Notebook: Terry Joseph keeps it simple for competing Notre Dame safeties

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Terry Joseph is not a fan of unnecessary callouses.

Notre Dame’s first-year defensive backs coach is not really a golfer, either. But it’s Thursday morning, The Masters are just kicking off and he’s trying to explain how all of this ties into what he’s teaching the Irish safeties.

“The one thing I stress to those guys is deliberate practice,” Joseph says. “We don’t just go run 20 plays. We want to run 20 plays with a purpose, working on a certain skill.

“I’m not a great golfer, but when I go to the range I should try to hit 50-yard shots, then 75-yard shots, then 100-yard shots. I’m not just dumping a bucket. Now if I’m out there for 45 minutes or an hour (without a purpose), I have callouses but I didn’t get any better. So that’s what I try to relate to the guys.”

And, make no mistake, Notre Dame’s safeties must be better in 2018. A year ago, under the watch of departed defensive coordinator and safeties coach Mike Elko, the Irish safeties failed to snag an interception. Starters Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliott struggled with rampant inconsistency.

This spring, junior Alohi Gilman, sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath and early enrollee freshman Houston Griffith — among others — are gunning for their jobs, while Coleman is also seeing work at the nickelback position.

Every movement, every drill, every practice has a purpose — something to be improved. Joseph says that he strives to be “the simplest coach in America.”

That means, instead of asking his players to improve a dozen things every day, he drills it down to the absolute essentials.

“I don’t want to be a coach who says 10,000 things one time. I want to say 10 things 10,000 times,” Joseph says. “If we can get those 10 things (down), we can kind of build off of that.

“There’s going to be some times where they’re going to make mistakes, but we’re going to coach them out of those mistakes. I don’t want them over-thinking. I don’t want them out there scared to play. I want to keep it simple and allow them to play fast, get themselves into position to make plays.

“Because at the end of the day, we’ve got to be able to tackle, we’ve got to be able to cover and we’ve got to be able to get our defense lined up. So if we can do those three things we’ll give ourselves a chance to have success.”

Searching for steady Eddies

Joseph says a recruiter’s job is to be part salesman, part ambassador, part friend, part brother … and part FBI agent?

OK, just hear him out.

“One of the big things that you’ve got to do is gather information,” Joseph explains. “One of the things I learned as a young recruiter is when you go into the school during those contact periods or evaluation periods, I don’t want to go straight to the coach’s office. I want to talk to everybody else around the school. I want to talk to the cafeteria worker. I want to talk to the custodian. I want to talk to people who see this kid in a different light to let you know exactly what type of person you’re dealing with.

“I think so many times we can get so narrow in our focus, we just worry about the tape or what the high school coach is going to say. That plays a lot into it. But at the same time, I want to know what this kid is going to be (like) in the good times and the bad times. Because the reality of it is he’s probably going to have more bad days than good, and we need him to be steady Eddie throughout all of that.”

Joseph — who has made previous stops at North Carolina, Texas A&M, Nebraska, Tennessee and LSU, among others — has spoken to his fair share of custodians and cafeteria workers. He’s far from a first-time recruiter.

Still, there’s something undeniably different about Notre Dame.

“I think you’re selecting more than you’re recruiting,” Joseph says. “I think if you do a great job evaluating and finding the great fit, you’re going to put yourself in position to get some of the premier players across America, because the product that we’re selling, it’s a special product. We want to fight against the big boys on those guys because we know our experience, our program, is unique.

“I think the big thing is getting out in front of it, getting a great evaluation, getting those guys to campus early. I still have a hard time thinking that we’re recruiting 2020 and 2021 kids. But that’s where we’re at right now — getting those guys on campus in a camp situation where we can get our hands on them, coach them and make sure they’re guys who fit what we want to do, not only on the field but off the field. Because it’s a different experience.”

Soaring safeties

In Joseph’s eyes, Notre Dame’s safeties started the spring with a clean slate.

But, eight practices later, two of the more experienced contenders — Gilman and Elliott — have separated themselves in terms of execution in the Irish system.

Still, there’s a long, long, looooong way until any starters are decided, and Joseph isn’t closing the door on freshmen Derrik Allen and Paul Moala, who will arrive on campus in June.

“Like I tell the guys, at the end of the day I love ‘em all, but the truth of the matter is that the best two guys are going to run out there against Michigan on Sept. 1,” Joseph says. “The truth of the matter is this: I don’t care what grade they’re in. I don’t care what jersey number, how long they’ve been here. At the end of the day the two best guys are going to run out there.

“I’ve been very truthful with those guys about that, so value every rep, because at the end of the day the two best guys are going to play. If one of those guys gets hurt, the next best guy is going to go in. It’s going to be an open competition.

“I really see this deal going on hopefully until about the middle of training camp. I think that keeps every one of the players involved in it every day.”

***

Through eight practices, here are Joseph’s evaluations of some of Notre Dame’s contending safeties.

Sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath:

“Big, physical guy. Loves to play down in the box. Really coachable. Asks a lot of questions. I’m really pleased with how he’s progressed this spring. (He’s) a guy that we’ve got to get to be a better guy in space to the deep part of the field. His size is something that you want to use to your advantage, so we want to put him in positions where he can make plays and give us that physical presence in the middle of the field.”

Junior Nick Coleman:

“He’s a great athlete. If you just were testing him in a combine setting, the guy would be off the charts. So I think from a skills standpoint, he has the tools to be a starter at a Power 5 school. Now it’s about refining those tools to become a great football player. A lot of that starts above the shoulders. How am I going to get myself in position to make a play? That goes back to not just playing the play. It’s playing the play with a purpose.”

Junior Alohi Gilman:

“I think Alohi is a guy who is very athletic. He has great instincts, a guy who can really play from sideline to sideline. You love how he sees it and he goes, and now you want him to kind of go past the speed limit a little bit yet still be under control. I think that’s the biggest thing with him. I think he was so excited to get back in the mix after spending a year on scout team. Like I told him, one of the biggest things he had to adjust to is, on the scout team you’re looking at a card. You’re really just following a line (script). Now it’s more about processing what’s going on — how to match routes, how to get yourself in the right position, how to read what’s happening and what the offense is trying to do. So that’s been our deal with him these first two weeks of practice.”

Freshman Houston Griffith:

“Obviously Houston is a guy that came in mid-year. I remember watching his recruiting tape, and you’ve got a guy that’s playing both positions in high school — safety and corner. You like that he’s got the cover skills, because when you play a quarter system you want a guy at safety that can have those cover skills. But he’s big enough to hold up in the run game. He shows he has some physicality. With how deep we are at corner, it’s one of those situations where we want to try to get the best guys on the field. We wanted to get him an opportunity and look at him at safety. In the week that he’s been there, he’s done a great job as far as picking it up. He’s a smart kid. I’m really happy with how he’s progressed so far.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Terry Joseph looks on during Notre Dame Football Practice Tuesday, March 6, 2018, inside the Loftus Center at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN