Broyles Award finds perfect fit in Bob Diaco

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When Frank Broyles and his selection committee set out to rightfully honor the very best in assistant coaches, they had probably never heard of Bob Diaco. At the time, Diaco was a young man just completing a college football career at Iowa, playing for the legendary Hayden Fry.

Yet even as a two-time All-Big Ten linebacker, a team captain, and a co-MVP, Diaco had the heart of a coach. He understood how special football was, from the on-field battles, the strategy, and the communal relationships. He showed up in a shirt and tie his first day as a Hawkeye. He battled through injuries and ups and downs at Iowa, but never lost the determination that still shows through today.

Diaco’s journey to the Broyles Award, given to college football’s best assistant coach, hasn’t been an easy one. At Notre Dame, many doubted Kelly’s choice for defensive coordinator, wondering if he was even the best choice for the job on Kelly’s own staff. Those doubts turned vocal after Diaco’s defense gave up 367 rushing yards to Navy in his first season, the low-water mark for the Irish defense in the Brian Kelly era.

Yet Diaco has stuck to his plan. Just as importantly, he’s continued to build Notre Dame’s defense. With boundless enthusiasm and energy, Diaco had set out unabashedly to build the best defense in America, a goal that seemed laughable at the time. But three seasons later, Diaco achieved his goal, with the Irish leading the nation in scoring defense, the ultimate measure of the unit.

A year after being a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, Diaco was selected its winner this year, just another one of the spoils that have come along with Notre Dame’s 12-0 season. And in earning the achievement, Diaco was awarded not just for his job well done on the sidelines, but for his near perfect fit at Notre Dame.

As Diaco’s name continues to circulate as colleges fill their head coaching vacancies, that factor isn’t lost on Diaco, nor his boss, Brian Kelly.

“It doesn’t surprise me if they wanted to talk to Bob Diaco. I think he’s the finest defensive coordinator in the country,” Kelly said last week.

Yet Kelly also understands Diaco’s role at Notre Dame, and the almost perfect marriage Diaco has with the school, his faith, and the players he continues to passionately recruit to South Bend. So much so, Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator and assistant head coach referenced the school’s mission statement during his acceptance speech.

“It’s very interesting that the final line of their mission statement at the university, ‘Notre Dame pursues its objectives through the formation of an authentic human community, graced by the spirit of Christ.’ And that’s what they get done,” Diaco said when he accepted the award.

“The players at Notre Dame chose Notre Dame because they expect excellence. They’re achievement oriented. And they go to class. So they go to four or five classes in the day. And those classes are pretty dynamic, you’ve probably got a pretty good picture of what a class at Notre Dame looks like. So then at the end of the day, he’s coming to my class. So you better have your bar set real high. Because I’ve got to put on the best class of the day. Because they’re looking at you and they’re expecting it.”

As Notre Dame fought the noble battle of doing things right in the classroom while trying to battle the best in college football, it was easy for skeptics to scoff at one of the game’s relics, fighting a seemingly unwinnable battle. But now that Notre Dame has all but done the impossible — leading the country in graduation rate, while also ranking atop the sport on the field — it’s forced other schools to take a hard look at how they go about their business.

But that’s all been part of Diaco’s mission. And he’s openly stated that there’s more to his job than just playing great defense and winning football games. And that’s what made him so grateful for Broyles Award.

“Just trying to serve,” Diaco said, telling the assembled group about one of his life tenants. “I’m just trying to be the best servant that I can possibly be. And that’s why this award is so special to me, personally. It’s acknowledging the fact of a job well done to being a servant.”

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Special thanks to the Broyles Award and Jason Brown for making Diaco’s acceptance speech available.

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

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