Offensive coordinator Chip Long brings history of innovation, work ethic to Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Chip Long was an innovator before he was a coach.

Back in 2002, when Notre Dame’s 33-year-old offensive coordinator and play-caller was a freshman tight end at North Alabama, the spread offense was in its infancy.

But that’s what the Lions ran.

“We were going no huddle back when no huddle was not the norm,” said Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth, who was Long’s head coach at North Alabama. “There were very few teams that were going no huddle, and we sort of had a corner on the market there for a while.

“(Long) was a part of that. Him being able to pick up concepts so easily allowed us to do a lot of different things with him on offense.”

At least schematically, Long — who was officially announced as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator and play-caller on Monday — was Jimmy Graham before Jimmy Graham was Jimmy Graham. He attached to the line as a tight end, then split out as a wide receiver. He defied conventional definition — not just because of his athleticism, but his intellect, too.

“You could tell he was a little bit different than some of the other guys,” Hudspeth said. “He understood the game. It came naturally to him. He played on a lot of special teams. He played tight end. He was able to flex out. We put him all over the field.

“He was able to pick up concepts easily, so it’s not a surprise to me that he has turned into a great offensive mind.”

That mind, however, required a little molding. After earning first-team All-America honors in his senior season in 2005, Long began his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Bobby Petrino — first at Louisville in 2006 and 2007, then at Arkansas in 2008 and 2009. After a two-year stint coaching the tight ends at Illinois, he was hired as the tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator at Arizona State in 2012.

Long had never served as a recruiting coordinator on any level.

But for Todd Graham, the make-up was all that mattered.

“Recruiting is such an interesting deal,” Graham, Arizona State’s sixth-year head coach, told the Tribune last week. “Everybody thinks it’s about hiring the best salesmen and all that. Let me tell you: it’s diligence. It’s work ethic.

“He’s just going to out-work people when it comes to recruiting. It’s that simple. When I think of all the guys that are great recruiters, it’s because, man, they’re diligent. It’s all about work ethic. That’s what I will tell you. He’s one of the most diligent recruiters that I’ve been around.”

Maybe that's why Long was named one of the top 25 recruiters nationally by both Rivals and 247Sports in 2015.

Was he diligent? Definitely.

Competitive? You bet.

“He had that desire,” Hudspeth said. “He was going to try to whip you. I just always thought he was highly competitive, whether it was offseason drills or practice and especially games.”

“We knew he had the enthusiasm and the competitive spirit, and he would work at it and he would learn,” Graham added. “He learned very quickly and he did a great job for us.”

The job, however, wasn’t just about learning, or recruiting, or competing.

Long was a teacher, too.

“Teaching is the key (to Long’s success),” Graham said. “A lot of people don’t understand how significant basic fundamentals and being able to teach that and translate that onto the field, how important it is.

“He was a guy that was very innovative and very individualized in how he went about teaching each one of his players, because all of them are different. What activates them and what gets them to respond to coaching (is different from player to player).

“He’s very demanding, I can tell you that. He’s going to be very demanding and his guys are going to be tough and they’re going to be very well prepared.”

Long’s tight ends were certainly prepared at Arizona State, where he coached from 2012 to 2015. In those four seasons, the Sun Devil tight ends averaged 40.5 catches, 501 receiving yards and 5.5 touchdowns per season.

But even then, Long’s influence extended far beyond his position group.

“He was very much a partner here,” Graham said. “He was in the box and he was very much a part of the play-calling. Even though (former Arizona State offensive coordinator and current Memphis head coach) Mike (Norvell) called the plays, Chip was very involved in all the game plans.

“He was probably the chief consultant to Mike on the game planning as well as on game day as far as making adjustments in the box. He was very, very well prepared to do that.”

Long proved it last fall, when he assumed play-calling duties as the offensive coordinator and tight ends coach under Norvell at Memphis. Even without standout quarterback and 2016 NFL first round draft pick Paxton Lynch, the Tigers averaged 38.8 points per game (16th nationally) and 6.7 yards per play against ranked opponents (7th).

Memphis tight ends Daniel Montiel and Joey Magnifico, who Long coached directly, recorded 36 catches, 423 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

“His offense at Memphis displayed a unique blend of physicality, athleticism, versatility and explosiveness,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in a release on Monday.

“Chip’s play-calling created mismatches all over the field and did it in a number of different ways. He likes to use players who can fill numerous roles in an array of formations, whether that be two and three tight ends or multiple running backs.”

In other words, Long’s offense was innovative.

From North Alabama to South Bend, some things never change.

“That’s the way I look at Chip,” Hudspeth said. “I say, ‘Only Chip could pull that off.’ That’s the way he is. He’s a great person, but he’s highly competitive. He’s not afraid to do things outside the box, and I think that’s one of the reasons he’s been so successful.

“I think he’s going to be a great asset to a great program there, and I know he’s thoroughly excited to be going to one of the greatest programs in college football.”

Memphis offensive coordinator Chip Long is expected to accept the same position at Notre Dame (Photo courtesy of Nikki Boertman/The Commercial Appeal).