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New sheriffs in town

Sam Werner | Friday, April 17, 2009

Last season’s late-season collapse has been analyzed, dissected and torn apart by Notre Dame fans all over the country. Many of those fans were even calling for Irish coach Charlie Weis’ job.

Weis wasn’t fired, but he did shake up the coaching staff in a big way. Former running backs coach Michael Haywood left to become the head coach at Miami (Ohio), and offensive and defensive line coaches John Latina and Jappy Oliver left to pursue other opportunities. Replacing them were Tony Alford at running backs, Frank Verducci at offensive line and Randy Hart at defensive line.

Verducci was the first new coach hired, just a week after Latina resigned. Like Weis, he is a New Jersey native, and gained most of his coaching experience in the NFL. Verducci had been in the pro ranks since 2001 coaching the Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns. Prior to that, though, he had spent nine years coaching the offensive line at the University of Iowa.

“Frank provides an excellent background on both the offensive line and run game in general from two perspectives, having coached several years in professional football and at the Division I level, predominantly in the Big Ten,” Weis said in Verducci’s introductory press conference. “His experience will be an asset both to our players and our staff.”

Alford was the next hire, just five days after Verducci. The new running backs coach came to the Irish from Louisville, where he coached for two seasons after nine seasons at Iowa State sandwiched around one at Washington.

“Notre Dame is the epitome of college football,” Alford said in his first press conference. “To join a place with the tradition and history of Notre Dame is very exciting and I’m grateful to Coach Weis for extending me this tremendous opportunity.”

Hart was the final piece to the puzzle, joining the staff in late February, more than a month after Verducci and Alford were hired. The 61-year-old Hart had spent the previous 21 years as the defensive line coach at Washington but was not retained when the Huskies hired new head coach Steve Sarkisian.

“I’m thrilled to add someone with the resume and personality of Randy Hart to our coaching staff,” Weis said at Hart’s introduction. “As I discussed last week, there were certain attributes and qualities I was looking for in this hire. First and foremost, he had to have great chemistry with Jon [Tenuta, defensive coordinator] and Corwin [Brown, associate head coach]. Second, we wanted someone that was a high-energy coach that could develop our young defensive line.”

The new coaches didn’t have much time to get acclimated to South Bend, with spring practice starting just a month after the staff was set.

“It was pretty much all business the first time I met [Verducci],” senior guard Eric Olsen said.

All three new hires said they knew what they wanted to accomplish when they arrived, though. Verducci, for example, said he wanted to focus mostly on the technical aspects of blocking.

“As long as the effort’s there, and I can see on the field that they’re grasping piece by piece what we’re trying to teach them and the changes we’re trying to make, that’s encouraging,” he said. “Technical errors right now I can understand because a lot of things I’m teaching they haven’t been exposed to before.

“But in many ways, assignment-wise, this is the same offense they’ve been in, and we spend time before practice trying to put them in as many situations as possible. Mental errors to me are more disturbing.”

Alford was less technical, saying he was more concerned with the confidence and mental state of his running backs.

“They have to understand how good they can be. They have to feel that they can be good before they will be good,” he said. “We want to be complete players, being able to run, being able to block, being able to carry, not putting it on the ground. That’s what we’re looking for, just the consistency of making plays all the time.”

Hart was probably faced with the biggest challenge of the new staff, taking on a defensive line that is arguably Notre Dame’s most inexperienced unit.

“Spring practice is experimentation of your scheme,” Hart said. “It’s an experimentation of personnel.”

So far, the early returns from the players have been nothing but positive.

“He’s an energetic guy, fun to be around,” freshman defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said. “He’s a little tough, but he’s fun to be around.”

Similarly, the offensive linemen have responded enthusiastically to Verducci’s detail-oriented approach. Senior tackle Sam Young said his new coach was making him rethink small details such as whether to dominate with the inside or outside hand when pass-blocking.

“Honestly, it was like learning how to walk again,” Young said. “I’ve been taught one way since I started playing football, and now it’s different.”

Olsen echoed his teammate, saying that a new approach was necessary to keep the veteran linemen on their toes.

“Coach Verducci definitely brings a new approach to the offensive line, which is good for me personally,” Olsen said. “Going into my fourth year, getting a little comfortable in the system, that changeup is definitely a good thing.”

Verducci himself admitted that he might be a little more concerned about the little things than your average college coach.

“In college football, the priority is development. In pro football, the priority is details,” Verducci said. “So it’s details versus development. I guess what I’ve tried to do here is mesh the two of them. We have to challenge them to develop, but in the same instance I can show them details to accelerate that development.”

As for Hart, it’s hard for anyone to say much without mentioning the intensity he brings to practice. Despite his unassuming appearance – Weis joked that he originally thought Hart was a lost professor looking for the philosophy department – the new defensive line coach has been known to keep up with players more than 40 years his junior.

“He is just wired for sound,” Weis said with a laugh.

Part of Hart’s job description is mentoring new defensive graduate assistant, and former Irish defensive lineman, Bryant Young.

“I think Randy might be wearing him out as the time goes on,” Weis said. “I bet [Bryant] never thought that would happen, but you’ve got to keep going to keep up with [Coach Hart].”

Alford, on the other hand, has used his recent playing experience as a way to connect with his unit. He played running back at Colorado State and was an All-WAC selection in 1989.

“You have a coach that knows what he’s talking about in the film room, and then when he gets on the field can translate the same thing and still have as much energy as if he was playing the game,” sophomore running back Armando Allen said.

Alford inherited a unit that has been high on potential, but low on production the last few years. While the phrase “running back by committee” has been the hot phrase recently, Alford said that wouldn’t necessarily be the case this year.

“Everyone’s got a role,” Alford said. “That role might be 75 snaps, that role might be 40 snaps, that role might be 10 snaps. You will dictate your role by what you do in practice every single day.”

Though it’s only been 15 practices, Weis said he likes what he sees from his new staff.

“They are good teachers and they go, go, go, go, go,” Weis said. “I appreciate good teachers, but I especially appreciate good teachers with high levels of energy, and that’s been infectious at their positions as well.”

Despite the early success, all the coaches know kickoff against Nevada is a long way away, and the ultimate judgment of their success or failure won’t be made until the 2009 season is in the books.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Hart said. “But the name of the game is work.”