The Zen of Diaco

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Bob Diaco is a tough man to define. He is what a lot of young, former players are: a high energy, whirling dervish of a coach that brings an intensity to the field and a youthful nature that’s makes him someone easy to relate to for players.

He is also the type of coach you’d never expect from someone that looks like Don Draper’s doppelganger. Diaco is a passionate coach, he runs a meeting room like a reverend from his pulpit, and the messages he relays aren’t just about the Xs and Os of football, but on lessons that his players will take with them throughout life.

For a coach that turned a unit that was one of the worst in Notre Dame’s history into a group that played some of the best November football in the country, Diaco hardly received a heroes’ welcome from some members of ND Nation. Most of the ill will stems from the defense’s performance against Navy, when the Irish were undressed by Ricky Dobbs and company, and Kelly and Diaco’s solution for stopping the option was worst than anything Jon Tenuta engineered.

After an overly candid interview with media after Notre Dame’s dispiriting loss to Navy, Diaco came off sounding like a coach that lacked answers — a very bad thing to sound like, especially at Notre Dame. From that point forward, Brian Kelly kept his coordinators off limits to the media, under the auspices that it’d help the do their job.It apparently worked.

To his credit, Diaco let his players do the talking. The Irish defense stiffened, putting together a string of performances that were among the most dominant in the country. While messageboard mongers took to conspiracy theories — Diaco spoke to Lou Holtz, Chuck Martin had taken over, the young defensive coordinator was on his way out the door — Diaco continued to stress the same message to his players, a consistency that helped instill belief in a unit that had suffered a crisis in confidence year after year in November.

Diaco has resumed speaking to the media, but his responses, while always thoughtful, rarely give you much insight into what the Irish are doing on the field to stop an offense. Rather, Diaco has taken to discussing defense in a way that’s philosophical. While you’d expect it out of Phil Jackson, you wouldn’t from a coach that flies around the practice field like the All-Big Ten linebacker he was. While he’s certainly more careful in his word choices, this isn’t just coachspeak from Diaco, but rather the thoughts of a pretty unique guy that’s evolved the Irish’s way of playing defense.

For those looking for a taste of what a Diaco press session looks like, UND.com has a great exchange during Diaco’s kickoff with the media for the 2011 season.  Here’s a classic bit between reporter and defensive coordinator:

Reporter: Talk about the confidence among that group of starters especially. They seem to feel like they can be an elite group this year.

Diaco: Well, you’ve got multiple things going on in that question right there. Personal confidence is just a frame of mind. We want our players to have self belief, and really ultimate self belief that’ll create a real persistence to their goals. That’s something that’s a part of our day that we’re working towards, that the players have self belief.

Reporter: Are you confident in them at this point? Let me ask you that?

Diaco: I’m confident that they’re going to come to work every day and really, really want to get better. They’re focused on the things we’ve as a whole unit, players and coaches, because we’re growing together, we’re focused on the things that we believe create great defense and we’re working towards those things.”

Diaco caught grief from his players last season, encapsulated by Darius Fleming, who described some of the obscure ways his defensive coordinator related to his players.

“We’ll just be going to 11 on 11,” Fleming said before the Sun Bowl, “and then he’ll just bring up some kind of story that he feels relates to the topic. But we don’t. So we’ll just go along with it. Just like ‘yeah, yeah, that’s really good coach.’

“I mean, he’ll talk about turtles. He’ll talk about scorpions. I think he might have read a lot of books when he was younger or something like that. But he’s always got a story for something.”

The story Diaco was referencing was a fable about the scorpion and the turtle, an allegory that tells of a scorpion that asks a turtle for a ride across a river. While the turtle is afraid to give the dangerous scorpion a ride, in fear that he may sting him and die, the scorpion convinces him otherwise, only to sting him halfway across the river, dooming them both. Dating back centuries, the fable illustrates that some behavior is irrepressible, and you can’t fight the character of who you are. (Wikipedia also mentions that the fable sometimes ends with “it is better that we should both perish than that my enemy should live.” So Diaco’s got that angle going for him as well.)

It’s teaching points like that one that make Diaco a different kind of defensive coordinator. Earlier in the week, Diaco looked to Gandhi when he talked about what he took away from last season as he looks to his second with the Irish.

“It was 1922 Gandhi to young India where he talked about satisfaction being in the effort,” Diaco said. “That it’s not in the attainment, but true victory is full effort, to paraphrase. So we’re interested in focusing on full effort, and that becomes tough, cause there’s a lot of questions, and everybody’s asking a lot of questions. So there needs to be installation. There needs to be a refocusing daily on the things that need to get done today to create winning. Today. And tomorrow is tomorrow. So I’d say that focus intensified is something that we need to move forward with.”

For some skeptics, regardless of what Gandhi said, true victory will only come when Diaco’s troops stop a Navy option attack that marked one of the worst Saturday’s in Diaco’s career. While that Saturday certainly matters to Diaco as well, it’s clear that he and his defense have looked to much deeper places for the answers.

 

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

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A sign of a strong program is one that loses players to the NFL before they exhaust eligibility. In that vein, Notre Dame lost a consensus first-team All-American cornerback, its leading receiver and a long-time tease of a tight end. The last of those (Alizé Mack) was never expected back for a fifth season; replacing Miles Boykin’s production is certainly within reason; and a consensus first-team All-American should be expected to take the route junior Julian Love has.

Even with that expectation, losing Love — and to a lesser extent, Boykin — alters the natural roster cycle, the inherent design intended during recruiting. Reloading is always the hope, the next intention, but very rarely is the young backup comparable to the near professional, even by the end of the coming season.

Nonetheless, the Irish got off easy this cycle compared to four of their 2019 opponents …

GEORGIA: Junior running back Elijah Holyfield, the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, departs after gaining 1,018 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry this season. Frankly, that is the least of Georgia’s losses. Three of quarterback Jake Fromm’s four favorite targets will leave eligibility on the figurative table:

— Junior receiver Riley Ridley: 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.
— Junior receiver Mecole Hardman: 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns.
— Junior tight end Isaac Nauta: 30 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns.

Without running back Karan Higdon, Michigan will presumably rely on its passing game more in 2019, quarterback Shea Patterson’s second season as a Wolverine. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines got good news when quarterback Shea Patterson opted to return for 2019, but losing leading-rusher Karan Higdon (1,178 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.3 average) will be an issue head coach Jim Harbaugh undoubtedly hoped to avoid. Junior tight end Zach Gentry, Patterson’s third-most prolific target with 32 catches for 514 yards and two scores, will also head to the next level.

On the flip side, Harbaugh could have hoped linebacker Devin Bush (team-leading 80 tackles with 9.5 for loss including five sacks), defensive end Rashan Gary (44 tackles with seven for loss including 3.5 sacks) or linebacker David Long (17 tackles with one interception) might return, but no such luck for Michigan.

Duke junior quarterback Daniel Jones will head to the NFL after his third season as a starter, immediately lowering the Blue Devils’ 2019 expectations. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

DUKE: Junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris paced the Blue Devils with 81 tackles, including seven for loss with one sack, doing so in only nine games. But losing Giles-Harris is hardly the concern for Duke. The decision to turn pro from quarterback Daniel Jones is.

In his third year as a starter, the junior fought through a broken collarbone to still play in 11 games in 2018, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He added 319 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Jones’ decision may come as a surprise, but it is one that should work out well for both him and Notre Dame. Some mock drafts project him as a top-10 pick. In a draft light on quarterbacks — partly because Oregon’s Justin Herbert returned for another season, yet already somewhat counteracted by the Monday draft entry from Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — Jones could end up being the third or fourth passer picked.

BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles will say farewell to junior cornerback Hemp Cheevers after he notched seven interceptions this season, returning one for a touchdown, to go along with 39 tackles.

STANFORD: This will seem like the Cardinal lost a lot to the NFL draft, but it could have been worse: As the departures mounted, so did speculation junior quarterback K.J. Costello might follow them. He opted not to.

Stanford will be without running back Bryce Love after his prodigious two seasons as the starter. Consider that a loss akin to the Irish Love, the inevitable price of enjoying the success in the first place.

Junior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will capitalize on his breakout season of 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, depriving Costello of his favorite jump-ball threat.

Junior tight end Kaden Smith will also head to the next level, in large part thanks to his 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns this past season.

Louisville, New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech and Navy all did not lose anyone early or pseudo-early to the NFL draft.

Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern

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Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher will no longer coach its current running backs. After four seasons at his alma mater, Autry Denson has been named the head coach at Charleston Southern, an FCS-level program, per a release Monday afternoon.

The second-longest tenured coach on Brian Kelly’s staff (behind only defensive line coach Mike Elston; tied with cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght), Denson had produced quality Irish backs, peaking with Josh Adams’ 1,430 rushing yards in 2017, leading an offense that averaged 269.5 rushing yards per game.

“I am so excited for Autry as he embarks on the next step of his coaching career as the new head coach at Charleston Southern,” Kelly said in a statement. “He has done a tremendous job for us during his time at Notre Dame.

“He not only developed our running backs to produce at a high level on the field, but he was also instrumental in their growth as young men.”

Only Adams and C.J. Prosise broke 1,000 rushing yards in a season under Denson, though Dexter Williams gained 995 in only nine games this past season. A third-round pick in 2016, Prosise has spent his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks, while Adams rushed for 511 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams should join them in the NFL in April’s draft.

All of them paled in comparison to Denson’s college days, a career that saw him gain 4,318 rushing yards, 43 touchdowns and three seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards. A 1998 All-American, Denson then spent five years in the NFL.

Denson began his coaching career at the FCS level at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., a couple hundred miles up the coast from his hometown outside of Miami.

“I was drawn to Charleston Southern by the vision of this great Christian university of integrating faith in learning, leading and serving,” Denson said. “As a result, I knew this could be a place where I could build and lead a program to honor Christ by operating with character, integrity, transparency, accountability and community.”

Charleston Southern went 5-6 in 2018 under Mark Tucker, who went 11-11 in two seasons before resigning last month.

Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019

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With the early enrollment of 10 freshmen, Notre Dame’s 2019 has begun. Usually this sparks a debate among outsiders pitting the advantages of early enrollment against the high school experiences lost. Not only is that an argument held by those far from both the program and high school, but it is also one missing the team-wide edge gained.

With 10 additional scholarship bodies this spring, the Irish will have 77 on hand, as of now. A total of 16 of those will be offensive linemen, including four mid-year arrivals. Whereas there are some springs in which Notre Dame struggles to field a second unit on its offensive line, this March and April will feature three complete units with a body to spare.

There will be just as many defensive lines, with three early enrollees bringing the total up to 14 scholarship players knocking around this spring, though the health of rising sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin (quad) may drop that a notch.

Either way, the Irish will have more depth on hand this spring than usual. The 10 freshmen spurning a semester of high school will still have their chance at added weight room time, meaningful spring repetitions and theoretical development, but those rewards can end up as much hypothetical as realized. It is nearly impossible to predict if running back Kyren Williams (pictured above) will be tangibly more developed in September because he got to South Bend in January. Linebacker Jack Kiser is unlikely to play much as a freshman in either scenario; punter Jay Bramblett is certainly going to no matter what. However, the opportunity to have thorough practices with up-front depth should only enhance the effects of this spring.

None of this will ever become exactly normal, even if Notre Dame has increased its early enrollee numbers from beginning in 2006 to seven last season and now these 10. Of this grouping, some are the first to make this exact leap in their high school’s history. Many private schools do not make such possible. For that matter, this influx speaks to this group in particular, not an overall trend.

It is, nonetheless, a group receiving many of the same praises Irish head coach Brian Kelly has offered in years past and will undoubtedly offer as long as he remains in this post.

“These guys are serious about what they are doing,” Kelly said in December’s early signing period. “They are signing up for getting a degree and winning a national championship. These are not silly guys. These are guys that are really focused on coming here to win a national championship.”

Of course, that is always Kelly’s stated goal. The national championship game may be 364 days from now, but that process has already begun anew.

The 10 early enrollees:
Offensive tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic
Offensive guard John Olmstead
Center Zeke Correll
Running back Kyren Williams
Defensive tackles Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears
Defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah
Linebacker Jack Kiser
Punter Jay Bramblett

Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame

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Notre Dame will need to replace only one receiver next season. Chase Claypool announced he will return for his senior season Thursday evening. This may have been long presumed, but less qualified players have entered the NFL draft with eligibility remaining in years past.

With the departure of Miles Boykin, Claypool will become the leading Irish target, the prime candidate to replace Boykin’s 59 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. A year ago, asking Claypool to put up numbers like that would have been a leap beyond reason, but after a 2018 season in which he accounted for 50 catches, 639 yards and four touchdowns, Claypool becoming an offense’s best playmaker is fathomable beyond just pinning those hopes on the Canadian native’s athleticism.

Claypool’s career began as a special teams star, making 11 tackles in 2016, while catching only five passes for 81 yards. An inconsistent sophomore season followed, managing 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns. Those may sound like solid numbers, but they include only five catches in the season’s final four games and only one game with more than four catches all season.

Claypool had at least four catches in seven games this season, all started by junior quarterback Ian Book. With Book throwing, Claypool averaged 4.67 catches and 58.56 yards per game, highlighted by eight for 130 at Northwestern.

Claypool and current senior Chris Finke will presumably both start again, while one of a number of rising sophomores could step in either for Boykin on the boundary or for Claypool on the field side with Claypool possibly taking over boundary duties.

With five catches for 90 yards in his freshman campaign and a skill set similar to Boykin’s, Kevin Austin may be the front-runner for that starting role.