Notebook: Notre Dame recruits not blown away by winds of change

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Kurt Hinish’s first impression of Mike Elko — and a glowing one at that — came long before the latter agreed last week to become Notre Dame’s next defensive coordinator.

“He recruited me when he was at Wake Forest, and I really liked the guy,” said Hinish, a 6-foot-2, 278-pound defensive tackle from Pittsburgh and one of 18 verbal commitments holding firm in the Irish football 2017 recruiting class.

“He seems like a hard-hosed, blue-collar type of defensive coordinator. He kind of reminds me of a Pittsburgh guy, the way people in Pittsburgh are. I really look forward to when we’re both at Notre Dame.”

Elko’s move from Wake to ND is expected to be officially announced once Notre Dame’s protracted vetting process concludes.

Hinish hears the soundtrack of detractors on a daily basis, following Notre Dame’s 4-8 bowl-less season and some significant staff restructuring by head coach Brian Kelly that has yet to reach its completion.

“Everybody has something to say about my decision to stick with Notre Dame,” he said. “I’m a big guy, and everybody wants to get a big reaction out of me. The best way to stay out of trouble is to just brush it off. I tell them, ‘We’re having a bad season. We’ll be back next year.’ ”

And he and the other members of the 2017 class are often willing to foot the bill to prove they believe it. Eleven of them, for instance, showed up at the team’s year-end awards show to hang out with each other and also do some recruiting when four uncommitted prospects came on official visits.

Hinish and Pittsburgh Central Catholic teammate David Adams, a fellow ND commit, had to miss the festivities because their team was playing for a state championship that weekend.

Three of the committed players, though, paid their own way for the weekend, as their visits were “unofficial.” Several of them did the same during ND’s big in-season recruiting weekends for the Michigan State (Sept. 17) and Stanford games (Oct. 15). Hinish did so the Stanford weekend.

“I can’t wait to get up there again,” he said. “I think I’m going to come the weekend of Jan. 21.”

That’s 10 days after the end of the current NCAA recruiting dead period, which entails limited contact and no home or on-campus visits.

There’s plenty of time until the Feb. 1 national signing date (and the mid-January start of classes for five early enrollees) to test the cohesiveness and steadfastness of not only the 18 members of the 2017 class but the six already committed for 2018.

But the goal is actually to add to it, and four more isn’t an outrageous expectation.

Some unsung heroes so far in assembling and keeping together what is currently a consensus top 10 class nationally have been the non-coaching members of ND’s recruiting office, led by director of recruiting Aaryn Kearney.

Others include Dave Peloquin, director of player personnel; Jasmine Johnson, assistant director of recruiting; Grant Apgar, director of graphic design; and Laura Thomas, director of social media.

“They’re really good about keeping us on top of what’s happening and what events are coming up,” Hinish said.

Most of all, the class of ’17 is good at keeping in touch with each other. Hinish said they have a group chat going in which they communicate every day.

“Sometimes it’s just, ‘How’s everyone’s day and blah, blah, blah,’ ” he said. “Sometimes it’s more serious stuff. Look, we know there are a lot of changes going on.

“For me, we could be a 3-4 defense or a 4-3 defense, and it doesn’t matter to me just as long as I’m playing. We’re committed to Notre Dame in every aspect, not just to specific coaches. I think that’s helped us want to stay together. That, and we’re really good friends who can’t wait to play together.”

Just passing through?

A report Sunday that former Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges will interview this week for Notre Dame’s vacant offensive coordinator position appears to be a bit embellished.

The 61-year-old Borges, currently serving as San Jose State’s offensive coordinator, is expected to meet with Kelly. But a source close to the situation described the planned get-together as a chance to talk offensive philosophy, not a job interview.

In defense of defense

How pivotal to Kelly’s future is the impending hiring of Elko as defensive coordinator and the expected retention of linebackers coach Mike Elston?

It might be more than a little bit presumptuous to assume Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s criteria for evaluating the head football coaching position hasn’t evolved over the past seven years.

But it is interesting to look back at what his must-haves were when he started the search on Nov. 30, 2009 that ultimately netted him current Irish head coach Brian Kelly.

Right up at the top of the list with the “ability to build and sustain a Division I football program” was defensive expertise. That coming off a season in which outgoing Charlie Weis’ 2009 squad, that finished 6-6, ranked eighth nationally in total offense but 86th in total defense.

Since the Joe Montana-powered 1977 national champs finished fifth in total offense, Weis’ 2009 team’s No. 8 total offense ranking still stands second only to the 1992 Irish squad’s No. 3 ranking. But the No. 86 total defense ranking is the second-lowest by an Irish team since the NCAA began charting national stats in 1946.

The worst ever was the 103rd standing the 1956 Irish logged. That’s where the 2016 Notre Dame team stood on Sept. 25, the day Kelly fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. The Irish, under a collaboration led by Elston over the final eight games, stands 45th.

“Given where we play and who we play, we need to be able to play good defense,” Swarbrick said at the 2009 press conference putting a bow on Weis’ firing. “And if you look at the defensive rankings of the leading teams this year, there's a correlation between BCS standings and defensive abilities.

“And so it's important to us, but it's not a limiter in terms of the background of the coach.”

Opportunity in crisis

Seven years before coaching legend Ara Parseghian in 1964 resuscitated a Notre Dame football program given up for terminal mediocrity, he experienced a personal crossroads season of sorts while coaching at Northwestern.

In 1957, seven years into a Hall of Fame career and in his second season in the Big Ten, Parseghian’s Wildcats finished 0-9. That’s three more losses than he amassed in five seasons combined at his first job, Miami (Ohio), where he went 39-6-1.

How Parseghian moved beyond his winless season is worth revisiting.

In a 2003 interview with the South Bend Tribune, Parseghian revealed that he grew introspective and dissected every aspect of the program — from recruiting practices to practice drills to X’s and O’s to the equipment the Wildcats used.

But he didn’t end up changing everything. Some people, philosophies and customs were worth holding onto.

“One of the great lessons you learn in athletics is that you’re going to get knocked down,” Parseghian said. “Every day is not going to be a bright, sunshiny day. You get your tail kicked, but then you have to evaluate why it happened. Just because you get knocked down doesn’t mean you’re going to stay down.”

And one of many reasons he didn’t stay down was Parseghian’s decision to hire assistant coach Tom Pagna in 1959. As Kelly shuffles his staff this month, there’s a push from the fan base to push away everything that is familiar. But maybe the right formula is a happy medium between the unfamiliar and coaches in which there’s already chemistry and history.

Pagna, a star running back for Parseghian at Miami and who hailed from Parseghian’s hometown of Akron, Ohio, was that kind of assistant. And the two collaborated until Parseghian retired at age 51 following the 1974 season.

“Tom was a people person,” Parseghian said. “He could identify with the players. He just had a natural instinct for the game and the people he was dealing with.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame defensive tackle recruit Kurt Hinish (left) has already met new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and has a favorable impression of him. (Photo courtesy of Trib Total Media/CHRISTOPHER HORNER)