Between the 2010 and 2011 seasons there wasn’t any turnover on the Notre Dame coaching staff. This past off-season, however, Kelly lost three assistant coaches; and how he reshuffled his staff for the 2012 is a big reason why the Irish are making final preparations for the BCS Championship in balmy South Beach instead of recruiting in blistery South Bend today.
Around this time last year, then offensive coordinator Charley Molnar left Notre Dame to be the head coach for UMass while Ed Wariner and Tim Hinton left Notre Dame to join the newly former staff at Ohio State under recently hired Urban Meyer. With three openings on his staff for the ’12 season, Kelly got creative in filling the voids and as a result created a more cohesive coaching staff.
Kelly filled the highest profile opening a bit unconventionally. Instead of scouring the coaching ranks for an up and coming offensive coordinator or position coach from a spread offense, Kelly looked to the other side of the football… on his own staff.
Chuck Martin came to Notre Dame in 2010 with Kelly to be his defensive backs coach after leaving his head coaching position at Grand Valley State. It was Martin though that Kelly tapped to be his new offensive coordinator.
What many people forget is that when Kelly was forming his first staff at Notre Dame, his offensive coordinator at Cincinnati at the time, Jeff Quinn, was one of the few coaches who did not join him at Notre Dame. Quinn parlayed the success Cincinnati had to a head coaching position at Buffalo where he has won more games than he did the year before in each of his three seasons there.
Quinn had coached with Kelly at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati. His departure from Kelly’s staff resulted in Kelly filling the position with Molnar, a coach he was not as familiar with heading into his new role at Notre Dame. By filling Molnar’s vacated position with Martin, Kelly maintained some familiarity within the staff and the result has been an offense that has improved each week while developing a young quarterback, Everett Golson, with all of the makings of being a start under center along the way.
Martin wasn’t the only coach whose role on the Notre Dame coaching staff changed this off-season either. Tony Alford was retained by Kelly on his initial staff to coach the wide receivers after he served as Charlie Weis’s running backs coach and top recruiter. Kelly moved Alford back to his previous position to replace the departed Hinton and added the role of recruiting coordinator to his responsibilities – a role that Martin relinquished given his additional responsibilities as the offensive coordinator.
Alford’s work with Theo Riddick after his return to running back this season speaks for itself. The New Jersey native, like the entire Irish offense, improved each week as he got more and more comfortable at his more natural position after playing slot wide receiver during the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
To fill the open wide receivers coaching role, Kelly split the responsibilities between Alford and Mike Denbrock. Alford would continue to work with the slot wide receivers who the Irish wanted to line up in the backfield from time to time while Denbrock moved from being the tight ends coach to coaching the outside wide receivers and being the passing game coordinator.
Denbrocks move to wide receivers open a vacancy at the tight end position which Kelly filled from within by promoting Scott Booker to the role after he served as an intern during the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
For the final opening on the offensive side of the ball along the offensive line, Kelly brought in an outside hire in Harry Hiestand – the one time Chicago Bears offensive line coach and most recently the OL coach at Tennessee. Hiestand’s results have been as good as Kelly could have hoped for. Hiestand has done a tremendous job with the offensive line this season turning Mike Golic from a career backup into a very solid starting guard and shoring up the right side of the line with first time starting right tackle Christian Lombard.
Hiestand’s players have gushed about their new offensive line coach along the way and the results that Hiestand has helped generate on the recruiting trail will strengthen the foundation that has already been built in the offensive trenches. Notre Dame will add an elite set of lineman to the roster on Signing Day with Steve Elmer, John Montelus, Colin McGovern, Mike McGlinchey, and Hunter Bivin giving Notre Dame one of the best offensive line classes in the country.
To round out the defensive staff, Kelly added another new coach to his staff when Bob Elliot agreed to coach the Irish safeties. That job ended up turning out to to be a much tougher task than originally thought. Heading into the season, Elliot had 5th year senior Jamoris Slaughter and senior Zeke Motta entrenched as his starters. When Slaughter was lost for the season against Michigan State, however, Elliot had to groom a redshirt freshman who played offense last season, Matthias Farley, as his other starting safety.
Elliot’s work with Farley has turned the former wide receiver poised into a playmaker on the defensive side of the ball instead of a liability despite his lack of experience on the defensive side of the ball.
Further shuffling of roles placed defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in charge of coaching all of the linebackers after he worked with the inside linebackers in 2010-11 allowing Kerry Cooks to focus on coaching the cornerbacks where his work has been nothing short of remarkable.
Notre Dame lost two veteran starters to graduation in Robert Blanton and Gary Gray last season and then lost the only experienced starter, Lo Wood, in the preseason. Cooks took converted wide receiver Bennett Jackson and converted running back and true freshman Keivarae Russell and turned them into a pair of starting corners that have more than held their own against the passing attacks of Oklahoma and USC.
In retrospect, all of Kelly’s shuffling of the deck have Notre Dame in a position to cash in just a year later Monday night should the Irish knock off the defending champion in Miami. At which point, they will be able to turn their attention back to recruiting where the Irish also happen to have the #1 recruiting class in the nation after securing commitments from running back Tarean Folston and 5-star safety Max Redfield at the Under Armour All American game.
Turnover among coaching staffs is inevitable in the college ranks, just as turnovers are inevitable on the field. How a head coach responds to that staff turnover is often the difference between good seasons and great seasons. Kelly has proven this year that he is capable of overcoming that turnover and improving his staff just as his team has proven it has the ability to overcome turnovers on the field and not allow them to cripple their success.
What a difference a year makes.