Monday, January 19, 2009

Change Partners

The gears have been turning for several weeks on the Notre Dame coaching front, prodded by both factors real and imagined. Example of the real: facing the dismal reality of a 10-15 record the past two years. Example of the imagined:
By the way, one of my Bucs peeps tells me that the word around the Bucs is that Gruden could be going to Notre Dame to replace Charlie Weis. Sounds a little farfetched, but as the theory goes: The school will buy out Weis as soon as he signs his recruiting class, in two or three weeks, and hire Gruden. Heard from someone close to the Notre Dame program that there's a weird vibe around the football offices. Hmmm.
This Jon Gruden thing needs to be put to rest. It's like the ghost of Hamlet's father, appearing out of the mist in the woods every couple of years just to prove he's still there, whether you like it or not. And could the NY Daily News possibly expand on the idea of what constitutes a "weird vibe"? Of course not, because then they'd actually have to back up the assertion with something resembling the facts. It's not to say that Charlie Weis is above scrutiny, or that Gruden shouldn't be considered if/when the time comes to find a new head football coach at Notre Dame, but these wild conspiracy theories about how his hiring under the Dome is imminent have somehow not managed to die in the last eight years. It boggles the mind.

In the last 10 days though, wrapping around the annual convention of college football coaches in Nashville, there were a couple of seismic shifts on the Notre Dame staff:

John Latina resigned/terminated, Frank Verducci hired as his replacement

As was the case with Jappy Oliver, the official word on Notre Dame's embattled offensive line coach was that he "resigned to pursue other opportunities". Face-saving tactics aside, the writing was on the wall regarding why a change was taking place, and nobody seemed to know it more than Latina:
Latina said in a phone interview Wednesday night the decision to leave Notre Dame was a mutual one.

"It's a mutual thing. It is what it is, right," Latina said. "This is what is going on. I enjoyed my four years here, learned a lot being here and loved it. Notre Dame is an awesome place.

"Right now, coach is going to go in a different direction and it's as simple as that."

Latina said, though, the decision to leave South Bend was not a surprise to him. Notre Dame struggled on the offensive line the past two seasons. In 2007, the Irish allowed a then-NCAA record 58 sacks and gained 75.2 yards on the ground a game. The Irish improved statistically in 2008 -- allowing [22] sacks and gaining 109.69 yards a game on the ground -- but were still far away from an elite unit.

"I've been in it 30 years," Latina said. "Any time things don't go as well as you want it, no matter where you are, those things can happen. It's the nature of the game and a business.

"I've enjoyed my four years here, loved it here and it was great for me. Now, it's time to look for another thing."

The Irish quickly did an about-face and introduced Latina's replacement, another coaching veteran in Frank Verducci. Most recently of the NFL's Cleveland Browns, Verducci has floated around the pro ranks since 1999, from Cincinnati to Dallas to Buffalo before spending the past two years under Romeo Crennel. Prior to that he's spent 18 years in college, the majority of it in the Big Ten at Iowa and Northwestern. Verducci's title in the Dawg Pound was "Offensive Assistant Coach", which according to ND's press release entails "assisting the offensive coordinator in framing the run game, presenting the weekly opponent scouting report to the offense and installing Friday's game plan to the offensive unit. Verducci assisted the play caller on game day's with situational offense and was responsible for clock management."

Taking it at face value, the Verducci hire is once again a dip into the familiar for Weis, as he has a lot of acumen with the zone blocking schemes Weis prefers. Verducci also would seem like a person comfortable in the nominal "offensive coordinator" role that Mike Haywood sometimes awkwardly handled during his time in South Bend. There hasn't been a lot of rumbling about a potential OC hire, which leads me to think that Weis might simply be dropping the charade and taking full charge of the offense without a go-between. There could still be some movement in that category though, so let's call it 'unsettled'. For now, Verducci assumes stewardship of a line that ought to be sky-high on potential (with certified blue-chip prospects such as Sam Young, Dan Wegner, Chris Stewart, Eric Olson, & Trevor Robinson plus open competition at the left tackle spot) yet has come up woefully short on results each of the past two seasons.

Tony Alford named Running Backs Coach

Just hours ago another coaching press release went out, announcing the hire of 40-year old Tony Alford from Louisville to take Haywood's other position as running backs coach - again, notably, only as running backs coach. Alford was an All-WAC running back at Colorado State during the late 1980s before beginning his coaching career at Division III powerhouse Mount Union, quickly moving up to Kent State and then Iowa State, where he spent most of his career (1997-2006, with a brief one season stop at Washington in 2001).

If nothing else, coming from Louisville gives Alford plenty of experience in shaping a running attack that comes secondary behind throwing the ball. In 2008 he coached redshirt freshman Victor Anderson to a 1,000 yard season and helped UL average 164.5 yards/game on the ground (it was 137.5 per game in '07), and during his first four years at Iowa State he oversaw a rushing attack that rose from 103rd to 17th nationally. Additionally, he has experience with the type of national recruitment one expects at Notre Dame, having worked California, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Texas along with Iowa and Michigan.

So now the work begins for Verducci and Alford as the new partnership for the Irish offense under the grand architect (and yes, even if Weis does bring in an offensive coordinator, there's no ambiguity about who the architect of the offense is going to be).

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