How Can Notre Dame Replace Alford and Cooks on the Recruiting Front

Replacing Tony Alford
(Photo: Robin Alam / Icon Sportswire)

The Midwest finally had its moment this past bowl season. Notre Dame’s victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl marked the first out of conference loss the SEC West had suffered up to that point, and Ohio State’s convincing playoff win over Alabama – with their third string quarterback, no less – sent shockwaves of humility down the Dixie Highway. But any talk of a power shift in college football should be put into proper context.

Fourteen of the 16 BCS National Champions were programs below the Mason-Dixon line, and this year’s Oregon-Ohio State championship bout was the first time a Southern program had been shut out of the title game since before the BCS era. The majority of the nation’s high school talent also now resides in the South, as highlighted by a previous UHND article that noted 61-percent of prospects within the Rivals 250 for the Class of 2014 hailed from Southern states. Southern dominance in college football is not a trend – it’s the future – and this fact played a large role in Notre Dame’s desire to seek affiliation with the ACC.

Head coach Brian Kelly has made major strides bringing Notre Dame into the 21st Century by successfully tapping into the Southern talent pool. Between 2011 and 2014, Texas and Florida topped Notre Dame’s list of states with the most signed recruits, being bested only by Ohio. The problem for Notre Dame is that Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks – both assistant coaches who left the Notre Dame coaching staff this offseason – were the key components reeling in Southern targets.

Secondary coach Kerry Cooks was extremely effective bringing Texas talent to Notre Dame, an area where Notre Dame had languished for years. Former team captain Cam McDaniel, former Nike’s The Opening MVP, Torii Hunter Jr., and emerging wide receiver Corey Robinson were all lured to South Bend by Cooks. His success at recruiting the Lone Star State is ultimately what caused the Oklahoma Sooners, who are heavily reliant on talent from Texas, to poach him from the Notre Dame staff.

Running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was an even more dynamic recruiter. Alford made the Fighting Irish a household name in Florida, prying game-changing talent away from the in-state Florida Gators, Miami Hurricanes and Florida State Seminoles on a regular basis. Alford’s list of successes in Florida is extensive and includes the likes of Louis Nix, Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston and Tevon Coney. His talent for recruiting also landed him the status as a wild card Kelly would call upon when making a push for a highly sought after prospect, a skill that ultimately encouraged Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer to offer Alford a position in Columbus.

If the South is integral to Notre Dame’s future success and the Irish lost their two best Southern recruiters, what’s the answer for Notre Dame moving forward?

Losing Cooks and Alford are undeniable setbacks but their departures are not as devastating as they may initially appear. The relationships the University of Notre Dame developed with local high school football coaches in Texas and Florida remain – the only change will involve who is representing Notre Dame’s message to those players and coaches.

If rumors prove to be true and former Notre Dame running back Autry Denson is named Alford’s replacement, Denson should be able to somewhat mitigate the loss of Alford due to Denson being a Florida native originally. Former All-American Todd Lyght, should he replace Cooks, may have a steeper hill to climb if he becomes responsible for recruiting Texas. Cooks was familiar with the territory as a Dallas, TX, native, whereas Lyght was born and raised in Flint, MI.

All is not lost for Notre Dame’s push for Southern prospects. It will simply take time for Alford and Cooks’ replacements to develop as recruiters and to learn to follow the trails already blazed by their predecessors. So where should Notre Dame look while it reorganizes its Southern strategy? The answer may very well reside out West.

The idea of prospecting future Golden Domers in California may cause Irish fans to cringe, and with good reason. Notre Dame’s relationship with California has been tenuous under Brian Kelly, ranging from being jilted on National Signing Day (Deontay Greenberry) to signing a 5-star prospect only to have him transfer before ever setting foot on campus (Eddie Vanderdoes). But that should all change if Notre Dame does indeed hire Mike Sanford to be its next offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

Sanford, Boise State’s offensive coordinator and quarterback coach in 2014, is widely regarded as one of the best up-and-coming offensive minds in college football, leading the Broncos to a 14th overall ranking in total offensive yards and averaging 39.7 points per game (9th nationally). But Sanford’s knack for recruiting has equally drawn praise.

Not only does the 32-year old offensive coordinator have experience recruiting at rigorous academic settings such as Yale and Stanford, he’s thrived. In his one season as Stanford’s recruiting coordinator Sanford managed to sign the No. 5 ranked recruiting class in the nation – the best in Stanford history – a not-so-small accomplishment considering the recruiting successes in Palo Alto under Jim Harbaugh’s watch. Sanford managed to sign three 5-star prospects with his historic haul.

The addition of Sanford would allow Notre Dame to unleash one of the best recruiters in the nation on California, another talent-rich state which, prior to Kelly’s tenure, had been historically kind to Notre Dame. Sanford’s hiring would open the door to elite talent out West while Kelly’s staff reestablishes its relationships down South with new faces.

As was said last week, Notre Dame fans should relax. Kelly and his staff will still retain the ability to sign blue chip prospects – they’ll just temporarily hail from a different region of the United States.

Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at or follow him on twitter.

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  1. Archangel, you’ve emphasized the “RKG” theme in your recent posts and appropriately. Thinks are so much different now, as they start “shopping from a different aisle” early and are very focused at having the prospect AND HIS FAMILY focus on the ND Gestalt. The olden romance of having a great recruiter swoop in late and steal a kid’s heart and signature is just not the way it’s done.

    Two of this year’s RKG’s really intrigued me. St. Brown and Sanders.

    There are 5 high achievement athletes among their parents. Sanders dad and step dad both played in the NFL, Mom was a top leve college hooper. St. Brown’s dad was a world class bodybuilder and the mom, Miriam was a highly competitive athlete. these folks know the game of hype and athletes being used, and they would be expected to guide their kids to a better p;lace, where they can perform athletically, but get treated as a total person in the process. These recent hires fit right in with that developing theme.

    I think that the 2015 class was instructive in that only McKinney decommitted, for well-documented reasons. The process is improving, far beyond the mere lead recruiter, and they are getting kids who are going to stay and succeed, during their eligibility and thereafter.

    It’s really different now.

  2. It will be interesting to see how much control Kelly gives Sanford with this offense. I hope he gives him total control. If he does I predict Notre Dame’s offense will be nearly unstoppable..

    1. C’mon repete

      pete commented on February 15th, 2015 at 5:29 pm
      Congratulations to Tori. Hope everything works out for him. On a side note, I’m tempering my excitement on the Sanford hire until I see if Kelly is going to give him full control of the offense- playcalling scheme, game planning, philosophy, etc. I hope he does. Meyer gave Herman complete control , Saban gave Kiffin complete control.

  3. Coach Kelly is one of the top coaches in the country.

    He had an average season last year because of the many injuries and suspensions

    He would have won the Fla.State game if that Seminole referee didn’t excitedly yell wait, wait I think I found a penalty.

  4. Starting to feel a little better about losing Tony Alford. I wasn’t that upset at losing Cooks but Alford was such a great recruiter I hated losing him because its hard getting talent out of the state of Florida. Denson was just named RB Coach and he already has relationships with a ton of high school coaches in the state and that will help because I think these young kids will relate with Denson and recruiting is all about relationships.

    Getting Sanford was simply a HR by Brian Kelly. I can’t wait to see what he can do in the state of California in regards to recruiting. Notre Dame just added 3 young hungry coaches to its staff. Kelly now needs to bring in a new DL Coach……badly.

  5. Recruit the right character, the qualified student, the quality athlete, using honest and determined “sales” people (coaches) with an organized plan. Then apply the ability to develop the student athlete capabilities. Finally you gotta motivate and coach em up. All sounds simple, but we know it isn’t.

    Therefore it up to the head coach to consistently tie the string of success through these principles. We’ve seen it in action with Ara, Dan, Lou, and then it stopped. Jury is STILL out on Kelly I think.

  6. “For the time being” and “in the short term” is all you can count on when you seek top-notch assistants. They step in, prove themselves as excellent recruiters/coaches, then move on and up to head coaching positions, or at the very least, assistant head coaches or co-ordinators. We were as fortunate to keep Alford and Cooks for five years as we are to secure and keep excellent recruits on the team for four years. It’s where college football has evolved. Excellence results in greater opportunity beyond ND.

    ND has much to offer to the RKG, despite losing top notch recruiters like Cooks and Alford. From all I’ve read, Sanford is an excellent hire if it holds true. Selling ND to the right kind of elite talent should make the messenger less relevant than the product and opportunity that’s offered. If the next hires are Lyght and Denson, however inexperienced as recruiters, they’re proof what ND can help realize beyond your college playing days. The pool of talent to draw upon is more limited, making recruiting more of a challenge, but the opportunity for those who seize it isn’t. That remains ND’s key message to those with the ears to hear and the determination to actually be student-athletes, despite the messenger who is recruiting.

  7. it’s a system ND is trying to create. If they have success, then the coaching door shouldn’t matter that much as long as the HC is still there. In a year or 2, you’ll see OSU losing their coaches for opportunities, but I don’t see OSU dropping off while Urban is at the wheel. It’s just like the players, next man in.

  8. I am excited to see former ND players getting a shot at coaching at their Alma Mater. They might actually stay around awhile. I am very excited for Sanford, but the only problem I see is that he may not stay around very long. It is hard enough to win at ND without coaches being revolving doors.

  9. I agree. Todd Lyght is a good man and has the image that parents are going to welcome and want for their sons. I have no doubt his upside will be stronger than Kerry Cooks in the long run. The question will always be can he get top ten safeties and cornerbacks to commit to South Bend.

  10. It is hard for me to imagine Todd Lyght, ND Alum, National Champ, Pro Bowler, Super Bowl champ not being a real strong recruiter for CB and safety.

  11. What worries me is how this “turmoil” will effect this years class. So far we have 1 commitment, a good very good recruit, but just 1. We are in dire need of RBs and Safeties in this class. We could also use a couple of 5 star Defensive linemen. But Blue Chip guys aren’t likely to commit amidst all the confusion.

    Hopefully this gets settled, and we get a couple of top notch coaches that kids want to play for.

      1. I’m with you, Notre Dan. Everyone just CALM-DOWN! I mean, it’s great that ND has such rabid fans who can “pay attention to detail” like BK is after. But for crying out loud – recruiting is an imperfect science; it’s rare that recruits even stick to their recruited position; and MOST IMPORTANTLY, these are still kids! The will grow physically. They will mature mentally. And you goth let the kids have some fun…which, in So.Bend, means they won’t get into much trouble. (unless w/e trips to chicago; but that’s another story) Let the young men grow as young men do grow.

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