Notre Dame football: What really matters in ND changes


South Bend Tribune

Bob Diaco speaking Latin for a few moments at his introductory press conference Thursday afternoon in Storrs, Conn., was by far the most entertaining part of the aftermath of his exodus from Notre Dame.

Here are the most pertinent facets of the aftermath of Diaco’s move from Irish defensive coordinator to UConn as the Huskies’ 30th head coach in school history — and that of former Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin’s leap to take the joystick at 0-12 Miami of Ohio.

1. In-limbo Washington defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi is the most intriguing out-of-the-box name to be thrown out as a possible fit on head coach Brian Kelly’s defensive staff, either as defensive coordinator or defensive line coach.

That’s not to say, Kelly will ultimately go outside rather then promoting from within. For the time being, co-defensive coordinator/cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks will serve as the interim defensive coordinator for 25th-ranked Notre Dame’s Dec. 28 clash with Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in New York.

Lupoi is regarded by many analysts as the nation’s top recruiter in the country among assistant coaches. He is expected by some to land at USC with former Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian, but Lupoi reportedly has a $400,000 buyout to deal with if he leaves Washington for another Pac-12 school.

“Tosh Lupoi is an asset and no-brainer hire, if you have room, for any program in the USA,” 247Sports national recruiting writer Steve Wiltfong said. “He’ll out-do you with the Jimmies and Joes. He has that kind of impact as a recruiter.”

“Tosh Lupoi can land difference-maker type players,” CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. “Your scheme becomes less important when you can do that. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 3-4 or 4-3.”

It does to Kelly, who seems sold that a base 3-4 front, with the ability to flip to 4-3 on passing downs, is the scheme that fits how the Irish recruit to and play the best.

Mike Elston is currently ND’s D-line coach, and a very good one, as well as a standout recruiter. But is among the outlets reporting Diaco has offered him the defensive coordinator position at UConn. He figures to be an internal candidate for Diaco’s old job at ND as well.

2. The immediate identity crisis the departures, especially Diaco’s, creates in the short-term for the upcoming big recruiting weekend on campus, and right in front of a month-long dead period, could also be looked upon as an opportunity long term to tweak the foundation Diaco has built defensively.

If ND’s current No. 50 ranking in total defense nationally holds up or is improved upon during the upcoming barrage of 35 bowls, Diaco will have put together four straight seasons of finishing in the top 50 in total defense, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished at ND since Foge Fazio and Barry Alvarez did so as defensive coordinators during the first four years of the Lou Holtz coaching Era (1986-89).

Where there are cracks around those numbers come in three significant defensive categories — turnovers gained, sacks and tackles for loss.

The Irish forced just 13 turnovers through 12 games this season, ranking them 114th out of the 123 FBS schools. Notre Dame (8-4) and Georgia (8-4) are the only teams in the bottom 15 of that category with winning records this season and both, it can be argued, underachieved based on their preseason rankings in the national polls.

Statistically, the Irish ranked 106th in sacks and 109th in tackles for loss with two future first-round draft picks on their defensive line (Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt) a year after rating 22nd and 78th, respectively. Last season was the only one of Diaco’s four seasons in which the Irish ranked in the top 50 in sacks, and they never cleared the top 75 in tackles for loss.

When you look at the metrics of top defensive teams nationally, it isn’t necessary to be in the top 10 or 20 in sacks, but the really good defensive teams tend to at least be in the top 50. On the flip side, Navy (7-4) is the only team with a winning record ranked below the Irish in each of those categories (sacks and tackles for loss).

“Not forcing turnovers, not getting sacks is a reflection of scheme,” Lemming said. “You’re not being aggressive enough. Brian Kelly said after the loss to Alabama in the national title game (last January) that they wanted to close the gap between them and Alabama. Those coordinator hires on both sides of the ball are a real opportunity to do just that.”

3. Kelly previously stated he won’t likely turn his attention to filling Martin’s vacancy, internally or otherwise, until after ND’s bowl game. It’s reasonable to assume he’ll take the same tack when it comes to replacing Diaco permanently.

So what does he tell the gaggle of recruits who will congregate in South Bend in person over the weekend and the ones he’ll talk to on the phone to try to ease their angst?

“Kelly’s got to tell them, ‘It’s my team,’ ” Lemming said ‘ “It’s my offense. It’s my defense. I’ll get guys just as good or better than them. And you’re going to love them.’ He’s a salesman. He knows what to say.”

It will be intriguing to see if standout freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith, a top recruiter when he was a recruit himself, impacts the defensive prospects in this class down the stretch.

4. It was interesting to see how many people predicted ultimate, if not immediate, success for Diaco at UConn based apparently solely on his introductory press conference, which for the record were his first public comments since August.

But if press conferences dictated success, then New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick would be working in the concession stands, not on the sideline.

Diaco, by all accounts is a charismatic leader, an X’s and O’s intellectual, a pregame speech natural. He intersperses a sense of humor, with genuine passion, outrageous hats and a refreshing unpredictability.

Where he’ll be challenged is with the things that have nothing to do with actual football but have everything to do with building a program — alumni relations, media relations, promotions..

It’s one thing to be charming and engaging in a first impression. It’s another to sustain it through the grind of a season, especially one pocked with losses and obstacles.

This is where Diaco’s growth curve can really benefit from both being at Notre Dame for four years and watching how Kelly fairly deftly handles those things.

The key for him and the fan base is patience and sticking to his vision.

Diaco and Martin take over teams that are a combined 3-21 this season. The last two coordinators to leave Kelly’s staff and take head coaching jobs also landed in places with more challenges than assets.

Jeff Quinn is 17-31 in four seasons at Buffalo, with eight of those victories coming during this year’s breakthrough team. Charley Molnar is 2-22 at UMass.

So speaking Latin may just come in handy for Diaco.

Recruiting rumblings

On the final recruiting weekend of the calendar year, Notre Dame will host a number of their top remaining targets for the 2014 class.

Friday night's awards show, called Echoes, will serve as the marquee event for the visiting recruits. Three recruiting targets — linebackers Nile Sykes and Kolin Hill and athlete Charles Nelson - — have confirmed plans to use official visits to Notre Dame for the weekend. All three rate as three-star prospects, according to Rivals and 247Sports.

•Sykes, a 6-2, 225-pound recruit from Montini Catholic in Lombard, Ill., projects as an inside linebacker for the Irish, a huge area of need in this recruiting class. Rivals ranks him as the No. 18 inside linebacker prospect. Other offers for Sykes include Missouri, Syracuse, and Illinois.

•Hill, a 6-2, 220-pound recruit from Clemens High in Schertz, Texas, also project as a linebacker for the Irish, despite playing defensive end as a senior. Rivals ranks him as the No. 19 inside linebacker prospect. Other offers for Hill include Colorado and Boise State.

•Nelson, a 5-9, 170-pound recruit from Seabreeze High in Daytona Beach, Fla., projects as a slot receiver and return specialist. 247Sports slates Nelson as the No. 35 multi-position athlete in the class. Other offers for Nelson include Florida, USC and West Virginia.

Previously committed prospects offensive linemen Jimmy Byrne, Quenton Nelson and Sam Mustipher, wide receiver Justin Brent, linebacker Greer Martini, linebacker/safety Drue Tranquil and defensive/outside linebackers Jonathan Bonner and Grant Blankenship have all expressed plans to return to South Bend for the weekend.

Pinstripe update

Notre Dame has sold out its entire 10,000-ticket allotment for the Pinstripe Bowl.

Notre Dame assistant Kerry Cooks has been named the interim defensive coordinator. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER