May 6, 2014 // Notre Dame Football

Duranko’s Digest: Coaching Matters, Notre Dame’s 2014 Faculty

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New Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian Vangorder watches over his defense during Notre Dame's 2014 Blue Gold Game.  (Photo: Robin Alam / IconSMI)

New Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian Vangorder watches over his defense during Notre Dame’s 2014 Blue Gold Game. (Photo: Robin Alam / IconSMI)

It is timely to examine the reconstituted coaching staff or “Football Faculty” as their primary function is to teach.  Ah yes, we love our mantra “it’s not the X’s and the O’s but the Jimmies and the Joes” Certainly, talent is a sine qua and recruiting a constant and high priority. But coaching matters.

There are four holdovers from the initial Kelly staff of 2010:

Mike Denbrock, now offensive coordinator (de jure)
Tony Alford, running backs
Mike Elston, defensive line
Kerry Cooks, defensive secondary
At different moments it seems that Denbrock, Alford or Cooks is Notre Dame’s most effective recruiter, though Alford seems to be the consensus choice.

And there is a fifth:

Paul Longo, Coordinator, strength and conditioning. He was unique in that he was named a “coordinator” and compensated and perked at a level commensurate with the offensive and defensive coordinators. Opinions on sports fitness and football training are varied, but Kelly clearly emphasized that conditioning and physical productivity were central, not peripheral, to his regime. And the Kelly regime caught up with others on training table and nutrition.

Five of the original staff have departed:

Three have left for head coaching positions:

Charley Molnar, University of Massachusetts
Bob Diaco, University of Connecticut
Chuck Martin, Miami (Ohio)

It is noteworthy that these three have achieved the career rung of head coaching and equally noteworthy that none of the three is a premier position.

Two others left to join those TonTon Macoutes somewhere in a cave in Columbus:
Ed Warriner
Tim Hinton

It is interesting that Eric Hansen noted early during the regime that when the media initially spent time with the coaching staff that the media consensus, whatever that’s worth, was that Charley Molnar and Ed Warriner really didn’t fit in and had less sympatico and chemistry with the remainder of the staff.


This has been a concern, but when Martin left it was revealed that he was making over $600 K. That was a surprise on the upside.  Certainly there will always be a Notre Dame discount, like it or not. Those who do not appreciate the honor of coaching at Notre Dame will never accept the discount. But coaching at Notre Dame allows an assistant to ply his craft without getting to know a lot of local bail bondsmen, as occurs at many place. The RKG requirement is a sword with two edges, excluding some players but providing an audience less likely to cause problems and more likely to listen and absorb. Trust matters.

The Five new hires, since 2010

Scott Booker-elevated from a graduate assistant position was identified as a potential recruiting superstar, but time and maturity, and better closing skills will enhance enthusiasm and work ethic. Booker works with the TES and is special teams coordinator.  Kelly however, positions special teams responsibility more broadly, and his actions belie the myth that special teams are 1/3 of the game. Kelly spends more money, time and energy on offense and defense, and takes a conservative position on special teams, preferring to avoid the big play. This is less than popular with the madding crowd. But be clear: special teams is the third, and least nurtured child.

Bob Elliott-to the manor born, he is the son of Chalmers “Bump” Elliott, the former head coach, pre-Schembechler of Michigan’s Wolverines.  This Iowa graduate has spent 11 years as a defensive coordinator at the college level. Conjecture is that, but for his cancer he might have been elevated to head coach at Iowa State after Chizik left. A warm, wonderful guy, he is positive with players, and will be a great help to Van Gorder as Elliott slides down from the secondary to be the linebacker coach. Keep your eye on this trend. First John Turner, and more recently, and perhaps temporarily, James Onwualu have moved down to linebacker. It seems that more pass responsibility will be demanded of the linebackers. Second, is the base Irish defense moving toward a precise 4-3 or something more akin to a 4-2-5? Inquiring minds want to know!! In addition to his technical ability, Elliott’s mien plays well with recruits, parents and players.

Harr Hiestand-a solid, deep resume, having served as the O Line coach for the Monsters (at least they call themselves that) of the Midway from 2005-2009. Went to Tennessee when they were in typical post-he-always-leaves-a-trail-like-a-slug disarray which ensues when Lane Kiffin leaves. But he got rave reviews from the only opinions which count-the Vol players.  Let’s see what James Stone, former Vol OL said at the most recent combine:

“I feel like Harry Hiestand was instrumental in the development for all of us because he was our first coach when we were true freshmen,” Stone said at the NFL Combine. “Most of us had to play as true freshmen and I feel like he was instrumental in trying to get us prepared and letting us know the expectations we needed.  I felt [Hiestand] was great because he was very straightforward,” Stone said. “He really let you know how he felt about what you did.  He gave a lot of guidance and a lot of one-on-one meetings with Coach Hiestand where he was just trying to help me become a better player, not just on the field but with my film habits, teaching me how to study film and teaching me how to learn about defenses and things of that nature.”

James said he and the five other linemen — six of the 50 offensive linemen invited to the NFL Combine had been coached by Hiestand at one point — enjoyed a conversation together about the coaching habits
of their former mentor and expressed appreciation for his role in their future NFL payday.

“He’s a great coach and did a great job developing us our freshman and sophomore year,” James said.

Christ Watt offered this at the combine “We took a lot of what we learned from him and carried it on.  He’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me as an offensive linemen and for our group at Notre Dame,” he said. You can tell he’s a guy that brings the passion to the room every day when he comes in, a guy that you want to work for and play for.”

Further, there is a Notre Dame OL whose Dad posts on one of the paysites. The dad passes on glowing reports from the son and his fellow offensive linemen. They are captivated by and enthralled with Hiestand, and the trust they have in him, on a micro and macro level, is at its maximum possible level.  All position coaches are involved in recruiting for their position, but Hiestand has conflated the recruiting and coaching responsibilities more completely than any recent Notre Dame assistant.  As “his” recruits start to fill up the pipeline, Notre Dame will be near the top of the offensive lines in America.  Great! It all begins in the trenches.

Brian Van Gorder - The most credentialed defensive coordinator ever hired at Notre Dame. Johnny Ray was the best previous hire, and such hires as Serafino “Foge” Fazio, Barry Alvarez and Greg Mattison were noteworthy. But Van Gorder has two (undistinguished) stints as a head coach, a sterling career in football’s best conference (the SEC) a successful stint as a defensive coordinato4r in the NFL with the Falcons.  He picked up experience and advanced knowledge of pressure packagaes with Rex Ryan while coaching with the Jets for the last two years.

His energy belies his age.

But he immediately took hold of his new job when he arrived. First was dismissing the recruiting profiling that was so essential to the predecessor.  Be clear-Bob Diaco established a defensive identity and toughness, and his 2012 defense was be far the best this millenium. Second, Brian Van Gorder began shifting to a more aggressive defense (Yeah, yeah, everybody wants a more aggressive defense until you get torched on a blitz or have receivers catch balls wider than your widest and deeper than your deepest)

We do not know the future, but we can count on Van Gorder to deliver two things:

(1) We will not play mistake avoidance football against Navy, which cause some uncomfortable moments last November.

(2) We will adjust better, as when someone like, oh, say, Alabama is running the stretch play on the same audible against the same adjustment in a championship game.

There is a lot of change to manage between now and next Fall. Van Gorder combines great enthusiasm, a demand for raising the bar on each and every snap, even in practice, and the ability to not put his players in position where they will be set up to fail. HIs most challenging months coaching at Notre Dame will be from right now to next October, when he must prepare his troops however inexperienced and limited in grasp, for the 15 day gauntlet of Stanford, North Carolina and Chief Osceola and the Seminoles.

Matt LaFleur- not as flamboyant or visible as Van Gorder, this is a vital hire. His primary responsibility is developing the non-starting quarterbacks, for now. This has two important benefits. First the sub will be more ready to play, whether it is part of the game plan or not. Cf Hendrix, Andrew, second half against USC in 2013. Second LaFleur will be developing all future starters. This is vital to shape their skill set and technique for the future starting role, but they feel less deserted and left out and are marginally less likely to depart for another school and opportunity.

Of all his credentials, getting Kirk Cousins to perform at the level he did in 2013 for the Washington franchise of the NFL may be the most remarkable.  And young Matt (just 11 years a graduate) may be what Kipling wrote about in “If.” He had to deal with two dysfunctional families: the Griffins and the Shanahans.  Kyle Shanahan was caught trying to throw Dad Mike under the bus but later averred that he had been “taken out of context.” And Griffin’s father was as useless as the “brand Griffin” handlers his son had. Stuff happens with people, stage dads and quarterbacks. LaFleur can keep on course in the midst of the maelstrom. Yeah, he coached up Matt Schaub and Rex Grossman to levels higher than previously achieved.

A year from now, if Golson stays, LaFleur will be the shepherd of Zaire, DeShone Kizer and Blake Barnett. (Note: Please shoot me, or anyone, who ever describes Barnett as the “Lebron James of High School Football). But LaFleur is already working the program as he talks to Barnett at least three times per week.

About 35 years ago, Dan Devine, proud of his OL and running backs, averred, when pressed that “quarterback is one of the least important positions on offense.” That era is gone, mothballed, archived. This guy LaFleur, and the way he is being used, is pitch perfect for the new era.

This staff is far beyond the staff 2010 and several light years away from the confederacy of dunces who posed as Notre Dame coaches in 2009.

And the best is yet to come.

Go Irish!

Comments to this Article

  • Woody O’Hardy commented on May 6th, 2014 at 1:03 am

    We really should kick a$$ this year. I think this staff will be excellent and the player talent is there….otherwise, Kelly couldn’t have enticed these new coaches to come to South Bend.

    Also, I see this staff as a positive reflection on Coach Kelly.

    Go IRISH!


    PS It will be interesting to see if BVG can recruit. I think he will be solid in that area. I sure hope so anyway. He looks very charismatic and has the street creds.


  • Toulmin H. Brown commented on May 6th, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    “Coaching Matters” is right.


  • bj commented on May 6th, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    1964–74 Ara Parseghian 11 95–17–4 .836 1966, 1973
    1975–80 Dan Devine 6 53–16–1 .764 1977
    1981–85 Gerry Faust 5 30–26–1 .535
    1986–96 Lou Holtz 11 100–30–2 .765 1988
    1997–2001 Bob Davie 5 35–25 .583
    2001* George O’Leary 0 0–0 .000
    2002–2004 Ty Willingham 3 21–15 .583
    2004** Kent Baer 1 0–1 .000
    2005–2009 Charlie Weis 5 35–27 .565
    2010–present Brian Kelly 3 33–13 .717

    kelly is in the fight!


    NDFanCanada replied on May 7th, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    I love the inclusion of O’Leary and Baer!


  • Jerry Seppanen commented on May 7th, 2014 at 11:43 am

    Of course coaching matters. Besides the X&O’s the mental part of the game
    is huge and the coaches play a huge part.


  • NDFanCanada commented on May 7th, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    Great article, again. Hope BVG can recruit, that would be huge addition to his already impressive resume. Was curious to watch Saban hire both Kiffin and Lupoi. Both seem to have checkered resumes save for one obvious attribute: they are both known as excellent recruiters. Wondering if the ground is beginning to shift on how recruiting is done.


  • HURLS commented on May 7th, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    BK always struck me (seeing the clips from the locker room) as using “staged” intensity. BVG, though I’ve seen no video, has the natural intensity I think is mandatory to administer defense. We’ll see, huh? Can’t wait. GO IRISH!


  • HURLS commented on May 7th, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    didn’t make the “Notify me…” box above. If you read above, please read this. (I do have box checked)


  • duranko commented on May 8th, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    One of the under-discussed themes of the 2014 off season is Kelly’s “RADICAL” switch in defensive scheme.

    From the get go it appeared that we were going for the profile HUGE DE/OLBS for the 3/4 in the manner of Stanford and Alabama But something changed, and significantly, and what seemed like a scrambled finish to the 2014 recruiting class was actually the first sign of a major retooling
    of the defense. Having vets like BVG, Elliott, Elston and Cooks will help the transition. And the concept of having former OLBs like Okwara and Ishaq playing DE, and guys like Onwualu and Turner playing linebacker is the kind of personnel shift that Miami used to terrify college football.

    If you look at the top teams in the the BCS conferences last year, their
    “profile”for size, weight and length of the OLBS is not far off from our current array. but there was something comforting in that size profile when we were trying to match Stanford and Alabama.

    It’s just hard to find those profile OLBS. And fast paced spread offenses made america’s highest paid coward, Nick Saban, bitch about the offenses of A&M, Auburn and Oklahoma shredded the proud Tide defense.

    Everyone always discusses offense, but this year’s defense will be fun to watch.


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