Given Tom Lemming’s voluminous Rolodex, the mental and the real kind, “Who?” almost becomes a four-letter word when the corresponding question is about a coach’s recruiting reputation.
Stumping a man who has spent the past four decades crisscrossing the country making a living analyzing high school football prospects, and the recruiters who chase them, was 51-year-old John McNulty, Notre Dame’s impending new tight ends coach.
Lemming’s response could have been less flattering. Certifying McNulty as indifferent or inept at culling and/or evaluating talent would have been the worst-case scenario, especially if it turned out to be true.
And 11th-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly already knows firsthand how corrosive a hire like that can be to a program.
Even so, fairly or not, fan bases generally don’t take much more kindly to unknowns, and given the context of McNulty’s 29 years in coaching, that’s what he is at the moment with a Notre Dame backdrop. That’s on the field and in the recruiting realm.
For only about a third of his career was the Clarks Summit, Pa., native in position to recruit. Three of those years (1995-97) he was Skip Holtz’s wide receivers coach at UConn before the Huskies moved up from the FCS to the FBS.
The other six and a third seasons of recruiting exposure happened during two tours of duty at Rutgers, which in recent years could sometimes be innocently mistaken for an FCS program. Both times he was the Knights’ offensive coordinator throughout and quarterbacks coach for at least part of the run.
The most recent stint ended late last September, 16 games after it started, with Rutgers consistently ranking among the nation’s absolute worst offenses statistically.
McNulty, a Penn State grad and former walk-on safety, then settled into an offensive analyst’s role at his alma mater for the balance of the 2019 season after he and Knights head coach Chris Ash were both purged.
McNulty’s first run at Rutgers (2004-08) almost was truncated as well, but that time it was because his offenses were so prolific.
After Nick Saban’s first season at Alabama ended in Shreveport, La., at the 2007 Independence Bowl, Saban fetched McNulty via private plane to interview him for his vacant offensive coordinator’s position.
The Crimson Tide coaching icon ultimately settled on Fresno State offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, and McNulty spent one more season in Piscataway before jumping to the NFL for nearly a decade.
It’s curious that just two of McNulty’s 29 seasons of coaching experience focused on coaching tight ends. But one of those seasons overlapped recently promoted ND offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ one season of NFL experience, with the San Diego Chargers.
And in the big-picture equation, the Rees-McNulty relationship is the hidden potential in this soon-to-be fully vetted and announced transaction.
If all this was about was just replacing deposed offensive coordinator Chip Long’s secondary function as tight ends coach, then it’s a missed opportunity by Brian Kelly.
Given Kelly’s late December self-mandate to turbocharge recruiting, McNulty and the still-percolating hiring process for the next Irish cornerbacks coach must produce a net gain over Long and departed cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght.
Not only is the notion that the tight end position can recruit itself at ND woefully overstated, Irish assistants have territorial connections and duties to open doors and forge relationships before recruiting gets position-specific.
A cautionary tale of how that can go wrong involves an offensive line prospect out of New Jersey and then-ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco earlier in the Kelly Era.
The prospect’s father tells the story of Diaco’s casual interest at best, even though the lineman had piled up 34 offers from other schools.
So after taking an unofficial recruiting visit to Northwestern, the player was convinced by his father to at least give Notre Dame a look on their drive back to New Jersey. So they called Diaco, who came off as too busy to care and suggested they call someone in the recruiting office instead to arrange the visit.
“We felt like intruders when we walked into the Gug (Guglielmino Athletics Complex),” the father said.
But then Harry Hiestand, the Irish offensive line Yoda at that time, met with them and invited them to watch film with him. The recruitment was saved in that moment, and arguably the most impactful player of the Kelly Era — eventual unanimous All-America offensive guard Quenton Nelson — ended up at ND.
Of more immediate impact is how the aftermath of Long’s departure plays out on the field in 2020. There was an opening to realign the entire offensive staff, to strengthen the possibility of Notre Dame evolving into a playoff contender.
Spring football, which starts in less than a month, will provide the first hints of whether that’s actually happening. In the meantime, there’s a trail of questions.
Does running backs coach Lance Taylor being elevated to run game coordinator free up offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, for instance, to spend more time teaching technique and less time worrying about schematic install?
Does Rees collaborate with McNulty more than directing him, and tap into his large catalog of offensive knowledge? Together do they help wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander speed up the incubation process of a largely inexperienced but oh-so-promising group of wide receivers?
The way every one of those questions will be answered is critical, because that’s where Notre Dame has positioned itself with a 33-6 run over the past three seasons. Every move matters when you’re trying to upgrade into Clemson’s neighborhood.
Of course, the promotion of the 27-year-old Rees from QBs coach to offensive coordinator matters the most. And those who either played and/or coached with Rees almost universally scratch their heads when the outside world perceives the move as a leap of faith — or even desperation.
“From the neck up, Tommy is as good as there ever was and is,” said former teammate and current ESPN personality/host Mike Golic Jr.
McNulty has the potential to make Rees better, and Notre Dame better — in the meeting room, on game day, maybe even on the recruiting trail. That’s what Rees believes, according to sources who say he pushed for this.
Kelly, always the final word on such things, making the hire is as much or more about doubling down on Rees as it is being impressed by McNulty.
And in the end, it’s not really about who John McNulty is. It’s about who John McNulty becomes.