Hiring new assistant coaches allowed Brian Kelly to reshuffle the deck in terms of recruiting.
Kelly first chose to move linebackers coach Mike Elston into the recruiting coordinator role vacated by Tony Alford, now running backs coach at Ohio State. Elston previously served as recruiting coordinator under Kelly at Cincinnati.
Since coming to Notre Dame, Elston has recruited primarily in Ohio and Indiana while doing some work on the East Coast. He’ll stay in those areas while overseeing the entire process.
“Mike brings an attention to detail,” Kelly said, “a vision for what it takes to communicate to today’s kids out there that are being recruited whether it be through the social media aspects or simply finding the right buttons to push when it comes to recruiting. Great recruiters today have to have something to recruit to first and foremost.
“But they also have to be able to connect. Mike has done a great job since he’s been here. He’s arguably been our best recruiter day in, day out.”
Kelly also assigned and adjusted geographic areas for some existing staff members and the four new coaches.
Associate head coach Mike Denbrock will head back to assist in California. New offensive coordinator Mike Sanford will take over primary duties in California and Texas with the assistance of Todd Lyght, the new defensive backs coach.
Running backs coach Autry Denson will work Florida, in particular the southern part of the state, with other coaches offering help along the way. Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore mentioned working Michigan and North Carolina in particular.
Alford previously recruited Florida. Kerry Cooks, now defensive backs coach at Oklahoma, worked Texas. Former quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur had taken territories in Southern California. Bob Elliott, now in an off-field role, spent time in Southern California too along with Midland states.
“We don’t think we’ll miss a beat,” Kelly said. “As a matter of fact, we feel like we’ll be stronger. I think Autry Denson will have Florida. He’ll be assisted in there with some other coaches. But he’ll have a strong area in South Florida. I think Mike Sanford is gonna have a large part of Texas. He’s had great success in Texas before.”
When Denson and Lyght hit the road recruiting come the spring evaluation period they will do so representing not only a new employer but also their alma mater.
Denson returns to campus as the all-time leading rusher in Notre Dame history. Lyght was a two-time All-American before embarking on a career in the NFL, during which he went to a Pro Bowl and won a Super Bowl championship.
Lyght has already started recruiting in earnest, most notably hosting Chicagoland cornerback Julian Love during an unofficial visit.
“I think I’ll be an excellent recruiter,” Lyght said. “I look forward to going out and talking to the different players throughout the country that wanna come to the University of Notre Dame and excel both on and off the field. I think that this place is special and it’s gonna take a special player to come here and really be successful. The student-athlete is gonna have to challenge themselves both on the field athletically then off the field mentally with the education part of it.
“It’s a tough ask. It really is because of all the ways you’re getting pulled in different directions with school, with the athletics. It’s tough. Guys are gonna have to come here and they’re gonna have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Denson likewise expects to use an honest approach to talking with recruits about life at Notre Dame from the perspective of a former player turned coach.
“I definitely think it’s a big plus,” Denson said. “I think coach Kelly definitely felt that because I’ve never been a seller anyway. I believe you can recruit young people off the truth and with integrity, so I’m always gonna tell the truth. The extra bonus for me is I’m living it. I really just have to be me. It’s very simple. Notre Dame is a lifetime decision. If you really wanna know, ask me.”
Sanford brings to the recruiting trail valuable experience in having done it at other programs with similar academic rigors in Yale and Stanford, particularly the latter. During his time as an assistant in Palo Alto, Sanford served as recruiting coordinator.
Pitching the idea of playing at Notre Dame won’t be all that dissimilar.
“I love that part of being at Notre Dame,” Sanford said. “That you can legitimately and honestly look at a kid in the eye and say, ‘You will get a football experience that will change your life because there’s no other atmosphere on game day like Notre Dame Stadium and, quite frankly, there’s not atmosphere like an away game and the Notre Dame faithful being there. I know because that was our sellout every year at Stanford, when Notre Dame came. It was the hardest ticket of the year.’
“But on the flip side of that I can look you in the eye and say, ‘We’re gonna give you an opportunity to get a degree that is life changing that will create an unbelievable network to be thrust into what endeavor you choose. The internships, the relationships that you’ll build both with the alumni base and with your peers is second to none. The power of that monogram is strong, not just in the football environment but in the real world environment after football.’ I love having the ability to sit in a kid’s living room and talk about what that degree can do for you.”