Hard Reset: Notre Dame adds seven new coaches as the Irish look to rebound in 2017
Benjamin Padanilam | Friday, April 21, 2017
What do you get when you combine preseason top-10 expectations, a disappointing 4-8 record featuring seven one-possession defeats and rumors of a head coach on his way out into one season?
At Notre Dame, this offseason revealed that the answer can be summed up in two words: reset button.
While head coach Brian Kelly is still leading the charge for Notre Dame as it looks ahead to the 2017 season, he’s one of the few familiar faces from last year’s coaching staff still around. For each of those heartbreaking one-score losses from last season, the Irish brought in a new member to its coaching staff, totaling seven new hires in all. The turnover occurred everywhere, too, as the offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators are all different from last year’s.
And with each of those coaching changes comes new schemes for the players to learn. So one thing is certain: The Notre Dame team that takes the field against Temple on Sept. 2 will look very different from the one that suffered through an eight-loss season in 2016.
On offense, the first change that will be noticeable is the new signal caller directing the Irish offense. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush replaces DeShone Kizer, who departed after last season for the NFL Draft. And with him will be two other new faces — offensive coordinator Chip Long, who comes from Memphis to replace the departed Mike Sanford, and quarterbacks coach Tom Rees.
And as would be expected with so many new faces, much of Notre Dame’s offseason and spring has been spent with each of the new coaches familiarizing themselves with each other and their personnel.
“New is new,” new wide receivers coach Del Alexander said April 5. “New is new. I’ve been in situations — every time I move, it’s new. You approach it like you’re trying to teach the players as if it’s day one. So even though Chip [Long] and I know each other, we have different guys on the staff, so with our communication we can’t cut corners. We have to share that vocabulary with different things that we’re teaching, but the players are all new — they don’t know me yet, but we’re building our relationships. So yes, every time you change jobs, you start with that new term and you build on it.”
“In my mind, with an offense, it always starts with the quarterback and the offensive line — how can I make it simple, in part, on my position and make it easier for everybody else,” Long said March 24. “Me and [offensive line coach Harry Hiestand] are attached at the hip. … He has a level of comfort with me, so we can always discuss those things. And then with Coach Kelly, we always go over personnel with him as well, so we’re definitely all on the same page, and we’re going to put our kids in a position to make plays.”
And for some of the offensive coaches, the spring has also been an opportunity to hone their own coaching techniques and learn about themselves as much as it has been a chance to get to know their personnel.
“You learn a lot about yourself, your coaching habits and how you want to be in front of those guys and in the room and leading them,” Rees said. “For me, I’ve got to understand everyone learns differently, and I’ve got to apply different teaching mechanisms for different guys in the room.”
On the field, however, the new staff has gone full-steam ahead with its schematic changes. The most significant alteration Long brings to the offense is an up-tempo, no-huddle component that was not present last season. He emphasized that it’s the no-huddle aspect that really defines the increased tempo for his scheme.
“The biggest thing with me and tempo is between the play,” Long said March 24. “So when the ball is stopped, [players] have to get [their] eyes to the sideline and understand what we’re doing while, at the same time, running as fast as [they] can to get lined up. So tempo to me is when the play is over — not once the play is going and how fast we’re going, but between the plays and just guys understanding and training their eyes after each and every play to find the signal or find the board and getting lined up.”
The emphasis on tempo doesn’t necessarily mean the offense will be faster, however.
“The situation dictates [the tempo],” Long said March 24. “I have the ability to slow it down without the kids knowing we’re trying to do that with shifts, motions, different cadences and whatnot, so I can dictate that. Then, I can also get us going even faster, so we have that in the offense. We’re just teaching that to the guys.”
And while the offense is seeing its fair share of changes during the spring, the defense has seen arguably seen even greater turnover from last season. After being led by two different defensive coordinators last season, the unit will now be under the control of Mike Elko, who left Wake Forest to become the third defensive coordinator at Notre Dame in less than a year. With him came new linebackers coach Clark Lea, which in turn pushed Mike Elston back to defensive line coach.
And with all these changes to the defensive coaching staff, the focus throughout the spring has been largely on evaluating the strengths of the unit and figuring out which positions will be best for each player in order to offer them the best opportunity to succeed within the scheme.
“You’re just constantly evaluating,” Elko said March 24. “ … We never want to get in a groove where we can’t fix something that we don’t see is right. Sometimes, I think, as coaches, you get in this groove of like, ‘This kid is this position.’ And then as you’re watching him, he’s not good enough to do that or he’s not capable or it’s not the right fit, and you just stay with it. We’re just trying to not stay with mistakes.”
But in the eyes of the Elko, the unit has all the tools to be amongst the best in the nation if it’s willing to put in the work throughout the rest of the offseason and in the fall.
“If we’re going to be a good defense, it’s going to take a lot of work,” Elko said March 24. “We can’t become a good defense in one practice, in three practices, a bunch of winter meetings — it’s not going to a short-term [process]. It’s going to take time. We didn’t just become a good defense because I got here, we have to become one. … I’m not anything. I watch, I evaluate, I try not to yell and scream too much — I do it at times, but we’re just trying to get better every day. That’s all we’re trying to do.
“ … There’s also an understanding that when this thing gets up and running, we believe it can be the best in the country. That’s why I’m here, [and] that’s why I left Wake Forest to come here — because we believe we can make this really special. It’s not going to happen just because I came here, though.”
But the emphasis on evaluation is far from unique to the defense. New special teams coordinator Brian Polian is no stranger to the position; he served in the position at Notre Dame for five seasons from 2005 to 2009 before eventually ending up as the head coach at Nevada for four seasons. Now back in a familiar position, he’s spent the majority of his spring introducing himself to his unfamiliar personnel.
“[My top priority] is learning our personnel and kind of figuring out who can do what,” Polian said March 29. “ … We’ve really just been focused on teaching technique and trying to find out who can do what so that when we regather come August, we can have people in the right places as the scheme becomes more advanced.”
And for a special teams unit that struggled in key moments throughout last season, the most significant change will be a rather obvious one: emphasizing the need for execution and the urgency with which that emphasis is placed.
“[Kelly] and I had a long conversation. He knows what I believe, and we’re very much on the same page,” Polian said of the changes he’s made to special teams. “There are things that will look very similar, [and] there are things that will look completely different. But the biggest change has just got to be the urgency with which we attack the special teams and our execution and critical efficiency in important times in the game — that’s got to be the biggest change.”
Amongst all of the team’s units, there is one common theme, however: This spring has been just the beginning of a process that will last throughout the season and never end, but it might just culminate in a season far better than the disappointment 2016 offered.
“As a coach, you have to have incredible patience because you have a vision for how things are,” Lea said March 29. “You’re not close to that vision point yet, but you do have small wins along the way. … The truth is, there’s not an endpoint to this. … It’s a never-ending process and a never-ending cycle, and I don’t think that they ever completely reach the expectation level, but I think that’s the point.”