Notebook: How the search for Notre Dame's next defensive coordinator is developing
A day before facing the biggest challenge a Notre Dame defense has encountered during Brian Kelly’s 141 games as Irish head football coach, Kelly on Thursday provided a glimpse into what turning the page might look like.
The No. 4 Irish (10-1) are tasked with dealing with the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense (49.7 ppg) when they face No. 1 Alabama (11-0) in the College Football Playoff semifinals, Friday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The winner meets Friday night’s Clemson-Ohio State survivor for the national championship, Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Outgoing third-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea said he is committed 100 percent to that role before heading off to be the head coach at Vanderbilt when ND’s 2020 season comes to an end.
That’s also when the search for Lea’s successor takes on a sense of urgency.
“We'll get moving on it pretty quickly,” Kelly said Thursday during a Zoom conference with the media. “Obviously there's some competitiveness involved in this. There are other openings for coordinators positions, so we can't be sitting on our hands as we look around the country or even internally.
“We have to be able to look at this from a perspective of there's candidates out there that are being looked at by other schools as well. I've got to have that in mind. So relative to the process, we've got to be on top of it.”
Continuity from a schematic standpoint is a high priority, but with some wiggle room as to just what that means.
Notre Dame would not be looking to hire a defensive coordinator who runs a base 3-4 front, but someone who mixes three-down and four-down fronts could be a match. Notre Dame has run a 4-2-5 the last four years, first under Mike Elko and the last three seasons under Lea.
“As long as the system can marry with our recruiting, that's the most important thing,” Kelly said. “As long as it marries with the recruiting we've been doing over the last three and four years, I'm open to what the system looks like.”
At No. 14 in scoring defense nationally (18.6 ppg) heading into the CFP Semifinal/Rose Bowl, Notre Dame has a chance to finish in the top 20 in that statistical category in all three of Lea’s seasons as Irish defensive coordinator. He was promoted from linebacker coach after the 2017 season with no formal coordinator experience.
The last time the Irish strung together three straight seasons of top 20 scoring defenses was the 1973 national champs under coach Ara Parseghian, and the two seasons that followed.
“As you know, a lot will begin in its beginning stages through Zoom and Facetime because of where we are with the pandemic,” Kelly said of the interview process for Lea’s successor. “And then you're probably closing after that by bringing somebody on campus.
“So that, in fact, has changed a little bit. We've already begun putting those kinds of protocols together for the interviewing process.”
The dreaded gametime decision
Kelly was a little less forthcoming about who Notre Dame’s starting center will be on Friday.
After saying in Monday morning’s Zoom that a decision between senior Josh Lugg and sophomore Zeke Correll would come after Monday’s practice, Kelly walked that back Thursday after being asked what the decision actually turned out to be.
“Yeah, I think both centers are prepared and ready to play,” Kelly said. “I think that will be a game-time decision. I think (offensive line) coach (Jeff) Quinn and I and (offensive coordinator Tommy) Rees have talked at great length about both of them.
“They're both extremely capable of playing at the position. And both could actually play for us.”
Junior Jarrett Patterson started ND’s first eight games this season before suffering a season-ending foot injury Nov. 14 against Boston College. Correll started the next game, Nov. 27 against North Carolina, but suffered an ankle sprain.
Lugg, more experienced as a guard and tackle, has started at center ND’s last two games.
When sophomore Kyren Williams was named to The Sporting News’ All-America second team earlier this week, it ended the longest active positional All-American drought at Notre Dame.
The school’s all-time leading rusher, Autry Denson, was the last Irish running back to be so honored — a second-teamer on the 1998 Associated Press team, two years before Williams was born.
Williams is already on the NFL radar, even though he has conceivably four years of college eligibility left (extended by the COVID rule) and another season to go until he’s draft-eligible.
“He, to me, is the guy,” draft analyst Todd McShay said on this week’s Pod of Gold podcast. “He is what makes the offense go.
“There’s obviously a lot of solid, good offensive linemen in this group. You’ve got grad transfers. You’ve got seniors all over the place. They play so well together.”
McShay will serve as a sideline reporter Friday as part of ESPN’s coverage of Notre Dame-Alabama (4 p.m. EST).
For second-year Irish running backs coach, Lance Taylor, it’s his third pupil to reach All-America status this decade, having coached Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love during his three years at Stanford (2014-16).
“I think Lance has done a great job in building a strong relationship with Kyren and, quite frankly, all the backs,” Kelly said. “Not just Kyren, because we've seen Chris Tyree play as a true freshman. We've seen C'Bo (Flemister) really blossom in his time.
“With all the backs, and I think he does a great job preparing them.”
Taylor, incidentally, walked on as a running back at Alabama in 2000, pre-Nick Saban, and became a scholarship wide receiver there, with his position coach being Dabo Swinney.
Taylor’s father, James, played running back for legendary Crimson Tide coach Paul “Bear” Bryant in the early ‘70s, and Lance’s coaching career began with a two-year grad assistant hitch under Saban during the head coach’s first two seasons at Alabama (2007-08).
“Lance Taylor is a great coach, a fine young man,” Saban said Thursday. “Obviously was a contributor here at Alabama as a player and certainly would have loved to have him be part of our staff (beyond the grad assistant years).
“Things just didn't work out the right way at the right time for him or for us. And he's done an outstanding job with the players that he's responsible for at Notre Dame.”
More All-America love
The fourth of the big five All-America teams was unveiled Thursday, with four Irish garnering spots on the American Football Coaches Associated team.
Making the first team were linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg and offensive guard Aaron Banks. Safety Kyle Hamilton was a second-teamer.
If Owusu-Koramoah makes the Walter Camp All-America first team next Thursday, he’ll become Notre Dame’s 30th unanimous All-American and first since offensive guard Quenton Nelson in 2017.
Banks would earn consensus honors with a first-team spot on the Walter Camp team, while Eichenberg already did so by virtue of his third first-team selection, on Thursday.
Notre Dame’s lone Rivals five-star prospect in its starting lineup Friday, grad defensive end Daelin Hayes, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in game four of the 2019 season, against Virginia.
Had the injury occurred one game later, after the redshirt window closed, Hayes never would have gotten a second chance to make a strong final impression.
From the NFL perspective, McShay has Hayes as ND’s No. 3 prospect in the 2021 draft, behind only Owusu-Koramoah and fellow defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji.
“I think he’s improved his stock a ton,” McShay said. “He’s just been really consistent. You look at three sacks and only 17 tackles, but if you watch the tape, he’s consistently around the ball or in the middle of a play or disrupting a play.”
For Brian Kelly, Hayes’ impressive final act extends beyond the football field.
“Embracing a second chance in a way that he really opened himself up to being complete as a football player and as a person,” Kelly said. “He wanted to, I think, reach his potential. And I don't mean just as a football player, but as a person.
“I think he opened himself up to being vulnerable as a player and as a person, and we saw the growth of a young man in this past year that is, for me, why we get into this business. To see young men grow up the way he has and grow up to be a captain and a leader of our football team.
“And so just a great chapter, and one as a coach you live for those moments.”