Marcus Freeman has now added four assistant coaches to his first official staff at Notre Dame – even if none have been officially announced – and on Sunday, he made another great hire by replacing Mike Elston with Al Washington. Unfortunately, the beloved former Irish DL coach left the program for Michigan last week, but there is a whole lot to love about this latest addition to the Notre Dame coaching staff.
Al Washington comes to Notre Dame after three years coaching linebackers at Ohio State. He was only available for Notre Dame to lure to South Bend because new Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles also coaches linebackers. Larry Johnson is entrenched as the DL coach for the Buckeyes. Ohio State’s loss is very much Notre Dame’s gain in this instance.
Much like Mike Elston, the man he is replacing, Washington has been a better defensive line coach than linebackers coach though he did a fine job of developing the Buckeye linebackers and sending multiple backers to the NFL. Before Ohio State, Washington coached linebackers at Michigan and defensive linemen at Cincinnati and Boston College. During his one-year stint at Cincy, Washington coached the defensive line for Marcus Freeman’s first Bearcast defense during his time as defensive coordinator there.
As a defensive line coach, one of Washington’s best pupils was Boston College’s Harold Landry, who set a BC program record with 16.5 sacks under Washington in 2016. That ought to have returning defensive end Isaiah Foskey pretty excited. Landry was a 2nd round pick, but that came after a disappointing 2017 season in which his sack total fell to 5.0 while playing only eight games. Of course, Washington was coaching the DL in Cincinnati in 2017 too.
Mike Elston was one of the best assistant coaches to coach at Notre Dame over the last 20 years. Finding a replacement who could come in and not skip a beat shouldn’t have been as easy as it was for the Irish, but that is just what they did with Washington.
While Elston might not have lured in 5-star talent regularly, he did regularly develop players who didn’t have 5-star pedigrees like Ade Ogundeji into NFL Draft picks. Note, however, that Elston wasn’t the defensive line coach when Ogundeji was offered and signed. Still, Elston was a top-notch developer of talent for Notre Dame. Washington did the same at Boston College.
As a recruiter, Washington could very well offer an upgrade from Elston, who, despite all his success, never signed a top-100 DL during his time as DL coach for Notre Dame. The Irish currently have two top-100 caliber DL committed for the class of 2023, but both came after Marcus Freeman arrived and revitalized defensive recruiting.
Most recently, Washington was vital in Ohio State’s pursuit of Sonny Styles, brother of Notre Dame wide receiver Lorenzo Styles, this past year. Notre Dame and Ohio battled for Sonny Styles, but the Buckeyes beat the Irish largely thanks to Washington’s efforts.
Washington is the fourth hire for Freeman joining special teams coordinator Brian Mason, wide receivers coach Chansi Stuckey, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. Those three had low bars to clear to be seen as improvements from their predecessors, but Elston’s success set a significantly higher bar for Washington.
On paper, this hire feels like, at worst, a push which, considering what Elston accomplished, is a win for Freeman and Notre Dame. Given Washington’s recruiting acumen, it could even be an improvement down the road. He’s got some big shoes to fill before that type of determination can be made, though. Still, I absolutely love this hire and feel great about Freeman’s staff so far. He’s had a couple of curveballs thrown his way in the last few days, but Freeman isn’t buckling.