If you want an idea of the relationship forged between defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and his star linebacker Manti Te’o, your best insight wasn’t gleaned from the 45 minutes they spent answering questions asked by the assembled media. It was in the few minutes leading up to the media session, where the coach and player caught up on the previous evening’s events, gabbing like two students in the back of a lecture hall trying to keep their voices beneath the grasp of the conference room microphones.
The two whispered and smiled, recapping a fun night in South Florida, some rare down time before the biggest football game in the life of both coach and player. For Irish fans that have watched Te’o speak weekly with the press, nothing he said today was a surprise. He is, and continues to be, one of the most incredible interviews you’ll ever hear, and a wisdom and maturity beyond his years comes out when he answers even the most mundane of questions. And for those Irish fans that have watched Diaco over the past few seasons do his best with the press, this was a session similar to many others, the young assistant answered every question respectfully, yet gave nothing away in the process.
But the pairing of Diaco and Te’o made one thing abundantly clear: Both coach and player were made for each other.
For the young coordinator, he has a star pupil that mirrors the rare passion and love for the game that the coach possesses. He has a leader that performs like one of the most talented players in the country, but practices like a walk-on at spring tryouts. That type of effort from a star is a coach’s best friend, it’s a beacon that helped turn one of the nation’s worst defenses into the top unit in the country.
For the star linebacker, he found his leader at the perfect time. After a freshman season spent playing on instinct and talent, the last three years were spent learning the game from a man perfectly suited to teach him; a coach that shares his passion for faith, for football, and for family. When Te’o was hit with the personal tragedy that came his way this fall, he leaned as much on Diaco, and what he’s taught him about being a man, as he did anybody else.
“It’s well documented how I feel about Manti,” Diaco said. “For as talented a player he is, which you guys
have all had an opportunity to see over his career, he’s a better person.
“You know, on a day where maybe as a coach you might be feeling a little down or maybe slightly distracted
with the world’s pulls, Manti is easy to see, look at and see his face and immediately be energized.”
That energy pulls both ways, as Diaco — as relentless of a coach as their is in the country — continually fuels the unit that he leads. He’s a demanding leader, no doubt, but also does so in a way that preaches respect and love, words not often found inside the walls of a college football program. In charge of the bond between players in the defensive meeting room, Diaco has built a group that feels more familial than any at Notre Dame defense in recent memory.
“The connection that we have with our coaches is a bond that’s very different. It’s kind of like a family members,” Te’o explained. “We know all their children, their children know us by name. They don’t know us as, ‘Oh, you’re No. 5 or you’re No. 89…’ They know us as ‘Hi, Kap.’ ‘Hi, Manti.’ That’s the bond that we have with our coaches and their families.”
This Irish defense and those well forged bonds will all be tested Monday night by an Alabama team that draws nothing but admiration from both coach and player.
“Their organization led by Coach Saban is so fun to watch from a football purist standpoint,” Diaco said. “As Manti said, we look at those guys and say, hey, we’d love to have them as teammates. We do that.”
Mutual admiration was all around Thursday, with Notre Dame and Alabama players echoing similar thoughts — all said sincerely enough that you didn’t actually think coaches made them do it.
But that’s where we find ourselves, anxiously awaiting undefeated Notre Dame battling defending champion Alabama. That the Irish find themselves here, trading compliments with one of the best programs of the decade, is another head-shaking moment for a program that’s fought its way to the top.
And that wouldn’t have been possible without the pairing of Bob Diaco and Manti Te’o, a star defensive coach and his dazzling pupil.
“I think all of the growth of our team has to do with this man sitting beside me and the rest of our defensive coaches,” Te’o said.
Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 10 Chris Finke, receiver, punt returner
Listed Measurements: 5-foot-9 ½, 179 pounds 2018-19 year, eligibility: Senior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018. Depth chart: Finke is in the mix to contribute in the passing game from the outset this year, competing with sophomore Michael Young to complement the size of junior Chase Claypool and senior Miles Boykin. Of the entire receiving corps, only those four bring any experience whatsoever. Recruiting: A preferred walk-on to start his career, Finke earned a scholarship heading into his sophomore season.
CAREER TO DATE Finke’s junior year mirrored his sophomore year’s receiving stats, a disappointing byproduct of the Notre Dame passing game struggling throughout 2017. His greatest impact came in the early September loss to Georgia, pulling in three receptions for 36 yards, all coming in the fourth quarter of the 20-19 defeat, as did all five of his targets. He had no more than one grab in any other game.
2016: 10 games; 10 catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns.
2017: 13 games, one start; six catches for 102 yards.
Finke has also served as the primary punt returner most of the last two seasons, with a seeming-allergy to fair catches in obvious situations.
2016: Nine punt returns for 70 yards; five kick returns for 85 yards.
2017: 24 punt returns for 156 yards.
QUOTE(S) Finke is many things: relatively sure-handed, outright quick, shifty to the point of it being a cliché. He is also mistake-free to such a degree it earns notice.
“Chris had the least amount of [missed assignments],” Irish receivers coach Del Alexander said in late March. “At this point in the game, Finke knows everything. I can move Finke anywhere, I can beat Finke up, I can get him in front of blockers.”
Those are all compliments, but there is still plenty of work to be done to improve Finke’s game.
“We’re doing so many little things with Finke that help him have a knack for the game outside of the playbook,” Alexander said. “… Because he understands exactly what we want, he knows the playbook, but at the same time, we’re talking about leverage, we’re talking about using his height to an advantage, using his quickness, timing on break and anticipation of people around him.
“We’re doing some things that help you play for a long time.”
WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO “Finke will almost certainly exceed last year’s numbers, but the question will be when and where. Notre Dame is not wanting at receiver, and that assuredness is not even factoring in the number of skilled tight ends available, as well. Finding a role in the rotation for all those capable, including Finke, will be a unique balancing act.
“… Nothing in spring indicated Finke had yielded that second-half momentum surge. With it, he should be ready to contribute at either the slot or the field receiver position whenever Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long wants to downsize his target.”
2018 OUTLOOK Finke’s consistency and unique playmaking ability puts him in position to contribute for Notre Dame, no matter how diminutive his frame may be. The presumed emergence of Young, though, will likely limit the opportunities. Some situations may call for multiple 5-foot-10, sub-200-pound receivers, but those moments are few and far between, especially when the offensive coordinator prefers targets with size and has the luxury of two upperclassmen receivers taller than 6-foot-4 and a trio of pass-catching tight ends even taller.
Finke will still see a non-negligible amount of playing time; it is just hard to project him as one of senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s primary targets, odd considering how much Wimbush relied on Finke in trying to mount a comeback against the Bulldogs.
As for punt returns, Finke’s desire to make a play has put his role there in jeopardy in the past. Recklessly hauling in punts inside the 10-yard-line is a surefire way to aggravate any coach. If Irish head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian have drilled rules into Finke’s head by now, then the job should remain his. He has shown the needed flashes to shift field position, most-recently in the third quarter at Stanford when he returned a punt 41 yards to set up a lead-taking field goal, also known as Notre Dame’s last points of the regular-season finale. Finke returned the Cardinal’s next punt 20 yards to position the Irish for a last-ditch effort, which stalled.
If, however, Finke continues to take unnecessary risks unfit a senior, then a change will need to be made to preserve future possessions.
DOWN THE ROAD Finke will be an interesting case for roster construction discussion following the season. Including sophomore receiver/running back Jafar Armstrong, the Irish currently have 10 players at the position, all with 2019 eligibility available. If Boykin, Claypool and Young separate as a leading trio and any or all of the freshmen quartet impress, then Finke could be the fifth or sixth option as a fifth-year.
In such an instance, the coaching staff may opt to devote that scholarship to a player in the class of 2019, a grouping which could be tight for space as is.
Of course, if Finke catches 25 passes this season for 300 yards and a couple scores, that conversation would shift entirely.
Listed Measurements: 6-foot, 170 pounds 2018-19 year, eligibility: Incoming freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season. Depth chart: Bracy should be little more than a reserve cornerback this season, barring injury to any of the upperclassmen in the two-deep. Recruiting: Coming from the west coast, the rivals.com three-star and No. 39 cornerback in the country chose Notre Dame over the likes of Cal, Utah and Washington State.
QUOTE(S) A small town north of San Jose, Calif., Milpitas is not ripe recruiting ground, leading to a quiet recruiting cycle for Bracy. Irish head coach Brian Kelly was glad to be the beneficiary of that calm.
“Tariq Bracy is a young man that I think if he’s in a metro area, his recruitment probably blows up, but he’s in an area that doesn’t get quite the attention,” Kelly said during December’s early signing period. “… [He] is an outstanding player.”
That recruitment was a quiet one despite Bracy excelling as a prep running back, kick returner and punt returner in addition to his defensive back skills. Oh, and he caught a bevy of passes, too. In winning the state title game, Bracy scored rushing (70 yards), receiving (35) and returning a punt (60). Those highlight-reel moments caught the eye of cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght.
“The strength and power area, he’s going to have to do some work, because he’s a little developmental there,” Lyght said in February. “His playmaking skills, his ball skills, his speed, his reactive athleticism are second-to-none in this class.”
WHAT WAS SAID WHEN BRACY’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED “The Irish might be alright with cornerbacks at the moment, but it will need them in 2019 or 2020, and without any in the class ahead of him, Bracy’s timeline will be expedited by a season. He’ll be contributing no later than his sophomore year and, given natural development, could be a starter as a junior.”
2018 OUTLOOK Bracy’s experience in the return game adds a wrinkle to his playing possibilities this fall. It is most likely he dabbles in special teams coverages and sees defensive mop-up duties in up to four games, preserving a year of eligibility. There is a chance, however, of Bracy taking over the punt and kickoff return duties, albeit not inherently a great chance.
The outward transfer of C.J. Sanders opens up the kickoff duties while senior receiver Chris Finke remains the nominal punt returner, a duty he performed serviceably last season but not exceptionally by any means.
Sanders’ career, although now-truncated, proves Kelly has little qualm about putting a freshman on the goal line to receive kicks. The reserve receiver handled all return duties in 2015, returning both a kick and a punt for scores.
DOWN THE ROAD The cornerbacks depth chart is a unique one to look at. The top four players all have two years of eligibility remaining, while the rest of the position group consists entirely of a freshmen quartet, all obviously with full collegiate careers ahead of them.
That dichotomy could keep Bracy off the field for a couple years before suddenly inserting him into a starting role. Being a first-time starter as a junior should not be considered a disappointment; it is often a norm. (See junior Troy Pride this season and possibly his classmate Donte Vaughn in a year.)
That slow pace will actually coincide nicely with Lyght’s hopes of progress in a next-level strength and conditioning program, as long as added muscle and physicality does not come at the expense of Bracy’s natural speed and agility.
Listed Measurements: 5-foot-10 ½, 200 pounds 2018-19 year, eligibility: After transferring from Navy last offseason, the NCAA denied Gilman’s appeal for a waiver granting immediate eligibility, thus stalling the clock on his playing time for a year. Gilman has three seasons of eligibility remaining, beginning with the 2018 season. Depth chart: Gilman is in position to be the salve to Notre Dame’s years of safety deficiencies. The transfer is expected to begin the season as the starting field safety, displacing senior Nick Coleman and holding off the impressive debut of early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith. Recruiting: Gilman’s was a low-profile recruitment out of Hawai’i, hence his landing at Navy for a year. At that point, he was hardly on the Irish radar.
CAREER TO DATE Gilman spent last season on the sidelines, though he still made an impression on the Notre Dame coaching staff, being named the top prep team player.
At Navy, Gilman’s shining moment actually came against the Irish in a 28-27 Midshipmen victory. He made 12 tackles that day. At that point, Notre Dame had to dread facing him three more times in his career.
2016: 14 games, 12 starts; 76 tackles with five for loss while breaking up five passes, recovering two fumbles, including one he forced and brought to the end zone.
QUOTE(S) The drawbacks of spending a season on the scout team by the NCAA’s decree extend past that fall. Gilman needed to get up to speed on the playbook this spring, something which limited his initial climb up the depth chart.
“He had a slow start to the spring,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in early April. “… He wasn’t taught the defense last year. He was taught everybody else’s defense because he was on scout team. That kind of put him back a few practices, but now that he knows what he’s doing, he can play fast and play physical. We’re really starting to see that skillset that he showed when he was at Navy.”
While first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea also saw that learning curve accelerate through the spring, what he did not need to see progress was Gilman’s leadership tendencies.
“He’s a guy that in one year has made an impact from a leadership standpoint,” Lea said the week of the Blue-Gold Game. “The guys follow him, they listen to him, they trust him. It’s apparent. He’s consistent, he’s dependable, all the things that you would want.
“He’s got it as a leader. We want to harness that and let that shine as he goes.”
WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO “Kelly praised Gilman as a physical safety. That would seem to put him in the same category as [junior Jalen Elliott], though perhaps with better coverage skills. In that instance, Gilman could fill in for Elliott in intermediate down-and-distance situations, guarding against a pass while also providing strong run support.
“On more obvious passing downs, perhaps [junior Devin] Studstill comes in, or perhaps Gilman offers strong enough pass coverage he can continue to man the position, even allowing [then-] sophomore Julian Love to stay at cornerback, further strengthening the Notre Dame secondary.
“The reasons behind Gilman’s transfer should also be acknowledged here. He very clearly has NFL aspirations. That is to be lauded. Just keep it in mind: Once that opportunity presents itself, Gilman will likely take that chance.”
2018 OUTLOOK Last season, the Irish safeties had their hands in a grand total of zero turnovers. The lack of interceptions is well discussed and a greater concern, but Elliott, Studstill and Coleman also failed to force or recover any fumbles. It took Gilman all of two drives in the Blue-Gold Game to showcase that part of his game, halting a big gain from receiver Michael Young by both forcing and recovering a fumble.
Along with his six tackles in the scrimmage, that strip presumably secured Gilman’s starting role entering 2018. Even with the strong springtime showing from Griffith and the arrival of consensus four-star freshman Derrik Allen, Gilman should start alongside Elliott against Michigan, each bringing a year of starting experience to the gig.
Further evidence of Gilman’s spot in the pecking order, Coleman’s work at nickelback during the spring hints at Lea trying to find a way to get his best players on the field one way or another. If Gilman supplanted Coleman, then Coleman spending time at nickel would offer a different defensive look in Lea’s inventory.
To hold off the freshmen duo, Gilman will need to continue finding the ball both in turnover situations and as run fits dictate. Those are the strengths of his game, items sorely lacking from the Notre Dame secondary for a couple seasons.
Coleman accounted for 44 tackles in 2017, Elliott just one behind him. In this system, the safeties do not rack up exceptional numbers of takedowns. Thus, do not expect Gilman to match his Naval total. His ball skills are more crucial to Lea’s defense, anyway.
DOWN THE ROAD Starting the first day he is able usually indicates years of such a duty. Contrarily, the arrival of two four-stars at a position typically points to a short shelf life for the incumbents. One of those trends will have to yield.
It may take Griffith and/or Allen a full year or two to be ready to start. That would hardly bode poorly for their careers, but it would pave the way for Gilman to spend multiple years as the Irish starter.
Twitter is a unique beast, with college football Twitter its own monster and the Notre Dame subsection a terror all its own. The overreactions, hot takes and incessant hand-wringing create an ecosystem unlike any other throughout fall’s Saturdays. The gifs, memes and intentional misspellings of “FIGTHING IRISH” develop a language at best English-adjacent. The on-field highs become greater peaks and each lost fumble craters into a never-ending abyss as far as the proverbial feed is concerned.
As it was first known, twttr officially launched in March of 2006 and gained steam in 2007, but it only found momentum in 2008 and became main-stream somewhere between 2009 and 2010. Personally, it was a slow day in The South Bend Tribune’s newsroom during LeBron James’ first free agency that spurred signing up. (July 4, 2010, to be exact.) Notre Dame football reaches back much, much further than that. More than a century so.
Relatively speaking, the moments of the last decade have largely been muted, considering just how much Twitter overreacts to trivial moments and nearly-combusts on big occasions. For every South Florida rainstorm, a Kick-Six stands out as a true demonstration of college football Twitter’s reach. A national championship game blowout quickly turns into an hour-long Irish roast followed by two hours of boredom.
Thus, the pointless-but-for-entertainment question becomes …
What Notre Dame football events from the pre-Twitter era would have been best suited for the platform’s hyperbolic reaction, universal enjoyment and continuous feedback?
A few categories of replies emerge.
THE RECENT HISTORY The years immediately preceding Twitter’s takeover offered numerous days of hysteria, obviously halted by 2007’s 3-9 disaster, a season in which Twitter’s barroom snark may have provided some needed company for the miserable, company which could have included Michigan fans to open the season, courtesy of that legendary Appalachian State upset.
A simple peak came with Brady Quinn finding Jeff Samardzija for a 45-yard touchdown pass in the final minute to beat UCLA in 2006. Weeks before that, though, both the Irish comeback at Michigan State and the reaction to it would have been ripe for the picking.
Scoring 19 straight points to win 40-37 at a rival’s venue is about as sweet as it gets in college football. Eliciting an uninterrupted, 15-minute meltdown from the rival’s radio jockey is another brand of delight. The longest breath ever taken by Mike Valenti, of 97.1 “The Ticket” in Detroit, is hardly remembered today, but imagine if Twitter had sunk its teeth into the rolling and roiling takedown of everything associated with Drew Henson and Mark Dantonio.
It begins nicely enough, repeatedly deeming the loss a “choke job.” Valenti touches on football concepts familiar to Notre Dame fans remembering 2016, “You’re asking Drew Stanton to run the option in Hurricane Katrina.” Valenti’s voice halts, cracks and nearly gives out. “God forbid if they had tripped over themselves and gained 20 yards, they wouldn’t have even gotten a field goal off. The unit wasn’t ready.”
And in a moment of resignation perfectly designed for Twitter’s character limits, “I’m tired. I’m hurt. I’m emotional. I’m shot. I’ve got nothing left.”
Before 2006’s dramatics, there was 2005’s “Bush Push.” Not much else needs to be said. Irish fans would have conjured up thrice the conspiracy theories they already have if Twitter and gifs had been there to aid the bargaining fans. In time, they would have found some comfort in the inevitable memes of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush crying. For an hour that afternoon, before all dreams were dashed, Tom Zbikowski’s punt return for a touchdown and a 21-14 halftime lead would have delivered Notre Dame fans quite the social media hubris, counteracting the expected public cries of despair at the sight of green jerseys before the game, justifiably so given their production in 2003 against Boston College.
THE DISTANT HISTORY Two nominees jump to mind, both dealing with the state directly north of campus. Twitter would have wrung itself into an incoherent, morally-outraged mess following the 10-10 tie between the No. 1 Irish and No. 2 Michigan State in 1966. How could Ara not try to win? Why play the game? How weak!! Valid strategy or not, Notre Dame holding the ball for the final 70 seconds of a tie game would have sparked backlash so strong it then would have induced its own backlash which would, presumably, lead to backlash to the backlash of the initial backlash.
THE ALLEN ROSSUM HEROICS One is well-known for its preservation of the eventual 43-year Irish winning streak against Navy.
The memes of “Rossum saving …” would have been a catalyst for Notre Dame football Twitter for some time to come.
That pales in comparison to the thoughts of the freshmen in the student body in 1996, when Rossum returned the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown against Purdue. Every single one of those freshmen would have tweeted exactly what they thought, “Holy *$#%, we’re going to go 48-0!”
Narrator: They did not go 48-0.
THE GREATEST FALSEHOOD There are a number of off-field debacles that would top each of these in-game highlights. The video of Lou Holtz cutting loose at a pep rally could have enraged entire opposing stadiums. Every moment of Jimmy Clausen’s time in South Bend likely lent itself to mockery from afar.
Yet nothing, nothing whatsoever (with the possible exception of the in-the-heart-of-the-Twitter-era Manti Te’o dating debacle), not all of these thoughts combined, would have topped Twitter’s euphoria for five days in December of 2001.
George O’Leary’s padded résumé would have shut down much of the internet by crashing the servers of every online college football outlet
Instead, NYU-Stony Brook University is a figment of the imagination long forgotten.
A FEW THOUGHTS TOO LONG FOR TWITTER — At least one Notre Dame alum remembers the Valenti rant quite well. In his friend group, it is a piece of legend: He had the audio file on his phone, listening to the phone on shuffle on a road trip with his girlfriend, a Michigan State alum. The Valenti outburst came on. The Irish fan let it play in its 15-minute entirety. The remaining 90 minutes of the ride were uncomfortably silent. Worry not. They will be married less than a month from now.
— There would have been universal social media joy following the Appalachian State topping of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Not just because of what happened at the Big House, but also because of the events at Appalachian State’s stadium, where the students broke in, tore down the goalposts and walked them a mile to the chancellor’s lawn.
— In its own way already proven, the late ‘80s matchups with Miami would have been ideal social media material, verified by how well Twitter received ESPN’s “30 for 30” on the rivalry.
ON TJ SHEFFIELD It has already blown over. Hard as that may be to believe, given Wednesday’s likely end to the Notre Dame recruitment of rivals.com three-star receiver TJ Sheffield (Independence High School; Thompson’s Station, Tenn.). Sheffield committed on July 6, described his pledge as “100 percent” two days later, and then announced the Irish coaching staff had withdrawn the offer on July 11.
(Why bring up this old news now? One, to emphasize how it has already left most concerns. Two, only about 20 percent of U.S. adults use Twitter and many may have missed the ins and outs of this odd recruitment.)
“After establishing a long-term relationship with Coach Alexander the Receiver’s Coach for Notre Dame, I called him on the morning of the 6th of July and stated to him my intensions to commit [sic],” Sheffield posted to Twitter. “Coach Alexander then congratulated me on committing and he spoke with my parents as well stating that he looked forward to coaching me. Today I received a call from Coach Alexander stating that Notre Dame was not going to honor my commitment due to a change of plans. Coach Alexander stated that he should have let me know on the 6th of July that Notre Dame had different plans.”
Such as it goes, unfortunate as it is for this situation to have come to light at all. Sheffield will be better off learning of this shift now rather than closer to a signing date, the most likely outcome otherwise. That said, Alexander certainly made a public mistake in a public fashion.
To summarize how this miscommunication presumably occurred: All scholarship offers and subsequent commitments are mutually non-binding. Thus, not all scholarship offers are true offers. They are conditional on these grades or that other player or general timing. Sheffield did not have the same read of his conditions as the Irish coaching staff did. Simple as that, although yet embarrassing.
Compare it to a redhead behind the bar. If she gives the customer her number, she has not agreed to a date. She has simply put the option on the table pending timing, interests and textual manners.
The five-day life cycle of Sheffield’s commitment is nothing more than some mud on Notre Dame’s face that will wash off quickly, if it has not already.
National Hockey League unveils the 2019 NHL Winter Classic logo for Chicago Blackhawks & Boston Bruins outdoors battle at Notre Dame Stadium on New Year’s Day. pic.twitter.com/yG1hpBhNQZ