Blood-boiling yells have given way to icy cold stares for Notre Dame’s defense in the month of December. The Irish players say their energy hasn’t disappeared with the absence of former coordinator Bob Diaco, it’s just different now.
Cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks took over the vacant defensive coordinator’s chair when Diaco left for the head coaching position at UConn earlier this month. Diaco took with him a reputation for his overflowing “energy bucket” and a militant attention to detail. Part of Diaco’s parting advice to Cooks was to be true to his own personality in the new job — advice, players say, that he has taken to heart.
“I’d say he adds a little bit more swag, if I can say that in a professional way,” senior cornerback Bennett Jackson said. “I would say it is definitely a little bit looser. Coach Diaco is a very intense man. A lot of the guys, I wouldn’t say fear him, but definitely if he wants you to run off the field, they’re going to run off the field.”
Jackson said his teammates may have been a little less afraid to drop to a slow jog for that last step or two on their way to the sideline in practice. Playing with a little less rigidity under Cooks has given the team a different attitude during the past couple weeks, he said.
Fifth-year linebacker Dan Fox noticed the difference in how each coach dealt with mistakes. After a mental slip in practice, there was no one jumping and screaming to point out the mistakes, just a guilt-producing glare that fits well with the confident “swag” personality of Cooks.
“You just feel him peering at you,” Fox said. “You make a mistake and he’ll just come up and say, ‘Why’d you do that?’ And while you’re explaining it you’re like, ‘Wow, that was stupid.’ You kind of taught yourself about a certain mistake. You fix your mistakes on your own.”
Cooks has coached both linebackers and the secondary since arriving at Notre Dame in 2010. He was promoted to co-defensive coordinator after the 2011 season at the same time that Diaco was promoted to associate head coach. Head coach Brian Kelly said Diaco’s new title was designed to help groom him for an eventual head job. Cooks didn’t see his role as co-defensive coordinator as an obvious stepping stone to take over when Diaco left.
Kelly did not say yet if he plans to hire from within his staff or bring in a new coordinator. He won’t make a new hire until the weeks after Saturday’s bowl game in New York City. Cooks has tried to keep that pending decision out of his mind in the past couple weeks.
“People have asked if you’re looking at this as an audition. I look at this as an opportunity to have 15 more practices with our guys, to send the seniors out the right way with a win in this bowl,” he said. “Any of that other stuff about grooming and the expectation of will I remain in this role, will I not remain in this role is not even on my mind.”
Cooks, like Diaco, played under Hayden Fry at Iowa and was an All-Big Ten pick as a senior. He said he’s never had any problem delivering energy like his predecessor. He just prefers a different approach.
“It’s not a tight environment,” he said. “I want the kids to be able to express themselves in the ways that are in line with what we want, but there’s a little bit more of relaxation allowing those guys to be themselves and not putting them in such tight quarters. That’s a little bit of a change.”
On Saturday, Cooks said there will be no dramatic personality changes in the Irish defense itself. There may be a few new twists, he said, but that’s more a function of having a month to address issues on film and game plan for Rutgers than it is a result of having a new man calling the shots.