Nothing pleases a coach in the early days of a new relationship with a player than to find those with an insatiable desire to learn and to achieve at a high level.
Offensive coordinator Chip Long has found that in quarterback Brandon Wimbush, running back Josh Adams and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown.
• On Wimbush: “He’s a willing learner. He’s very coachable. He does a great job of applying what we go over in the meeting room. He’s cleaned things up and has used his athleticism to help himself out. He’s doing a good job with his leadership in trying to take control.”
• On Adams: “I see a young man who is a great leader for us now and an extremely hard worker. Josh is a guy that’s setting the bar high. He wants to have his picture on these walls in here. He’s been awesome to be around.”
• On St. Brown: “I see a guy who wants to be great. He’s up here with Coach (DelVaughn) Alexander every day. Doesn’t say a word, just comes every day and works as hard as he possibly can and tries to master his craft. He expects to be a great player and wants to be a great player.”
RUNNING WITH WIMBUSH
Without the safety net of experience behind inexperienced quarterback Brandon Wimbush, the Irish will want to be judicious in how they utilize their talented red-shirt sophomore.
Wimbush doesn’t have much more playing experience than red-shirt freshman Ian Book or red-shirt junior Montgomery VanGorder. But the difference in upside is significant.
It begs the question: How much will Wimbush run the ball?
“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No. I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs.”
This is where new offensive coordinator Chip Long comes into play. His RPOs – run-pass options – will give Wimbush some protection from additional hits, particularly compared to former Irish signalcaller DeShone Kizer, who often times received a shotgun snap and simply took off.
“(Wimbush is) going to have options to hand it off and throw the ball out on the perimeter,” Kelly said. “You’ll see more than prescribed quarterback runs.”
Long is less effusive in detailing Wimbush’s plan of attack on the ground, but is confident that they’ll find ways to accentuate his athleticism.
“We want to utilize all his talents,” Long said. “That’s my job and that’s what I’m trying to figure out right now. I think he’ll be fine on the perimeter and what we ask him to do with that. There are plenty of ways.”
While Equanimeous St. Brown didn’t completely dominate the wide receiver stats on the 2016 Notre Dame team, he did have 20 more catches, 440 more yards, and three times as many touchdowns as No. 2 wideout Torii Hunter Jr.
Kelly believes the Irish are much better equipped to spread the wealth in 2017.
“EQ will be a better player,” Kelly said. “He’s diligently working on some of the weaknesses that he had, which limited him in certain areas.
“But I see better balance. We have some guys that will come up to the level he was at last year to give the quarterback and the offense a little more balance than we had last year.”
Kelly is encouraged by the performances this spring of 6-foot-4½, 224-pound sophomore Chase Claypool and 6-foot-4, 225-pound red-shirt sophomore Miles Boykin, not to mention a bevy of tight ends that have size and athleticism.
Irish tight ends caught just 12 passes in 2016.
“I think you’re going to see a better supporting cast across the board, which will give us much more balance,” Kelly said. “More importantly, it’s going to give us much more consistency from an offensive standpoint.”
There’s still room for the short/quick players like C.J. Sanders and Chris Finke, not to mention sophomore Kevin Stepherson, whose practice time has been limited this spring after finishing third on the team in ’16 with 25 receptions for 462 yards. His five touchdown receptions were second only to St. Brown.
But “the bigger the better” philosophy is working just fine this spring and could create some match-up issues in the fall.
“The offensive structure is such that we can use those guys,” said Kelly of Sanders and Finke. “They have a place, they can be effective players, and they will be used accordingly.
“But you can see where this offense clearly is going. We’ve got depth at the tight end position. We’ve got big-bodied wide receivers. We’ve got a very physical offensive line and we’re very deep at the running back position.
“You guys can figure out where that takes you.”
BODY BY BALIS
Every Irish player this spring seems to have a Matt Balis story.
Notre Dame’s new Director of Football Performance makes a lasting impression.
Mike linebacker/Irish captain Nyles Morgan recalls the first workout with Balis.
“I remember going through warm-ups for the first time and guys were dying,” said Morgan, who spoke of several players “losing their breakfast” during Balis’ workouts.
“I’m like, ‘Did we start yet?’ And (Balis) is like, ‘No, we didn’t start yet.’”
Morgan is impressed with Balis’ attention to detail, from utilizing the entire 25,000-square foot Haggar Fitness Center to tending to all aspects of physical conditioning.
“He really knows how to work body parts that you don’t use as much, different muscles,” Morgan said.
“We do neck every single day. He does not miss a day and it makes sense because it’s football and that’s an important part of the body.”
ONE MORE TIME
Defensive coordinator Mike Elko is big on doing things the right way, particularly in the early stages of a practice session as the tempo is set for the rest of the practice.
Failure to run a drill at Elko’s pace simply leads to more running.
“It comes down to an attitude, sprinting on to the field, having a desire to get out there,” said Rover/safety Drue Tranquill.
“When guys are jogging out there and thinking about saving themselves for a later period, that’s not how Coach Elko rolls. He wants to see us sprint onto the field and give it all we’ve got.”
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
When you’re the son of a long-time NFL general manager and president who was a 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, there’s much to live up to during your own life/career.
Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Polian – the son of well-decorated NFL executive Bill Polian – uses his father as an inspiration as he continues his journey as a college football coach.
“I was reading a book that said successful and happy people in life have somebody to model after, and I’ve been able to model after my father professionally and personally my entire life,” Brian Polian said.
“I’m incredibly blessed.”
Polian, 42, is in his second stint with the Irish after serving under Charlie Weis at Notre Dame from 2005-09. After stops at Stanford and Texas A&M as an assistant, Polian landed the head-coaching job at Nevada.
A four-year record of 23-27 wasn’t good enough for the brass at Nevada. But when Polian became available, Kelly – who bypassed keeping Polian upon his arrival to Notre Dame in 2010 – quickly swooped in and re-hired him.
As Polian moves through his own football career and raises a two-child family with his wife, Laura, he appreciates all that he’s learned from his father, on and off the field.
“Everything I’ve learned comes from him,” Polian said. “In my core belief of what this game is about while growing up in that house -- run, stop the run, don’t be dumb, don’t be dirty – (the lessons from) Tony Dungy, Marv Levy, the Paternoisms…all the things he was taught, I’ve been raised the same way.”
One of the greatest challenges a coach faces during his career is creating a “normal” environment for the children. It’s not easy.
“When I was here previously, it was my wife and me,” Polian said. “We welcomed Aidan my last season (at Notre Dame).
“Now I find myself doing what my dad did. Do I have to be at the office at nine at night or do I go home to see my kids before they go to bed?
“There’s a myth in pro sports and high level college sports that you can’t be a good dad and be a good husband and still win at the highest level. Look at all the guys who are divorced and have kids with issues.
“Tony Dungy, Marv Levy, my dad, all the great assistants…these guys proved you can be a great dad and husband and win at the highest level. Your golf game suffers. You don’t get on the treadmill as much as you’d like.
“But I find myself thinking about how my dad did his job, raised four kids and tried to be a great husband to my mom. I find myself at this point in my life with an eight-year-old and four-year-old trying to model that as best I can.”
Bill Polian attended Notre Dame’s recent coaches’ clinic.
“Having him here for the coaches clinic was unbelievable,” Polian said. “Watching practice film with him and coming to practice…It was great.”
Of course, the football lifer, now 74-years-old, still offered some advice.
“He came to my clinic talk,” laughed Polian, “and he had 15 things I could have done better.”
THE LONG STEP DOWN
Polian is back in the role of assistant coach after serving as a head coach for four seasons.
It’s been eye-opening for Polian, whose outgoing and forceful nature made him the right personality for a head coach. At times now, however, he has to dial it back.
“It has been an adjustment and I’m sure every guy that has been a head coach and goes back to being an assistant coach goes through it,” Polian said.
Polian finds himself bending Brian Kelly’s ear at times to disseminate as much information as possible.
“I knock on his door twice during the day to make sure I’m on the same page,” Polian said. “I’m over-communicating with him and that’s probably annoying him a little, but I want to be right because it’s my job to give him exactly what he wants.”
Make no mistake, there are benefits to not being the man in charge.
“A lot of it has been refreshing,” Polian said. “When a guy misses a class and you’re the head coach, that comes to your desk. You’re in charge of 105. Now I’ve got the six specialists… and they don’t miss class.”
Polian said his duties as a head coach at Nevada included the “rubber chicken circuit” in an attempt to raise money for the Wolf Pack program.
“I should have been an honorary Rotarian for all the lunches I spoke at,” Polian laughed. “Being able to focus on just coaching football and the nuts and bolts of football has been a relief. It’s been fun. (But) it’s been an adjustment and probably will be for a while.”
There is a level of joy just getting back into the daily grind of an assistant.
“Focusing on my regional recruits as opposed to the entire class, I’ve enjoyed being back on the daily trail,” Polian said.