Family ties show up in Brian Polian's big picture at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Polian doesn’t see the shadow anymore. Maybe he never did.

All the 42-year-old Notre Dame special teams coordinator sees when he looks at his Hall of Fame father, Bill, is a blessing. And that goes for the football end of things, too.

For all the generational uncoupling stories out there in sports in which the younger family member struggles to forge his own identity, Brian Polian embraces the connection with the 74-year-old former NFL executive.

“It’s everywhere,” Brian said Wednesday after practice when asked about where his father’s influence shows up in his coaching.

“I was reading a book recently that said successful people in life, happy people in life, have somebody to model after. And I’ve been able to model after my father professionally and personally my entire life.

“Everything in evaluation I’ve learned from him. In my core beliefs about what this game is truly about were developed from growing up in that house — To run. Stop the run. Don’t be dumb. Don’t be dirty.

“I mean, all the Marv Levy. All the Paterno-isms. All the things he was taught growing up, I’ve been raised the same way.”

Six practices into the 15 Notre Dame will stage this spring, culminating with the April 22 Blue-Gold Game, here is how that’s playing out in Brian Polian’s second tour of duty with the Irish:

• Top of the priority list: “It’s about teaching the fundamentals,” Polian said. “It’s about creating a culture. It’s about identifying personnel.”

The X’s and O’s are less important at this stage. That step will get emphasis in August training camp for Polian, who replaced deposed special teams coach Scott Booker.

“(Head) Coach (Brian Kelly) and I had a long conversation,” Polian said. “He knows what I believe in. We’re very much on the same page. There are things that will look very similar. There are things that will look completely different.

“But the biggest change has got to be the urgency with which we attack specials teams and our execution and critical efficiency in important times in the game. That’s got to be the biggest change.”

• Early impressers: Running backs Dexter Williams and Tony Jones Jr., wide receivers Chase Claypool, Miles Boykin and Javon McKinley have grabbed Polian’s attention.

None of them necessarily will end up as a return man. All of them will be involved in coverage — meaning tackling.

So how does Polian identify offensive players with that skill set and why use them at all on the special teams units that require tackling?

“We really feel like we have to identify backs, big receivers and a couple of the tight ends that can help. There’s no doubt,” he said.

“We’re not as deep as you’d want to be at some other spots, with depth at linebacker and depth at the safety positions. So where are we going to make up for those bodies? They’re going to have to come from offense, and those guys have made very positive impressions so far in spring football.”

Wide receivers Equanimeous St. Brown, Chris Finke, Kevin Stepherson and C.J. Sanders have been the four players getting audition at punt return, a duty shared by Sanders and Finke last season.

“At some point, when we go outside, I’ll have a gong show and say, ‘All right, who wants to get a look that’s not getting a look?’ ” Polian said. “And we’ll just start firing balls at them. You drop two, you’re fired. But we’ll find another one or two guys out of the gong show.”

That goes for kickoff returns, which have yet to be worked on, with Friday targeted as the day to start that process.

• The Waiting Game: Polian will have to wait until August to get his first live look at his top candidates to hold down the place-kicking and kickoff jobs.

Incumbent place-kicker Junior Justin Yoon is sitting out spring practice to rest his leg after developing tendinitis last season. Incoming freshman Jonathan Doerer, a strong candidate for the kickoff duty, doesn’t arrive until June.

Even though ND is able to hold some offseason training without the ball in June for all of its players, coaching the kickers wouldn’t apply under that NCAA loophole.

“Not without getting in trouble with compliance,” Polian quipped. “So part of the education is that they have to be able to take the base coaching points that we teach them here in the spring and be able to coach each other in the summer time, when we’re not allowed to be out there with them.

“They need to be able to self-correct, and they need to be able to correct one another.”

• Buying in: Polian said his job in reshaping the culture regarding special teams has been made much easier by Kelly being present in every special teams meeting.

“He’s been incredibly supportive of everything that we’re trying to get established, and he’s right there,” Polian said. “And that sends the message to the team that, ‘Hey, this is important.’ ”

That includes special situations that might pop up only once or twice a season — onside kicks, fake punts and defending both, for instance.

“You’ve got to be prepared,” Polian said. “That’s critical efficiency. That’s the ability to execute.

“(New England Patriots) coach Belichick has a saying, ‘Situational football defines us.’ And those things we touch on them every week. You’re not going to touch everything every week, but you’re constantly going to cycle through every situation, so that it stays fresh. And that’s part of the script every week.”

What also stays fresh with Brian Polian is Bill Polian’s example of how to accomplish all of Brian’s objectives without sacrificing his life with his wife and two young children (ages 8 and 4).

“There’s a myth in pro sports and high-level college sports that you can’t be a good dad and good husband and still win at the highest level,” Brian said.

“You look at all the guys that are divorced and the kids have issues. (But) Tony Dungy, Marv Levy, my dad, all the great assistants —those guys proved you can be a great dad, you can be a great husband and you can still win at the highest level.

“Your golf game suffers. You don’t get on the treadmill as much as you’d like — which clearly that has been a problem for me. But I find myself thinking about how he did his job and raised four kids and tried to be a great husband to my mom.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Polian coaches during spring practice at the Loftus Sports Center, Wednesday, March 8, 2017 in South Bend.  (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)