In modern-day college football, it’s rare when a college football coaching staff remains intact for three consecutive seasons. Brian Kelly saw no staff turnover between his first and second seasons at Notre Dame, meaning changes following 2011 were virtually inevitable.
The tension inside the program, between both players and coaches, during last year’s disappointing 8-5 season was no secret. It was no surprise then, at season’s end, to see offensive coordinator Charley Molnar accept the head coaching position at Massachusetts and running backs coach Tim Hinton and offensive line coach Ed Warriner join Urban Meyer’s new staff at Ohio State.
Kelly's hiring process was explained as “doubling down on himself.” The clearest example of that is, prior to looking outside of the program, Kelly flipped defensive backs coach and longtime colleague at Grand Valley State, Chuck Martin, to the offensive coordinator role. He also promoted graduate assistant Scott Booker to a permanent position, leaving him needing to look elsewhere for one offensive assistant and one defensive assistant.
Defensively, Kelly, in a way, chose to also double down on his defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco, a former player at Iowa. Kelly turned to Bob Elliott, who coached in Iowa City while Diaco played for the Hawkeyes, to come to Notre Dame and work under his former pupil coaching defensive backs. Prior to coming to Notre Dame, Elliott spent time at Iowa State, Kansas State and North Carolina among others.
Elliott’s role was specifically the two safety positions, and it appeared as if he was fairly well off at the position with two seniors, Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter, as returning starters. That changed on Sept. 15 in East Lansing, when Slaughter’s season came to an end with a foot injury.
The injury left Elliott with three first-year players to fill Slaughter’s position: redshirt freshman Matthias Farley (who was a receiver on the scout team in 2011) and true freshmen Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti. The outlook was bleak, to say the least.
What played out at the back of the Irish defense over the final nine games was truly remarkable. Farley became an every-down player, excelling against both the run and pass, including key goal line tackles against Stanford and USC. Shumate became a valuable contributor in nickel and dime packages, and Baratti made a crucial interception vs. Michigan, the first game the team played without Slaughter, to thwart the Wolverines’ best opportunity to reach the end zone.
“[Elliott] has done an incredible job,” Kelly said earlier this month. “He wants to just fit into the staff dynamics. For us, that's one of our key ingredients to success is to have a staff that puts their egos aside and really works on the development of their players.”
To replace Warriner, Kelly turned to a familiar face in the midwest, longtime Chicago Bears assistant Harry Hiestand. Coming from Tennessee, Hiestand brought a more physical approach to the Irish offensive line, helping the Notre Dame rushing offense improve from 54th in the nation in 2011 to 28th this year.
Needing to replace both starters on the right side of the line, Hiestand helped develop fifth-year senior Mike Golic Jr. from a career backup into a full-time starter at guard and Christian Lombard into an elite right tackle. His coaching even caused left tackle Zack Martin to pass on entering the NFL Draft for an opportunity to return to Notre Dame in 2013 for a second season with Hiestand’s instruction.
“He’s everything I’ve ever wanted in an offensive line coach,” Martin told NBC Sports. “He pushes you on the field. He’s a technician. He’s taught us what it means to work, but off the field he’s somebody you can sit down and talk to and go have dinner with. The pride that he’s kind of instilled back in the offensive line here at Notre Dame, which hasn’t been here for a while, we started it and I want to finish it out next year.”
While the Irish’s perfect regular season can’t simply be attributed to two positions, Elliott and Hiestand, in their first years in South Bend, have taken uncertain situations and turned them into strengths for Notre Dame.
Credit Kelly as well for recognizing the type of coaches he needed to make sure “doubling down” didn’t result in a bust. That is, of course, other than a potential bust of him that could be erected outside of Notre Dame Stadium should the Irish win the national title on Jan. 7.