Getting the Band Back Together

New Irish defensive line coach comes equipped with three decades of lessons learned as a collegiate assistant plus a wealth of recruiting experience at the highest level.

Picture the initial stages of your professional development: your co-workers, your friends and trusted confidants, your daily interactions, your shared ideas.

Now fast forward to the present. Does it look roughly the same?

Probably not, but such is the unique case of the 2015 Notre Dame coaching staff, officially a nine-member group under head coach Brian Kelly, each of whom has connections to either the head man, each other, or the University itself.

"There's a number of connections," Kelly told UND.com. "The one that goes furthest back is (Strength & Conditioning) Coach (Paul) Longo, Coach (Brian) VanGorder, and Coach (Keith) Gilmore at Wayne State. All three of them playing together. But there's also one with Coach (Mike) Denbrock and Coach Gilmore as graduate assistants at Michigan State.

"And then I pick it up with myself, Coach Denbrock, Coach Gilmore, and Coach VanGorder, all of us together at Grand Valley State. So there's some different stories along the way, all of us together at different times in our lives."

Gilmore's reconnection with Kelly & Co. -- he worked for Kelly during stints at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati -- should make the initial stages of his new coaching gig seamless.

And then the work begins.

"The opportunity presented and my background with coach Kelly made it very intriguing," said Gilmore. "To have an opportunity to come back with him and being involved with a place like Notre Dame was special to me. I thought it'd be a great fit. I never would have thought 25-30 years ago that we would all be reunited in a place like this."

ONE HIRING, TWO CHANGES
Gilmore will take over tutelage of the Irish defensive line, a unit coached for the previous five seasons by Mike Elston, who along with Longo ranks as the longest-tenured assistant to Kelly -- 12 seasons dating back to 2004 at Central Michigan.

"There are a lot of pieces there," said Kelly of the move of Elston to linebackers coach in congress with Gilmore's hiring. "Coach VanGorder (the 2014 inside linebackers coach) wanting to float a little bit away from the linebackers and having Mike (a former linebacker at Michigan) who has experience there at the position.

"And I think professional development for Coach Elston. The linebacker position gets him involved in the passing game which is great for him. And then with a lot of young players. We wanted somebody that is a great mentor -- not that coach Elston isn't, but someone that fit that bill in coach Gilmore, who is a great technician and has 30 years of D-Line experience."

Gilmore's mentorship has begun in earnest, and his first step toward developing such a relationship with young student-athletes is one people in any walk of life can readily embrace.

"They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," he said of his plan to rally and thus improve the troops. "My first responsibility is to create a relationship, a positive relationship so they know I have their best interests at heart. Then they take to coaching a little better when you're correcting them, disciplining them. That you're truly trying to help them accomplish their goals."

The shared macro goal of winning a championship can only be broached if success first occurs at various micro levels. To that end, Gilmore has taken a look back before moving full speed ahead.

"I've had an opportunity (to watch film)," he noted of last year's defensive successes and failures. "We're working through that now as a matter of fact, we're going through last year's calls, what we call 'cut-ups' and analyzing the things that were good and weren't good.

"I'm able to evaluate what they've done to this point. That along with the (current) workouts and seeing the physical talents of these kids."

The most physically developed of the group is also the most experienced, returning team captain, Sheldon Day.

"I think he has great twitch. He comes off the football. He uses his hands real well," said Gilmore of his star pupil. "I'm looking for him to excel and improve his game as a pass-rusher and become more effective. To be that guy for us."

Though Day is more a ready-made commodity than is the rest of the youth-filled unit, improvement across the board is necessary. Not including potential position switches, a combined 14 of the team's 18 listed defensive linemen are either freshmen, sophomores, or redshirt-sophomores heading into 2015. Only Day and classmate Romeo Okwara exhaust eligibility at season's end.

"I'm sure I've worked with this young of a group when you've been doing it as long as I have," Gilmore noted. "But that's what I pride myself on: being able to develop young talent and to teach them how to be men and student-athletes and all that goes along with it. It's a great opportunity and a great challenge for me."

THE GANG'S ALL HERE
Longo, VanGorder, Gilmore, Denbrock, and Elston all have history with Kelly prior to Notre Dame. New hires Autry Denson (running backs coach), Todd Lyght (defensive backs) Ron Powlus (Director of Player Development), and Mo Crum (Graduate Assistant), all started or starred as players at the program prior to Kelly's arrival. Crum's fellow graduate assistant Donovan Raiola played briefly under current Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, 2009 with the Chicago Bears.

Only returning assistants Hiestand and Scott Booker (tight ends), plus new quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford arrived from outside Kelly's extended family tree, though Sanford's father, (also Mike), coached quarterbacks at Notre Dame for Lou Holtz and Bob Davie (1996-1998).

"I consider it to be the most committed, cohesive, experienced, and probably brightest coaching staff that I've put together in my career," said Kelly of the group, one that will retain the services of Bob Elliott, formerly the outside linebackers (2014) and safeties coach (2012-13) now the Special Assistant to the Head Coach.

For Gilmore, the reunion is surreal, though it's not his first chance to reminisce with his old friends -- that occurred last October as North Carolina's defensive line coach on a trip to South Bend.

"It was fun to be around all the people I've known for years, with Longo and VanGorder, (Director of Football Administration) Beth Rex, of course Coach (Kelly)," said Gilmore of the contest, one won 50-43 by Notre Dame. "So it was fun in that respect. I never would have dreamed that five months later I'd be working here. That's pretty exciting."

Reminded that the contest in question contained the most combined points scored by two teams in the history of the House that Rockne Built, Gilmore joked, "Oh yeah, that wasn't good for me. It was a bad night for the defenses! It was fun competing against your ex-boss and friends."

Better days await.


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