John McNulty walked off the field of the Irish Indoor Athletics Center on March 5 a little bit in awe. Notre Dame’s new tight ends coach just finished his first spring football practice with the Irish and was giddy about what he witnessed.
He let head coach Brian Kelly know how impressed he was with how the first practice went.
“I just said, ‘Look, I know you’ve been here 10 years, but I haven’t seen a practice like that in a long time,’” McNulty recalled. “‘Maybe you’re used to this. This is not what it looks like.’”
McNulty, who started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Michigan in 1991, has seen his fair share of practices at the collegiate and NFL levels.
He’s coached at UConn, Rutgers and Penn State and with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans and San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers, with coaching mentorship from the likes of Tom Coughlin, Bill Parcells, Skip Holtz and Greg Schiano.
There was something different about his first hands-on impression of Notre Dame, and it wasn’t just because he used to watch the Irish play on Saturdays as a kid in Scranton, Pa.
“To spend time on the campus obviously is impressive, but it’s really more about the people and the way things are run here and the way these guys go about their business,” McNulty said. “It really has kind of blown me away to see how responsible these guys are — which comes from higher-academic guys, guys that love football, guys that are high achievers.
“They’re putting it into practice every day. I’ve been pretty impressed.”
Unfortunately for McNulty and the Irish, that Thursday practice would be Notre Dame’s last of the spring as the coronavirus pandemic shut down college campuses and forced football coaching onto computer screens, tablets and cell phones.
McNulty hasn’t let those obstacles and the uncertainty of the upcoming season ruin the first months of his new job. Notre Dame is too special of a place for McNulty. His respect for ND goes back to his father’s friendship with Jim Crowley, a former Irish halfback and one of the vaunted Four Horsemen who played for coach Knute Rockne. McNulty and his father used to attend New York Giants games with Crowley.
So when Notre Dame expressed an interest in bringing McNulty on as its new tight ends coach, McNulty didn’t hesitate.
“The place was a no-brainer,” McNulty said. “The people to me were a no-brainer. I was just really thankful for the opportunity to come out here.”
McNulty was familiar with the Irish coaching staff. In his first stint as offensive coordinator at Rutgers in 2007-08, McNulty coached against Kelly’s Cincinnati Bearcats and lost both times to his fellow Big East foe. Then when McNulty joined the San Diego Chargers as the tight ends coach in 2016, current Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees was also on the staff, as an offensive assistant.
Rees learned a lot about McNulty that season.
“I worked for a lot of guys, but he was a guy that if there was something to be done, I was doing it for John,” Rees said. “He’s somebody that from the day I stepped foot in that building made me feel comfortable.
“The more I was around him, the more I realized this guy has a great grasp for all levels of football — pass game, run game, protections. He’s coached multiple positions — quarterbacks, coordinator, tight ends, receivers. He has a great feel for the big picture.”
When Rees took over as the Irish offensive coordinator in January, he knew McNulty would be a fit as Notre Dame’s tight ends coach. Each filled one of the roles vacated by ousted assistant coach Chip Long. Rees believes in McNulty’s ability to develop tight ends and trusts his opinion.
“I know he’s probably only been in South Bend only a couple weeks with everything that’s been going on,” Rees said in July, “but his eagerness to get going and his appreciation of what this place represents is outstanding. I’m excited for it.”
Sean McGrath could have been an afterthought.
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end wasn’t even a guarantee to make the San Diego Chargers roster in 2016. McGrath, who signed with the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted prospect out of NCAA Division II school Henderson State in 2012, was trying to make his way back into the NFL as a contributor.
McGrath played all 16 games for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013, but he retired just two seasons into his NFL career. The retirement was short-lived as he resurfaced in 2015 with the Colts and Chargers, but didn’t play in any games.
McGrath was given a clean slate when John McNulty was hired as San Diego’s tight ends coach in 2016. But McGrath would have to find a way to solidify a spot on the roster behind eight-time Pro Bowler Antonio Gates and rookie Hunter Henry, a second-round pick.
McNulty, who had never been a tight ends coach previously, didn’t limit his attention to Gates and Henry. He made sure guys like McGrath had a chance to develop, too.
“I will always speak highly of coach McNulty because of, No. 1, who he is as a person and his authentic nature in how he handles you as a human first and foremost,” McGrath said. “Then how he approaches you as a player and works your full potential out of you. He’s definitely one that grinds.”
McGrath made the roster and played in all 16 games, primarily as a blocking tight end. With Gates and Henry as the better receiving threats, McGrath only caught two passes for 25 yards. Gates finished third on the team with 53 catches for 548 yards and seven touchdowns. Henry caught 36 passes for 478 yards and eight TDs.
“He knows how to take a group of guys and get them all moving in the right direction, regardless of who they are or what level they’re at or what background they have,” McGrath said. “That’s exemplary of a true pro.”
McGrath made the team again in 2017 as the Chargers moved to Los Angeles. He played in 15 more games with four receptions for 46 yards, which would prove to be his last in the NFL. Now McGrath has embarked on a coaching career of his own. He was recently hired as the tight ends coach at Division II Missouri Southern State.
He’s working to incorporate some of the lessons he appreciated from McNulty into his own coaching style. Even McNulty’s small gesture of walking through the locker room after practice to check on players resonated with McGrath.
“It was the little things I found as a player that gave me comfort,” McGrath said. “Showing the humanity behind coaching. There are a lot of times it can get lost in a violent game where it’s so competitive and there’s high stakes.
“That’s important especially for kids at the college level — and really any level — to show that you’re worthy of being out here playing. You’re doing a hard thing, but it’s worth it.”
Teaching through losing
Wins haven’t been easy to come by for McNulty. In his last 11 seasons as a full-time assistant coach in college and the NFL, McNulty has only been a part of two winning seasons.
His most-recent stint at Rutgers ended four games into his second season as the offensive coordinator. The Scarlet Knights were struggling, no doubt, but McNulty thought his window to show improvement would be longer than 16 games.
“I looked at it as I have a bunch of young players and I’m going to play them and they’re going to come along in a very difficult schedule, and it didn’t work out,” McNulty said. “It wasn’t a whole lot of time.”
In McNulty’s previous stint with Rutgers (2004-08), the 2007 Scarlet Knights became the first FBS team to have a 3,000-yard passer (Mike Teel), 2,000-yard rusher (Ray Rice) and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood). But the offense wasn’t humming in his return to Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights averaged 14.1 points per game with McNulty as coordinator in 2018-19 before he was fired along with head coach Chris Ash.
With the recent stretch of losing seasons, McNulty’s last four assistant coaching stops haven’t lasted longer than two seasons. But in those small windows, McNulty has managed to make lasting impacts, in part because he embraces the teaching aspect of coaching.
When McNulty coached quarterbacks for the Tennessee Titans from 2014-15, he connected with offensive coordinator Jason Michael under head coach Ken Whisenhunt.
“John came in and from the very beginning, things went well,” Michael said. “We had a great relationship early there. We weren’t good (as a team) early there.
“I always say whenever it’s not easy — when it’s hard, when you’ve lost games — you learn a lot about people. Working with John in that building process, we were doing early on in Tennessee, things were good.”
McNulty was tasked with coaching rookie quarterbacks in both seasons in Tennessee. LSU’s Zach Mettenberger started five games for the Titans in 2014 with an injured Jake Locker sidelined. Then Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota of Oregon took over as the starter for 12 games in 2015. Mariota set Titan records for most passing touchdowns (19), completions (230) and passing yards (2,818) by a rookie.
Michael, currently the tight ends coach for the Indianapolis Colts, admired how McNulty adapted in coaching both Mettenberger and Mariota.
“Those two quarterbacks, there were a lot of similarities in terms of talent, but there were a lot of differences physically and mentally how they learned,” Michael said. “They came out of different systems. It’s going to be no different for (McNulty) in college.
“He has guys that are coming from high school as freshmen that have a good understanding and background. There are those that don’t. You have to teach them from the very beginning. John’s a great teacher.
“He’s going to do a great job doing that whether he’s a quarterbacks coach or a tight ends coach. He has the understanding and the communication skills to be able to do that.”
Tight End U
McNulty didn’t take long to embrace Notre Dame’s tight end tradition. While the team was sent home in the spring, he started arranging Zoom meetings with former Irish tight ends to connect with his current players.
It’s become a virtual of who’s who from Tight End U. The guest list has already included Kyle Rudolph, Anthony Fasano and Durham Smythe, with Tyler Eifert, Irv Smith and Derek Brown already in line for future appearances.
“All these guys have different stages of their careers,” McNulty said. “But they all kind of gravitate back to what Notre Dame meant to them.”
If McNulty can use former Irish tight ends as a way to get his message through to Notre Dame’s current crop of tight ends, he’s happy to do it. That’s because he knows how challenging coaching tight ends can be.
McNulty has worked as an offensive coordinator, a quarterbacks coach and a wide receivers coach, but he believes that coaching tight ends may be the most difficult of the bunch.
“Coaching-wise, I thought it was even more detailed of a coaching job than the quarterback,” McNulty said. “For instance, in the run game you can tell the quarterback to check this play to whatever. These (tight ends) have to know the nuts and bolts of the whole play, run and pass, and there are a lot of techniques that need to be mastered to play the position.”
McNulty didn’t get to inherit tight end Cole Kmet, who left Notre Dame early for the NFL Draft. Kmet was selected in the second round by the Chicago Bears after a breakout junior season with 43 catches for 515 yards and six touchdowns.
Instead the Irish depth chart features varying levels of experience and production, with senior Brock Wright and junior Tommy Tremble leading the way, sophomore George Takacs working to emerge and freshmen Michael Mayer and Kevin Bauman challenging for early playing time.
McNulty doesn’t know how it will all shake out, but he wants to be ready for any scenario. That’s why he wants to spend as much time preparing the bottom of the depth chart as he does the top. It’s up to McNulty to find a way to connect with each of them as they continue to impress him.
“Guys come here, they have a lot of talent,” McNulty said. “They’re very serious about what they want to do. They want to play as young players. You have to make sure that you are giving them every opportunity.
“It may or may not happen. They’re 18 years old, and maybe they’re not ready physically, whatever it is. You’re coaching these guys individually — not just with some quote that you throw at them — trying to make them better. Because the goal is that they’re all ready to play.”