Blue and Gold Illustrated

BGI April 2019

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 6 of 55 APRIL 2019 7 UNDER THE DOME Matt Balis' Game-Changing Hire Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly made a number of changes following the 2016 season, but perhaps the most important — and often overlooked — was his decision to hire Matt Balis to run the strength program. Balis received immediate buy-in from the players the moment he was hired. The Twitter hashtag #BalisBuilt quickly became popular with the players, and the dramatically restructured strength pro- gram and the new coordinators helped the Irish go from 4-8 in 2016 to 10-3 in 2017. Notre Dame turned the corner even more in 2018, finishing the regular season undefeated and earn- ing the program's first berth to the College Football Playoff, which was in its fifth season. Exorcising the program's November demons was crucial to the CFP run. Notre Dame went undefeated in the final month of the regular season for the first time since 2012, and the benefits of the Balis strength program were evident. Notre Dame was able to stay relatively healthy down the stretch, and it overcome the one injury it had — to quarterback Ian Book — with a dominating 365-yard rushing performance during the 42-13 rout of Florida State. Notre Dame outscored its four November opponents by an average score of 33.2 to 13.5 and yielded only 312.0 yards per game on defense. Despite a long season with extensive travel coast to coast, the Irish players were able to stay strong and finish the home stretch off in impressive fashion. The success at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine was the ideal complement in regards to showing just how important the Balis hire was to Notre Dame. All players preparing for the combine work with private trainers in the months leading up to the draft, but it's no coincidence that Notre Dame's players — across the board — had such dominant perfor- mances at the event. All six of Notre Dame's combine participants finished in the top three in at least one testing category, and five of those six players finished in the top five in at least three different tests. No other school had as much group success at the 2019 combine as Notre Dame. The foundation the players had coming out of the Balis strength program put them each in position to put up such an outstanding performance. Balis showed right away that Kelly made the right choice bringing him in, but the last four months demonstrated just how successful that decision was for the present and future of the program. — Bryan Driskell only to 2000 (even though the event began in 1982). The eight combine invitees were tied for the fourth most in school his- tory, and the 19 top-five finishes were the second most, behind only the 2002 combine class that included defen- sive end Anthony Weaver, linebackers Rocky Boiman and Tyreo Harrison, wide receivers David Givens and Ja- vin Hunter, running back Tony Fisher, defensive end Grant Irons, tight end John Owens, safety Ron Israel and of- fensive lineman Kurt Vollers. Most of the success from the 2002 group were in the jumps, with seven of the top-five results coming from the vertical jump and seven from the broad jump. Notre Dame's former players had just seven top-five fin- ishes in the 40-yard dash, three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle combined. None came from the bench press. Notre Dame's 2019 group was far more balanced and it had more suc- cess in the movement tests (40-yard, three-cone and 20-yard shuttle) than the jumps. Eight of the 19 top-five finishes were in the jumps and two came from the bench, while the for- mer Irish standouts had four top-five showings in the three-cone drill, four in the 20-yard shuttle and one in the 40-yard dash. In 2002, all 10 of the invited players competed in the testing, so they had 60 total drills to select. Just six of Notre Dame's eight invited players in 2019 elected to work out, so the 19 top-five finishes came from only 36 total drills. Both the 2002 and 2019 groups had 13 top-three efforts — but 2019 had six No. 1 finishes while 2002 had three. This year's six wins were the most since the 2000 combine. Former Notre Dame players earned the top result in four tests in 2001 and four more in 2009. There were two top finishes in the 2007 class, six seasons when former Irish players had just one top-10 showing, and nine years when there were no No. 1 efforts. Expect head coach Brian Kelly and his coaching staff to use the team's combine numbers and anticipated success in the upcoming NFL Draft as more fuel to the recruiting fire. The timing was perfect for the staff, which followed up an outstanding 12-1 season and a trip to the College Football Playoff with this elite com- bine success. ✦ Balis' strength program played a huge role in Notre Dame posting its first undefeated November since 2012, and he helped Irish players excel at the NFL Combine after the season. PHOTO BY ANGELA DRISKELL

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