It was downright remarkable when Irish head coach Brian Kelly turned over the majority of his coaching staff a year ago yet Notre Dame still pulled in a solid recruiting class. This offseason saw only two assistant coaching changes, but one’s impact on Wednesday’s signees was still notable.
Whereas the Irish had secured a few safeties already in December’s early signing period, thus reducing the need for new safeties coach Terry Joseph to hit the ground running full-speed, a need for a couple more offensive linemen was apparent. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn downplayed his role in retaining the commitment of consensus three-star lineman Luke Jones and closing on three-star tackle Jarrett Patterson on Wednesday. Jones’ commitment was likely always rock-solid, but both recruiting coordinator Brian Polian and Patterson betrayed Quinn’s impact in pursuing the Mission Viejo, Calif., product.
California (and Hawaii) is Polian’s primary geographical focus in recruiting. He has long had success out west (see: Te’o, Manti), and he maintained all his connections along the Pacific during his time as head coach at Nevada. Thus, he joined the obvious offensive coaches — Kelly, Quinn and coordinator Chip Long — on the final visit to Patterson just days before National Signing Day.
“The Patterson situation was a little bit odd because we offered him just as the news that [former Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand was heading to the Chicago Bears],” Polian said. “You would think as that was going down that the odds would be against you, and Jeff stepped in and really did a nice job toward the end.”
The four coaches knew their primary competition was UCLA and new Bruins head coach Chip Kelly. Convincing a player to leave the warmth of California and one of recent history’s better recruiters is hard enough. Doing it with a new position coach could easily and reasonably complicate the matter. Instead, Patterson told Blue & Gold Illustrated his conversations with Quinn played a pivotal role in his decision.
“He came over and we watched film together and he showed me different drills and different players he’s coached,” Patterson said. “… He’s a very seasoned coach. He’s been doing this for many years, he knows what he’s doing and he knows the Notre Dame program.”
From Quinn’s vantage, those same conversations seem to be a large part of why he is excited to work with Patterson.
“I had my iPad in his living room talking about football,” Quinn said Wednesday. “He didn’t want to talk about anything else at that point, which was great.
“For me personally to have that ability to really demonstrate to him and show him and communicate to him who we are and what Notre Dame could do for him and what he could do for Notre Dame, that was a huge get for us.”
The Irish did not pull in their top offensive line target in consensus five-star tackle Nick Petit-Frere, but Quinn successfully making the sale to Patterson and keeping Jones in the fold makes for a promising recruiting start.
Tillery flips with Bonner; Tranquill likely to traditional LB role
Defensive line coach Mike Elston said Notre Dame will move rising senior Jerry Tillery to the three-technique tackle position, less in the middle of the line than the alternative and more responsible for generating a pass rush. Fifth-year tackle Jonathan Bonner will then slide to the nose tackle position, having proven last season he has developed the strength necessary to maintain the point of attack.
In theory, the switch should allow Tillery to rely on his length and unique athleticism, as well as brighten his NFL allure.
“He’s not an overly-powerful guy, anyway,” Elston said. “He’s an explosive player and an incredible athlete, but when you don’t have that power like a Quenton Nelson has, you better have the right technique or you’re going to get overpowered. We’re working through those kind of technique things that [Tillery] needs to commit himself to.”
On the second level, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea acknowledged the possibility of fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill moving from the rover role to a more traditional linebacker spot alongside rising senior Te’von Coney.
“I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots,” Lea said. “Through the course of the winter and spring we’ll take a look at different options and by the time we wrap up spring, hopefully I have a great feel for what the depth chart is going to look like heading into the fall.”
‘A totally different animal’
Next National Signing Day, both Quinn and Joseph will undoubtedly be asked what surprised them or what differences they noted in recruiting for the Irish compared to previous stops. Of the remaining pieces from last year’s staff turnover, one already had Notre Dame experience (Polian), one had not recruited elsewhere (quarterbacks coach Tom Rees), and one’s media availability was spent focused on his newest promotion (Lea).
Offensive coordinator Chip Long and receivers coach Del Alexander, though, shared their observations after completing a full recruiting cycle. For Long, the biggest change was in how he was received at high schools and prospects’ homes. The brand value of Notre Dame created warmer receptions than Long experienced when with (in reverse chronological order) Memphis, Arizona State and Illinois.
“It’s a totally different animal,” Long said. “When you walk in, they make time for you instead of it just being a hassle like some places I’ve been. They make time for you and do whatever they can, because they know what this school represents. … There’s no question, I’ve never been any place with the power of Notre Dame.”
To Alexander — with past recruiting duties at Arizona State, Wisconsin, San Diego, Oregon State and UNLV, as well as three years in a non-recruiting role at USC — the aspect he had to most adjust to was evaluating more than a player’s on-field performances.
“We want to go after the best players in the country, as does everyone else, but at the same time, there are unique qualities that the young men must possess to succeed here,” Alexander said. “You have to sit down and develop a relationship beyond football. You have to sit down and see if this young man is forward-thinking, if he’s thinking about his future in the classroom and in the community.
“At some places, it’s not like that. It’s just straight about football. It’s about winning and losing, it’s about the NFL opportunity. This is about way more than that.”
Along with Bonner and Tranquill, Kelly confirmed the seven other players returning for fifth and final years: cornerback Nick Watkins, defensive end Jay Hayes, receiver Freddy Canteen, tight end Nic Weishar, right guard Alex Bars, center Sam Mustipher and punter Tyler Newsome.
Weishar had shoulder surgery recently, per Kelly, but his rehab is progressing as expected. If that limits him in spring practice, Notre Dame may have only rising senior Alizé Mack, rising sophomore Cole Kmet and early-enrolled freshman George Takacs fully healthy at tight end, as rising sophomore Brock Wright had shoulder surgery himself already this offseason.
The experience, depth and talent of the 9 fifth-years will obviously be welcome. Consider how rarely relying on freshmen goes well:
Those 10 teams combined to go 75-55 in 2017.
INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
— As a National Signing Day Primer, some mailbag questions
— It’s a different National Signing Day
— Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s six signees, with some assistant insights
— National Signing Day’s Things We Learned & Things We Knew
— Notre Dame’s assistant coaches on December’s signed offensive recruits
— Notre Dame’s assistant coaches on December’s signed defensive recruits
NOTRE DAME GOT THE LETTERS:
— C’Bo Flemister, consensus three-star running back
— DJ Brown, consensus three-star cornerback
— Luke Jones, consensus three-star offensive lineman
— Jarrett Patterson, three-star offensive tackle
— Lawrence Keys, consensus three-star receiver
— Noah Boykin, consensus four-star cornerback and a Signing Day victory
— Lea won’t forget where he was when the phone rang
— Davie releases statement, says he’s appealed 30-day suspension