Piecing together assistant coaching puzzle

Mike Sanford, Jr., will coach quarterbacks and take on at least part of Notre Dame’s offensive coordinating duties while former Irish great Todd Lyght will coach the cornerbacks and perhaps the safeties in his first full-time gig.

When news first leaked prior to National Signing Day that Irish defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks would be leaving Notre Dame to join Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma Sooners staff, it set in motion a series of shifting gears that some two weeks later has yet to come to rest.

In fact, it kicked off a series of possibilities, several of which remain on the table as Brian Kelly pieces together a staff for his sixth year with the Irish. Only two members of Kelly’s original staff – Mike Denbrock on offense and Mike Elston on defense – remain, and one or both of them could be in line for a change in title/responsibility.

We know the coaches that are out and we know a couple that are in, yet there’s still work to be done in week three of the reshaping of the 2015 staff. A total of nine full-time positions comprise an assistant coaching staff.

Who’s out

An original member of Brian Kelly’s first Notre Dame staff, Kerry Cooks is in Oklahoma coaching defensive backs. Cooks did yeoman’s work recruiting in the state of Texas for the Irish.

Tony Alford, a carryover from the Charlie Weis staff and original member of Kelly’s Notre Dame unit, will coach running backs and carry the title of assistant coach at Ohio State under Urban Meyer, who was coaching at Colorado State during Alford’s playing days. Alford coached the Irish running backs and played a huge role as Notre Dame’s recruiting coordinator.

Quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur, who came from the NFL last year, is back with the big boys as a member of the Atlanta Falcons’ staff under new head coach Dan Quinn.

Who’s in

Notre Dame has yet to announce the new arrivals, but three who we know to be on board are:

Todd Lyght, the former Irish All-American, first-round draft choice and NFL standout, returns to his alma mater to coach some or part of the secondary after getting his feet wet in the coaching world at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas. He was a defensive intern at Oregon under Chip Kelly before following Kelly to the Philadelphia Eagles as an assistant defensive backs coach. Lyght had accepted a full-time position with Vanderbilt when Notre Dame came calling.

Mike Sanford, Jr., the son of Notre Dame’s quarterbacks coach from 1996-98 under Lou Holtz and then Bob Davie, will serve as quarterbacks coach as well as offensive coordinator in a full or partial capacity with the Irish.

A Boise State quarterback during his playing days (2000-04), Sanford began his coaching career working with tight ends and fullbacks while also serving as recruiting coordinator at Yale in 2009. He spent one season in Western Kentucky as quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator before heading to Stanford for three seasons (2011-13). He coached running backs for two years and quarterbacks/receivers for a year while serving as recruiting coordinator his final two seasons in Palo Alto. Sanford was the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at his alma mater in 2014.

Maurice Crum, Jr., will also be a part of the Notre Dame staff in 2015 as a graduate assistant, likely working with the linebackers. The two-time Irish captain comes from Kansas, where he was serving as a member of Charlie Weis’ support staff.

Who could be in

Only one additional coach needs to be hired, and that’s a running backs coach. Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher – Autry Denson – is expected to interview for the job this week. Denson has been working his way up through the business at Bethune-Cookman, Miami (Ohio) and South Florida, where he took a job just a few weeks ago. Current Indiana running backs coach Deland McCullough was said by sources to have had a lengthy conversation about the Notre Dame job, although other sources have refuted that.

Long-time Brian Kelly offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Jeff Quinn – who served under the current Irish head coach at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati from 1991-2009 – remains a possibility to join the staff, although it would require some maneuvering (see “Who could be moving” below).

Quinn became head coach at Buffalo when Kelly took the Notre Dame job. After going 8-5 in his fourth season to get the Bulls to a bowl, Quinn was fired seven games into the ’14 season with a 3-4 mark. If Quinn were to come to Notre Dame, he likely would coach tight ends and hold another title, perhaps sharing coordinating duties with Sanford and/or Denbrock. Assistant head coach also could be in play.

Who could be moving

If Quinn were to come to Notre Dame, it would require current tight ends coach Scott Booker to shift to the defensive side of the football and coach the safeties with Lyght handling the cornerbacks. For this to happen, current secondary coach Bob Elliott, who began his coaching career in 1976, would have to retire as a full-time assistant and/or take a football advisory position with the Irish. Booker coached defensive backs in previous stops at Kent State and Western Kentucky.

The arrival of Sanford likely will require Mike Denbrock, who served as offensive coordinator/receivers coach for the Irish in 2014 in his second stint at Notre Dame, to relinquish some if not all of his coordinating duties. He could carry the title of passing-game coordinator or assistant head coach while working with the receivers, tight ends (depending upon Quinn) or both.

If Quinn does not come on board, Booker remains on offense, Elliott steps down from a full-time job, and defensive line coach Mike Elston takes over some portion of the linebacker coaching, it would open a spot up along the defensive line, which offers a partial explanation for the rumors on National Signing Day of Brady Hoke coming to Notre Dame. Another name to (unofficially) consider would be former Irish/NFL standout Bryant Young, who served one year at Notre Dame (2009) as a graduate assistant before taking full-time jobs with San Jose State (2010) and Florida (2011-13).

Elston has taken over recruiting coordinator duties from Alford while Brian VanGorder will continue to coordinate the defense. If a defensive line coach is brought in, VanGorder could share linebacker duties with Elston and/or Crum. VanGorder also could work with the safeties, or Lyght could direct the entire secondary. Elston also could return to coordinating the special teams, which he did at Central Michigan and Cincinnati under Kelly, and at Notre Dame from 2009-11.


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