After five seasons, 45 victories (three in bowl games), 20 losses (two in bowls) and a relatively stable assistant coaching situation, Brian Kelly will try to establish chemistry with a staff that recently underwent the most significant change since he arrived from Cincinnati in December of 2009.
A press conference is scheduled for Monday morning in which Kelly is expected to announce the hiring of offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford, running backs coach Autry Denson, defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, and secondary coach Todd Lyght.
When Kelly compiled his first coaching staff with the Irish, he brought in eight new faces, six of which he had previously worked with (Bob Diaco, Charley Molnar, Chuck Martin, Mike Denbrock, Mike Elston and Tim Hinton), two he had not (Kerry Cooks and Ed Warinner) and one he retained from the previous Irish staff (Tony Alford) with whom Kelly had a pre-existing relationship.
After experiencing no coaching turnover after his first season, three new assistants were tabbed to replace Warinner, Molnar and Hinton. Scott Booker was elevated from Notre Dame intern, and veterans Bob Elliott and Harry Hiestand arrived.
Once again, the staff stayed intact for two seasons before Martin and Diaco landed head-coaching jobs. Kelly replaced his two coordinators with a young NFL coach against whom he had competed on the field (Matt LaFleur), and an old Grand Valley associate (Brian VanGorder) with ample NFL experience.
Of Kelly’s four new coaches to be announced Monday, only one (Gilmore) has worked with Kelly before. Sanford’s Notre Dame connection is his father, who was Bob Davie’s quarterbacks coach with the Irish in 1997-98. Denson and Lyght are the first former Irish players hired by Kelly at Notre Dame.
One could argue that the Irish gain a bonus by incorporating the “retired” Elliott, who will take an administrative/advisory/off-the-field position at Notre Dame, undoubtedly serving as a wealth-of-experience sounding board for first-time full-time secondary coach Lyght. Additionally, former Notre Dame standout and two-time captain Maurice “Mo” Crum will serve as a graduate assistant while former Irish quarterback/captain Ron Powlus joins the support staff.
Does the make-up of the 2015 staff constitute an improvement over the 2014 staff, or do the Irish have ground to make up? At the present time, concluding it’s an improvement is based more upon conjecture than empirical evidence.
There’s no way to conclude that the loss of Alford – a quality position coach (his backs almost never fumbled) and if not Notre Dame’s top recruiter, Notre Dame’s 1A recruiter – is a net gain for the Irish. He was beloved by most of the Irish players.
And yet while Alford was a nurturer to the Irish running backs who willingly doled out tough love for his troops to serve their best interests, Kelly could not have found a coach who will match Alford in that area better than Denson.
“Coach them up to not just be satisfied being good or even being great; I’m trying to coach them to be legendary,” said Denson to Irish Illustrated of his coaching approach. “That’s the way we practice. More than anything, leading by example and holistically developing these guys, which is in my formula for success.
“My guys will know I love ‘em, so they play not to let me down. To get them to do that stuff is who I am…”
Denson also should be a great fit for the Irish recruiting-wise in the state of Florida. A Lauderhill, Fla., product, Denson – with his optimistic, today’s-a-great-day personality – should be able to hit the ground running on the recruiting trail in the Sunshine State.
Will he be as adept of a recruiter as Alford out of the chute? That’s unrealistic. He just hasn’t been through the recruiting wars like Alford. But Denson is prepared to preach the Notre Dame word. If Denson is not as good of a recruiter as Alford out of the gate, it won’t be due to a lack of effort or passion for the job. Denson’s effort will be top-notch.
The other “one-for-one” trade on the staff is the 33-year-old Sanford in place of LaFleur, who returned to the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons after a one-season stint with Notre Dame. On the surface, this appears to be the greatest upgrade in the staff transition.
That’s not to say that LaFleur is not a quality quarterbacks coach. He’s now in his second stint on the highest level of football. A year ago, when he arrived from the Washington Redskins, his presence was considered an upgrade in terms of one-on-one rapport with the position he played.
But LaFleur did not make a positive impact on the recruiting trail, and the only real guideline by which to judge his work with the quarterbacks was a) the regression of Everett Golson over the final three-quarters of the ’14 season and b) the hit-the-ground-running performance of Malik Zaire over the final one-and-a-half games of the season (USC and LSU).
One could argue that LaFleur is further along as an instructor of quarterbacks than Sanford by simply using “time on the job” as the standard. Notre Dame benefits from the exchange, however, in two significant areas: 1) Sanford arrives as an offensive coordinator who is considered one of the top up-and-comers in the game after a productive first season in the role at Boise State and 2) Sanford became a recruiting coordinator at the age of 26, held the same position at Stanford, and is considered a budding star on the recruiting trail.
Additionally, Sanford gives the Irish a much-needed West Coast presence in recruiting that took a dip when Denbrock was shifted away from that area.
Add it all up and the Sanford-for-LaFleur trade gives the Irish more positives than negatives.
The greatest “deficit” in the four-for-four coaching carousel comes in the loss of Cooks/Elliott and the addition of Lyght, although that’s based strictly upon their comparative resumes. If Alford wasn’t Notre Dame’s top recruiter, then Cooks was, and he did it in an area (Texas and Louisiana) rich in football talent with at least some inclination to choose Notre Dame.
We’ll find out Monday when Kelly announces his staff where Lyght will be recruiting. But as a first-time full-time assistant coach, there has to be some initial regression compared to Cooks in terms of teaching prowess and inroads on the Texas recruiting trail.
Ultimately, Lyght – a flat-out star at Notre Dame, a No. 5 overall NFL pick and a flat-out star in the NFL – could bridge the gap in relatively short order. He’ll have VanGorder and Elliott to mentor him, but all things being equal, the initial “regression” at his spot on the staff is inevitable to some degree.
How will he recruit? His Notre Dame background will help, but that can only carry you so far. Lyght arrives with the most question marks “on paper” among the four assistants.
Gilmore’s arrival is unique in that the coach that he’s replacing actually remains on the staff. Elston is expected to coach linebackers with Crum and/or VanGorder (who also could be helping Lyght in the secondary at safety).
While Elston helped develop sixth-round draft pick Kapron Lewis-Moore, fifth-rounder Darius Fleming, second-rounder Stephon Tuitt, third-rounder Louis Nix III, and fourth-rounder Prince Shembo, Gilmore’s track record in that area is even more impressive, dating back to his six-year stint under Kelly at Central Michigan/Cincinnati.
The two most prominent names on Gilmore’s developmental list are Illinois products Whitney Mercilus and Corey Liuget, both first-round draft selections. As for his recruiting prowess, objective reviews have been mixed.
(Note: Most recruiting analysts say positive things about assistant coaches because it’s good for their business. Deciphering the reality is difficult because most recruiting analysts don’t tell the truth when it comes to assessing assistant coaches. They need their help, so they say nice things about them publicly.)
Evaluating the two major areas of an assistant coach – on-field coaching and recruiting – the Irish have taken a step back in terms of experience. Elliott landed his first full-time coaching job in 1977. Alford has been in the business for two decades while Cooks has a dozen years under his belt. Even the baby-faced LaFleur has the edge in years in the game on Sanford. Gilmore helps bridge the gap, but Denson and Lyght are very new to the business.
Over the long haul, however, the “Notre Dame quotient” is up significantly. There’s been a youthful infusion on the staff, which is a necessary adjustment every once in a while. And in Sanford, the Irish have a coach many are pegging for great things, including a head-coaching position in the not-so-distant future.
The final tally in the most significant coaching exchange at Notre Dame since Kelly’s arrival won’t be known for quite some time. The process of making that determination has begun with Kelly introducing them Monday at 11 a.m. ET.