Weekend notes: Belichick, schedule, rankings and more

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The Notre Dame coaches clinic is underway, with hundreds of high school coaches from around the country descending on South Bend to hear Brian Kelly and his staff speak. In addition to the Irish coaches, a star-studded list will also be joining the festivities, with current NFL head coaches Marc Trestman, Marvin Lewis and Bill Belichick all taking the time to share some tips as well. They’re joined by former Bengals coach Sam Wyche and former Nevada coach Chris Ault, who is widely credited for the Pistol offense that’s the rage of pro and college football.

The assembly of coaching talent says a lot about the relationships Brian Kelly has developed over his years as a head coach. It’s funny to think back to the hiring of Kelly, when many wondered if he was too “small-time” with his roots being at Grand Valley, Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

With a cast of coaches befitting an Ocean’s Eleven movie, I think we can put that notion to rest for the thousandth time.

Speaking of Belichick, the notoriously tight-lipped coach actually spent a little more than ten minutes with the local press, doing his best to show his admiration for Kelly and the program he’s built, but also Notre Dame and the players it develops.

Here’s Kelly on his experience with former Notre Dame players.

“They’re all smart, they’re tough, and they’re disciplined,” Belichick said. “To get through four years here with the program that Notre Dame has academically, socially and from a football standpoint takes a lot from a kid. That’s the kind of player you see come out of here. Kids that are smart, well-versed and have more than football in their lives.”

While Belichick had good things to say about former Irish wide receiver David Givens and former cornerback Mike Richardson, he saved his most glowing praise for former Giants great Mark Bavaro.

“Mark Bavaro is right at the top. He’s about as Notre Dame as they come.”

***

In what’s only news because it’s the middle of April, Arizona State athletic director Steve Patterson created a couple ripples when he took to the airwaves of a local Phoenix radio station to complain about Notre Dame considering whether or not they’ll play in Tempe in late October, 2014.

The Irish have themselves in a bit of a scheduling pickle in 2014, the first season they’ve agreed to play five games against ACC teams.

FoxSports Arizona has more on Patterson’s remarkably candid comments:

“The school didn’t have the courtesy to have the athletic director (Jack Swarbrick) call the athletic director at ASU to discuss it,” Patterson said. “They had their PR guy call (ASU’s media relations office) to give us a message Friday afternoon while everybody was out of town at the Final Four.

“At least in the little Catholic town I grew up in — Beaver Dam, Wis. — the good nuns wouldn’t have thought that was a very appropriate way to honor your word.”

–snip–

“Our position is ‘Hey, we’ve got a contract,’ and we expect Notre Dame to live up to it,” Patterson said.

ASU and Notre Dame are set to play this season at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 5 as part of Notre Dame’s “Shamrock Series.” That game is not in question, but the possibility of losing the 2014 game could put ASU in a tough spot with its schedule for next year, which also includes nonconference games with Weber State (home) and New Mexico (road).

“What people don’t understand is you do this 18 months before a game,” Patterson said. “Virtually every other university in the country’s got their teams scheduled until 2014. So who do you get as a replacement even if you wanted to do it?

“If you act in a professional way and you want to talk about three years down the line or four years down the line where somebody’s got a chance to make an adjustment in their schedule, that’s a different thing, but when it’s 18 months out, everybody’s got their season booked.”

While Swarbrick hasn’t made any comment publicly, senior associate athletic director John Heisler told the South Bend Tribune that the schedule for 2014 is still in flux.

“It looks like we’re kind of in the home stretch here,” Heisler said Wednesday, “but the reality is we have more games than we could play.”

We talked about the overloaded schedule earlier in the week, but there’s little doubt that Swarbrick and company won’t fully weigh their options before making a decision. Still, it’s a little crazy to see normally behind-the-scenes discussions like this get blown out in public.

No word if the nuns in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin have a problem with airing dirty laundry in public.

***

Don’t look know, but Athlon released their annual coaching rankings, and Brian Kelly came in at No. 4 in college football. Here’s the top ten:

1. Nick Saban, Alabama
2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
3. Bill Snyder, Kansas State
4. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
5. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
6. Chris Petersen, Boise State
7. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
8. Bobby Petrino, Western Kentucky
9. Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech
10. Gary Patterson, TCU

Here’s what Athlon had to say about Kelly:

Not many coaches in college football can rival Kelly’s resume in four stops as a head coach. Kelly’s first head coaching gig came in 1991 at Grand Valley State, and he stayed in that capacity until 2003. During 13 years with Grand Valley State, Kelly went 118-35-2 and won two Division II titles. After his success with the Lakers, Kelly went 19-16 with Central Michigan, which included a MAC Championship in 2006. Kelly moved on to Cincinnati at the end of the 2006 season and guided the Bearcats to back-to-back Big East titles in 2008 and 2009. After back to-back 8-5 seasons with Notre Dame, Kelly led the Fighting Irish to an appearance in the BCS National Championship game at the end of the 2012 season. Despite the blowout loss to Alabama in the title game, Kelly clearly has the program back on track to be an annual top 10-15 team.

Other than Stoops, coaches on the Irish’s upcoming 2013 schedule include Brady Hoke (14), David Shaw (20), Mark Dantonio (26), Todd Graham (29), Bronco Mendenhall (46), Paul Chryst (52), Lane Kiffin (57), Troy Calhoun (58), Darrell Hazell (67), Ken Numatalolo (76), Matt Rhule (109).

***

When reading Stewart Mandel‘s recent profile on Lane Kiffin and USC at SI.com, I couldn’t help but think back to the days when Charlie Weis was at Notre Dame. Fair or not, it seemed like things that happened early in Weis’ tenure at Notre Dame lingered over Weis’ head long after his introductory press conference.

In Weis’s case, he could never dig out from underneath comments like “decided schematic advantage,” or the brash persona he openly embraced for a profile on 60 Minutes. Kiffin deals with similar pain, unable to shake the portrait he helped paint of himself, after horrible runs with the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Vols, yet continually failing up, something skeptics credit to a family name built by his father.

That’s what makes the thought process behind Kiffin’s below comments so difficult to understand. He’s certainly not going to live down any criticism any time soon. So why keep talking about it?

Kiffin told a story recently about the perils of fashion choices. When the Trojans played at Oregon in November 2011, Kiffin, who openly detests cold weather, wore a white beanie to stay warm. After USC pulled off the upset, there was a run on beanies at the school bookstore. The Dan Patrick Show requested the original.

Now fast forward 13 months to last season’s Sun Bowl. As USC was getting embarrased by 6-7 Georgia Tech, Kiffin was getting blasted on Twitter for donning a hood and dark sunglasses. “He wasn’t focused, he didn’t care, he checked out, because we lost the game” said Kiffin of his perception. “If we won the game, no one would have noticed.

“And if we lose the game at Oregon, [the perception] would be, ‘What kind of head coach wears a beanie?'”

Kiffin even addressing this topic shows a hopeless lack of media savvy. So does the revisionist history the head coach and athletic director Pat Haden exercise by acknowledging last year’s team was overrated.

Here’s Kiffin and Haden on the lofty preseason expectations, something he didn’t shy away from at the time.

“I felt if I was to talk that way to [the media] … I would be giving our players an excuse to lose,” Kiffin said to SI. “That’s why I didn’t temper expectations outside even though I knew where we had some issues and weren’t as good as people thought we were.”

“I had us pegged for two losses myself,” AD Pat Haden told Mandel. “You don’t want to discourage your kids by saying you’re not that good, but we knew.”

It’s interesting comparing these comments to the ones coming from Notre Dame after their embarrassing defeat to Alabama. Certainly, Kelly talked about a lack of depth along the offensive line, but he — and his players — have taken the loss as an objective measure of what they still need to work on.

***

Lastly, here are a few high school coaches that’ll be speaking at the clinic this weekend.

Michael Johnson, Head Coach
Bishop Dunne H.S. — Dallas, TX

Tony Perry, Defensive Backs Coach
Fresno Central H.S. — Fresno, CA

Tony Sanchez, Head Coach
Bishop Gorman H.S. — Las Vegas, NV

Mike Rumph, Head Coach
American Heritage H.S. — Plantation, FL

Don Fellows, Head Coach
Grand Rapids Christian — Grand Rapids, MI

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