'You can't be mad' at Notre Dame coaching staff after busy offseason of stay-or-go

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — The way Gi’Bran Payne remembers it, he and his fellow Notre Dame running backs gathered in stunned silence.

This was back in early March, around the time Brian Mason went home to coach special teams for the Indianapolis Colts. Now, it was Deland McCullough’s turn to weigh his professional options just weeks before the start of his second spring practice at Notre Dame.

Already a respected entity in the NFL from his three years (2018-20) on Andy Reid’s staff with the Kansas City Chiefs, McCullough had landed squarely on Sean McVay’s radar with the Los Angeles Rams. Word had yet to leak out when the 50-year-old McCullough stepped before his latest group of fast-improving young talents.

“He came to us before everything,” said Payne, a redshirt freshman who originally signed with Indiana largely because of McCullough. “He wanted us to hear it from him before anybody else.”

Hear what, though?

“He brought it to us,” Payne said. “We weren’t aware at all. He just brought it to us all the same day.”

Quizzical looks filled the room. So did a sense of dread.

“When he told us, we were just staring; like, waiting,” Payne said. “What is he going to say next? Is he leaving, is he staying?”

McCullough, voted the NFL’s top running backs coach at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine, already knew the LA area from the year he spent at USC in 2017 as its run-game coordinator.

Having already sent three sons into college football — Deland II, who medically retired last summer after playing at Indiana; Dasan, who transferred this offseason from Indiana to Oklahoma; and Daeh, who signed at Oklahoma in December after one season at South Bend St. Joseph High School — McCullough knew first-hand the importance of direct communication.

Notre Dame running back Gi'Bran Payne (13) during Notre Dame Spring Practice on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

“He just let us know his decision, and we respected that, and I respected him for that,” Payne said. “I really appreciated that. That was huge for me and for the room.”

McCullough, since given the additional title of run-game coordinator, ultimately had good news for his latest group of mentees. The Rams would later hire Ron Gould, the longtime Cal and Stanford assistant.  

“When (McCullough) said he was staying, we were happy for that,” Payne said. “We had our little moment.”

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'You can't be mad'

In the seven weeks leading up to the second spring practice of the Marcus Freeman Era, Notre Dame football had more than its share of private little moments.

The toughest of those included surprise departures for:

∎ Defensive graduate assistant James Laurinaitis, now back at the same Ohio State program where he and Freeman played linebacker in the mid-2000s;

∎ Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, whose whirlwind courtship by Alabama and seven-time national champion Nick Saban led to a three-year, $6 million contract;

∎ Offensive line guru

whose re-retirement at age 64 was announced an hour before Super Bowl kickoff; and

∎ Mason, a Zionsville native whose creative scheming led to seven blocked punts last season, a modern program record.

“That guy is a heck of a coach,” former Notre Dame kicker Blake Grupe said of Mason. “It doesn’t surprise me one bit that he got an opportunity to go to the next level. You can’t be mad at him. You’ve got to let him go out there and do it.

“It’s pretty cool that he gets to do it at Indianapolis; that’s a special place to him. I’m happy for him. It sucks that he’s leaving, because we know how good he is, but I’m happy for him.”

Yet there also were potential departures that Notre Dame narrowly dodged. In addition to McCullough, the NFL turned its covetous gaze toward safeties coach Chris O’Leary and wide receivers coach Chansi Stuckey, both of whom reportedly interviewed with the Baltimore Ravens.

Notre Dame defensive backs coach Chris O'Leary  during Notre Dame Fall Practice on Friday, August 12, 2022, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

“We had a meeting; I think it was before practice,” senior safety Ramon Henderson said. “At the end, (O’Leary) spoke on it for about 15-20 minutes just telling us the circumstances, what was the situation going on. He addressed us. That's respectful.”

O’Leary, the youngest current Notre Dame assistant at age 31, is a former Indiana State wideout who worked his way up the ladder at Notre Dame, including two years as an analyst (2018-19) and another as a grad assistant coaching rovers (2020).

“Certain people that I've heard in the past don't really address their position group,” Henderson said. “But he came in a respectful way and told us what was going on. He told us exactly what he was doing. He told us what he assumed or what he expected out of that situation as well.”

Fellow safety Xavier Watts, a converted wide receiver who briefly pulled double duty with Stuckey’s group last August, echoed Henderson’s point.

“He does a very good job of communicating with us,” Watts said of O’Leary. “He doesn't just leave us in the dust. He told us he was going to go interview for a job, so we didn't find out from social media or whatever and were startled by what he said. He just kept good communication with us and let us in the loop.”

That connection only heightened the sense of relief for Notre Dame’s safeties when O’Leary wound up staying put.

“Obviously, people are going to move on,” Watts said. “People are always going to do what's best for their situation. So, it's not necessarily like the saddest thing in the world if people leave, because obviously they want to do what's best for them.

“We’re relieved that he came back because he’s a great coach and he has a great relationship with all the players. I was really relieved.”

So was Brandon Joseph, the Northwestern transfer who burnished his NFL draft profile while playing safety last season at Notre Dame.

“There’s a reason CO’s getting that attention,” Joseph said. “He’s one of the best in the business. For him to still be here, it’s huge, man.”

Added Henderson: “It's good that we still have him here. He's a good coach. He's a smart guy. I think he's like dang-near calling or making up half of our plays. It's cool that he's still here. Another year in, it’s been 2 1/2 years with him. That just (builds) up the bond even more.”

Transparency builds trust

Asked about the emotional rollercoaster of being in play for an NFL job at the same time Notre Dame keeps churning out pro-level safeties, O’Leary was transparent as ever.

“There was really nothing in my mind that would take me away from here, especially this season,” he said. “You talk about an opportunity this year to push for a national title; it doesn’t get any better than this. There wasn’t a time all offseason that I was looking for anything.”

And then the Ravens, with former Irish All-American Kyle Hamilton fresh off an all-rookie selection, came calling.

“I had an opportunity present itself and I looked into it,” O’Leary said. “It’s just not the right time. I told the guys before I even explored it that there’s nowhere else I’d rather be: ‘I have to look into it, but I love the room and I love coaching here right now.’ ”

From Oklahoma State grad transfer Thomas Harper all the way through early-enrolled freshmen Adon Shuler and Ben Minich, O’Leary’s safety group never took offense at his Ravens flirtation.

“It’s one of those things where they get it,” O’Leary said. “They’re excited. They’re like, ‘That’s awesome, why would you ever not take it if you got it?’ It’s just one of those things where anytime something like that happens, we try to be up front about it.

“Whether we’re taking a transfer or a job, I’m always going to tell those guys before anybody else. It builds trust with them, and that’s the point.”

On March 7, the Ravens hired former Eagles assistant Dennard Wilson, a 12-year NFL coaching veteran, as their defensive backs coach. Hamilton, who started the last five games for a Ravens team that lost a wild-card heartbreaker at Cincinnati, is still getting a chance to talk football with O’Leary this offseason.

“He still comes in my office about every day right now,” O’Leary said. “He contributes. We took a couple things from watching the Ravens film. We got a couple tidbits there.”

Hamilton, back on campus as he works toward completion of his bachelor’s degree, is a valuable resource for O’Leary’s current safeties.

“He’s in probably two meetings a week with us,” O’Leary said. “He’ll chime in watching the film and then he’ll be out here in practice giving pointers. I always make the young guys go with him on the sideline and get some extra pointers.”

'Huge save'

Stuckey and his blossoming group of wide receivers aren’t due to conduct media interviews until the final week of spring practice.

At Notre Dame’s Pro Day, however, two-time former Irish captain Avery Davis conveyed the significance of Stuckey’s retention.

“I think it’s a huge save,” said Davis, who continued to assist Stuckey last fall after suffering a second torn ACL in a span of nine months. “The guys in the room love him. They love what he brings to the room: his ability to coach, his ability to lead. I think it was a big save for us. I’m glad he didn’t go.”

Notre Dame wide receivers coach Chansi Stuckey during Notre Dame Spring Practice on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

While the Ravens ended up hiring former NFL wideout and nine-year NFL assistant Greg Lewis, who coincidentally worked with McCullough on the Chiefs’ staff for three seasons, Stuckey gets to keep mentoring Notre Dame’s most talented corps of young receivers in recent memory.   

“I definitely think he’s the right (voice),” Davis said. “He brings a more youthful energy and his knowledge of the game, not only the X’s and O’s but the ins and outs — how to beat the press, how to beat the certain look. He can tell you what to do and how to do it as well. I think the guys are in good hands.”

When it was jokingly suggested to Freeman last month that he might want to hide away his assistants from NFL visitors on Pro Day, Notre Dame’s self-styled “lead recruiter” smiled. Some of his finest salesmanship since the Gator Bowl, as it turned out, may have been aimed at convincing his personally assembled coaching staff to keep the momentum rolling.

“We had 10 (full-time assistant) coaches last year,” Freeman said as spring practice opened. “All 10 were either approached by other schools to try to go or had NFL interviews. Every single one, all right? Every single one.

“And I don’t want to get into a personal discussion about it, but it shows you, one, the quality of coaches that we’ve been very fortunate to hire here. But, too, it’s to me the perception of this place.”

Joseph, who has been asked about Notre Dame’s coaching staff at various times in his pre-draft discussions with NFL teams, understands the professional curiosity.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Joseph said. “It just shows you what we’re doing over here at Notre Dame, the program Freeman wants to run and the expectations that we have around here. It’s a standard of excellence. By no means does that surprise me.”

To illustrate his point, Freeman shared part of a recent conversation he had with a high-ranking NFL official.

“I had a great opportunity to meet with the chief of staff of the (New England) Patriots,” Freeman said. “What he told me was the perception of Notre Dame coaches (and) players is really high standards, high performance. What does that mean?

“You know what you’re getting when you get a coach from Notre Dame, a player from Notre Dame. You know exactly what you’re getting. To me it’s a compliment to this place, our personnel, our coaches, our players. You don’t love losing really good coaches, but if it’s what’s best for them, I’m always going to support it.”

As it turned out, Mason didn’t represent the Colts at Notre Dame’s Pro Day, but that wasn’t because the situation would have been awkward for a coach who Freeman worked with at four different stops, going back to 2012 at Kent State.

“I’m excited for him,” Freeman said. “Ultimately you always want what’s best for your staff. The same with your players. Some guys have aspirations of being NFL coaches or being (college) head coaches. All I try to be is an asset for them and say, ‘OK, is this opportunity going to help you reach your ultimate goals?’ “

Whether his coaches stay or leave, Freeman knows it’s those 'little moments' that tend to shape the bigger ones down the road.   

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.