New Notre Dame Coaching Staff Brian Kelly’s Best?

Brian Kelly - Notre Dame Coaching Changes
Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly prior to the game against the LSU Tigers in the Music City Bowl at LP Field. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

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.


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  1. This message is for the short comings of the ND’s defensive schemes. Stanford did what ever they wanted on their passing schemes. As I watched the game unfold, it seems that ND did not make adjustments in guarding their tight ends. If this is not addressed before OSU game, ND is in big trouble. I honestly believe the ND is a great team. The boys need to be better prepared. GO GET OSU!!!!!

  2. Uh, guys, it’s a paradigm shift. It’s not apples to apples any more. With as many as four (ahem): “quality control assistants” this staff is much different in numbers and and in resources than any previous Notre Dame staff. Certainly the named official assistants will be the most visible, but don’t sleep on the yet undeterminded and potentially huge contribution of the quality control cadre.

  3. Ron , loved my time in San Diego — 15 years 1996-2011. Big mistake retiring in AZ. I miss the Irish play at Coliseum , Blarney Stone Pub in Gas Lamp , Seau’s on Sundays , drunk Cub fans at Petco Park , Caliente in TJ , fish tacos and the best climate anywhere. Great sports town and lots of Irish fans. I never made it over to Ould Sod Pub though.

  4. Do ya’ll (yes I’m from the South!) have any expectations/hopes??
    I feel that 2015 is the year of the Irish – we’re going to take it all the way home. It’s the easiest schedules we’ve had in years. NOW is the time; 2015 IS the year!! G O I R I S H!!!

  5. Actually didn’t Brian Kelly say Denbrock will oversee the organization of the offense in particular installing implementing and putting together the entire offense. Basically Sanford is a glorified quarterback coach

    1. 1)Rice 17 pts
      2)Mich 0 pts
      3)Purdue 14 pts
      4)Syrcuse 15 pts
      5)Stanford 14 pts
      6)UNC 43 pts
      Total 103 pts
      6 game avg. 17.1

      Final fact… You’re an idiot!

  6. Hey what about Harry H. our O-line coach? Let’s not forget him. He is really good in my opinion.

    Yes, I think this is a fine staff. Let’s kick a$$ this year…


    1. I think BVG took a bad rap, based on injuries, and lack of talent at some positions, also switches in positions. It was almost a plug and play “D”. You couple that with the offensive Turn overs and lack of depth you would need to be lucky to even compete.
      I really think we come to play this year with attitude.

    2. Shawn & Hank,

      Here’s how this works…

      bj will conveniently provide only “his” numbers and only from the last half of the season(when the defense was riddled with injuries) then whine over, and over, day after day, after day, that the coach needs to be fired.

      If we look at the first 6 games, (before all the injuries) VanGorder’s defense only gave up a total of 103 points.

      So it’s reasonable to say that with healthy front line players, BVG will field an exceptional defense.

      And in doing so, other college teams or the NFL will most certainly come calling for BVG, and then we’ll see knucklehead whine over and over, day after day, about how the guy is disloyal.

      bj could really care less about ND or ND football.

      He’s all about just having something to whine about.

  7. We all know Sanford will be a bum after the first 3 and out. I heard this same rhetoric about BVG last offseason.

    1. I still think BVG was a great choice, far from being a bum. His schemes are more complicated and besides injuries and suspensions there is always a learning curve when basically changing defensive philosophies as was done last season.

      Now with a season under their belts I think you’ll see the benefits of BVG’s defensive scheme in 2015

  8. I agree Dave. I really love the potential of this offense and believe Sanford is going to have it rolling. Hopefully if the defense improves Notre Dame can be in the playoff hunt next year.

  9. I would like to see Sanford be given some latitude to actually be an offensive coordinator and not get “micromanaging” from Kelly. Only time will answer that. I will say not a bad staff overall and I like seeing Lyght, Denson, and Ron P coming on-board. Hope these changes help generate a great season for 2015.

  10. I am a NotaDame fan. (ahem, re:spelling, Bostonian) I attended ND for the 1988 NatChamp season. BK has the right kind of crew to coach, this year. Previous 5-years all the coaches seemed as if copacetic with one-another. This year, we’re (coaches are) better. Of course this is prognostication, but it just seems to me that the ego’s of the coaches motivated the coaching in the previous 5-y rather than the mission of team-succes. VanGorder seems like a stud, and he doesn’t need to prove anything. Sanford seems INNOVATIVE (I’m trying to avoid the word “dynamic” since it’s WAY over-used) and that is just exciting as all get-out for me. i remember seeing a Boise State game last year and noticing how sound their defense was. And I thought to myself (I really do remember this!) “NotaDame would be DOMINANT with this defense!”


  11. im thoroughly impressed with what Kelly just pulled off.. i was a big critic of letting Alford get away, but Kelly outdid himself with these hires. In particular, i think the big improvement will come from Sanford putting more emphasis on the run game. We hae the horses up front. Lets ride them. Similalry, I think the DBs are going to improve, particulalrly the safeties. Todd lyghts resume is very impressive and thats going to carry a lot of weight and sense of responsibility with the secondary.

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