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The perfect coaching staff for the perfect season

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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.

Saying Goodbye: Five things I learned writing Inside the Irish

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As Lloyd Christmas said, “I hate goodbyes.”But after eight seasons of covering the day-to-day happenings of Notre Dame football, it’s time to say just that.

It’s crazy to think that it’s almost been a decade since I talked the good people of NBC Sports Digital into paying me money to cover the daily comings and goings of the Irish football team. And it’s even crazier that come this Friday, I won’t wake up wondering what I’ll be writing about.

But, it’s time. After eight seasons, two head coaches, 65 wins, 37 losses and one imaginary girlfriend, I’m turning in my wings.

So let’s do this the only way I know how. Here are five things I learned writing Inside the Irish.

 

No matter how fair you try to be, you’re always going to have favorite players. 

My introduction to Notre Dame football was a memorable one. Big-box speakers blared down the fourth floor hallway of Stanford Hall, a rude early-morning awakening for an 18-year-old freshman who was still a little groggy from the night before. I still hadn’t seen a football game in Notre Dame Stadium, though I did manage to wander through the stadium gates and down the tunnel the night before, running phantom pass patterns on that shaggy grass field after a night of exquisite Keystone Lights.

The next day, the Irish beat the defending Rose Bowl champs. And a very young Keith Arnold wondered if all Saturdays would be as magical as this one.

They wouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t all interesting.

The above story is license to expand my very first (and last) All-Inside the Irish Team, building a roster of my favorite players to man their respective positions since the virus that is Notre Dame football took hold of me.

 

The All-Inside the Irish Team

QB: Brady Quinn
RB: Autry Denson
RB: Darius Walker
WR: Golden Tate
WR: Michael Floyd
WR: Jeff Samardzija
TE: Tyler Eifert
LT: Zack Martin
G: Quenton Nelson
C: Jeff Faine
G: Chris Watt
RT: Ryan Harris

DE: Justin Tuck
DT: Trevor Laws
DT: Louis Nix
DE: Stephon Tuitt
LB: Jaylon Smith
LB: Manti Te’o
LB: Kory Minor
CB: Shane Walton
S: Harrison Smith
S: Tommy Zbikowski
CB: KeiVarae Russell

P: Hunter Smith
K: David Ruffer
Returner: Julius Jones
X-Factor: Tommy Rees

 

For as close as they got, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been. 

For me, the best three minutes of covering the Irish were the three minutes before kickoff of the BCS National Championship game. I’ll remember that moment in the press box forever. I could’ve run through a wall, I was so filled with excitement.

The next three minutes? Not quite as good. But after eight years of watching the ups and downs, I’m still left with some serious “what could have been” moments.

What if Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate stuck around for their senior seasons? What if Dayne Crist never got hurt? What if Aaron Lynch didn’t leave? Or Eddie Vanderdoes didn’t want to see his grandma? Or Tee Shepard made it to spring ball? What if Brian Kelly didn’t hire Brian VanGorder?

What if a certain unnamed student trainer didn’t give a little bit too much help or if Everett Golson didn’t take accounting class? Or the 2015 team didn’t live out a Final Destination movie?

Follow a team close enough, and you’ll drive yourself crazy wondering about these scenarios. But at Notre Dame—a school where you’re always going to be on a razor’s edge—the one thing that hit me was the Sisyphean nature if it all. Just when it seemed like the Irish were close to getting that boulder to the top of the mountain, it always found a way to come barreling back down.

 

No matter how long I do it, I’ll never understand the people who can’t find a way to enjoy it. 

Apologies in advance, but let me get this one off my chest. There’s a passion that surrounds Notre Dame football. But for a very vocal group, that passion has gotten demented, an elephant in the room that’s hard to ignore—even when you’re trying your best to do it.

I’ll never understand that. How people who have all the enthusiasm in the world for Notre Dame football have gotten it so twisted that they’ve forgotten that this is supposed to be fun.

It’s sports.

I won’t miss this part. The hard-liners who hold kids and coaches to a standard so far outside the one that they have for themselves, or the ones who fail to understand that every Saturday one team leaves a winner and the other a loser—and sometimes that loser wears blue and gold.

Make no mistake, I know better than most that college football is big business. It’s helped me and my family earn a living, talking and writing about one team, every day, for eight years.  But for as good as it is when the team wins, the bad years are so much worse.

It’s hard not to draw parallels between the joyless cyber mob that infests Notre Dame football (and I’m sure many other programs) with the ones that turned this political season so toxic. The people who refuse to think there’s any nuance—that things either ARE or they AREN’T.

It’s hard to deal with people who believe that Notre Dame, if simply managed and operated by competent people, would still be the Notre Dame of the past. That if only Rockne, Leahy, Ara or Lou were in charge of the team, or Sorin, Moose or Father Ted were in the Main Building, things would be just fine.

Politics aside—and I truly mean that—nobody is going to Make Notre Dame Football Great Again. At least not how it used to be. And certainly not the echo chamber over at NDNation. So while that group will be very glad to be rid of me, know that—for the most part—the feeling is very mutual.

 

Enough doom and gloom. I’ll be eternally thankful for the community we built here—mostly because of you. 

I’ve met plenty of wonderful people because of this blog. I’ve even had people stop me on the streets of South Bend, a head-shaking occurrence still to this day, with the question, “Are you Keith Arnold?” Thankfully, it was for a good reason. Mainly, you read the blog.

So thanks to everybody who has played along—especially those who have lived below the fold. There is a large community of you that I will sincerely miss, even if I’m unwilling to single out any individual reader (other than my mom) for being better than the rest.

We’ve had some wonderful characters in the comment threads. Daily participants. Some who have come and gone. Some who have been banned and re-appeared. Even crazy disbarred lawyers with conspiracy theories.

The live blogs were fun. The tight finishes of the 2009 season were made even crazier when you saw the thousands of people feeding CoveritLive with their every thought. So were the (way too) occasional mailbag. Thanks to all for participating.

For as rough as I was above, there are so many people doing great work writing and podcasting about the Irish. Interesting, intelligent people who I am glad to call friends. There are too many people to single out, but whether they be premium websites that get by with subscribers or blogs run by people with a full-time job, there are too many people to single out, but it’s all really well done. Speaking as a daily-consumer of an unhealthy amount of Notre Dame coverage, it’s a wonderful time to be an Irish fan—4-8 season aside.

 

If I’ve learned anything these past eight years, it’s that Notre Dame does try to be different. 

If you want to get an eye-roll, go ahead and tell someone who doesn’t like the Irish that Notre Dame does it better than the rest. (Go ahead, it shouldn’t be hard to find someone.)

But as much as that statement makes my skin crawl—and I’m a proud alum—the more I dug deeper and deeper into the football team and Jack Swarbrick’s athletic department, the more comfortable I got saying that Notre Dame tried to do it right.

That doesn’t mean they always did.  In my time covering the team, I had to cover some terrible events—and had to ask some very difficult questions. But more often than not, I was always struck by the conscientious effort made to balance everything that goes into doing things the right way, challenging student-athletes to excel in a impressive academic environment while also attempting to compete for a national championship.

No matter what the NCAA tells me, I won’t forget the 2012 season. I won’t forget the moment when the Irish had the No. 1 Graduation Success Rate in the country and the No. 1 glowed proudly atop Grace Hall.

My thanks to the team and people who let me cover them. To those who let a guy living 2,000-plus miles away poke around and ask questions, even if sometimes they resulted in a story getting out that was purposely being kept under wraps. I’m guessing there were more than a few moments inside the Gug spent wondering how some guy with a laptop in Manhattan Beach found something out that he wasn’t supposed to know.

While I’m stepping away from blog, I won’t stop watching the games. And while my time with NBC is done (for now), we’re still thinking of ways for me to be involved with their always excellent coverage of the Irish.

So thanks again to everyone. I’ll be back here later this week to introduce you to the “new guy,” who you’ll soon like much better than the old one. And while shorter is usually better, anybody who has read this blog knows that’s never been one of my gifts.

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

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Tarean Folston will declare for the NFL Draft. The senior running back, who has a fifth-year of eligibility available after a medical redshirt in 2014, will instead turn his focus to preparing for the professional ranks. Irish Sports Daily’s Matt Freeman broke the news, confirming the decision with Folston.

The departure wasn’t totally unexpected, though Folston was also a candidate for a graduate transfer. But after running for 1,712 yards over four years, the 214-pound back will hope an NFL team takes a shot on him, likely looking at tape of Folston the underclassmen to make their evaluation.

The Cocoa, Florida native burst onto the scene as a freshman against Navy when he ran for 140 yards on 18 carries in the Irish’s 38-34 win. He was Notre Dame’s leading rusher in 2014, running for 889 yards and 5.1 yards per carry  and six scores in 2014.

Expected to do big things in 2015, Folston’s season lasted just three carries, a torn ACL suffered against Texas in the season opener. After Josh Adams emerged that season, Folston fell behind him in the depth chart, getting just 77 carries in 2016.

The move clarifies a depth chart that looked to be unchanged heading into next season. But with Folston’s exit, rising sophomore Tony Jones will join Adams and Dexter Williams in the rotation. Fellow sophomore Deon Macintosh and incoming freshman C.J. Holmes will also compete for playing time.

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)
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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

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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.”