Jeff Quinn’s path to Notre Dame was deferred, detoured and benevolently twisted

A SURPRISING BOTTOM LINE

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The sunlight pours into Jeff Quinn’s expansive office in almost blinding proportions, though not enough to obscure the fact he has the largest workspace among the Notre Dame assistant coaches, even rivaling head coach Brian Kelly’s in square footage.

“Best office in the building,” puffed the new curator of the Irish offensive line and the ponderous reputation that comes with it.

Then again, the infectiously effervescent 55-year-old would probably be beaming had he been assigned a broom closet — just as long as his new responsibilities weren’t altered.

This, after all, is essentially the job that Quinn walked away from eight offseasons ago, as Kelly’s first — yet never announced — offensive line coach at ND. The assignment lasted exactly seven days and really didn’t get any further down the road than the transactional handshake.

The University of Buffalo swooped in and offered Quinn a chance to be a head coach for the first time, thus splitting Kelly from a cerebral/strategic sidekick that for 19 years collaborated for mostly gaudy win, yardage and point totals.

That included a 47-2 record in their final 49 games together on the Division II level and six top 40 offenses in six FBS seasons together at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, with the winningest three-year stretch in Cincinnati football history — by far — preceding Kelly’s move to South Bend.

“You’d think taking a head coaching job when it was offered would be an easy decision,” Quinn said. “But it wasn’t, because deep down inside, Notre Dame has always had a special place in my heart and certainly in my mind.”

That time, in December of 2009, the offensive line job came along with the offensive coordinator role as well, something Quinn had held in each of Kelly’s first 19 seasons as a college football head coach. This time it does not.

That job belongs to second-year coordinator Chip Long.

In fact, Quinn’s return to on-field coaching with Kelly for the first time in nine years is a lot about what Jeff Quinn is not.

Most pointedly, he is not Harry Hiestand, the man who reset the Joe Moore-esque offensive line standard during his six-year run that ended after the 2017 season with an actual Joe Moore Award for the nation’s best offensive line, two more first-round draft picks, and the return of the position group to a status of being both much more scrutinized and revered than by most fan bases.

Yet Quinn embraces Hiestand’s high bar and many of his methods, and wants to build upon them, not rearrange and repurpose them.

But Jeff Quinn isn’t even the old Jeff Quinn, either.

His behind-the-scenes role, but very much on the strategic front lines, as senior analyst in 2017 evolved Quinn’s offensive line philosophy and tangibly helped fuel Notre Dame’s 10-3 turnaround season.

That’s because he actually took a deep dive into the analytics, unlike some college teams’ analysts, who are just a stray, loud voice in meetings or a coach between jobs incubating until a “real” opening pops up.

“Jeff did a phenomenal job,” offered Irish associate head coach Mike Elston of Quinn’s senior analyst role. “Outcomes of the games were determined by analyzing that situation and making a call that maybe was not what you’d normally make, offensively and defensively. We can make better calls based on analytics.”

One such decision that Quinn was able to share without giving away trade secrets, was the way in which the Irish used their timeouts late in their 21-17 Citrus Bowl victory over LSU on Jan. 1.

Instead of waiting to get the ball back on offense to take their timeouts, the Irish — based on analytics — took one in a tie game (14-14) when LSU had the ball third-and-goal from the Irish 3-yard line with 2:25 left, and another at the 2:07 mark on fourth-and-goal from the 1.

LSU kicked a 17-yard field goal for a 17-14 lead at the 2:03 mark. Eighty-eight seconds later Irish wide receiver Miles Boykin was celebrating in the end zone with the go-ahead score. The Irish never had to use their third and final timeout.

“The biggest thing that being involved in analytics did for me was open my eyes to a whole different world in terms of the breakdown of details and each individual blitz pattern,” Quinn said. “And who was doing what and how to pick up tendencies from that standpoint.

“I just submitted an article on the American Football Coaches Association website about blitz patterns and tracking blitz patterns efficiently. Now, I had done that well before I ever became an analytics person, but analytics is more accurate and helps you use the information better.

“Sometimes that will push you to go against your gut instincts. And if you truly believe in the analytics you have to do that most of the time.”

Quinn’s first order of business in the senior analyst position was to vet various analytics companies, settling on Championship Analytics.

“Each week we would get a set of data settings that factored in — the difference between each team going into the game in terms of personnel,” Quinn said. “How good’s their kicker? How good’s their punter? How good is our punt return? How good is our kick return? The quarterback? Conditions? Playing home or away?

“And what they’d do is they would plug in these data points and they would spit out these pages of charts based on what the score is in the game and what quarter you’re in. So every time you’d take possession of the ball offensively, we knew what we needed to do.”

Analytics, Quinn conceded, helped the Irish improve 87 spots in red-zone offense, to 14th nationally last season, its highest ranking since the NCAA began tracking it as a stat in 2008. Quinn, though, pointed out, Long’s play calling, QB Brandon Wimbush’s skill set, and an offensive line with two 2018 top 10 draft picks all factored in as well.

“You’ve still got to convert,” he said. “You still have got to execute. You still have got to block. You’ve still got to tackle. You’ve still got to catch the ball. You still have to throw the ball. That’s still how you win games.”

Notre Dame offensive line coach Jeff Quinn (right) and head coach Brian Kelly (left) first worked together in 1989 at Division II Grand Valley State. Since then, Quinn has been on Kelly's coaching staffs at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame.

Jeff Quinn’s first taste of what would turn out to be a series of benevolent — though sometimes initially painful — twists of fate unfolded in a middle school gym class.

Quinn’s gym teacher happened to be the school’s wrestling coach, and he decided to pair the short, stocky Quinn against the school bully for a gym class wrestling exercise.

“Biggest kid in school, and everybody was scared of him,” recalled Quinn, who still looks like a guy who could execute a pretty effective and painful Half Nelson. “And I whipped his butt.

“After school, the teacher said, ‘I’m going to make a phone call to your parents, and you’re coming out for the wrestling team.’ It was the best thing that could happen for me personally, because it helped me with flexibility, quickness, stamina and toughness for football.”

It also made the aspiring middle linebacker a sure and fierce tackler — that is until he arrived at Division III Elmhurst College and was moved to the offensive line one week into his college career.

“I was crushed,” Quinn said. “I always wanted to be that middle linebacker — Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke. Just by my nature, though, I embraced it, and went with it. Ever since then it became part of my life.”

He similarly embraced change when another curveball came at him — his childhood dream of being a dentist being extinguished very early on in his time at Elmhurst.

“I figured out that I wanted to knock teeth out instead of fixing them,” Quinn, ultimately an education major, said upon being inducted in 1993 into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame as an All-America football player and a three-time national qualifier in wrestling.

Learning the nuances of leverage from wrestling helped Quinn both as a player and offensive line coach. Long-term, though, he was initially convinced he’d be a wrestling coach. That is until a break came his way to coach offensive line and coordinate the offense at Division II Grand Valley State.

Tom Beck, Quinn’s head football coach at Elmhurst who at that point headed the GVS program, wouldn’t let Quinn double as the school’s wrestling coach.

Quinn took the job anyway, and hit it off instantly with the grad assistant coach who had just been elevated to defensive coordinator, Brian Kelly.

Two years later, in 1991, then-Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz hired away Beck to be his running backs coach, and Kelly’s run as a head coach was launched, with Quinn as his offensive collaborator. They reunited in 2015 after Quinn was purged seven games into his fifth season at Buffalo.

“The biggest difference between the Brian Kelly I knew before I went to Buffalo and the one I reunited with in 2015 is he got a lot better,” said Quinn, an analyst for ND in 2015 and an assistant strength and conditioning coach in 2016.

“Brian’s competition was a lot stronger. And his responsibilities beyond football grew — all the things you have to handle at Notre Dame. What didn’t change is that he was always about mission, vision, strategy. He’s the best in the business without a doubt.”

Jeff Quinn worked at Notre Dame for three years as an offensive analyst, assistant strength and conditioning coach and senior offensive analyst before being promoted to offensive line coach in January.

Before Quinn spent the past three seasons soaking in Hiestand’s madness and methods up close, he attended Hiestand’s clinics when the latter was in his first tour of duty as O-line coach for the Chicago Bears. And Quinn worked at Hiestand’s camps when Hiestand was working at the University of Illinois in the same capacity.

And yet when Kelly elevated Quinn to succeed Hiestand last winter, the move was largely met with a collective groan from the fan base and the media, as if Kelly had elevated an intern who happened to be a relative.

Once again it became about what Jeff Quinn was not.

He was expected by his critics to struggle as a recruiter, but by mid-June Quinn had secured verbal commitments in the 2019 class from four touted offensive linemen who collectively recruiting analyst Tom Lemming called the best in the country at that juncture.

“Maybe the best group Notre Dame has had in 20, 30 years,” he added. “I can’t remember a better O-line group, and I don’t think they’re done.”

During spring practice Quinn was able to coax all four 2018 signees to show up on the same weekend to watch workouts, and at their own expense. That included a trip by Luke Jones from Arkansas, and Jarrett Patterson flying in from California.

“I wanted them to get an understanding of what the expectations are,” Quinn said of the group that also includes Cole Mabry and John Dirksen. “And kind of seeing how we go about our business each and every day."

In the days and weeks before All-America linemen Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey became top 10 draft picks in late April, they were regulars at practice, helping Quinn but also measuring him as Hiestand’s successor.

“I noticed a lot in watching Jeff,” McGlinchey said back in June. “He cares a lot about his players, and that’s evident by the way that he coaches and the way that he acts. I think he does a good job of keeping energy up.

“He definitely has the guys working hard on what they need to do to be successful. They haven’t lost that trait since the changing of the guard, which was really good to see. And I think they’ve fully embraced Jeff, as they should.

“It’s all what we instilled in each other, the pride of the unit, the pride of what we all do. The standard of being a Notre Dame offensive lineman doesn’t change, no matter who’s in charge, as long as the guys in the room are made of the right stuff.”

McGlinchey admitted Hiestand was still coaching him from a distance while the rookie right tackle was in 49ers minicamp and even though San Francisco and Hiestand’s Bears play this season (Dec. 23).

“Just making sure I’m on the right track and handling myself the right way,” McGlinchey said with a chuckle.

Also coaching McGlinchey unofficially during OTAs and minicamp, albeit from a lot closer distance, was 49ers 12th-year veteran left tackle Joe Staley.

He’s a six-time pro Bowler, a former first-round draft choice and one of Quinn’s coaching success stories. At Central Michigan, Quinn and Kelly converted the tight end to an offensive tackle, a move which Staley later admitted made him “cry his eyes out,” then strongly consider transferring.

One of Quinn’s other coaching triumphs was Jason Kelce, a two-time Pro Bowl center for the Philadelphia Eagles and a reigning Super Bowl champ.

Kelce came to the University of Cincinnati as a walk-on linebacker. And just as Quinn himself was moved to offensive line as a player, Kelce was convinced to give the new position a try.

“They were tough. They were strong. They were smart guys,” Quinn said of Staley and Kelce. “They had athletic ability, which I’ve always got a keen eye towards. These guys could run. They could jump. They have change of direction. They can bend. All that is critical to playing the offensive line position.

“Really the best thing to do is to let those guys play and just coach them every day — the way you want them to be, not what they are. I’ve always taken that approach: Coach them the way you want them to be, not what they are.

“That’s our job as coaches, to take them from a point where they are currently to a point where they don’t even know how good they can be. Believe in them and encourage them and challenge them to competitive greatness, and you’ll be amazed at what you can get out of the spirit of a human being.”

Notre Dame offensive line coach Jeff Quinn laughs during during a spring practice in March. Quinn's promotion in January gave him the tough assignment of following in the footsteps of former Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

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