Chip Long in as Offensive Coordinator… and play-caller

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Notre Dame’s formal press release introducing Chip Long as the new offensive coordinator did more than confirm news that we’ve known for a few weeks. It let us in on Brian Kelly’s initial plans for his offense heading into a pivotal offseason.

After some struggles in 2016 with DeShone Kizer and an inexperienced wide receiving corps, most expected Kelly to rip back control of the offense after Mike Denbrock called the plays and Mike Sanford coordinated the offense. But Kelly is going to let Long call the plays next season, adding some intrigue to a press release that usually is vanilla.

“Chip will be given the full responsibility to call plays in 2017,” Kelly said in the release. “His offense at Memphis displayed a unique blend of physicality, athleticism, versatility and explosiveness. Chip’s play-calling created mismatches all over the field and did it in a number of different ways. He likes to use players who can fill numerous roles in an array of formations, whether that be two and three tight ends or multiple running backs.

“Chip has experience coaching at almost every position on the offensive side of the ball. He’s worked for and learned from some of the most respected offensive minds in college football — Bobby Petrino, Mike Norvell and Jeff Brohm — to name a few.”

That Kelly is handing over play-calling to Long, who called plays last year for Mike Norvell at Memphis, is a surprise on the surface. But if you listen to Kelly over the past few seasons, he’s always downplayed that responsibility. Most thought he was simply playing coy, though Kelly seems to value game plan and installation as something at least as important as calling the plays.

But after splitting the baby between Denbrock and Sanford these past two seasons (the three-man collaboration worked much better in 2015 than 2016–possibly explained by the personnel) perhaps Kelly sees a singular voice as a key to improving an Irish offense that’ll have to replace Kizer, but should welcome back the majority of offensive playmakers, as well as Alizé Jones. Giving that assignment to Long will also let Kelly dig in as a head coach, working with first-year starter Brandon Wimbush and staying connected to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko and his installation.

Long’s work on campus will likely take flight as soon as the recruiting dead period is over. Known for his tenacity on the trail, Notre Dame is in desperate need of getting back into living rooms, trying to get back some momentum as a few defections have spoiled the 2017 class, and a handful of spots are available in this upcoming signing class.

Long will also likely work with tight ends, a position he played as a D-II All-American and that he coached at Memphis last season. Scott Booker coached tight ends since 2012.

“It’s an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to serve as the offensive coordinator at the University of Notre Dame,” Long said in the statement. “The challenge to lead at a University with such high standards is incredibly motivating. I’m very grateful to Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for extending this opportunity.

“It’s Notre Dame: the values, the culture, and the leadership. My wife, Kari, and I are excited to move to South Bend and to join the Notre Dame family.”

Report: Matt Balis set to become new Irish strength coach

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Brian Kelly has found Paul Longo’s replacement. And he comes with an impressive pedigree.

Matt Balis is headed to Notre Dame, per an Irish Illustrated report. After a search that included a handful of candidates, Kelly is bringing in Balis, who most recently directed UConn’s strength program, but also spent four years with Dan Mullen at Mississippi State and had two different stints with Urban Meyer. Balis ran Utah’s strength department before going to Florida with Meyer, working under Mickey Marotti in Gainesville. He also served as Virginia’s strength coach after leaving Florida.

That’s not the only move in the strength and conditioning department. Notre Dame is also reportedly bringing in Dave Ballou from IMG Academy, who coordinates the strength department at the high school powerhouse in Florida. A native of Indiana, Ballou will likely fill a vacancy in a reshuffled weight room staff that included Jeff Quinn and David Grimes, two football coaches by trade who had worked under Longo on the football strength staff last season.

While it wasn’t as high profile of a search as the other significant coaching hires Kelly had to make, a handful of high-profile strength coaches seemed to be on Notre Dame’s radar since the decision was made to replace Longo. While some reports connected the Irish with Stanford’s assistant strength coordinator Grant Steen, it appears that the Irish focused their attention on Balis after Bob Diaco was fired. The hire brings in a well-established name in the industry, and likely came with first-hand referrals from both Diaco and Meyer.

Longo, who had served as Kelly’s head of strength since his days at Central Michigan will now serve as a special assistant, a title that Bob Elliott has held the past two seasons. There’s no word on if Elliott will continue in a similar role or retire.

 

Good News: Jaylon Smith’s getting healthy

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Jaylon Smith looks like he’ll be back to being, well, Jaylon Smith. And that’s good news not just for the Dallas Cowboys, but anybody who enjoyed watching Smith torment offenses in his three seasons in South Bend.

Notre Dame’s former All-American and Butkus Award winner, who was selected by the Dallas Cowboys at the top of the second round even after suffering a major knee injury during the Fiesta Bowl–the last football game of his college career–spoke with the Dallas Morning News and gave an update everybody is excited to hear.

“Yeah, it’s regenerating,” Smith told the DMN, when asked about the peroneal nerve in his left leg. “It’s just a thing that you have to have patience. I’m going to continue to do everything I’m asked and controlling what I can control and we’re going to take our time with it.”

Smith is a little over a year removed from that major knee injury, one that tore both the ACL and MCL tendons in his knee and also caused him significant nerve issues that gave him drop foot, a condition that isn’t always fixable. So while Smith’s tendons were quick to heal, the nerve moves at its own pace.

Even with that worry, the Cowboys took a chance on him. And it’s becoming more clear that their gamble is paying off, with progress clearly being made when the Cowboys removed him from the IR in November. We were told by a source then that his knee was on pace for recovery. But Smith’s most recent update gives you an idea that while there’s still room for improvement, he’s looking really, really explosive, clocked at a reported 4.5 in the 40-yard dash while rehabbing, per the report.

No, the Cowboys won’t be trotting Smith onto the field as they begin the NFL playoff’s as the NFC’s top seed. But it’s scary to think what Dallas can be with a trio of young stars in Rookie of the Year Dak Prescott and NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott.

“I think I could have played and competed at an elite level,” Smith told the Morning News. “But with us coming together and realizing the situation with the nerve coming back, we’re going to be patient and trust God’s timing…

“I’ve accepted the reality I won’t be playing this year,” Smith said. “I’ve come to terms with it. I understand God has a plan. Just having patience. I’ve been thankful to be on this team and to watch my guys go out there and ball. I support and learn anyway I can.”

 

Sources: Rees headed back to Notre Dame as coach

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Tommy Rees is set to return to Notre Dame. Multiple sources tell Inside the Irish that Rees is poised to join Brian Kelly’s rebuilt coaching staff. He will work with the quarterbacks, though his formal role is still being finalized.

After working as an offensive assistant under Mike McCoy with the San Diego Chargers this year and beginning his coaching career with Pat Fitzgerald as a graduate assistant at Northwestern, Rees, Kelly’s longest-tenured starting quarterback, will now be asked to coach the very same position, tutoring Brandon Wimbush and a depth chart with zero starting experience.

Reached for comment by the South Bend Tribune, Rees denied having any contact with Notre Dame about a potential job. His status with the Chargers is still uncertain, with McCoy being fired shortly after the conclusion of San Diego’s season on Sunday.

A representative for the Irish football program denied any move was imminent, reiterating that no formal interview has taken place. But even if Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick haven’t had a sit down with Rees, no official meeting is needed for either to know what they have in Rees—a young coach quickly climbing the professional ladder who knows Kelly’s offense as well as anybody.

While Rees has yet to serve as a full-time assistant at the college level, he could be a nice presence recruiting during the closing stretch, having played for Notre Dame’s embattled head coach and capable of selling the offense, as well as the program, built by the eighth-year head coach. That adds some urgency to the process, though a numbers crunch may necessitate Rees joining the program in an analyst role, then moving into a full-time role after the dust settles—or the NCAA expands to ten full-time assistants—legislation that’s expected to pass this spring.

Returning from the holiday break and with the NCAA’s recruiting dead period set to end next week, Kelly’s staff is still a bit of a mystery. Mike Elko’s been announced as the new defensive coordinator and Brian Polian will return to coordinate special teams. Memphis’ Chip Long has reportedly accepted the offensive coordinator job, though no official comment has come from South Bend.

The status of defensive line coach Keith Gilmore and analyst Jeff Quinn is still up in the air. Interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson’s role is unknown as well. Rees’s spot, especially if Kelly plans to hire a wide receivers coach to replace Mike Denbrock, as is expected, may not be technically open without some flexibility from all parties.  A source also indicates a strength coach hire is just around the corner.

As a player, Rees was a three-star recruit who enrolled early in South Bend after committing to Charlie Weis. One of three quarterbacks that Kelly signed in his first recruiting class, Rees ended up playing in 46 games over four seasons, starting 31 times. He is Notre Dame’s career leader for completion percentage and is one of just four passers to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a single-season for the Irish, joined by Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen and Everett Golson.

Report: Irish to hire Memphis OC Chip Long

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Brian Kelly may have found his new offensive coordinator. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports reports that the Irish will hire Memphis’ Chip Long, who worked under first-year head coach Mike Norvell and coordinated the No. 16 scoring offense in the country, averaging 38.8 points a game.

Long’s work in 2016 is more impressive when you consider that the Tigers needed to replace first-round quarterback Paxton Lynch. With junior college transfer Riley Ferguson, Memphis had the No. 14 passing offense in the country and averaged 6.25 yards per play, 35th best in the country.

A first-year coordinator who called plays this season, Long came with Norvell from Arizona State, where he worked under Todd Graham and served as the Sun Devils’ recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach. Long has also coached under Bobby Petrino at Arkansas. A former D-II All-American at North Alabama, Long earned recognition from both Rivals and 247 as one of the country’s Top 25 best recruiters.

While Notre Dame has yet to comment on the hire, here’s what Norvell said about Long when he announced his addition to the Memphis coaching staff before last season:

“Chip Long is, without a doubt, one of the brightest young offensive minds in the country,” Norvell said. “Coach Long and I have coached together the last four years at Arizona State, where Chip was our recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach.

“He’s going to direct an aggressive, ‘attack-style’ offense that will showcase our playmakers in every aspect of the game. He has been nationally recognized over the last four years as one of country’s top recruiters. Coach Long is originally from Birmingham, Alabama, and has great ties to the region. He has coached in the SEC, Big East, Big Ten, as well as the Pac-12 and is a dynamic addition to our staff.”

Offensively, there are plenty of similarities between Kelly’s ideal offense and the system Long runs. In a near-term fit, the hire is very good news for Brandon Wimbush, a good offense for the first-year starter to take over and learn.

 

Feldman reports that Long agreed to a three-year deal to come to South Bend. Long could fill Mike Denbrock’s shoes as receivers coach as well, with Kelly potentially opting to hire a quarterbacks coach to complete his offensive staff.