The exact effects and contributions of assistant coaches are difficult to quantify, if not impossible. That aside, Notre Dame may have found the exact fit it needs at running backs coach in Lance Taylor, reportedly chosen over the weekend to replace Autry Denson.
The vague responsibilities of such a coach include recruiting talented players who fit in the unique atmosphere of an academic institution and developing those players to fit within the system preferred by the offensive coordinator. That mid-sentence qualifier, the unique atmosphere of an academic institution, is where Taylor’s abilities may be better-known than a hire’s usually would be. Spending three years at Stanford in the same position with much success is about as comparable a situation as a résumé can hold.
Taylor did not recruit running back Christian McCaffrey, but he did work with the eventual Heisman runner-up in two of the most-productive seasons in recent history. Much of that must be attributed to McCaffrey’s natural talent (and genetics), but the Cardinal running back success at the time was not limited to just McCaffrey.
Three other backs rushed for at least 225 yards and multiple touchdowns in 2015. One of them, Bryce Love, added another 250 receiving yards and a touchdown through the air. Still serving as McCaffrey’s backup in 2016, Love would add 866 total yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore. Taylor had a running backs room with multiple weapons.
One of those weapons, Love, came in via Taylor’s recruitment. So did Stanford’s aerial threat who broke out this past season, receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Taylor led the recruitments of 2016 five-star linebacker Curtis Robinson and 2017 four-star defensive end Ryan Johnson, both initial targets of the Irish coaching staff. Coming out of Mater Dei High School near Los Angeles, Robinson nearly went to USC. Taylor pulled Johnson away from Auburn, a Mobile, Ala, product. Suffice it to say, he found some high-grade recruits who wanted to embrace the challenges at Stanford.
Recruiting talented players? Check.
Who fit at an academic institution? Check.
Develop those players? The results from McCaffrey and Love alone make this a check.
Fit those players into Chip Long’s system? Here is where Taylor’s background may make him exactly what Notre Dame needs.
Long prefers his running backs play a role in the passing game. Remember Tony Jones’ 51-yard touchdown in the final minutes at USC to clinch the unbeaten regular season? Swing passes like that form the base of Long’s favorite attacks, be they via running backs or tight ends. Ideally, two-back sets put the defense in a compromised position.
Taylor developed McCaffrey into a back who pulled in 82 passes over two seasons. Taylor continued working with McCaffrey the next two seasons with the Carolina Panthers — Taylor was hired as receivers coach months before the NFL draft, though the Panthers presumably knew they wanted to target McCaffrey already. Still primarily a running back, McCaffrey worked as a receiver to the extent of 107 catches in 2018.
Again, much of that success traces to McCaffrey’s innate abilities. But nonetheless, if there is an Platonic form of a running back in Long’s mind, it would be McCaffrey.
Taylor is not about to turn Jones or rising junior Jafar Armstrong into the next rendition of McCaffrey or even Love, but the mere fact that such needs to be said shows how strong of a hire he should be. He has five backs to work with this spring, rising sophomores C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith and early enrollee Kyren Williams joining the pair of upperclassmen. Somewhere in that room, Taylor should be able to find his next multi-dimensional threat, and if not, there is a country of recruits to pursue.