Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated

ND Assistants Under Kelly (Part 5)

Kelly is most comfortable when he can keep his staff intact. Yet with the hiring of five new assistants, a total of 24 coaches have held spots during the Kelly regime.

Of the eight assistants brought in by Brian Kelly upon his arrival at Notre Dame in 2010 – Tony Alford was the only coach retained from Charlie Weis’ staff – six had strong and in many instances long-lasting ties to the new Irish head coach.

The status quo would remain after the 2010 and 2012 seasons. Significant changes came following the 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2016 seasons.

The following is the year-by-year toil to keep a consistent, productive staff in place. With the hiring of five new assistant coaches following the 2016 season, a total of 24 coaches have served on Kelly’s staff.

2010 (8-5)

Offense
• OC/QB-Charley Molnar
• RB-Tim Hinton
• WR-Tony Alford
• TE-Mike Denbrock
• OL-Ed Warinner

Defense
• DC/ILB-Bob Diaco
• DL/ST-Mike Elston
• OLB-Kerry Cooks
• DB/RC-Chuck Martin

Molnar joined Kelly’s Central Michigan program in 2006, and then followed him to Cincinnati where he was passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach in the three years leading up to Kelly’s hiring by Notre Dame.

Hinton, a successful high school head coach at Marion Hardy High School in Ohio, was at Cincinnati when Kelly took the job, and then served on both sides of the football under Kelly from 2007-09.

Denbrock, who played at Grand Valley State, joined Kelly’s Laker staff in 1992, where he would serve for seven seasons. After stops at Stanford, Notre Dame (under Tyrone Willingham 2002-04), Washington and Indiana State, Denbrock returned to Notre Dame under Kelly in 2010.

Diaco hooked up with Kelly at Central Michigan in 2005 as his co-defensive coordinator with Elston. Following a three-year stint as linebackers coach at Virginia from 2006-08, Diaco became Kelly’s defensive coordinator at Cincinnati in 2009, and then followed Kelly to Notre Dame.

Elston left Eastern Michigan in 2004 to join Kelly at Central Michigan. He followed Kelly to Cincinnati before coming to Notre Dame in 2010.

Martin served under Kelly at Grand Valley State from 2000-03 before being named the Lakers’ successor to Kelly. After six seasons, a 74-7 record and two Division II national championships, Martin came to Notre Dame as Kelly’s defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator.

Two of Kelly’s assistants had no direct ties: Warinner was the associate head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Kansas from 2007-09; Cooks coached defensive backs at Wisconsin from 2006-09.


2011 (8-5)

Offense
• OC/QB-Charley Molnar
• RB-Tim Hinton
• WR-Tony Alford
• TE-Mike Denbrock
• RG Coord./OL-Ed Warinner

Defense
• DC/LB-Bob Diaco
• DL/ST-Mike Elston
• CB-Kerry Cooks
• S/RC-Chuck Martin

The only adjustment to Kelly’s staff in Year Two was the move of Cooks from outside linebackers coach to cornerbacks with Martin focusing on the safeties.


2012 (12-1)

Offense
• OC/QB-Chuck Martin
• RB/RC-Tony Alford
• PG Coord./WR-Mike Denbrock
• TE/ST-Scott Booker
• RG Coord./OL-Harry Hiestand

Defense
• Asst. HC/DC/LB-Bob Diaco
• DL-Mike Elston
• Co-DC/CB-Kerry Cooks
• S-Bob Elliott

The first big shakeup to Kelly’s staff at Notre Dame came prior to the start of Year Three in 2012.

-- Molnar took the head-coaching job at Massachusetts.
-- Warinner left for Ohio State under Urban Meyer.
-- Elliott, son of former Michigan head coach Bump Elliott and a long-time defensive coach/coordinator, left Iowa State to instruct Notre Dame’s safeties.
-- Alford moved from teaching the wide receivers to running backs – his area of expertise – in place of Hinton, who joined Warinner at Ohio State.
-- Hiestand left Tennessee following a five-year stint with the Chicago Bears to replace Warinner on the offensive line.
-- Martin moved from the Irish secondary to offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in place of Molnar.
-- Scott Booker, who was hired as an intern at Notre Dame in 2010 following stints coaching the secondary at Kent State and Western Kentucky, was elevated to tight ends coach and special teams coordinator.

The shakeup proved productive. With Martin taking over play-calling duties for Kelly, the Irish added more than 50 yards rushing per game and averaged more than 200 yards rushing per game until falling decisively to Alabama in the national championship game.

The defense under Diaco took a significant step forward as the Irish went from allowing 20.7 points per game to 12.7. The 2012 Irish were second in the nation in scoring defense, seventh in total defense and 11th in rushing defense.                                                               


2013 (9-4)

Offense
• OC/QB-Chuck Martin
• RB/RC-Tony Alford
• WR-Mike Denbrock
• TE/ST-Scott Booker
• OL-Harry Hiestand

Defense
• Asst. HC/DC/LB-Bob Diaco
• DL-Mike Elston
• CB-Kerry Cooks
• S-Bob Elliott

The staff that served in 2012 at Notre Dame maintained the same roles in 2013. The defense took a hit with the loss of NFL draft picks Manti Te’o, Jamoris Slaughter, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Zeke Motta as opponents tacked on 10 points more per game than in 2012.


2014 (8-5)

Offense
• OC/WR-Mike Denbrock
• QB-Matt LaFleur
• RB/RC-Tony Alford
• TE/ST-Scott Booker
• OL-Harry Hiestand

Defense
• DC/ILB-Brian VanGorder
• DL-Mike Elston
• OLB-Bob Elliott
• DB-Kerry Cooks

Notre Dame’s national title quest in 2012 ultimately cost the Irish Diaco and Martin. Diaco was named the head coach at Connecticut while Martin jumped at the opportunity to place his name among the Cradle of Coaches at Miami (Ohio).

Brian VanGorder, who experienced great success as defensive coordinator at Georgia (2001-04) and a run in the NFL with three organizations, was tabbed by Kelly to replace Diaco.

Denbrock was elevated to offensive coordinator in ’14. Matt LaFleur replaced Martin as quarterbacks coach following a three-year stint with the Washington Redskins. This was the only season from 2012-16 in which Kelly was the primary play-caller.

Elliott moved from safeties coach to outside linebackers with Cook taking over the entire secondary.                                                                    


2015 (10-3)

Offense
• OC/QB-Mike Sanford
• RB-Autry Denson
• Assoc. HC/WR-Mike Denbrock
• TE-Scott Booker
• OL-Harry Hiestand

Defense
• DC-Brian VanGorder
• DL-Keith Gilmore
• LB/RC-Mike Elston
• DB-Todd Lyght

Prior to the 2015 season, Alford became the third Notre Dame assistant to join the Ohio State staff under Meyer while Cooks made the move to Oklahoma under Bob Stoops.

LaFleur’s stay at Notre Dame lasted one season before heading back to the NFL coaching quarterbacks with the Atlanta Falcons.

Elston bumped back to coaching the linebackers in order to bring in defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, who had spent the previous two seasons at North Carolina. Elston replaced Alford as Notre Dame’s recruiting coordinator.

Replacing Cooks was former Irish All-American, first-round draft choice and long-time NFL defensive back Todd Lyght, who had served as an assistant defensive backs coach with the Philadelphia Eagles the previous two seasons.

Kelly also tabbed Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher, Autry Denson, to replace Alford as running backs coach following his stints at Bethune-Cookman and Miami (Ohio). Denson had accepted a job at South Florida but returned to his alma mater instead.

Mike Sanford, the son of Mike Sanford who had coached quarterbacks at Notre Dame under Bob Davie, replaced Martin as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, although Denbrock – now the associate head coach – took over primary play-calling duties.                                                                      


 2016 (4-8)

Offense
• OC/QB-Mike Sanford
• Assoc. HC/WR-Mike Denbrock
• RB-Autry Denson
• TE/ST-Scott Booker
• OL-Harry Hiestand

Defense
• DC-Brian VanGorder
• DL-Keith Gilmore
• LB/DC-Mike Elston
• DB-Todd Lyght

Notre Dame’s 2015 staff also was its 2016 staff…until the fifth game of the season when Kelly/Notre Dame decided that they had seen enough of VanGorder’s defense, which was allowing yards and points at an alarming rate.

Taking over as interim defensive coordinator for VanGorder was analyst Greg Hudson, a former Irish linebacker who had coordinated defenses at Minnesota, East Carolina and Purdue with a three-year stint as Florida State’s linebackers coach mixed in. Elston handled play-calling duties for the defense with Bob Elliott – now the special assistant to Kelly – contributing during the week of preparation.                                                                      


2017

Offense
• OC/TE-Chip Long
• QB-Tom Rees
• RB-Autry Denson
• WR-Del Alexander
• OL-Harry Hiestand

Defense
• DC/S-Mike Elko
• DL/RC-Mike Elston
• LB-Clark Lea
• DB-Todd Lyght

Special Teams
• Brian Polian

The greatest overhaul in Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame ensued in the wake of Notre Dame’s 4-8 season in 2016.

Sanford took the head-coaching job at Western Kentucky. Joining VanGorder on the chopping block were Denbrock, Booker and Gilmore. (Denbrock went to Cincinnati as offensive coordinator; Booker landed an analyst’s job at Nebraska under new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who had been fired by UConn after three seasons.)

Five new assistant coaches – including a 10th assistant on the staff with the anticipation of the NCAA approving an additional full-time member – joined the Irish following the 2016 season.

-- Chip Long, offensive coordinator at Memphis, replaced Denbrock while taking on the tight end duties relinquished by Booker.
-- Mike Elko, the ultra-successful defensive coordinator at Wake Forest, replaced VanGorder/Hudson. Elko also handled the safeties in the spring, allowing Lyght to focus on the cornerbacks.
-- Brian Polian, who served as Charlie Weis’ special teams coordinator and defensive assistant from 2005-09, returned to Notre Dame after stints at Stanford and Texas A&M.
-- With Denbrock gone, the Irish tabbed DelVaughn Alexander to coach the receivers. Alexander’s path had crossed with Long’s while at Arizona State.
-- Elko brought Clark Lea with him from Wake Forest. Lea’s arrival bumped Elston back to the defensive line in place of Gilmore.
-- Former Notre Dame quarterback Tom Rees arrived in the spring to begin his work with the Irish quarterbacks. The NCAA eventually shot down the 10th full-time assistant until 2018, but Rees was retained as quarterbacks coach while technically serving as a graduate assistant.

Also relieved of his duties was long-time Kelly strength and conditioning coach/confidante Paul Longo, who was replaced by Matt Balis. Balis got his start with Urban Meyer at Utah and followed him to Florida.

Balis had spent five seasons at Mississippi State under former Notre Dame grad assistant and current Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen. The previous three years, Balis worked at UConn under Diaco.


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories