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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.”

 

 

 

Reports: Lea, Alexander added to Irish coaching staff

ASU Sports Information
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Brian Kelly is adding to his rebuilt coaching staff, reportedly finalizing deals with Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea and Arizona State assistant DelVaughn Alexander. Lea will reunite with Mike Elko and coach linebackers and Alexander will coach wide receivers. While both hires are still going through formal university vetting, the Lea hire has long been rumored before being reported by SI’s Pete Thamel. FootballScoop.com broke the news on Alexander, before multiple outlets confirmed the report.

In Lea, Elko brings a piece of his coaching staff with him to South Bend. The 35-year-old spent last season working in Winston-Salem and spent three seasons at Syracuse before that. He worked with Elko and Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson at Bowling Green and has spent time as an assistant at UCLA as well. He earned three letters at Vanderbilt, a 2004 graduate.

Alexander is a veteran presence to help replace Mike Denbrock and fill his void coaching receivers. He’s also a coach with first-hand knowledge of new coordinator Chip Long, having worked alongside him in Tempe under Mike Norvell. The move also comes in time for the reopen of the recruiting season’s home stretch, bringing a capable West Coast recruiter to the staff at a time when Notre Dame’s 2017 class is leaking a bit of oil.

Alexander played wide receiver at USC, playing for Larry Smith and John Robinson, before breaking into the coaching ranks there as a graduate assistant. He’s also had stops at UNLV, coached for Jim Harbaugh at San Diego, and spent significant time at Wisconsin and Arizona State where he coached multiple positions, taking over tight ends after Long left for Memphis.

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.”