A slightly new vibe settled into defensive meeting rooms during the first few days of spring practice last month. There was no baritone chatter from Kapron Lewis-Moore. Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta weren’t at the chalkboards teaching their younger counterparts in the secondary. There was a very conspicuous No. 5 jersey missing from the defense’s side of the locker room.
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco earns respect from his unit by being interactive on the field.
But as much as this spring was a search for new leaders to establish themselves on that side of the ball, the Irish defense charged through the spring with a business-as-usual demeanor thanks to the return of their most essential tone setter — coordinator Bob Diaco.
Diaco stuck a few toes in head-coaching waters during the winter when his name was tossed around for the Boston College and Cal vacancies. He entertained the idea, but is back at Notre Dame for at least one more year to try to match the unexpected success his unit had on the field a season ago.
He was his usual self during the 15 practices in March and April, distributing technical minutiae and flying chest-bumps to his players in equal measure. The associate head coach’s always-spilling “energy bucket” and the trust he has built with his defense delivered a sense of normalcy and allowed the group to clear its throat while finding a new voice.
“Coach Diaco is just an awesome individual,” senior cornerback Bennett Jackson said. “Unique is probably a perfect word to describe him. He’s the same person every day no matter what’s going on in his life.”
Jackson, expected to be one of the new faces out front in 2013, watched most of spring practice from the sideline. He, fifth-year senior linebacker Dan Fox and sophomore safety Nicky Baratti were all inactive due to shoulder repair surgeries in January. Other defensive mainstays such as junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt, senior linebacker Danny Spond and senior cornerback Lo Wood also missed chunks of time on the field with varying ailments. That opened the door for a new wave of defenders to prove themselves as potential impact players in the future and to get their first full Diaco experience.
“I love the players. I did it myself, so I know what it feels like,” said Diaco, a former linebacker at Iowa, when asked to describe his coaching style. “… I’m here to serve the players for Notre Dame. That’s what I enjoy doing. When your compass is that compass, then a lot of decisions become easy.”
Diaco said he relies on his players believing he always has their best interest in mind. That’s a trust he largely earned last year while piecing together a group that allowed the fewest points in Division I football during the regular season. Getting 18-year-olds to buy into that notion can be tricky — “an art form,” says Diaco — but he counts on his upperclassmen to point their teammates in the right direction when problems arise.
“There will be disagreements like there are in any family and typically its somebody else in the family that gets the other person on track,” Diaco said. “I know when my father said things to me that I either disagreed with or I thought were unpleasant or unrealistic expectations, it was my [older] brother, Franky, that made me see the light.”
The Irish veterans say that Diaco’s willingness to be one of the guys goes a long way in building leaders and getting all of his players to fall in line.
“He’s intense, man,” senior linebacker Prince Shembo said. “To have a good time with the kids, you gotta be a kid yourself. That’s how he is with us. He’s like a young adult; he runs around with us. That’s what makes him great. He’s interactive.”