Another Fat Tuesday has come and gone. I hope you didn’t join the club a Krispy Kreme franchise in the UK announced, but I hope you had some fun with a day defined by terrible (pronounced “delicious”) eating. That brings us to the Lent season. Yes, a time to give up things real and imaginary. From the lame obvious joke (giving up giving up things), to the lame obvious ND joke (giving up Lane Kiffin jokes, which come on now, that’s just impossible), we all have a chance to give up something that deprives us of some part of our being. Somewhat genuinely, somewhat lame Notre Dame joke-y, I may just try giving up “being surprised by ND offseasons.” Fortunately, it’s only 40 days, so plenty of time for stuff to go wrong and later overreact to. But before fully embracing this, let’s discuss what’s been an eventful couple of days in an eventful offseason for the ND coaching staff.
Many sites have been reporting for close to a week or more several changes to the coaching staff, but in just the past day or so a number of these changes have been “confirmed” despite remaining unofficial. While I try to give credit where credit is due, the following sites have all to varying degrees reported the changes I’ll discuss below: 247sports, Football Scoop, Irish Illustrated, Irish Sports Daily, Sports Illustrated, ESPN…this isn’t intended to be exhaustive, just the sources I’ve read things from. We won’t discuss any of their misses, *cough* Brady Hoke *cough, cough,* and overall fantastic work by all these sites (assuming things pan out). I’m just not linking in this particular piece since no report’s become official and I honestly have no idea who had the “scoop” first.
For what it’s worth, the only site I trust for “official” information, und.com has not listed any of the recent hires rumored despite removing confirmed departures Kerry Cooks, Tony Alford, and Matt LaFleur from the website. So, let’s talk about our pancake dinner of “confirmed” coaching changes and discuss a little about what each might bring and the biggest question(s) I have about each:
Mike Sanford – Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach:
Where he’s coming from: Sanford joins the staff after spending the past season in the same role for his alma mater Boise State. In Sanford’s only season at the helm of one of college football’s best offenses, the Broncos finished in the top 10 in both points per game and yards per game. Despite running the ball more than passing it, Sanford’s offense ended up second in the nation nationally in completion percentage and 10th nationally in yards per pass. The team improved in points per game, passing yards per game, and rushing yards per game from 2013.
Why you should be excited: Sanford is highly regarded as one of the best up and coming young assistants in all of college football. He interviewed for the offensive coordinator vacancy at Ohio State this offseason and was a top target of Derek Mason’s to fill the offensive coordinator position at Vanderbilt. Sanford’s dad, also Mike Sanford, served as Notre Dame’s quarterbacks coach for one season in the 90’s. Additionally, prior to returning to Boise State, Sanford worked for the successful Stanford teams from 2011-2013. In 2011 and 2012 Sanford was the running backs coach (which should set the #RTDB crew’s hearts a flutter). He also served as Stanford’s recruiting coordinator in both 2012 and 2013.
Biggest questions: For Sanford, I really have two questions:
1. What does this mean for Mike Denbrock? Maybe Mike Denbrock doesn’t get the motor running like a 33 year old with a penchant for statue of liberty plays, but there’s an indisputable fact that Notre Dame’s offense, on a points per game basis, was the best it’s been during the Brian Kelly era. Denbrock had some health concerns to begin the season and maybe this was a mutual decision of Denbrock and Brian Kelly, but it does concern me. Denbrock is well-regarded and highly valued by Brian Kelly. I would guess he’ll be adding an Associate Head Coach role if he’s entirely transitioned out of the offensive coordinator, but part of me worries about his long-term future with the program a la Kerry Cooks.
2. Relatedly, the question is really how much control Brian Kelly will give Sanford? It’s hard to fathom that if Kelly would not surrender the play calling duties to someone he’s known for a very long time in Denbrock that he’d be so willing to turn them over to a guy with just one season of offensive coordinator experience. However, maybe Kelly views this as a chance to grow and innovate with the scheme. The question about “what is the Brian Kelly offense” will see yet another new chapter with the fourth offensive coordinator this fall in just Kelly’s sixth season.
Autry Denson – Runningbacks Coach
Where he’s coming from: South Florida….kind of. Denson was hired this offseason by Willie Taggart to coach running backs for the Bulls after spending 2014 with Miami-Ohio. Miami (OH)’s head coach is of course Chuck Martin. Prior to 2014, Denson spent 3 seasons as the running backs coach for Bethune-Cookman.
Why you should be excited: Denson’s name is familiar to any Notre Dame fan as he is the school’s all-time leading rusher. At just 38, Denson is still quite young and likely hungry to prove his value as a coach. Additionally, he can discuss playing in the NFL since 2000 with potential recruits and knows the pressures that come with playing at Notre Dame. Denson was born and raised in Florida and prior to 2014 all his coaching experience was in Florida as well. This is of particular importance given the man Denson’s most directly replacing, Tony Alford.
Biggest Question: For Denson, the question is whether he’s ready to coach and more importantly recruit at a major school. Having to so directly replace Alford, Notre Dame’s best recruiter, is likely to draw unfair scrutiny of his recruiting efforts, and the issue is whether he’s ready for such responsibility. There’s an interesting notion here though: Perhaps removing Denbrock from O.C. frees him up to assist and train the numerous young coaches Brian Kelly’s bringing aboard including Denson with recruiting efforts. Not only by helping scout and talk to recruits, but more generally giving them insight into the process and priorities of recruiting at the elite level.
Todd Lyght – Secondary Coach
Where he’s coming from: Vanderbilt…..kind of. Much like Denson, Lyght will join Notre Dame’s staff before ever coaching a single game for his previous employer. Lyght was hired by Derek Mason this offseason (poor Derek Mason), but only shortly thereafter Kerry Cooks’ departure opened the door for Lyght’s return. Lyght previously worked under Chip Kelly at both Oregon and the Philadelphia Eagles. He also spent one season at Bishop-Gorman High School. Bishop-Gorman is where current LT Ronnie Stanley went to high school as well as recent recruit signees Alize Jones and Nicco Fertitta .
Why you should be excited: Also similar to Denson, this is a homecoming for a highly regarded former Notre Dame player. Lyght was on the last National Title team, was a 2-time All-American, and team captain. He played in the NFL for over a decade, won a Super Bowl, and went to the Pro Bowl. In other words, Lyght’s got every sales pitch imaginable for possible recruits. He’s also had the benefit of working at both the college and professional level with one of football’s most intriguing minds Chip Kelly.
Biggest Question: While similar concerns about recruiting are present, I’m not as concerned with Lyght’s ability to recruit. However, the secondary play this past season was uneven, particularly at the safety position. More urgent than recruiting is going to be Lyght’s ability to extract maximum value from promising and important players Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield. From a coaching standpoint, Denson has more experience as a positions coach than Lyght. I don’t doubt Lyght’s knowledge of the secondary, but being able to convey that knowledge to others and doing it quickly will be pivotal to the 2015 team.
Keith Gilmore – Defensive Line
Where he’s coming from: Gilmore joins the staff after spending the previous 2 seasons in the same position at the University of North Carolina. He’s spent nearly the past decade coaching defensive line at various schools. Those stints have included time on Brian Kelly’s staff at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
Why you should be excited: Gilmore brings a ton of experience that Kelly’s other hires do not bring. In fact, Gilmore has more college coaching experience than Sanford, Denson, and Lyght combined. With so many unknown quantities, Gilmore’s familiarity with both his position and Brian Kelly are major bonuses. Very little should have to be done to get Gilmore up to speed with Kelly’s expectation freeing resources for the rest of the coaching staff. Gilmore’s had multiple players he’s coached move onto the NFL and is respected within the industry.
Biggest Question: It’s about the moves that accompany Gilmore’s hiring. It’s expected that Bob Elliott will move to an off field position of some sort while Mike Elston will take over Elliott’s duties as outside linebacker coach. It’s also expected that Elston will pick up Alford’s responsibilities as recruiting coordinator. There seems to be little doubt that Gilmore knows how to coach defensive line, but this marks a near complete shake-up of the defensive staff from last season. Given that 2014 was labeled a “transition” year to incorporate Brian VanGorder’s scheme, there are concerns about a near total coaching staff shift. Gilmore and Lyght are both completely new to BVG’s staff. Elston’s transition won’t be as drastic, but if he’s picking up additional recruiting responsibilities as well, is he prepared to meet that challenge? It’s important that the coaching changes not be used as a justification for why Notre Dame experiences another “transition” year. Nothing makes me sadder than thinking Notre Dame might waste Jaylon Smith’s entire career “transitioning” things…
So, for those scoring at home, basically Harry Hiestand, Brian VanGorder, and Scott Booker are the only ones not doing something new this offseason, and I’m not sure we’re done yet. But like I said, I gave up being surprised for Lent, and it’s now Wednesday.