Notre Dame's Lance Taylor on the fast track
A whirlwind start, a recruiting coup and a stellar spring have Irish RBs coach in step with ND’s offensive evolution
The culture shock pervading Lance Taylor’s newest coaching stop wasn’t the perpetual polar vortex that smacked him in the face seemingly every time he walked outside for weeks on end.
It was an accelerated recruiting calendar that didn’t exist the last time the Alabama native, who turns 38 in mid-July, immersed himself in the college game.
Early signing period. Overlapping cycles. Earlier official visits. Much earlier college decisions and verbal commitments.
Selected by Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly to be Autry Denson’s successor as running backs coach on Jan. 27 and officially announced 16 days later, Taylor’s first move was to not move his family for several months.
Instead, he left wife Jamie and two young children back in Charlotte, N.C. — his NFL coaching home for two seasons — and quickly familiarized himself with where Chester, Va., was on a map.
“Leaving them in Charlotte allowed me to kind of dive in and really embrace the grind to catch up,” Taylor said in mid-June. “I was probably showing recruits around campus before I had a chance to be shown around campus myself.”
His office on the second floor of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex is sparsely decorated enough that he’s clearly still in transition in some respects. But Taylor not only found Chester, Va., he found a way to help reel in favorite son Chris Tyree — the highest-rated running prospect to commit to Notre Dame since five-star Greg Bryant signed out of Florida in 2013.
Because Tyree, the nation’s top all-purpose back, can’t sign a National Letter of Intent until December, Taylor, Kelly and the rest of the staff can’t publicly comment on him until then, per NCAA rules. But there’s nothing in the rules about smiling.
“The good part about this is I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Kelly said when asked about how he assessed Taylor’s recruiting prowess in the job interview process. “I know the difference between a used car salesman and somebody who really does it because they love doing it. And Lance Taylor loves what he does.
“Can he recruit?” a beaming Kelly said, perhaps rhetorically. “You tell me.”
Taylor could certainly recruit at his last college job, as Stanford’s running backs coach from 2014-16. Head coach David Shaw assigned him California, a competitive hotbed in itself, but also ones on the other side of the country — south Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina.
Among Taylor’s recruiting victories, he fished eventual Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love out of Wake Forest, N.C., after inheriting another eventual Heisman Trophy runner-up in Christian McCaffrey days after taking the Stanford job.
“Bryce was a kid that everybody kind of told me, ‘Well he’s a track kid.’ ” Taylor recalled of the recruitment. “ ‘Don’t know if he’s big enough or tough enough to be a running back.’ ”
Keep in mind that until McCaffrey and Love, Stanford had been smitten with big, thundering backs. Think 235-pound Toby Gerhart.
“I went and watched Bryce work out at school during the recruiting periods and went and watched him play a couple of high school games,” Taylor said of the eventual four-star prospect. “I had no questions about his toughness, physicality or his ability to carry the load to be a running back.”
Taylor had no questions either about having all the time he needed to build a relationship with Love and his family in the 2015 recruiting cycle. Not so with Tyree, with whom offensive coordinator Chip Long and Kelly had laid some important groundwork.
For Notre Dame, Tyree didn’t just represent a pragmatic speed upgrade to an offense that had that point hammered at it during the 30-3 College Football Playoff loss to Clemson on Dec. 29. There was a sort of historical hurdle as well.
Running back represents Notre Dame’s longest positional All-American drought — by far. The last Irish back to achieve that distinction is 10 1/2 years older than Taylor. Notre Dame director of student-athlete alumni relations and engagement Reggie Brooks turns 50 in roughly a year and a half.
Denson, now the first-year head coach at FCS school Charleston Southern, is Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher and was consistently adept at developing running back talent before Taylor succeeded him. But there were too many misses on the recruiting trail in his four years at his alma mater, both from ability and character standpoints.
Even getting elite running backs on campus to visit became perplexingly challenging — given Denson’s pedigree and personality and a prevalence of All-America offensive linemen on the Notre Dame rosters— and eventually prohibitive.
Which is why Tyree’s verbal commitment on May 23, and his multiple visits to South Bend, is so significant. For what it is. For what it may become.
“The timing of my arrival and this new recruiting calendar brought a little bit of fear,” Taylor admitted. “What happens if I go this whole recruiting cycle and we miss out on a lot of our top guys because of the sped-up process with the early signing date?
“One of the things coach Kelly told me when they hired me, recruiting great running backs, signing great talent and then also developing them was going to be a point of emphasis.
“It created a sense of urgency for me. From the day I got hired, I identified the top guys on our board, and I really went to work immediately. I knew that my focus has got to be on building a relationship, really making these guys know they’re wanted and also knowing who I am and what I’m about.”
The common thread among recruits when defining Taylor is a perceived authenticity in the way he goes about both his business and his life. In an interview setting, his candor is as refreshing as it is eye-opening.
Who Lance Taylor is, more than anything else, though, comes from a patchwork of benevolent twists and steep challenges, and his ability to appreciate and extract value from both.
He was blessed to have a father, James, who played running back for the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant in the early ‘70s and to whom he can go to for insight into what went into Bryant’s greatness.
Lance Taylor experienced greatness first-hand of another Alabama coach, Nick Saban. His first coaching job was a two-year graduate assistantship in 2007-08 under Saban, the 27th head coach in Crimson Tide history.
As an Alabama walk-on, Taylor was mentored by head coaches Nos. 23-26 during his five years on campus — Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price — for a matter of months and zero actual games — and finally, Mike Shula.
“It was a really dark time in Alabama football history, especially for a guy growing up loving Alabama and seeing some of the glory years,” said Taylor, who would play in 38-straight games and eventually earned a scholarship.
“For me to go through that as a player, that was really tough. But I do think I learned from that, because I was exposed to a bunch of different coaches and coaching styles.”
The most influential of all was current Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. It was Swinney who convinced Taylor, who came to Alabama as an aspiring running back, to switch to wide receiver. Taylor still uses some of the coaching concepts Swinney used on him a couple of decades ago as his position coach.
“Be precise and not robotic,” Taylor cites as an example.
“Dabo was one of the best position coaches I ever had, because he was a great technician,” Taylor continued. “He taught the fundamentals of the game. Everything you see from Dabo on TV is who he is. He’s really that genuine and that type of personality all the time – high energy, truly loving and caring for his players.
“Dabo has stayed a close mentor of mine ever since he left Alabama. I couldn’t see it at the time, his greatness and his potential to become what he’s become, but with each passing year I did, because I had other coaches to compare him to.”
Taylor learned some valuable lessons of what not to do in his own coaching.
“I absolutely like to take the good and the bad,” he said. “But whatever I saw and learned, one of the things that I was told early on was, ‘Always be you. Always be yourself. Be authentic.’
“And the guys can buy into that as long as you’re not trying to be someone you’re not.”
The homework Taylor gave Notre Dame junior Jafar Armstrong for the weeks in the summer that NCAA rules prohibit them from working together was film study.
Film of himself. Film of who in the NFL the converted 6-foot-1, 220-pound wide receiver and now-No. 1 running back in Taylor’s stable of five wants to become.
“I started doing this with Christian McCaffrey at Stanford,” Taylor said. “You pick backs who have similar attributes as you. You watch their run progression, how they set up blocks, how they set up defenders, how they pass-protect. So study what you can use, and implement it into your game.”
Taylor made himself do the same at Stanford. Coaching receivers dominated his résumé when Shaw hired him away from his first stint with the Carolina Panthers.
“I’ll be honest, that first year was a learning curve and a transition that wasn’t easy,” Taylor said. “But what I really did for those first three years was go and visit some of the top running back coaches at the college and the professional level, that I developed relationships with. Pick their brains. Take notes. Watch drill film. Watch their drills.
“So when I came back to coach running backs this time, it really was easy and seamless. I feel like I’m an even better running back coach this time, because of what I went through the first time, plus going back to receiver and some of the crossover that you have at the two skill positions.”
Actually, it’s quite in line with the way Long wants Notre Dame’s offense to look, with multi-dimensional running backs. Armstrong, Tony Jones Jr., Jahmir Smith, C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams all showed an aptitude for that in the spring under Taylor.
Tyree would seem to epitomize it.
“For me it really didn’t matter whether he coached wide receivers or running backs before coming here,” Kelly said. “They’re kind of in the same family. What’s important is that he can communicate and he can teach.”
“One of the things I teach and preach to the guys in the room,” Taylor added, “is building a complete running back — building THE complete running back. And that’s being complete in all phases and assets.”
Tyree happened to drop by a March 23 spring practice of his own volition and on his own dime, and saw that very process in person.
“I’m really glad I got to see him in action before I committed,” Tyree said. “Coach Taylor knows what he’s doing.”
Taylor believes he’s doing it in the right place.
Four and a half years ago he almost left Stanford for a job coaching wide receivers for Mark Richt at Georgia. In fact, several outlets reported that he indeed had taken the job.
“I won’t say much about the Georgia opportunity, but a lot of times in this internet/social media-crazed world, things are reported way more advanced then where they actually were,” he said. “I definitely talked to coach Richt and had an opportunity to go there. I think the world of Georgia and coach Richt, but it wasn’t the right time for my family and me.
“All coaching decisions are hard when you have a family, because of how it might affect them — even this one. Notre Dame was not really on my radar in terms of I didn’t know coach Kelly. I didn’t have a prior working relationship with anybody on staff.
“When it came up, it excited me, because I’ve always had a great respect for Notre Dame. But when I came here on my visit, it checked all the boxes. The reason I got into the college game was to be a teacher and also impact and influence young men. I feel more joy in coaching college football than I did coaching NFL, because I truly believe it’s a team game at this level and at the high school level.
“And when I walked onto this campus, I knew immediately this is where I wanted to be. This was the right fit. This is a place that had great people on and off the field, a chance to win a national championship and also a chance to coach really great kids.”
The ND Insider 2019 Notre Dame Football Preview
The magazines have arrived.
The first copies of our ND Insider 2019 Notre Dame Football Preview recently made it back to our offices. In the coming week or so, they will start to appear in local stores. You can also start ordering copies online to be shipped to you in July.
But what exactly will you be getting in this year’s magazine?
• Our cover story is on senior defensive end Julian Okwara. When he first came to Notre Dame, he wanted to make his own name and not live in the shadow of his older brother, Romeo. Now he has his sights on setting the Irish single-season sack record.
• Senior wide receiver Chase Claypool is on track for a big season in a new role. Learn how a meal with offensive coordinator Chip Long changed their relationship and set the table for more success.
• Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton arrives at Notre Dame as a five-star talent with a three-star mindset. That combination made him the perfect match for the Irish in the pursuit of top prospects.
• Encore seasons haven’t been great for starting quarterbacks at Notre Dame in recent years. Quarterback Ian Book and quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees plan to break that trend even if they weren’t aware of it at first. Get an inside look at how the two are preparing Book for an even better senior season.
• In his first months at Notre Dame, Lance Taylor had to hit the ground running on the recruiting trail. The new Irish running backs coach appears to be the right fit on Notre Dame’s coaching staff and in its offensive scheme. Hear from Taylor for the first time since he was hired in February.
• Mike Elston has created a culture of caring with his defensive linemen. The decision to connect so deeply with his players has positively impacted the product on the playing field. That’s just part of the reason the Irish defensive line coach has stayed so long in South Bend.
• Notre Dame’s quarterback recruiting has shifted, with accuracy taking top priority. The attributes of Ian Book can been seen in the quarterbacks the Irish have taken commitments from in the past two recruiting cycles.
• Brian Kelly goes one-on-one with Eric Hansen on a variety of topics, including retirement and karaoke.
The rest of the magazine includes our annual staples: predictions from our staff, an analysis and player feature for each position group, profiles on the freshman class, a recruiting roundtable with national analysts, breakdowns of all 12 opponents and much more.
Don’t miss out on this top-notch product from our award-winning staff. Click here to order your copy today.
The following story appears in the 2019 ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview magazine. Copies of the magazine can be purchased here.