Terry Joseph's simple, sarcastic approach helped turn around Irish safety unit

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

No one is safe around Terry Joseph.

The Notre Dame defensive backs coach relishes the opportunity to taunt — no matter who the victim might be.

“Nicco (Fertitta) is Michael Bolton because of his hair,” Joseph said. “(Devin Studstill) wants to always have his waves spinning, so we always joke with him about that. Paul (Moala) probably needs a haircut.

“Alohi (Gilman) likes to eat spam, and I told him I will never eat spam a day in my life. Jalen (Elliott) thinks he’s the best basketball player on the team, and he’s a LeBron (James) fan. I’m a (Michael) Jordan fan, so that’s a tough one to go through.”

With how the Irish safeties progressed in 2018, maybe the rest of ND’s squad should invite Joseph’s ridicule.

Joseph, 45, took a unique but simple approach to turn around ND’s woes at the safety position. Joining the staff in January of 2018, Joseph inherited a unit that went interception-less for the first time since college football embraced the two-platoon system in 1964.

Almost a year later, incumbent starter Alohi Gilman projects as a team captain for the 2019 season. Jalen Elliott, who once was thought to be in jeopardy of losing his starting role, now projects as a key to fortifying the back end of the Irish defense next season.

What sparked the progression? Joseph first pressed the reset button on the 2017 starters, Nick Coleman and Elliott, and promised that everyone would begin with a clean slate. He also refused to dwell on the negatives. Cutting loose and simplifying the position were better options.

No time was wasted.

“I don’t fully remember that transition period for him,” said Julian Love, ND’s former star cornerback. “I feel like there are some where I do (remember). But for coach Joseph, I feel like he’s been here. He has that way about him where he just felt confident right away.”

Experience helped, too. Joseph, a New Orleans native, began coaching college football as a defensive graduate assistant at LSU in 2006. Joseph’s next decade saw stops at Louisiana Tech, Tennessee, Nebraska, Texas A&M and North Carolina.

In his lone season with the Tar Heels, Joseph faced the Irish in an Oct. 7, 2017 meeting. Quarterback Ian Book led ND to a 33-10 victory in his first and only collegiate start that season. For Joseph, he familiarized himself with the Irish safeties.

What he saw in Elliott, who started all 13 games that season, was someone who lacked confidence and struggled as a playmaker and tackler. In 2018, Elliott led the Irish with four interceptions. He also ranked fourth in tackles (67) and third in pass breakups (seven).

“To be honest, there were probably one or two games during the season where he took a few steps back,” said Joseph of Elliott’s 2018 season. “Those were the times where I said, ‘Hey, go back to the details, the little things.’ Don’t think that we have made it, because there is a lot of work to be done. Sure enough, he came back and played well.”

Gilman earned ND’s Scout Team Player of the Year award for his 2017 contributions. The NCAA denied the Navy transfer eligibility that season. Had he been eligible, Gilman would have started.

The free safety’s potential blossomed last season in his 95 tackles, trailing just Te’von Coney on the Irish. Although ND fell 30-3 to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal, Gilman set a CFP record with 18 tackles.

“Coach Joseph has been a huge help,” Gilman said. “The growth as a unit, the growth for me personally. The mental side of the game was the most important thing that he brings to our secondary and to our defense in general. I’ve learned so much.”

The rising senior recorded five pass breakups, three TFLs, three forced fumbles and two interceptions across 13 games. Despite struggles at nickel back, the Irish finished with the nation’s No. 6 pass efficiency defense.

The best performance of the ND safeties came in the Nov. 17 matchup against Syracuse. The Orange quarterbacks combined for 15-of-35 passing for 115 yards with three interceptions. Gilman and Elliott were responsible for all three takeaways.

Gilman’s first of two picks came after SU quarterback Tommy DeVito telegraphed a deep throw to receiver Taj Harris. Well before Gilman hauled in the pass through traffic, Elliott was already celebrating. Away from the action, Elliott pointed his right index finger to the sky in jubilation.

He saw what was coming. Much different from the Elliott of the previous year.

“He knew that was a play that we had talked about and the tendency was going to happen,” Joseph said. “So he knew what was going to happen before the ball was snapped. When you have guys that understand it like that, it allows them to play faster and free of fear of making mistakes.”

Operating pre-snap and understanding the roles of other defensive players, as Elliott portrayed against SU, are cornerstones in Joseph’s teachings. The ND safeties sometimes practice plays starting out of position. That way, they can learn how to recover.

“The drills are the same (with Joseph). I think it is just the emphasis of the drill, and then getting players to understand the correct fundamentals at the correct time,” said Todd Lyght, ND’s cornerbacks coach.

Pass breakups and finishing plays are another emphasis. The Irish receivers grew frustrated at how often their catches would be poked out last minute during practice.

Not that Love, ND’s career leader in pass breakups, needed guidance in that department. Instead, Joseph opted to pull the leg of Love, the La Grange Park, Ill. product who claims to be from Chicago.

Joseph’s nickname for Love, “Suburbs,” stuck. Slot receiver Chris Finke is known as Wes Welker.

The Irish give Joseph a hard time, too. His frequent haircuts, devotion to fashion and sports takes highlight their roasting material.

All the chiding was inspired by Joseph’s purpose — to indoctrinate himself and succeed in the uphill climb.

“At the end of the day, we are in this business to develop those relationships,” Joseph said. “I think 10, 15 years from now, that is what they are going to remember. That, ‘Hey Suburbs and Wes Welker.’

“But also, they feel like they can joke back with me at the right time. I want them to have that comfort level, too. It is about the relationship and communication. Because when we get into the game and we are on the sidelines, I want them to feel comfortable telling me exactly what they saw.

“As coaches, we might see something different, but they are actually out there doing it. So I want them to have the conversation and say, ‘Hey coach, it really didn’t happen like that. This is what happened.’ Then, we can solve the problem.”

Oradell (N.J.) Bergen Catholic's Jaeden Gould, a cornerback, became the first 2022 recruit to add a Notre Dame offer on Feb. 19, 2019.