Analysis: Reality may be brighter than perception at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The hook that bumped Notre Dame assistant football coach Tony Alford’s Saturday exodus into a story that made national ripples is mostly about perception.

Not that the reality of Irish sixth-year head coach Brian Kelly losing his top recruiter and recruiting coordinator to a Midwest recruiting rival, Ohio State, won’t be challenging.

CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming called Alford ND’s best recruiter of the past decade. That’s a reflection of not only the quantity and quality of the players he shuttled to ND, but where he had to go to get them.

Alford was a force in Florida, the state that has produced the second-most Irish recruits (14) in the six recruiting cycles of which Kelly has been a part at ND, with many of those players turning out to be difference-makers.

Interestingly, the state that produced the most Kelly Era recruits at ND? OSU coach Urban Meyer’s back yard — Ohio, with 18. The six other states with more than five Kelly Era signees are Indiana, California, Illinois, Texas, New Jersey and North Carolina.

That Kelly has now lost as many assistant coaches in the past week (3) as he loses starters from his 8-5 team from 2014 is where the speculative dots start to connect among the coaching exoduses.

As reality oozes into the picture over the coming weeks and months, it will become clear that there wasn’t a pattern to link the departures of quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur (Atlanta Falcons), DBs coach Kerry Cooks (Oklahoma) and Alford, beyond their timing.

A more difficult image for Kelly to shake is the caricature of Meyer simply reaching over the border to bully Kelly out of his milk money when it comes to the Alford hiring, and that of former Irish assistants Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton before him.

It’s as oversimplified as it is temporarily stinging.

At least Kelly’s track record strongly hints it will be temporary. His trump card from day one has been resilience, keeping the intermittent crises from becoming too protracted or too deep.

With that in mind, here’s a peek at some key components in life after Tony Alford at ND.

Behind the scenes

The nature of David Peloquin’s job brings with it anonymity outside the immediate Notre Dame family. Throughout the Kelly Era, and the Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham regimes before it, Peloquin has been a key cog in the Irish recruiting machine.

In these weeks of transition, Notre Dame’s director of player personnel becomes even more important.

“He’s the guy who will break down the film, keep the mailings going, make sure the contacts are out there for the new coaches coming in,” Lemming said of the 2003 ND graduate.

“He does the leg work that helps the recruiters do their job. And when recruits take unofficial visits, he’s usually the first guy they see when they get to Notre Dame. Every parent of prospects I’ve ever spoken with loves him.

“And with the way recruiting has changed over the past five years, with so much more research and personnel being beefed up at rival schools, having a guy like Dave in your department is worth his weight in gold.”

Meanwhile, in Florida

Of the top 15 Florida targets in the 2016 class to whom Notre Dame has extended scholarship offers, 13 of them are also being targeted by Ohio State.

That includes four Florida prospects who, as of last week, had strong ND interest: Quarterback Ervin Barrett of Winter Garden (West Orange H.S.), wide receiver Tre Nixon of Viera (Viera H.S.), offensive tackle Parker Boudreaux of Orlando (Bishop Moore H.S.) and defensive back Chauncey Gardner of Cocoa (Cocoa H.S.).

Some other names to watch in the Ohio State-ND tug-of-war in the Sunshine State include defensive backs Saivion Smith, Treyvon Mullen and Craig Watts; wide receivers Binjimen Victor, T.J. Chase (committed to Clemson) and Josh Hammond; quarterback Xavier Gaines and defensive end Nick Bosa, the latter the younger brother of OSU star Joey Bosa.

Meanwhile, at Notre Dame

Ultimately recent signee running back Dexter Williams said he has come to peace with Alford’s departure, though the Orlando, Fla., product initially let some of his frustration spill out on his Twitter account on Saturday.

Williams was originally a Miami (Fla,) commit, then flipped to ND in January and largely stayed committed to the Irish because of some 11th-hour heart-to-hearts with Alford.

Interestingly, quarterback recruit Brandon Wimbush injected himself into the equation and helped calm Williams down. “We’re going to be dangerous no matter what,” tweeted Wimbush, who had to get past some of his own shock when LaFleur left. Kelly connected with the family on national signing day to share that news.

As for the bonds Alford has with players already on the Irish roster, sophomore running back and Florida product Greg Bryant tweeted out Sunday night: “Chase ya dream coach. I ain't mad at you. @CoachTonyAlford.”

The road ahead

Former Irish All-America cornerback Todd Lyght has been confirmed (by everybody but ND itself) as Cooks’ replacement, while another big name out of ND’s past, all-time leading rusher Autry Denson, is being touted by some as an ideal replacement for Alford.

The caveat is that if both turn out to be dynamic recruiters out of the gate, with very little recruiting experience, they will be the exception rather than the rule.

Both played in the NFL, and that NFL connection can be an asset in recruiting.

“For most ex-NFL players, that connection is outweighed by the reality that they don’t like recruiting,” Lemming said. “A lot of them don’t have the work ethic to succeed. Kissing up to 18-year-olds, a lot of them feel is beneath them.

“Former USC assistant Ken Norton Jr., was one who got past that and was a great recruiter. Lyght, and Denson if he comes, could turn out to be just that. It’s just they don’t have a track record, so there’s a bit of a gamble there.”

Lyght’s only practical recruiting experience came during the past month, when he was at Vanderbilt. Denson, who has strong Florida ties, has one year of recruiting at the FBS level — last year at Miami (Ohio) for former ND assistant Chuck Martin.

The former Florida high school star, who played two of his pro seasons with the Miami Dolphins, spent the three seasons before Miami (Ohio) at FCS school Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“These hires can’t just be guys who can coach,” Lemming said. “They also have to be guys who can really recruit. That’s why there’s so much riding on them.”

Experience doesn’t necessarily ensure recruiting success either. One of the knocks on former Kelly assistant Jeff Quinn, reported to be in line to join the staff in the coming weeks, is that his undoing as head coach at MAC school Buffalo was a dearth of talent.

Happily ever after?

In Irish Illustrated Pete Sampson’s excellent piece in which Alford spelled out his reasons for leaving ND and the emotional toll the decision took, the coach puts a fine point on what had been his rumored disappointment about not getting the head coaching job at his alma mater, Colorado State.

“This isn’t a move for today,” he told Sampson. “This is a move where I’ve tried to calculate five years out. There’s forward thinking here, where it could potentially propel me to.”

Alford will add “assistant head coach” to his running backs coach title at OSU. He’ll find out in the coming weeks how much more résumé-building responsibility comes with that new designation.

Not having enough titles was a reason that was supposedly given to Alford from the CSU folks for truncating his candidacy for their job.

In fairness to Alford, the offensive coordinator job opened twice after Kelly initially hired Charley Molnar, and Alford didn’t get it either time. Nor did he leave ND with even a mid-level tag, such as running game coordinator.

In fairness to Kelly, the X’s and O’s part of coaching were not reputed to be one of Alford’s strongest assets. And if he was going to get an opportunity to explore being a coordinator, was Notre Dame the right stage, when growing pains were likely, given the experience level?

In Alford’s mind the old lack of experience-meets-lack of opportunity stalemate had a better chance to uncouple in Columbus, Ohio. The coming months will soon tell him if his own perception meets reality.


Notre Dame running backs coach Tony Alford (left) confirmed Saturday that he is leaving ND for a job at Ohio State, leaving Irish head coach Brian Kelly with the task of having to replace his best recruiter. (SBT File Photo)