Notebook: Notre Dame's connections to Los Angeles Chargers run deep

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The Los Angeles Chargers unveiled new uniform combinations for the 2020 season earlier this month. Given the rate the organization keeps adding former Notre Dame football players, it’s a bit surprising the options didn’t include a gold helmet.

With the conclusion of the NFL Draft last week, the Chargers added three new former Irish players to their roster: sixth-round pick Alohi Gilman and undrafted free agents Asmar Bilal and Donte Vaughn. That trio joins another trio of Golden Domers already on the roster: defensive end Isaac Rochell, defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and linebacker Drue Tranquill.

Chargers general manager Tom Telesco received a question about his interest in Notre Dame players from an unlikely source. His son Thomas did the job for a video released on the Chargers Twitter account: Why do you always take Notre Dame players?

“Really?” Telesco said with a laugh. “It’s a great program. Brian Kelly is a heck of a head coach. The whole program’s really well-run. We have some pretty good contacts there, so we hear about all the kids.”

Telesco’s relationship with one contact at Notre Dame goes back more than 30 years. Telesco and Irish special teams coordinator Brian Polian grew up together and were football teammates at St. Francis High School in Athol Springs, N.Y. and John Carroll University in Cleveland.

During his time at John Carroll (1991-95), Telesco worked as a training camp intern for the Buffalo Bills under general manager Bill Polian, Brian’s father. When Bill Polian became the general manager for the Carolina Panthers in 1995, he hired Telesco as a scouting assistant. Telesco followed Bill Polian to the Indianapolis Colts in 1998 where the two worked together in various roles through 2011.

The Chargers hired Telesco as general manager in 2013. Since then, he’s drafted six former Notre Dame players starting with linebacker Manti Te’o in 2013 and offensive guard Chris Watt in 2014. Brian Polian was Nevada’s head coach at the time, but he recruited Te’o in his previous stint with the Irish (2005-09). Polian returned to Notre Dame in 2017.

Telesco isn’t the only tie Polian has with the Chargers. Kevin Kelly, the team’s director of college scouting, was Polian’s linebackers coach in 1994 during Polian’s playing career at John Carroll.

The connections between Notre Dame and the Chargers don’t stop there. Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees worked as an offensive assistant for the Chargers in 2016. New Notre Dame tight ends coach John McNulty served as the tight ends coach from 2016-17. Watt made his return to Notre Dame this offseason as a graduate assistant as well.

“GM Telesco has been great in evaluating our players,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “Kevin Kelly, the lead scout, and obviously their entire organization feels as though our players have developed in a manner. (Defensive coordinator) Gus Bradley has enjoyed the defensive players that he’s gotten a chance to work with in LA.

“We want to be able to continue to develop great young men that can be great Chargers for them as well. We’re just pleased that we have young men that they believe in, that they trust in, that they believe can help their organization move towards a Super Bowl. It’s great to see that many guys that are in there and having an opportunity to help that football franchise.”

Tranquill, a fourth-round pick, made an immediate impact as a rookie last season with 75 tackles and four tackles for a loss in 15 games. Tillery, a first-round pick, played a more limited role with 17 tackles, three tackles for a loss and two sacks. Rochell, who was drafted in the seventh round in 2017 as a defensive end, recently signed a tender to return to the Chargers for 2020 after playing all 16 games for the team each of the last two seasons.

Now Gilman, Bilal and Vaughn will get their opportunities with the Chargers.

“We like Gilman because he can do a lot of different things on defense,” Telesco said in the Twitter interview with his son. “He’s going to be able to play strong safety. He can play in our dime packages. He’s smart and tough. He’s a big hitter. We had a little hammer on his card because he’s such a big, physical hitter for us. We’re excited.

“It’s not that we target Notre Dame guys every year, just sometimes it happens.”

Six draft picks in eight years feels more like a lot of times.

Elliott’s opportunity

The biggest Notre Dame-related surprise of the NFL Draft may have been safety Jalen Elliott not being chosen among the 255 picks.

Elliott didn’t have to wait long to find a home as the Detroit Lions signed him shortly after the draft.

Kelly likes Elliott’s fit in head coach Matt Patricia’s defense.

“Matt likes him a lot,” Kelly said. “He likes his physicality. We talked about Patrick Chung, who he had at New England. Physical player, really good around the line of scrimmage.”

Elliott, who recorded 173 tackles, six interceptions and 11 pass breakups in his four seasons with the Irish, could project as a strong safety. Kelly said Patricia likes to use a cover-one coverage concept that tends to keep one safety closer to the line of scrimmage.

“They’ll need one of those safeties to come down and support the box,” Kelly said. “He has a really good shot. That’s why they signed him so quickly. He’ll be given a fair opportunity to make that team.”

A few undrafted free agents have found success during Kelly’s Notre Dame tenure. Defensive tackle Ian Williams signed with the San Francisco 49ers in 2011 and eventually became a defensive captain in 2015. He finished that season with 65 tackles and one sack, but it ended up being his last as he struggled with a chronic ankle injury.

Defensive end Romeo Okwara and safety Matthias Farley, both 2016 undrafted free agents, remain in the league. Okwara signed a contract extension with the Lions following a 2018 season with 39 tackles and 7.5 sacks. Farley’s biggest impact came with the Colts in 2017 as he started 15 games and tallied 98 tackles, four tackles for a loss and two interceptions. Farley signed a two-year contract with the Jets last year.

Running back Josh Adams, also on the Jets last season, made a splash in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles. He turned 120 carries into 511 yards and three touchdowns in 2018. He was cut last year before signing to the Jets practice squad in September. Adams was promoted to the Jets active roster in November as another team reportedly tried to sign him.

Elliott and five other former Notre Dame players signed undrafted free agent contracts following this year’s draft: linebacker Asmar Bilal and cornerback Donte Vaughn (Chargers), wide receiver Chris Finke (49ers), running back Tony Jones Jr. (New Orleans Saints) and defensive end Jamir Jones (Houston Texans).

Making it last

Kelly started Tuesday’s virtual press conference by celebrating the fact that 12 former Notre Dame players landed with NFL teams through the draft or as undrafted free agents this year.

But Kelly doesn’t want this past week to be a finish line. He hopes his players gained the skills at Notre Dame that will allow them to have a sustainable NFL career.

“This isn’t about getting to the NFL. This is about staying in the NFL,” Kelly said. “One of the things that gets lost in this is that you don’t come to Notre Dame to go to the NFL. You come to Notre Dame to graduate, to play for championships and to have a long career. Getting to play in the NFL, we don’t want it to be an experience. We want it to be one where you can really have a long career and reap the benefits.”

The long, successful NFL career for one former Kelly player from Central Michigan came to an end Saturday when 49ers left tackle Joe Staley announced his retirement.

Staley made the switch from tight end to offensive tackle after Kelly took over the Central Michigan program in 2004. The move worked out as Staley was drafted by the 49ers in the first round in 2007. He started 181 games and made six Pro Bowls in 13 seasons.

But Kelly and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn were initially met with skepticism by Staley’s father when they wanted him to switch positions.

“His dad was not a fan of moving him from tight end to tackle,” Kelly said. “Matter of fact, he fought it. I said, ‘You gotta trust me on this one. I know this doesn’t seem like the right move for him, but he’s going to make a lot of money in the NFL.’ To this day, Mr Staley and I, we have a pretty good relationship now.”

More former Notre Dame players will be joining linebacker Drue Tranquill on the Los Angeles Chargers after the team drafted safety Alohi Gilman and signed undrafted free agents Asmar Bilal and Donte Vaughn.
Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Polian (pictured) has known Los Angeles Chargers general manager Tom Telesco for more than 30 years.