Todd Lyght fights through growing pains in Notre Dame return

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Todd Lyght didn’t have time for growing pains.

With that said, a few were unavoidable.

Before Notre Dame’s defensive backs coach was hired prior to the 2015 season, his coaching experience was minimal — marked by two-year stints as an assistant defensive backs coach with the Philadelphia Eagles (2013-14), a defensive secondary intern at Oregon (2011-12) and a defensive backs coach at Bishop Gorman High School (2009-10).

Six years. That’s it.

His more significant experience — namely, 12 years at cornerback in the NFL, one pro bowl appearance, a collegiate national championship and two consensus All-American selections — couldn’t prepare him completely to pass down that knowledge to the safeties and corners at Notre Dame.

In his first season on staff at his alma mater, he was forced to struggle, then improve.

“It’s different coaching young men in college than coaching in the NFL,” Lyght explained during Notre Dame’s National Signing Day festivities on Wednesday. “That was a part of my learning curve when I got here. When you’re dealing with professionals, it’s much easier to coach them because they’re quick learners and you can tell them something once and they get it. In college you have to go over it a little bit more and you have to pay more attention to detail sometimes. It might take somebody 20 reps or 30 reps to get one rep correct.

“That was a little different for me, and it got to be a little bit frustrating at times. We weren’t so deep and we didn’t have a lot of guys and I couldn’t rotate guys in and out. But I think that the process has been great. I think everybody here with the program has done a really good job of helping me develop.”

Maybe the Notre Dame secondary’s lack of depth, and Lyght’s lack of experience in coaching it, contributed to the fact that the Irish snared just nine interceptions last season — ranking 92nd nationally. Maybe it’s why they allowed 476 passing yards, five touchdowns and a 69.2 percent completion percentage in their final two games — though the absence of injured cornerback KeiVarae Russell certainly didn’t help.

But those road bumps, however painful, ultimately made Lyght a better coach.

“Any time you learn a new defense and you learn a new scheme there’s going to be a learning curve – the way techniques are played, different fundamentals,” Lyght said. “The way coach (Brian) VanGorder wants to do things is a little bit different than say (Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator) Billy Davis wanted to do things. We did it a little differently in Philadelphia than we do it here.

“So the learning curve was a little bit testing at some times, but it was good. It really helped my football intelligence. It helped me develop as a coach.”

Lyght also had to develop as a recruiter — though he didn’t have to do it alone.

“Todd has obviously learned a lot in his first year," said head coach Brian Kelly, "but I think he also leaned heavily on those that were experienced. We used all of our coaches geographically and by position to assist all the coaches in all of the recruiting efforts. Autry Denson was instrumental, coach VanGorder was instrumental, (linebackers coach) Mike Elston. We all, I think, helped each other in this first year, especially with Todd really being in his first year in college full-time and really getting out on the road.

“He has such a story to tell. He's so dynamic as a personality. He can articulate Notre Dame very well. But it was his first time out on the road, so we wanted to make sure that we provided him with coaches that had been down there before, if you will, and that's kind of how we went about it.”

The result, which Notre Dame made official on Wednesday, was a haul that included seven defensive backs: four safeties (D.J. Morgan, Jalen Elliott, Devin Studstill and Spencer Perry) and three cornerbacks (Troy Pride Jr., Julian Love and Donte Vaughn).

The common thread between them — besides their position, or their future coach — was their versatility.

In his second season of his second South Bend stint, Lyght is gifted with no shortage of possibilities.

“When you’re playing championship defense, you want to be able to match up,” Lyght explained. “You want guys to be able to move around on the field and be comfortable in that movement. When you look at defenses that are playing with a true strong safety and a true free safety and they always have one guy in the box that’s better in the box, you always give away the tilt of the defense.

“You want to play a balanced defense where both safeties are really comfortable in the box. You want to have corners that can play left and right. That way if you get into a situation where you need to match up due to size, due to speed, it gives you the best chance to win on third down and in critical situations. That’s what we want to be able to do and I think this group gives us that opportunity to do that.”


Twitter: @mikevorel

ND's first-year defensive backs coach, Todd Lyght, also happens to represent Notre Dame on the latest College Football Hall of Fame ballot. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN).