Departures challenge ND’s recruiting future

Heading into his fifth season as head coach at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly still had four of his original nine assistant coaches that he hired prior to the 2010 season. That number has been cut in half with the departure of Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks.

During the 11-year reign of Lou Holtz at Notre Dame (1986-96), changes in the coaching staff happened in rapid-fire fashion, usually at least one every year. Keeping a staff together was difficult because a) Notre Dame was winning, and thus, losing guys to head-coaching/coordinator roles, and b) Holtz had little patience for ineffective coaching.

When the Irish were winning – 23- and 17-game winning streaks, 64-9-1 in a six-year span from 1988-93 – Holtz’s coaches were in high demand. When they were losing, or even when they were winning but struggling at a position coach’s spot, Holtz would make a change.

One could observe a coach on the practice field with Holtz and project how long the working relationship would last. If the assistant coach was skittish, if you could sense he was looking over his shoulder to see where Holtz was and when he might arrive on the scene to offer a terse evaluation, you knew his days in the program were numbered.

For various reasons, Notre Dame averaged three coaching changes per season over the final 10 years of the Holtz era.

Brian Kelly takes a different approach. Continuity, which allows him to “coach his coaches” so they can spread the “one voice” message, puts Kelly in his comfort zone. Continuity is the preferred route to go.

In five seasons, Kelly has had 14 assistant coaches: four for all five seasons (Tony Alford, Kerry Cooks, Mike Denbrock and Mike Elston), two for four seasons (Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco), four for three seasons (Scott Booker, Bob Elliott and Harry Hiestand), two for two seasons (Tim Hinton, Ed Warinner, and Charley Molnar), and two for one season (Matt LaFleur and Brian VanGorder) with LaFleur expected to leave for the Atlanta Falcons and VanGorder about to begin his second year with the Irish.

That’s not heavy turnover by today’s standards, although the recent losses of Alford and Cooks are – make no bones about it – significant blows to the recruiting staff.

Notice, they’re not necessarily significant blows to the coaching staff, but to the recruiting staff. That’s not to say that Cooks and Alford were not quality teachers of the game of football at Notre Dame. They were.

Alford, the only carry-over coach from the Charlie Weis era at Notre Dame, brought out the best in Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, Theo Riddick, Jonas Gray, Cierre Wood (at least for one year), Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston, particularly late in the year when their productivity led to post-regular-season play. Alford’s greatest tangible coaching contribution was the way his backs protected the football.

Cooks couldn’t get a confidence-shaken Gary Gray to play as well in his final season as he had the year before. But he maximized Robert Blanton, Bennett Jackson (for a year, pre-shoulder injury), KeiVarae Russell, who had no collegiate playing experience at cornerback prior to his ascension, and young Cole Luke this past season.

And yet with the strong possibility of former Irish players Autry Denson and Todd Lyght joining the staff to coach running backs and cornerbacks respectively, it would not be a stretch to anticipate both of them coaching the game on the field at a high level.

Denson’s background at Bethune-Cookman and Miami (Ohio) point to further productivity. Lyght is less experienced, but his stops have been at a national-level high school program (Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas), Oregon as an intern under Chip Kelly, and then an assistant defensive backs job with Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles. Plus, he was nothing short of a star player himself, so teaching/talking technique should be second nature. If his communication skills are strong – and that’s where indications point – he should be able to pass on the message.

Replacing Alford in Florida as a recruiter is a monumental task. Alford scratched and clawed his way to 14 recruits out of the Sunshine State for Notre Dame. And yet if Denson comes on board, the Florida native is as well-suited to pick up where Alford left off as just about anybody could be, short of a more seasoned college football coach.

Denson can speak from experience coming from Florida to Notre Dame. He is, as Irish fans hope to see first-hand, a charismatic, dynamic, committed devotee to his ministry, which includes promoting the path to success that worked for him.

Another area in which Denson is the perfect replacement for Alford is in the nurturing department. Alford was the nurturer for Greg Bryant, as important to keeping Bryant focused and at Notre Dame as anyone in this world beyond his father.

Denson would be able to tell each and every parent of a running back prospect that he will be there for them every step of the way. He will be fully committed to making sure his players are loved and taken care of, which means he’ll provide them with the leadership they need to go from boys to productive, responsible men.

The transition from Alford to Denson wouldn’t be seamless, but considering how strong of an impact Alford had at Notre Dame, it would be amazingly close.

Lyght, on the other hand, would have much to prove as a recruiter. He hasn’t been through a recruiting campaign as a full-time assistant on the collegiate level. He had just landed a full-time job with Vanderbilt when his alma mater came calling.

Lyght, who played his high school football in Flint, Mich., is a bright, introspective, charismatic personality in his own right. But he has much to prove as a recruiter, particularly if Notre Dame were to plug him into the state of Texas and Louisiana, where Cooks did an outstanding job pulling talent up to South Bend.

Cam McDaniel was and Corey Robinson is a productive Texas talent with promising pass-catchers Torii Hunter Jr. and Durham Smythe on the verge of emerging. Cooks pulled out key pieces to future defenses in Grant Blankenship, Kolin Hill and Nick Watkins, and ushered in three more for success down the road in Jalen Guyton on offense, Bo Wallace on defense, and Jerry Tillery on one side or the other.

Will it be Lyght who fills the need in the fertile areas of Texas and Louisiana? It would seem to be the best if not an ideal alternative to Cooks. Notre Dame’s best remaining recruiter – Mike Denbrock – would be best served in California, from where he was yanked when he was named offensive coordinator.

Scott Booker? Probably better suited for the East/Mid-Atlantic. Mike Elston? Maybe. But the Irish really could use Lyght’s presence in Texas and Louisiana, selling his background and Notre Dame to the talent-rich areas.

By the way, whoever ends up recruiting Texas and Louisiana for the Irish will face a familiar impediment – Cooks at Oklahoma – who will strengthen the Sooners’ footprint in those fertile recruiting areas.

The third and final spot to be filled is an offensive position vacated by LaFleur, who will go down as one of the most nondescript Notre Dame assistant coaches in modern day history. His year at Notre Dame clearly was a stopgap measure before returning to the NFL. He made limited impact recruiting the West Coast, and the slide of Everett Golson over the final three-quarters of the 2014 season doesn’t exactly warrant a gold star on his résumé. (To be fair, if he gets blame for Golson’s diminishing returns, he deserves credit for Malik Zaire’s late-season performance.)

Several sources have told Irish Illustrated that long-time Kelly right-hand man Jeff Quinn – who spent four-and-a-half years as head coach at Buffalo – will replace LaFleur on the staff in some capacity, possibly quarterbacks coach, although his background is along the offensive line, where Hiestand is entrenched. (Note: A source to Scout’s Dave Berk indicated Saturday that Quinn to Notre Dame is not a done deal.)

In terms of what Quinn would bring to Notre Dame as a coach compared to LaFleur, the Irish would gain, regardless where Quinn would be situated. At worst, the recruiting impact would be a wash, although the loss of Alford/Cooks as recruiters makes a wash a loss in that department.

Reputations can be skewed at times, although rarely is that the case in recruiting. One would be hard-pressed to find a coach with a negative recruiting reputation who is, in fact, a quality recruiter. Quinn would have much to prove at Notre Dame on the recruiting front.

To say Notre Dame is at a recruiting crossroads is a bit dramatic, although not an exaggeration considering the impact Alford and Cooks had with the Irish. Denson absolutely has the makings of a dynamic recruiter for Notre Dame in Florida, and when the parents of a running back recruit hears his pitch, they’re going to gravitate toward it. Lyght is more of an unknown, but a responsible, worthy representative of Notre Dame.

There’s work to be done with the Irish coaching staff, although the majority of the work – particularly if Lyght, Denson and Quinn come on board – will be on the recruiting end, not the coaching end.

Both aspects are important, although some would argue for recruiting as the more important of the two today. Holtz wouldn’t agree, but that was a perspective from a far-removed era nearly two decades ago. Top Stories