Vorel: Three questions for Notre Dame's new-look coaching staff

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Coaching changes leave a trail of unanswered questions.

The trail leads, of course, to an overdue reunion with rival Michigan inside Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1. The Irish will arrive without arguably their two most prized assistant coaches, defensive coordinator Mike Elko (who one can only assume sleeps on a pile of money at Texas A&M) and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand (who secured a second stint with the NFL’s Chicago Bears).

In their place, beleaguered ND head coach Brian Kelly promoted linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator, hired away safeties coach Terry Joseph from North Carolina and tabbed longtime friend and confidante Jeff Quinn to lead the highly touted Irish offensive line.

But what effect will another offseason of instability have on a team looking to build off a bounce-back 10-win season? And can a January in South Bend that incinerated message boards and squashed any leftover Citrus Bowl momentum be reduced to three essential questions?

We might as well find out.

Here are three questions Notre Dame’s new coaching staff must answer in 2018, and beyond.

Can Clark Lea transform from soloist to conductor?

The 36-year-old’s ability to develop college linebackers is beyond dispute. Last season, in his first fall at Notre Dame, Lea directly coached the defense’s top four leading tacklers: Te’von Coney, Nyles Morgan, Drue Tranquill and Greer Martini. Those four combined for 368 tackles (37.8 percent of all Irish tackles) and 33.5 tackles for loss.

Specifically, Coney — a 6-foot-1, 240-pound junior — made seismic strides, finishing with 116 tackles and 13 tackles for loss while starting seven games, a year after he made 62 tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss in nine starts.

In Lea’s past, though, that ascension is more norm than anomaly. In his only season at Wake Forest in 2016, Lea guided 6-3, 240-pound linebacker Marquel Lee, who produced 105 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks a year after mustering just 71 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and three sacks.

But maybe that production is more dependent on Elko’s defensive system, right?

Wrong. When Lea was at Syracuse in 2015, sophomore linebacker Zaire Franklin led the Orange with 81 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception, a year after he managed just 44 tackles and five tackles for loss.

If Lea’s 12 years in coaching show anything, it’s that Notre Dame’s linebackers are in good hands.

But what about everybody else?

At UCLA, Lea coached linebackers. At South Dakota State, he coached linebackers. Bowling Green: linebackers. Syracuse: linebackers. Wake Forest: linebackers. Notre Dame: linebackers.

It’s true, Lea — a former fullback at Vanderbilt — has never served as a defensive coordinator at any stop in his coaching career. In fact, he’s never even coached another defensive position. Can he prepare game plans that will stifle opposing offenses? Can he communicate effectively to his fellow assistants and command their steadfast respect? Can he make in-game adjustments, an area where former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder struggled and Elko notably excelled?

If he were a musician, Lea has mastered his given instrument. But can he conduct the entire symphony? Can he make beautiful music when it matters in the fall?

Can Terry Joseph evaluate and develop the young talent in Notre Dame’s secondary?

Joseph — who has yet to be officially announced as Notre Dame’s safeties coach — can’t complain about any athletic shortcomings or lack of depth at his new position.

Take Alohi Gilman, for example. Notre Dame’s 5-foot-11, 199-pound sophomore safety finished second on Navy’s team in tackles (76) as a true freshman in 2016, then earned defensive scout team player of the year honors after transferring to ND last fall. Kelly openly admitted that, had he been eligible, Gilman would have been a starter in Notre Dame’s 2017 defense.

That spot won’t be quite so easy to secure this time around.

Not when highly touted four-star freshman Derrik Allen arrives in South Bend this summer. Not when sophomores Jordan Genmark Heath and Isaiah Robertson figure to ascend with a season of experience under their belts. Not when 2017 starters Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliott also return on the back end of Notre Dame’s defense. Not when freshman cornerback Houston Griffith — an early enrollee — could realistically settle as a safety as well.

Joseph’s challenge isn’t simply to learn their names, but to evaluate and develop that talent — to sift through a cavalcade of contenders and put the right players in positions to succeed.

Is he the right person to do that? In Joseph’s last decade coaching defensive backs, the former minor league baseball player has guided a unit that finished in the top 30 nationally in pass efficiency defense only twice, the last time being with Texas A&M in 2015 (18th). Likewise, just two of those defenses finished in the top 30 in interceptions: Tennessee in 2010 (19th, 18 INTs) and Louisiana Tech in 2008 (21st, 17 INTs).

In 2017, Notre Dame’s safeties failed to snag an interception, the first time that has happened since college football embraced a two-platoon system in 1964.

Notre Dame has the talent for an immediate turnaround. Does Joseph have the chops?

Is Jeff Quinn capable of recruiting elite offensive linemen to Notre Dame?

In his six cycles as Notre Dame’s offensive line coach, Hiestand delivered 15 — yes, 15 — Rivals four- or five-star offensive linemen to South Bend.

In his three cycles (2007-09) as Brian Kelly’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Cincinnati, Quinn signed just one Rivals three-star offensive lineman: Austen Bujnoch in 2009.

During that span, the Bearcats signed seven two-star offensive linemen.

Granted, Quinn has historically developed raw recruits into NFL talents. In the last 57 years, just four Central Michigan offensive linemen have been drafted, and Quinn coached two of them. In the last 35 years, the 55-year-old coach mentored two of Cincinnati’s four offensive lineman draftees.

Quinn’s pupils include Pro Bowlers, San Francisco 49ers left tackle Joe Staley and Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce, the latter of whom arrived at Cincinnati as a walk-on linebacker before being molded into a blocking machine.

Simply put, Jeff Quinn can coach.

But can he recruit — every day, at this level, against this competition? Is a guy that hasn’t coached the offensive line since 2009 even willing to invest the time required to consistently win battles against Michigan, USC and Alabama?

Quinn can address that question directly in the next few weeks, as Notre Dame strives to sign highly touted offensive linemen Nicholas Petit-Frere and Jarrett Patterson.

Without laying a firm foundation via recruiting, Hiestand’s offensive line — which was made up entirely of Rivals four- or five-star recruits — would not have earned the Joe Moore Award, given annually to the premier offensive line in college football, last fall. Without the foundation, the whole structure crumbles.

Now, it’s time for Quinn to lay the bricks.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Assistant strength and conditioning coach Jeff Quinn claps during the Notre Dame football practice in Notre Dame Stadium Friday, April 15, 2016. Tribune photo/MICHAEL CATERINA