Spring Questions: Coaching Staff

A quartet of questions regarding Notre Dame's coaching staff, a group with four new members and just two holdovers from head coach Brian Kelly's initial season at the helm.

Below is the final of 11 columns previewing head coach Brian Kelly's sixth spring session in South Bend.

The questions are pertinent. The initial answers? Well, they're one man's opinion -- One man using logic and recent history as his guide.

1. WHAT DID THE IRISH GAIN THROUGH CHANGE?
It's clear what was lost by the defections of former assistants Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks to Ohio State and Oklahoma's staffs, respectively. But can the addition of two program legends, Todd Lyght and Autry Denson -- relative rookies in the collegiate coaching ranks -- coupled with up-and-comer Mike Sanford, Jr., plus veteran Keith Gilmore ameliorate Notre Dame's overall staff in the short-term?

Realignment (projected in point #4 below) makes short-term improvement plausible, and it's difficult to deny the potential successes and failures of the next two seasons will likely define the program's long-term future.

The Irish retained the services, in some capacity, of respected defensive mind Bob Elliott. Kelly has purportedly positioned his coordinator, Brian VanGorder with the safeties, a unit that struggled last fall and one that is likewise charged with the crucial on-the-fly adjustments between the lines that allow VanGorder's complicated defense to operate.

Is Gilmore an ideal fit for the current 4-3 front and myriad sub packages? Will Mike Elston quickly identify and unleash the myriad strengths of the linebackers unit? And perhaps most important, how will Sanford fit with Kelly as they approach weekly game plans? Or choose the preferred method of offensive attack -- and quarterback(s) -- for the 2015 season?

Coaching additions and defections don't have to present as a plus-minus equation. Cohesion, openness to new ideas, and of course, the ability to offer dissent, is critical.

2. WHO'S THE PLAY-CALLER?
When a coordinator is hired to a head coaching job due largely to his offensive (Charlie Weis) or defensive (Bob Davie) acumen, it's expected that he'll be in charge of game day play-calling from his head coaching perch. Simply, it's illogical to limit a celebrated coordinator's singular, dominant skill set by removing that purported advantage from his duties.

Kelly's situation is different in that he was viewed not only as a progressive offensive mind out of Cincinnati, but as a top-level program CEO.

His initial two seasons in South Bend logically featured Kelly as the offensive play-caller. He ceded those duties, at least in part, in both 2012 and 2013. Last season they were reassumed. Results in each situation were mixed -- yards and often points aplenty were present in 2014 while discretion and a more economical use of the passing game led to impressive crunch-time execution in 2012.

The results of 2010, '11, and '13 were disjointed. A mixed bag.

A new era has clearly dawned. But will the coveted Sanford's input be largely as the architect of weekly game plans? Or will Kelly cede play-calling duties the for the bulk of contests?

Kelly's use of his personal and staff's strengths will determine if the off-season overhaul is successful.

3. HAS THE DEFENSIVE LEARNING CURVE NATURALLY SOFTENED?
If you think, you stink.

And after defensive field general Joe Schmidt was lost to injury on Nov. 1 last season, it's clear the bulk of Notre Dame's remaining defensive competitors were caught in the dreaded sport's realm no-man's land of thinking rather than reacting.

I've long (at least 11 months) operated under the premise that VanGorder's complicated scheme would take two years to grasp and in some cases, master. And that both he and Kelly were well-aware of that reality, believing 2015 (and '16) would offer greater opportunity to play for a championship than would last season.

Schmidt was well ahead of the curve and as a result, so were the Irish. Many others were behind, and the late-season results exposed that reality.

But a learning curve isn't a viable excuse in Year 2. If two handfuls of veteran players with Notre Dame-level talent can't be put in position to succeed, it's clear the problem begins at the top.

Plenty of college football players grasp and excel in their given scheme.

Why should it be different at Notre Dame?

4. AND OH YEAH, WHAT'S THE STAFF ALIGNMENT?
That will be made official Monday, but it will resemble the following:

-- Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks: Mike Sanford, Jr.
-- Wide Receivers/Assistant or Associate Head Coach: Mike Denbrock
-- Running Backs: Autry Denson
-- Tight Ends: Scott Booker
-- Offensive Linemen: Harry Hiestand
-- Defensive Coordinator/Safeties: Brian VanGorder
-- Defensive Linemen: Keith Gilmore
-- Linebackers: Mike Elston
-- Cornerbacks: Todd Lyght

The positions of recruiting coordinator and special teams coordinator are pending. The assumption is that Scott Booker will remain in the latter with Mike Elston assuming the former.

And their collective work has just begun.


Links to each of the previous Spring Questions columns can be found below:


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