Special teams improvement a necessity for Notre Dame in 2017

Special teams improvement a necessity for Notre Dame in 2017

How does a team that does so many things right — enough to be ranked in the S&P+ top 25 — wind up going 4-8?

There are plenty of over-arching reasons why Notre Dame plummeted to its worst season since 2007 this fall, be it strange coaching decisions or poor late-game execution. But special teams gaffes were at the forefront of Notre Dame’s issues, too. 

So this week, Notre Dame fired special teams and tight ends coach Scott Booker, as first reported by Irish Illustrated and according to multiple reports. The move was necessary given those special teams struggles, even if it does remove an ace recruiter from Brian Kelly’s coaching staff. 

Since being elevated from an intern to a full-time coaching staff member in 2012, Booker recruited a number of blue-chip high schoolers to South Bend. Among them: Defensive end Isaac Rochell, tight end Alize Jones, wide receivers C.J. Sanders and Kevin Stepherson and safety Jalen Elliott. Notre Dame’s two four-star tight ends in its 2017 recruiting class both were recruited by Booker, too, in Cole Kmet (Arlington Heights, Ill.) and Brock Wright (Cypress, Texas), though both are expected to stay with their commitments to Notre Dame. 

But the special teams issues, combined with Notre Dame’s tight ends only having 33 catches over the last two seasons — which lost the school its self-described “Tight End U” moniker — negated whatever recruiting advantages Booker brought to the table. 

Notre Dame ranked 79th in special teams S&P+, and opponents had an average starting field position of the 28.7-yard line, 53rd in FBS. Outside of Sanders’ pair of kickoff returns for touchdowns and Jarron Jones’ pair of blocked extra points, there wasn’t much that went right for this unit. Duke, N.C. State, Miami and USC all scored touchdowns against Booker’s special teams unit, with a blocked Tyler Newsome punt being the deciding score in Hurricane Matthew’s wrath in Raleigh. A muffed punt against Michigan State sparked the Spartans’ 36-point surge, and a too many men on the field penalty against Navy eliminated any shot of the Irish gaining momentum in that one-point loss (while a flag shouldn’t have been thrown, that Devin Studstill was that close to getting off the field in time was a problem). 

Kelly said after Notre Dame’s season-ending loss to USC that he would search for the right blend of continuity and change with his coaching staff, allowing that “everything’s on the table.” Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford is reportedly bound for Western Kentucky, while Kelly reportedly will interview an outside candidate in Wake Forest’s Mike Elko for the open defensive coordinator position this week, too. And with Booker on his way out, that right blend may lean more toward change than continuity. 

Notre Dame announces new WR, strength coaches

Notre Dame announces new WR, strength coaches

Notre Dame on Thursday announced the formal hiring of two new assistant coaches, one of which featured a somewhat surprising postscript. 

The program's new wide receivers coach will be DelVaughn Alexander, who joins the Irish from Arizona State. Alexander coached tight ends for the Sun Devils in 2016 and spent 2012-2015 as ASU's wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator.

Prior to his stint in Tempe, Washington was Wisconsin's receivers coach from 2007-2011 and also spent time at UNLV, Oregon State and San Diego State. 

"I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country,” Alexander said. “Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” coach Brian Kelly said “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

In addition to Washington, Notre Dame announced the hiring of Matt Balis as strength and conditioning coach, with Balis replacing longtime Brian Kelly lieutenant Paul Longo in that position. Longo has "taken a leave of absence" from the Irish, according to the program's press release. 

Balis has served in strength coach roles at Houston (2001-2002), Utah (2004), (Florida 2005-2006), Virginia (2007-2008), Mississippi State (2009-2013) and UConn (2014-2016). At UConn, Balis worked under former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco; while at Utah and Florida, Balis worked with current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. 

Whatever changes Balis brings to Notre Dame strength and conditioning will be necessary, as the Irish frequently ran out of gas late in games in 2016. By S&P+, Notre Dame had the second-best first quarter offense in college football last year, but ranked 90th in the fourth quarter. Similarly, Notre Dame's defense had its lowest ranking (61st) in the fourth quarter. 

Granted, some of those struggles were due to poor playcalling and gameplanning, but far too often did Notre Dame's players hit a metaphorical brick wall in the final 15 minutes. Perhaps an infusion of new energy into the weight room will help reverse that trend. 

"It's an honor and dream come true to be part of the Notre Dame football program," Balis said. "I'm humbled by this opportunity and I'll work hard everyday to give our players and program my absolute best."

"Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh," Kelly said. "He's already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn't be more excited to have him in place moving forward."

Notre Dame officially hires Clark Lea as linebackers coach

Notre Dame officially hires Clark Lea as linebackers coach

Mike Elko's first coaching staff as Notre Dame defensive coordinator is beginning to take shape, with the Irish announcing Thursday the hiring of Clark Lea as linebackers coach. 

Lea spent 2016 as Wake Forest's linebackers coach -- under Elko -- and previously held positions on coaching staffs at Bowling Green, Syracuse and UCLA. 

"Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system -- having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

In 2016, Lea coached Demon Deacons linebacker Marquel Lee, who was the only FBS player with 100 or more tackles, 20 or more tackles for a loss and 7 1/2 or more sacks last fall. Nationally, Lee ranked 62nd in tackles (105), 10th in tackles for a loss (20) and 53rd in sacks (7 1/2).

Lea also worked with former All-American linebacker Akeem Ayers at UCLA. 

The Nashville native and Vanderbilt alum (he earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees in political science) was also nominated by FootballScoop for its linebackers coach of the year award in 2012 while working with Elko at Bowling Green. 

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”