Notre Dame’s search for a defensive coordinator hinges on a balance of the near and distant futures. Ideally, Irish coach Brian Kelly would find someone who would both maintain schematic consistency and has a penchant for developing talent with time.
Neither of those traits is a common one on its own. Thus, the combination will be a difficult one to not only come across but then to also convince to join the Notre Dame coaching staff.
In most cases, the schematic consistency would not be as much of a necessity, but turning to a third approach in three seasons would likely lead to chaos within a defense previously expected to be the backbone of a 2018 season with grandiose expectations. Mike Elko’s ability to create a worthwhile unit in his vision in only one season was the welcome surprise of 2017. It is a task not easily replicated.
That vision put senior safety-turned-rover Drue Tranquill in proper position for the first time in his career. (Health also helped, naturally.) It led to the rapid development and deployment of junior linebacker Te’von Coney. If Coney opts to follow Tranquill’s lead and return for one more season, the two were expected to build on those successes in Elko’s 4—2.5—4.5 system, if you’ll grant the rover as a half-count amid both the linebackers and the safeties.
A change to a 3-4 should be off the table given the personnel gathered for a year, especially considering the Irish defensive line went from a weakness to a strength over the season. The idea of taking away snaps from freshmen tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish after they spend a full year in a collegiate weight room would be a flawed concept given how impressive they were in their debut seasons with minimal appropriate strength and conditioning.
Yet, Kelly cannot sell out for that stability without thinking about the years down the road. It is always possible he will not be around to see Tagovailoa-Amosa’s and Hinish’s final seasons, but there is no reason to presume as much. If they do not develop, Kelly will be shorting any possible 2019 or 2020 success for the hopes of it in 2018.
In these respects, replacing a successful coordinator may hold more pressure than replacing a failed one. If Elko had not found success this fall, it would have been very easy to point to his predecessor’s failings in development, schematic implementation and recruiting as setting Elko up for failure. If the next Notre Dame defensive coordinator stumbles in 2018, no such crutches will be available, courtesy of Elko’s successes in all three categories.
Speaking of recruiting
Coney has one more week to declare any intention to head to the NFL this spring. Technically, Tranquill does, too, but such a backtracking would be inconsistent with his actions throughout his career, both on and off the field. (Yes, he flipped from a commitment from Purdue, but it was not exactly a surprise.)
One player — well, 12 players, but one in particular as an example — heavily influenced by Elko does not have the option of following the assistant coach out the door. Consensus four-star linebacker Shayne Simon, just like the 11 other defensive commitments signed by the Irish during the early period in December, is bound by the signature on his National Letter of Intent as far as the NCAA is concerned.
Elko targeted Simon as a rover of the future. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds in signing day boasts, Simon has both the frame and the speed to serve the dual role of tracking down running backs and matching up with tight ends serving as pseudo-receivers. But now, there may not be a rover on the Notre Dame defense when he is due to earn his playing time.
This is both the flaw and the reality to an early signing period. Then again, it is not all that different than normal courses of action.
As an easily-found example, consider Oregon co-offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo, also handling the duties of coaching the Ducks’ quarterbacks and tight ends. When Willie Taggart arrived at Oregon as head coach the first week of December 2016, he set to filling out his coaching staff as much as he could. Arroyo did not join the Ducks until mid-February, though.
He had been busy as the running backs coach at Oklahoma State, signing three running backs in that class. Then, up he went to join Taggart.
Assistant coaches have long and often waited until after signing day to move to a new gig. Now they just do it after the early signing period but before the traditional February date, when recruits could genuinely still be considering schools. The difference is only theoretical, not actually seen in practice.
Speaking of that traditional February date …
The Irish signed 21 players in December. Another, consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.), committed a week later. Thus, three spots remain in the class before Notre Dame reaches the maximum allowed of 25.
With Jones and those 21 signees, the Irish roster for 2018 currently includes 87 players. That counts both Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, also considering the NFL, as well as junior tight end Alizé Mack. It also factors in the fifth-year seniors long expected such as Tranquill, tight end Nic Weishar and center Sam Mustipher, and then one arguable surprise. ND Insider’s Eric Hansen reports receiver Freddy Canteen is expected to be one of eight returnees.
A graduate transfer from Michigan, Canteen’s 2017 was cut short by a shoulder injury. Inviting him back for another season, which he was always going to be eligible for, may be the Irish coaches honoring a two-year commitment when they recruited him last winter or it may be a sign they truly want a chance at utilizing his speed. Either way, he counts toward that 87.
Such a count does not include sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson (indefinitely suspended), senior defensive tackle Daniel Cage (health), or either of junior running back Josh Adams or junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (declared for the NFL Draft).
One way or another, that 87-to-90 needs to be at 85 by the fall. Transfers such as freshman defensive end Jonathon MacCollister’s aid that cause and are thus natural for the time of year.
Expect a few more. With 10 receivers and nine linebackers on the roster, those both seem like prime spots for further attrition, based solely on those numbers and the realities of on-field deployment.
Of those 87, six are tight ends …
Which makes sense when considering:
A thought sparked by former Irish tight end Ben Koyack winning an AFC Wild Card Game on Sunday.