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A call for mailbag questions; words from Jeff Quinn; links to read

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Of the many pertinent effects of the early signing period back in December, lowest on the list would be it created more of a January lull when discussing college football.

Yes, Notre Dame has three spots left in this recruiting class and hopes to fill them yet with the likes of consensus four-star linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu (Mater Dei High School; Anaheim, Calif.), consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys (McDonogh 35; New Orleans) and rivals.com four-star/247sports.com five-star offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (Berkley Prep; Tampa, Fla.), but speculating about three scholarship spots requires far less bandwidth than pondering two dozen does. A recap of where the Irish may or may not stand with those and other prospects will certainly populate these parts before Feb. 7’s National Signing Day.

RELATED READING: With four spots remaining, what recruits is Notre Dame still chasing?

Note: In saying Notre Dame is pursuing three more recruits, that includes consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.) with the 21 signed commits. Jones will need to sign in February, as well, and could theoretically defect from the class, although that seems exceedingly unlikely.

Aside from those bits, there are still a number of weeks until spring practice commences in mid-March. Previewing it now would be rather preemptive.

Let’s turn to the cheapest of internet content, the form where the readers provide the creative spark. That’s right, a mailbag.

Questions? Ramblings unrelated to any recent article that may spark another story idea? Mere commentary seeking affirmation or rebuttal? Send them to insidetheirish@gmail.com. Of course, you can enter them in the comments below, but those get both lost and discussed long before a mailbag comes to be a reality.

Thanks in advance.

“Through one set of eyes”

Remember the name A.J. Dillon
If forgotten, then expect this space to mention it frequently over the next 22 months. The Boston College running back will be a junior when the Eagles visit Notre Dame in November of 2019.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame needs Terry Joseph to develop DBs … and recruit them
Brian Kelly promotes Jeff Quinn to Notre Dame offensive line coach
Brian Kelly knows what Notre Dame gets with Jeff Quinn as OL coach — more Brian Kelly
Friday at 4: Returning 9 fifth-years brings Notre Dame unteachable luxuries

OUTSIDE READING
Michigan State secrets extend far beyond Larry Nassar case
Jeff Samardzija honors his Notre Dame football coach, Tyrone Willingham
How long will Saban coach? Ready for Clemson-Alabama 4? And other offseason storylines

Friday at 4: Returning 9 fifth-years brings Notre Dame unteachable luxuries

Associated Press
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It is a common saying in the spring while hyping practice performances: Speed can’t be taught. Frankly, it is a common saying anytime discussing football at length. Yet, to some degree speed can be taught — with the proper training and technique, players do get faster.

It would be more accurate to point to experience as an unteachable quality, one gained only with time.

This spring and coming fall, Notre Dame will have plenty of experience from the outset. Nine fifth-year players are expected back with the Irish for one more season, more than double last year’s four, which included a transfer in receiver Cam Smith. He joined left tackle Mike McGlinchey, offensive lineman Hunter Bivin and tight end Durham Smythe.

McGlinchey turned down the chance to be a first-round NFL draft pick to return, and both Bivin and Smythe had options to transfer elsewhere for a final season with more playing time and perhaps more prominent roles. Instead, McGlinchey led the Irish on and off the field, Bivin provided the only semblance of depth along the offensive front and Smythe had a career season.

The nine in 2018 will represent the opposite end of the seasoning spectrum when compared to 22-25 freshmen. The nine may not warrant dramatic and desperate pleas for playing time. More often than not, they do not even land in headlines. The fifth-year options are known quantities, while the freshmen stand out as potential and hypothetical greatness.

In time, some of the freshmen will certainly surpass the fifth-years’ ceilings. Using such a declarative verb and tense in the previous sentence even holds up when considering the sheer numbers at hand.

In 2018, though, the fifth-years will be Notre Dame’s backbone. They provide experience, consistency and depth the freshmen simply cannot match. That is not a knock on the newcomers. All-Americans and likely first-round draft picks McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson were not ready to contribute as freshmen. Neither were the likes of Mitch Trubisky (at North Carolina), Deshaun Watson (at Clemson) or Christian McCaffrey (at Stanford), three of the top-12 picks in last year’s NFL draft.

The freshmen’s time will come. For defensive end Jay Hayes, tight end Nic Weishar and receiver Freddy Canteen, the only remaining time is now. To some degree, that ticking clock adds a sense of urgency to the qualities they bring to the locker room.

The experience, consistency and depth are just a bit more tangible. There will be few situations those nine have not seen, few offenses linebacker Drue Tranquill has not already watched film on. If that allows him to pick up on a play a second earlier, it could be the entire difference in getting the defensive line properly lined up before the snap. Similarly, there will be few blitzes center Sam Mustipher has not had to already diagnose. If that removes one more duty from the quarterback’s pre-snap checklist, it should allow him (whomever it is) to focus on the coverage presented that much more.

The Irish roster was always going to have a punter on it. If that is a fifth-year or a freshman, it equals one roster spot all the same. By keeping Tyler Newsome around, a consistent and strong leg remains a field position weapon.

Losing a consensus All-American in McGlinchey and a unanimous All-American in Nelson is enough of a challenge. Getting Mustipher and right guard Alex Bars back will do a lot to ease the task of replacing the left side of the line for newly-promoted offensive line coach Jeff Quinn.

Cornerback Nick Watkins’ physical stature makes him an ideal boundary coverage option to start with, but keeping him in the mix with the four sophomore cornerbacks also makes Notre Dame’s secondary deeper than it could ever deploy at once. Even if current sophomore Julian Love spends some time at safety, the Irish could still trot out a dime package with four stout cornerbacks. Without Watkins, that luxury would hinge on the quick adaption of a freshman such as Tariq Bracy.

Without Jonathan Bonner, Notre Dame’s depth at defensive tackle could have quickly turned concerning if multiple newcomers did not prove themselves early. With Bonner returning for a fifth year, the position is one of the deepest on the Irish roster. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Freshman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa would have been a good starting defensive tackle in his second season, if not more than that. The return of Jonathan Bonner means Tagovailoa-Amosa will be a great backup, if not more yet, nonetheless. Either way, the return of Bonner raises the overall quality of play at the position. The same goes for Hayes at defensive end and his effect upon the possibilities of the current sophomores filling the position group.

Experience, consistency and depth. They cannot be taught, only gained with time.

While Alabama made it fashionable to insist freshmen are universally ready to play by relying on first-year players at quarterback, running back, receiver and left tackle on its national championship-winning drive, those were anomalies. Even at that, they were mixed-result anomalies. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa made greater and more mistakes than exceptional plays; his positive moments simply proved more decisive. In addition to the title-winning touchdown pass, he also jeopardized the game by throwing an interception on a running play, using a timeout when trying to drain the clock and taking a sack on the opening play of the Tide overtime drive. That sack was initiated when freshman left tackle Alex Leatherwood blew his block, forcing Tagovailoa to move into more pressure.)

Most freshmen are not ready to provide consistent and constant production. For every Robert Hainsey, there is a Mike McGlinchey. For every Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, there is a Jonathan Bonner. For every, nope, Notre Dame has not had a strong freshman linebacker showing since the otherworldly Jaylon Smith in 2013. One could argue that underscores the importance of Tranquill’s return, as it is somewhat unlikely any of the early-enrolled or incoming freshmen linebackers make an impact this year.

And if one of them is, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will readily embrace it. Someone still has to join Tranquill and current junior Te’von Coney on the defense’s second level.

Brian Kelly knows what Notre Dame gets with Jeff Quinn as OL coach — more Brian Kelly

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At some point in the next week or two, Notre Dame will hold a press conference wherein Irish head coach Brian Kelly will heap praise upon first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, associate head coach Mike Elston, reportedly-hired safeties coach Terry Joseph and newly-promoted offensive line coach Jeff Quinn. Kelly will speak to their qualifications, their fit within the current staff and how they will be driving forces for a team with College Football Playoff aspirations.

None of that is surprising. No employee is publicly-criticized, questioned or minimized upon the day of a promotion or hiring, nor should one be.

Kelly held a similar press conference a year ago. In fact, as of a week from yesterday, it was exactly a year ago Kelly introduced seven new hires, six of which came from outside his previous experiences.

“We needed to make some significant changes,” Kelly said Jan. 30, 2017. “Significant not just in terms of personnel, but in how we do things on a day-to-day basis, and it starts with me.”

Those changes took hold, laying a foundation for a 10-3 season concluding with a New Year’s Day bowl victory over a top-20 opponent. Six of those seven hires remain, five of those six still coming from outside Kelly’s first 26 years as a head coach.

In a distinct departure from that year-old storyline of the benefits of the coaching staff’s wide-ranging backgrounds, the Tuesday promotion of Quinn very much comes from Kelly’s past. Whereas hiring Joseph to work with the Irish safeties continued that trend, Quinn has spent 22 total seasons working with Kelly across four different stops.

One coach does not a pattern make, and one does not erase the previous changes wholesale. Quinn very well may have spent the last three years as an offensive analyst and assistant strength coach learning from former offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. He certainly had the opportunity to do so. Kelly may feel that apprenticeship made Quinn the most-qualified and best-ready candidate to continue the long- and recent-history of top-flight Notre Dame offensive lines.

A year ago, Kelly described the support from Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick as thorough and encouraging during the revamping of the coaching staff.

“Got great support from Jack Swarbrick allowing us to go out and find the very best,” Kelly said. “… I think that says a lot about who we have here in our administration and allowing us to go out and find the very best.”

Nothing occurred in 2017 to indicate that support has shifted. Swarbrick took the long view in retaining Kelly after Notre Dame’s 4-8 debacle in 2016. The progress shown in 2017 would, theoretically, strengthen that strategy. By that logic, then, Quinn was deemed the top option in Kelly’s eyes.

Aside from the time spent around Hiestand making such a possibility into a reality, Kelly knows what he gets with Quinn. He gets a qualified coach — even the harshest and most irrational critics of the promotion should acknowledge 34 years coaching collegiate football with a focus on offensive schemes cannot be diminished outright; nor can a reasonable case be made against the bona fides of coaching 12 future NFL offensive linemen and 22 All-Americans at the position.

Jeff Quinn (und.com)

Kelly also gets an assistant who has, by and large, learned from only one head coach. Aside from two years under Nick Mourouzis and three as the offensive line and tight ends coach for Tom Kaczkowski (Who? Well, exactly), Quinn has had one boss in coaching: Kelly. Just as there is value in a variety of voiced viewpoints on the coaching staff, there is value in learning from a spectrum of schematic approaches, developmental methods and personnel management habits.

Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long does not need someone in game planning sessions who thinks like Kelly. He has Kelly for that, and Kelly doesn’t need somebody to tell him what he’s already thinking. Finishing each other’s sentences is a sign of redundancy, not efficiency.

That is what Quinn represents on the surface, along with a willingness to return to some ingredients which cooked up success in the first 19 seasons of Kelly’s career. At least, that is what Quinn represents until shown otherwise.

To once more pull from Kelly’s comments in his most-recent press conference announcing new hires.

“The great thing about Notre Dame is you’re not defined by what happened in the past. It’s about what you do in the future.”

It is a hard sentiment to argue, even if it is also a hard one to abide by when Quinn’s past is well-known and well-trodden.

Brian Kelly promotes Jeff Quinn to Notre Dame offensive line coach

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Replacing one of the country’s best offensive line coaches was always going to be difficult for Notre Dame. Irish coach Brian Kelly will count on familiarity and continuity to be the differences in doing so, promoting offensive analyst Jeff Quinn to offensive line coach Tuesday.

Quinn has been with Notre Dame for three years to date, having previously worked with Kelly for two decades from Grand Valley State to Central Michigan to Cincinnati.

“[Quinn] has an accomplished track record of not only identifying but also developing outstanding offensive linemen,” Kelly said in a statement. “Jeff also understands the high standard of offensive line play at Notre Dame, having been part of the offensive staff the last few years. He will continue to develop the culture necessary to produce college football’s top offensive line.”

Obviously, that offensive line is due to regress in 2018, with coach Harry Hiestand taking the job with the Chicago Bears and two first-round draft picks, left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey, headed to the NFL, as well. Nonetheless, the unit returns four starters and has a talent pool rivaled by few programs in the country.

“There’s a tremendous legacy of coaching the offensive line at Notre Dame, from Brian Boulac to Merv Johnson to Joe Moore to Harry Hiestand,” Quinn said. “As each of these men will tell you, the focus of this job has been and always will be about the best interests of the players in the offensive line room, both on and off the field.”

Quinn and Kelly parted ways when the latter took the Irish coaching job. Quinn was all set to join the Notre Dame staff then, but Buffalo offered him a head coaching opportunity. He went 20-36 in four-plus seasons with the Bulls, highlighted by an 8-5 showing in 2013, finishing second in the eastern division of the MAC.

Throughout his 20 years with Kelly, from 1989 to 2009, Quinn always had a hand in the offensive line, holding offensive coordinator duties throughout that stretch, as well.

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame needs Terry Joseph to develop DBs … and recruit them

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Terry Joseph’s past work in developing players presumably was the single-biggest reason behind Notre Dame reportedly hiring the North Carolina defensive backs coach to work with the Irish safeties. The likes of current sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill, freshmen Jorden Genmark-Heath and Isaiah Robertson, and incoming freshmen Houston Griffith and Derrik Allen all should benefit from Joseph’s past successes in taking unexpected defensive backs and creating future NFL players.

Nonetheless, recruiting is always a necessary piece of the collegiate coaching puzzle, and Joseph has had his strong showings there, as well. That focus should still narrow on defensive backs, where Notre Dame yet needs to make the most progress. Signing five defensive backs in the class of 2018 does only so much for the lacking in previous cycles, most notably the literal dearth of cornerbacks signed last year.

Obviously, Joseph as a position coach would be a mere piece of any recruitment, at Notre Dame or at his previous stops, including Texas A&M, Nebraska and Tennessee. There is the rest of the program to consider, overall success and any possibly other primary recruiter.

All those qualifiers aside, Joseph landed some notable defensive back prospects in his three seasons with the Aggies, preceding his one-and-done pause with the Tar Heels. (All recruiting rankings in this piece are via rivals.com simply to have a standard barometer.)

Recruiting class of 2015: Four-star Larry Pryor; four-star Justin Dunning; four-star Roney Elam; three-star Justin Evans; three-star Deshawn Capers-Smith.
Recruiting class of 2016: Four-star Ikewa Okeke; three-star Charles Oliver; three-star Travon Fuller.
Recruiting class of 2017: Four-star Myles Jones; three-star Debione Renfro; three-star Devin Morris

In 2017, Pryor, Oliver and Jones all started for the Aggies, with Capers-Smith and Renfro also appearing in the two-deep and seeing regular playing time. Evans has already headed to the NFL as a second-round pick.

That makes six of 11 defensive backs becoming viable contributors relatively quickly upon their arrivals, with time for a few more to add to that tally.

Aggies freshman Debione Renfro became a defensive contributor from day one, indicating Terry Joseph may have identified a recruit a bit better than the three-star rankings belied. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

While Evans is clearly the greatest example of development in this sampling — going from junior college recruit to second-round pick is a jump — both Renfro and Jones are examples of good, if not great, recruits immediately standing out. As a freshman, Renfro made 54 tackles, including two for loss, while breaking up five passes. Similarly, Jones made 35 tackles, picked off one pass and broke up eight more. Along with Oliver’s eight pass breakups, the three led a secondary that made consistent plays on the ball.

For context’s sake, sophomore cornerback Julian Love led Notre Dame with a record-setting 20 pass breakups this year. Behind him came senior cornerback Nick Watkins with eight and junior cornerback Shaun Crawford with five.

Looking directly at safety, Pryor started the final three games of his sophomore year and five as a junior, making 34 and 44 tackles, respectively.

Joseph’s moments of player development are what the Irish need most desperately right now, but finding recruits such as Renfro, Jones and Evans will be vital in years to come, as well.

Stanford will NOT have a quarterback controversy
It would have been nominal, at the most, anyway. Sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello established himself as the Cardinal’s best option at quarterback in the season’s second half. Senior Keller Chryst would have likely been given a supposed chance in the spring, somewhat out of deference to his four years in the program, but Costello would have assuredly walked away with the job.

Now, Stanford head coach David Shaw will not have to even consider that lip service. Chryst will head elsewhere for his final season of eligibility.

No Irish in the Super Bowl
With the Minnesota Vikings losing Sunday night, the three final Notre Dame football alums in the playoffs bowed out. No former Irish player will have a chance to win a Super Bowl ring this year, a la Michael Floyd in 2017, David Bruton in 2016 and Jonas Gray in 2015.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?
Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns
Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?
Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision
Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster
Stepherson may get the headlines, but loss of two RBs will cost Notre Dame most
A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s defensive roster
Notre Dame’s opponents: USC and Stanford lost the most in early departures to NFL
Friday at 4: What a difference two weeks makes
Notre Dame taps North Carolina’s Terry Joseph as safeties coach

HAPPY ONE-YEAR, Y’ALL