to stick around for his senior season. Still, Notre Dame took no chance. Kelly, Harry Hiestand and Jack Swarbrick traveled to Las Vegas to sell Stanley on the virtues of a final season in South Bend.

It worked. With a healthy offseason and weight-room gains needed, Stanley stuck to the script and played a mostly anonymous 2015 season. That was a very good thing—only along the offensive line can All-American honors and being named Offensive Player of the Year be considered ho-hum.

Add in the vanilla off-the-field life, and an elite academic profile that’s a comfort to teams investing millions in a potential cornerstone, Stanley’s placement as a Top 10 pick should have never been in doubt. While he lacked the dominance at Notre Dame that we saw from Zack Martin, he possesses athleticism and a body that Martin wasn’t given—a big reason the Cowboys shifted him inside to guard from day one.

Picked instead of Laremy Tunsil amidst a bizarre scenario that’ll go down as one of the draft’s cautionary tales, John Harbaugh talked openly about his relationship with Harry Hiestand and the comfort that came from Notre Dame’s offensive line coach as they pulled the trigger on Stanley. And Stanley, almost epitomizing that faith that the Ravens showed, all but embodied that when he told Joe Flacco in his first visit to Baltimore that he celebrated his selection by heading back to his hotel room and going to sleep.

Counted on by Baltimore to be a key piece of the puzzle as the Ravens look to rebuild an offensive line tasked with protecting a franchise quarterback in his prime, now it’s up to Notre Dame’s highest draft pick since Rick Mirer to continue his ascent.

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
22 Comments

Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.