Jeff Burris heads to Northern Iowa confident Notre Dame DBs will blossom

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Jeff Burris went home, and now he’s taking it with him.

It’s an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon in March, and the former All-American safety and first round NFL draft pick is driving through cornfields towards his new job in Cedar Falls, Iowa. A few months ago, he was named the defensive backs coach at the University of Northern Iowa, after spending the 2016 season as a defensive analyst at his alma mater, Notre Dame.

He wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t gone there — first to play, then to coach, always to learn and grow.

“I wanted to come back and just be home, to remind me what it took for me to get to where I am at this point,” said Burris, who served as an assistant defensive backs coach for the Miami Dolphins from 2013 to 2015. “Sometimes you need to go home to recharge, and I think that’s the main reason I came back. It brought back what made me the person I am today.”

An outsider might look at Notre Dame’s 4-8 2016 season and assume it was a three-month nightmare, an avalanche of agonizing losses that eradicated all in its wake. After all, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired before the leaves left the trees, a Sept. 24 debacle against Duke effectively shoving him out the door. The Irish failed to qualify for a bowl game for the first time in head coach Brian Kelly’s seven seasons in South Bend.

But, according to Burris, who intercepted 10 passes and scored 10 touchdowns in his Irish career from 1990 to 1993, a challenging season was also constructive.

“That’s probably the biggest thing I learned from it: no matter what the circumstances are, make sure that the kids are learning and enjoying what they do, as well as the guys you work with,” Burris said. “I think we all had a great time from a defensive perspective, even though it didn’t work out in our favor. With the direction we were headed, we were optimistic about a lot of things.”

Burris’ reasons for optimism go by a number of names: Drue Tranquill. Nick Watkins. Shaun Crawford. Julian Love. Donte Vaughn. Troy Pride Jr. Nicco Fertitta. D.J. Morgan.

Though he wasn’t allowed to coach on the field, Burris formed relationships in the film room and meeting room. He calls Tranquill “a guy that I gained so much admiration for, not just as a football player but as a person.” Morgan is a “special guy,” and Vaughn is “built for the lights.” Burris recently had a two-hour conversation just about Fertitta, Notre Dame’s undersized junior safety, how “all he wants to do is get better. That’s what you want to be around.”

“It made it worthwhile, to be honest with you,” Burris said, “to have the opportunity to be around them.”

Burris also returned to Notre Dame to be around Brian Kelly, and he says the guy he sat with for countless hours, just talking football, absorbing a wealth of wisdom, hardly resembles the red-faced, contentious coach on Saturdays on NBC.

“You see the coach Kelly persona on TV, but then you get a chance to really talk to him,” Burris said. “I’ve told coach Kelly this and he knows how I really feel about him. I have the utmost respect for him. Before leaving, I made sure I went into his office and gave him a hug and thanked him for the opportunity.

“They’re going to win, and they’re going to win because of him.”

If the Irish do win, Burris says, it’ll also be because of those defensive backs: Tranquill, Love, Crawford, Vaughn and all the rest. Though Notre Dame’s defense struggled through long stretches of the 2016 season, the team actually finished 21st nationally in passing defense (196.4 yards per game). The only departing defensive back starter is cornerback Cole Luke, and two more corners who suffered season-ending injuries — Watkins and Crawford — should step up and fill the void.

Moreover, five freshman defensive backs earned invaluable experience last season: cornerbacks Love, Vaughn and Pride and safeties Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott.

“Besides Northern Iowa’s secondary,” Burris said, “I told them that they should be the best secondary in the country. I told those guys that and I do mean that.”

But Burris won’t be in South Bend to witness his former pupils’ success. After a year at his alma mater, the 10-year NFL alum sought a return to hands-on teaching.

That’s exactly the opportunity that’s he’s driving towards in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

“I’d heard nothing but great things about (Northern Iowa head) coach (Mark) Farley and the program itself,” said Burris, who joins a program that went 5-6 in 2016. “For me it’s an opportunity to get back on the field, to be in a position where I can go coach, go teach and just educate these guys.”

But this time, when Burris left home, he brought a piece of Notre Dame with him.

“Actually, at the beginning of the season for my guys at Northern Iowa, I put together a player contract and I base it off of my experience at Notre Dame and what the guys there meant to me,” said Burris.

“It basically encompasses not just football, but being a quality person. As I thought about it, everything on there is basically what Notre Dame is all about.”

To the best group of young men I have ever been around, I will miss you guys!

— Jeff Burris (@JeffBurris93) February 9, 2017

It's always great to go home! Thank you @CoachBrianKelly@JackSwarbrickND for the great opportunity! ND for life!

— Jeff Burris (@JeffBurris93) February 11, 2017


Twitter: @mikevorel

Jeff Burris, a former Notre Dame All-American safety who served as an Irish defensive analyst last season, will serve as the defensive backs coach at Northern Iowa in 2017 (Photo courtesy Northern Iowa athletics).
Jeff Burris, a former Notre Dame All-American safety who served as an Irish defensive analyst last season, will serve as the defensive backs coach at Northern Iowa in 2017 (SBT File Photo).