As much as Aaron Lynch has learned to take coaching this season, so too it appears, Notre Dame’s staff has learned how to give it.
When the prep All-American arrived in South Bend last January he required a full semester to master attending meetings. Whispers about his coach-ability floated around the Guglielmino Center.
Lynch was able to do as he pleased during a high school career in Cape Coral, Fla., good enough to warrant the recruiting drama endured by Notre Dame and Florida State a year ago. He wasn’t good enough to keep that up in South Bend.
“Some people say he doesn’t listen. No, he heard you the first time,” said Ethan Johnson. “So that’s his personality and that’s not something to be nitpicked at. That’s just composure that he’s had to learn, that when you are that … awesome player in high school, you come to college and you have your faults picked at. It’s tough. It’s tough. It’s always tough for everybody.”
When the Irish and Seminoles meet in the Champs Sports Bowl next week it figures to showcase the new Lynch and bits of the old one, who lit up the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in January when he took the field with a Tomahawk Chop and perfected sack dances all afternoon.
Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco have embraced Lynch’s personality in the past year even if they haven’t offered it unconditional love. They’ve attempted to set expectations but not downplay them, working to keep Lynch’s season in context while not selling it short. They’ve talked about the freshman’s maturity, even if he hasn’t talked to reporters since predicting double-digit sacks before the Pittsburgh game.
Whatever style comes with Lynch’s game, his substance has been undeniable. He earned some freshman All-American honors while starting five games, playing through an ankle sprain and posting 28 tackles, four sacks and 13 quarterback hurries.
The rest of Notre Dame front seven totaled 25.
“You have to have the kind of attitude where you can talk to your players and listen and take coaching. At first he struggled with that,” said Darius Fleming. “He’s grown so much. You can just tell by the way he’s playing and every day at practice by the way he’s responding to coaches critiquing him and everything.”
Diaco didn’t deny Lynch has become more coachable in the past 12 months but wouldn’t get into specifics why. He said some players don’t take coaching because they’re too self-assured they’re right. He said others feel like they have a reputation to protect and coaching corrections threaten that persona.
“He’s come so far in his reaction to coaching,” Diaco said. “It’s not abnormal. It’s not anything unique to him. I’d say what’s unique to him is how quickly he’s really matured in that role. I’ve been really pleased with his growth.”
What Notre Dame doesn’t want to coach out of Lynch is the aggression that led to a few personal foul penalties. While the freshman could use some self-editing after the whistle, Diaco would probably rather see Lynch step over that line than never approach it at all.
“We don’t want that go away completely,” he said. “We just don’t want it to move the ball closer to their goal line.”
Florida State could be Lynch’s biggest composure test considering he wrestled with being pulled to South Bend and Tallahassee almost all last year. Lynch committed to the Irish in late July, flipped to the Seminoles the day after Notre Dame’s loss to Tulsa, then went back to Kelly’s program after the Army Bowl.
Considering only seven teams allowed more sacks than Florida State this season (four hired new coaches in the past month), Lynch might have plenty of opportunities to celebrate in the Seminoles’ backfield on Dec. 29.
“The biggest thing is he’s got to keep those emotions in tact for the game and go out there and play his game,” said Zack Martin. “Because when he’s out there playing, he’s tough to stop.”