Some might say that Brian Kelly is loyal to a fault. Another perspective is that the continuity on the Notre Dame football staff makes it one of the nation’s most stable programs.
Continuity vs. coaching turnover will be one of the themes in 2016 when the Irish take on 12 regular-season opponents with significant change in the head coaching seat as well as the coordinator positions.
Including USC’s Clay Helton, who took over for a fired Steve Sarkisian five games into the ’15 season, and then was retained near the end of the campaign, one-third – four – of Notre Dame’s opponents will have a different head coach than the one who began the 2015 season. That means multiple assistant coach and coordinator changes, which often requires a retooling of schemes/philosophies.
Under Kelly, the Irish have been remarkably stable. Now entering his seventh season at Notre Dame, Kelly has had to make just eight assistant coaching changes. Associate head coach Mike Denbrock and defensive line/linebackers coach Mike Elston have been with Kelly since his arrival at Notre Dame in 2010.
Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and tight ends coach Scott Booker have been on the staff since 2012. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder enters his third year with the Irish.
Running backs coach Tony Alford was with Kelly through the first five years, as was defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks. Chuck Martin, who worked on both offense and defense, was on the Irish staff for four seasons before taking over as head coach at Miami (Ohio).
Other head-coaching changes among 2015 opponents besides Helton at USC include:
• Miami – Al Golden’s 32-27 overall record and 17-18 mark in ACC play came to a head against Clemson when the Tigers dissected the Hurricanes, 58-0, midway through the ’15 season. Larry Scott took over and went 4-1, but Mark Richt was too good to pass up after his parting of the ways with Georgia.
Richt was 145-51 in 15 seasons in Athens, which included an 83-37 SEC mark, five SEC East titles, and a pair of conference championships (2002, 2005). Georgia’s discard was Miami’s goldmine.
Thomas Brown, just 30-years old, makes the precipitous leap from running backs coach at Georgia to offensive coordinator in Coral Gables. Richt will call the plays, however, which he hasn’t done in several years.
Miami native Manny Diaz takes over as defensive coordinator, a role he has held – with mixed results – at Mississippi State, Louisiana Tech, Texas and Middle Tennessee. Look for a more aggressive approach under Diaz.
• Virginia Tech – The last time Frank Beamer was not the head coach at Virginia Tech, new head coach Justin Fuente was a 10-year-old growing up in Tulsa.
After 29 seasons, Beamer called it a career with 238 victories in his days in Blacksburg. Fuente, meanwhile, put his name on the head-coaching map by winning 19 games in the last two seasons at Memphis.
Brad Cornelson moves from Memphis to Virginia Tech after coaching quarterback Paxton Lynch and coordinating the Tigers’ offense to 40.2 points per game in ’15. Fuente chose continuity on the defensive side of the football where he retained coordinator Bud Foster, who joined Beamer’s staff in ’87 and became sole coordinator in ’96.
• Syracuse – When seven victories in his first year as head coach in 2013 evolved into just seven more victories in 2014-15 combined, Scott Shafer’s tenure in Syracuse came to a close.
Enter offensive innovator Dino Babers, whose Bowling Green offense went from 30 points per game in his first year as head coach to 42.2 points and 546.8 yards total offense in ’15.
Sean Lewis and Mike Lynch will coordinate the offense after Lewis instructed QB Matt Johnson to a 4,700-yard passing season and Lynch coached two wide receivers that notched 1,000-yard seasons.
A fast-paced offense usually spawns a defense that finds itself back on the field after a quick score, which is coordinator Brian Ward’s task after his Falcon unit allowed 28.9 points per game last year. The 2015 season was Ward’s first on the Division 1-A level.
Several other Irish opponents made coordinator changes:
• USC – Out with the old (defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox) and in with the old (USC’s 2013 defensive coordinator, Clancy Pendergast) may be just what the Trojans need after finishing 78th in total defense in ’14 and 65th in ’15 under Wilcox.
Pendergast, who spent the last two seasons as the San Francisco 49ers’ linebackers coach, instructed a Trojan defensive unit that allowed just 335 yards total offense per game in ‘13, a number that shot up by more than 100 yards per game under Wilson by ’15.
Helton elevated receivers coach Tee Martin to offensive coordinator – effectively replacing himself – after the Trojans ranked No. 37 in scoring (33.9 points per game). It’s somewhat of a risky move by Helton since this is Martin’s debut season as a coordinator, although Helton will be there to assist with the transition.
• Texas – It’s score or you’re out for third-year Longhorn head coach Charlie Strong. The Texas passing game ranked 117th nationally while the 26.4 points per game tied for 83rd.
Enter 37-year-old Sterlin Gilbert, whose up-tempo offensive attack did wonders at Eastern Illinois (with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback), Tulsa (with QB Dale Evans) and Bowling Green (with QB James Knapke).
Gilbert’s initial task is to choose a quarterback among early-entry freshman Shane Buechele, senior Tyrone Swoopes and sophomore Jerrod Heard, with the latter two struggling throughout much of the 2015 season.
• N.C. State – Some eyebrows were raised when Matt Canada was let go by head coach Dave Doeren following his third season in Raleigh. Canada’s units went from 22.8 points per game in 2013 to 30.2 in 2014 to 33.2 in 2015, including the last two seasons with more than 200 yards rushing per game.
Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi scooped up Canada, and Doeren tabbed Eli Drinkwitz, who followed Mike Sanford in the coordinator’s role at Boise State when Sanford came to Notre Dame in ’15.
Drinkwitz’s Boise State offense averaged 39.1 points per game last year on the heels of Sanford’s 39.7-point scoring offense. A Gus Malzahn disciple, Drinkwitz coordinated the Bronco offense to a No. 15 scoring mark.
• Nevada – The Wolf Pack averaged at least 30 points per game in Chris Ault’s vaunted Pistol offense from 2005-12, but has yet to reach that figure under head coach Brian Polian, who enters his fourth season in Reno.
Tim Cramsey – a Chip Kelly protégé -- replaces Nick Rolovich, who took the head-coaching job at Hawaii. Cramsey made a name for himself at Montana State, where his offense averaged 41.9 points per game in 2015.
Cramsey inherits an offense that had two 1,000-yard rushers in ’15 (one returns), but managed just 26.2 points per game (86th) and 164.5 yards passing per game (113th).
• Duke – With Scottie Montgomery off to East Carolina as head coach, Zac Roper was elevated to offensive coordinator, necessitating a new assistant in charge of special teams. Head coach David Cutcliffe tabbed Jim Bridge from Purdue to head-up the Blue Devil special teams and tight ends while holding the title of assistant head coach.
Duke’s offense is Cutcliffe’s offense, which has averaged better than 30 points per game each of the last four seasons with consistent running-game balance. The transition should be seamless under Roper, although the Achilles injury to quarterback Thomas Sirk is problematic.
Bridge’s background is along the offensive line, where he coached at Purdue the previous three seasons.