Analysis: Notre Dame banking on recruiting prowess in new RBs coach Lance Taylor

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A relatively small slice of Lance Taylor’s coaching career to this point has been funneled into actually coaching running backs.

That the 37-year-old was selected Sunday by Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly to be the next Irish running backs coach speaks not only to how well Taylor did that job at Stanford for three seasons (2014-16), but also to what ND wasn’t getting from its running backs coach the past four years.

An elite recruiter.

“That’s been a missing piece at Notre Dame,” said CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “Elite talent at running back and wide receiver. Elite talent at a lot of positions.

“Notre Dame has a lot of very good players, and collectively they’re as talented as pretty much everyone else on their schedule. But when they play teams like Georgia, Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State in big games, the great players ND doesn’t have, it’s noticeable.”

Is Taylor, who spent the past two seasons coaching wide receivers for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, the answer?

The former walk-on wide receiver under coach Mike Shula at Alabama and 2003 grad at least knows what a standout running back looks like. His father, James Taylor, was a running back under Bear Bryant on the Crimson Tide’s 1973 national championship team (coaches poll).

Taylor coached one Heisman Trophy runner-up at Stanford, Christian McCaffrey, and recruited and coached another, Bryce Love.

“There’s a lot to like about Lance Taylor, but a lot of unknowns too,” said analyst Steve Wiltfong, 247Sports’ director of recruiting. “The reason I say that is that a lot of Stanford recruits were already Stanford leans when the school offered (scholarships to) them.

“But the coaches still have to identify who the players are. And there’s been a whole lot of good evaluating going into that, including when Taylor was at Stanford.

“I don’t know how that will translate at Notre Dame, but he did get Bryce Love, (linebacker) Curtis Robinson and other guys Notre Dame would have loved to have.”

For now Taylor is in the hiring portal, so to speak, as ND’s human relations department does its intensive and protracted vetting process to avoid any surprises lurking in a candidate’s background. Indiana running backs coach Mike Hart also interviewed for the job.

Taylor interviewed two days after Hart, on Saturday. Yahoo’s Pete Thamel was the first to report the hiring. Multiple sources confirmed to the Tribune the decision to hire Taylor.

Once his succession to ND predecessor and new Charleston Southern head coach Autry Denson is official, Taylor will start to sift through ND’s six options at running back, with the start of spring football barely more than a month away.

Every bit as important, he’ll also need to cozy up to A.J. Henning of Frankfort, Ill, and Chris Tyree of Chester, Va., two of the four-star running backs at the top of ND’s wish list in the 2020 recruiting cycle.

“Notre Dame needs a recruiter that can get those kind of running backs and can take a recruiting territory and close with the great ones at other positions,” Lemming said. “That’s really all they’re missing.”

Beyond Stanford, Taylor’s résumé doesn’t have much recruiting experience on it. He was with the Panthers in 2013 as an assistant to the wide receivers coach. His three seasons with the New York Jets (2010-12) before that consisted of an internship and various quality control positions.

His only other full-time college position was in 2009 as a wide receiver coach for Appalachian State, back when the Mountaineers were competing at the FCS level. Taylor’s coaching career started with a two-year run as a grad assistant at his alma mater (2007-08), when current coach Nick Saban was just starting his empire.

So Kelly had to look for qualities that would translate into a top recruiter, much the same way he did with Mike Elko and Clark Lea when they came to ND from Wake Forest.

The presumption, though, is that every coach ups his recruiting game significantly once they pull on a sweater with an ND logo on it. But that hasn’t universally been the case.

The Irish, for instance, are still digging out of the indifference and misevaluations former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder brought to the table during his 30-game run at ND, truncated in September of 2016.

And while Denson, ND’s all-time leading rusher, earns extremely high marks for player development, the results on the recruiting trail didn’t match that on-field success.

Denson, 42, inherited Florida as a recruiting territory from predecessor Tony Alford, who left ND for Ohio State just before national signing day in 2015. Alford’s final contributions for the Irish to that class were poaching running back Dexter Williams from Miami’s class and luring linebacker Te’von Coney from Palm Beach Gardens.

Denson responded in the 2016 cycle by setting the table for seven Floridians to sign with the Irish. Of the 16 players not from Florida in that class 10 of them were starters (including snapper John Shannon) in 2018, as juniors.

But not one of the seven Florida kids topped ND’s depth chart this season, though running back Tony Jones Jr. did get three starts when Williams was suspended for the first four games of 2018. And four of the seven Florida recruits in the 2016 class weren’t even on the Irish roster this season.

Two of those four, wide receiver Kevin Stepherson and running back Deon McIntosh, were asked to leave, last January.

Denson would help add eight more Florida prospects over the next two cycles but only one, right tackle Robert Hainsey, has started more than one game in their careers.

In the 2019 cycle, the Irish left Florida alone by design and focused its efforts on Georgia. It was the first ND recruiting class without a single Florida prospect in it since 2008.

“We felt the profile fit better in the state of Georgia,” Kelly said in December of the geographical/philosophical shift. “The kids that we were going to recruit from like schools had the football that we were looking for that was similar to the athlete that was in Florida. So it was an intentional decision on my part.”

It’s telling too that ND’s most likely candidate to be its starting running back Sept. 2 at Louisville is a converted wide receiver (Jafar Armstrong), and not a running back recruited by Denson, and its most intriguing dark horse to rise on the depth chart is a converted quarterback (Avery Davis).

“I’ll admit, at the time I thought Autry Denson was an exciting hire,” Wiltfong said. “Why didn’t it turn out that way? In my opinion Autry didn’t put the time into closing. People like him. But in a relationships game, other recruiters formed better relationships.

“He just didn’t put the work in that he needed to.”

Lemming added he didn’t think Denson formed relationships with elite backs early enough in the recruiting process. And as far as the Florida prospects, Lemming said Denson didn’t do enough work on background checks.

Taylor, by all accounts, at least has the effort part of the recruiting game conquered.

And his recruiting territories while with Stanford took him into some uber-competitive recruiting hotbeds: California, south Florida, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

“I like the potential here in Lance Taylor to be exactly what Notre Dame needs,” Lemming said. “What Brian Kelly needs to do is give him a territory, let him dig in right away, start forming the relationships and find out just what he has in Taylor.”

Former Stanford running backs coach Lance Taylor, most recently with the Carolina Panthers, is Notre Dame’s choice as its next running backs coach.