After weeks of speculation and rumors, Notre Dame finally announced its 2015 coaching staff following it’s notoriously long hiring process cleared all new Irish assistants. With the dust settled after the largest staff shake up in the Brian Kelly Era, Notre Dame very well could have ended up with the strongest coaching staff its had since Kelly took command of the program.
After losing its top two recruiting aces in Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks, Notre Dame fans were up in arms, but Brian Kelly responded by going out and upgrading his coaching staff and forming perhaps the most cohesive, complete staff he’s ever had.
The names of the new Irish assistant coaches has been known for weeks. Mike Sanford, Autry Denson, Keith Gilmore, and Todd Lyght might have all been officially named to the Irish staff today, but it had been weeks in some cases since their names were first connected with Notre Dame.
What wasn’t fully known before today, however, was the roles each of them would have considering there were members from the 2014 staff occupying positions that some of the group were rumored to be brought on to fill.
Let’s start off with changes to holdovers from the 2014 staff. Mike Denbrock will continue to coach the Notre Dame wide receivers, a role he took over in 2014, while also being named as assistant head coach after serving as offensive coordinator for one season. Denbrock took over the offensive coordinator position following Chuck Martin’s departure last off-season to be the head coach at Miami oh Ohio. He will, however, be relinquishing his offensive coordinator duties.
Mike Elston will be coaching linebackers in 2015 after coaching the Irish defensive line the last five seasons. Elston will also be taking over the Recruiting Coordinator position that became vacant when Alford left for Ohio State last month.
Bob Elliot will be moving into a special assistant to the head coach role after coaching Notre Dame safeties and outside linebackers over the last three years. In this role Elliot will be doing various roles including, “everything from researching some of the current trends in option football, to analytics, to roster management, to our bridge program in the summer,” according to Brian Kelly.
Among the new coaches, Mike Sanford will be the new Notre Dame offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Autry Denson will coach running backs, Keith Gilmore will take over Elston’s old defensive line coaching duties, and Todd Lyght will coach the defensive backs. Former Irish captain Maurice Crum was added to the staff as a graduate assistant and former Notre Dame quarterbacks coach and one-time owner of most Irish passing records, Ron Powlus, was named as Director of Player Development.
Another change in roles from the 2014 staff is that of Brian Vangorder. If you followed everything above you’ll notice that there is now a dedicated defensive line, linebackers, and secondary coach after inside and outside backers and corners and safeties had been split on past staffs.
That all means that Vangorder will not be assigned to a specific position. “Brian will definitely float,” Kelly said. “I’m sure he’ll spend quite a bit of time in the back end of the defense. He’ll spend some time back with the safeties. I think that’s something that we talked about. But he’s responsible for all the positions. I would think that his plan right now is to spend more time in the back end.”
Add all of that up and the 2015 Notre Dame coaching staff is rock solid – potentially more so than any of Brian Kelly’s first five staffs.
First of all, he’s got a legit up and coming star at offensive coordinator with Mike Sanford. Urban Meyer targeted Sanford to join his staff at Ohio State this off-season and was rebuffed. Kelly, however, was able to go out and land a rising star to run his offense and for the first time since he’s been at Notre Dame he’ll have an offensive coordinator with whom he does not have an extended history.
One of the bigger concerns that had been expressed about some of the rumor changes was the relative inexperience of Denson and Lyght, but the addition of Keith Gilmore adds some much needed experience to counter some of the inexperience Lyght and Denson bring to the table. Gilmore has spent the last eight years as a defensive line coach at Cincinnati, Illinois, and North Carolina as part of his 30 year coaching career.
Denson was able to land his spot on the staff despite his inexperience by impressing Kelly during the interview process. “I really didn’t think I was going to hire him, quite honestly, until he interviewed,” said Kelly on Monday. “He blew me away in the interview. His attention to detail at the running back position, techniques, how he was teaching the running backs, the depth and knowledge at the position both in the run game and the pass game.”
Sanford, however, really is the key to this coaching staff potentially be Kelly’s best and he couldn’t hide his excitement about adding the rising star to his staff. “When we were looking at bringing in the best and the brightest, we looked all over the country for that person that would fit into what we wanted to do offensively, coach the quarterback, somebody that could come in and coordinate the run and pass game together. Mike Sanford was clearly a cut above everybody that we looked at,” Kelly proudly stated.
In the end, Notre Dame managed to upgrade both its offensive and defensive coaching staffs through a series of shrewd moves by Kelly. Somehow he managed to keep Mike Denbrock on the staff despite bringing in a new offensive coordinator, he added a proven defensive line coach to the staff while keeping Elston on board to maintain continuity, and he added a couple up and coming coaches with Notre Dame ties in Lyght and Denson.
Kelly was very pleased with his hires on the defensive side of the ball as well. “When we’re talking about that defensive structure, what Coach VanGorder was looking for, we really think we hit a home run in putting the defensive staff together.”
Considering Brian Kelly was tasked with replacing one of the most beloved assistants to coach at Notre Dame in a while in Alford and a proven recruiter in talent rich Texas in Cooks, it’s hard to argue that he didn’t end up improving his staff overall. Prior to the 2012 season Kelly made several coaching moves that paid off dividends as Notre Dame marched towards the national title game. Next January we might be looking back at the moves that were announced today as one of the reasons for a potential playoff run for the Irish.