As Notre Dame closes in on its Dec. 28 date with Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe bowl, Irish head coach Brian Kelly faces a decision that will have a far more lasting impact than his game plan for the Scarlet Knights.
Defensive coordinator and 2012 Broyles Award winner Bob Diaco left the program to become the head coach at Connecticut Thursday. While the loss of Diaco was not a shock given his age (40), passion and success of his defenses in recent years, it appeared as if Notre Dame may be able to hold on to Diaco for another season given the relatively small number of head coach openings this offseason.
Kelly now faces his biggest staff hire since coming to South Bend four years ago. As an offensive mind, Kelly allowed Diaco to make most of the decisions on defense. After some early struggles, most notably the 2010 loss to Navy and the 2011 loss to Michigan, Diaco molded the Irish into one of the nation’s best defenses, finishing the 2012 regular season with the best scoring defense in the nation en route to the BCS Championship Game.
When offensive coordinator Charley Molnar left for Massachusetts following the 2011 season, Kelly elected to go with a comfort hire, transitioning defensive backs coach Chuck Martin to the offensive side. Kelly and Martin had worked together at Grand Valley State for four years, where Martin succeeded Kelly as head coach following Kelly’s departure for Central Michigan. Martin left last week for Miami (OH), but again, the offense will still be Kelly’s regardless of who succeeds Martin.
Replacing Diaco is far more complex challenge. How important is hiring someone who has experience as a coordinator at a major program? What about scheme? Could a 4-3 coach jive with 3-4 personnel? (The answer is yes. The lines between a 4-3 and 3-4 are far more blurred than most people think). How important is continuity? Could an in-house promotion prevent Diaco from taking an Irish assistant with him to Connecticut?
Kelly’s quandary can be addressed in a simple manner: promote Kerry Cooks.
Cooks, currently the co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach, has already been given the interim defensive coordinator tag for Pinstripe Bowl preparations. He arrived at Notre Dame with Kelly in 2010, having spent the previous four seasons coaching defensive backs at Wisconsin, which included a 12-win, a 10-win and a 9-win season.
While the 2011 Michigan game was a referendum on how not to play pass defense, player development overall under Cooks has been a strength. As the Irish’s cornerbacks coach, Cooks was forced to start a converted wide receiver (Bennett Jackson) and a true freshman converted running back (KeiVarae Russell) in 2012. Despite the severe lack of depth and experience, Notre Dame won all 12 regular-season games, due in large part to its defense.
Perhaps more important than his role as a teacher, Cooks has emerged as an elite recruiter, focusing most of his efforts in Texas, where the Irish have made significant inroads in recent years. The Irish landed three notable recruits from the Lone Star State in 2013—wide receivers Torii Hunter Jr. and Corey Robinson and tight end Durham Smythe. Two more Texans will be arriving in the summer—defensive end Grant Blankenship and 4-star cornerback Nick Watkins. 4-star offensive lineman Jerry Tillery, from nearby Shreveport, La., was Notre Dame’s first commitment in the 2015 class and was recruited by Cooks.
Despite its location in the Upper Midwest, Notre Dame has consistently lured top prospects out of the three major recruiting hotbeds—California, Florida and Texas—under Kelly’s watch. Tight ends coach Mike Denbrock recruits California, running backs coach Tony Alford handles Florida and Cooks takes cares of Texas. It’s been a winning formula for four years now, and the Irish are now just 1-2 recruiting classes away from having a roster that can be considered on par with some of the heavyweights in the SEC.
After eight seasons as a position coach and about to turn 40 in March, Cooks may be ready to run a defense on his own. If the opportunity presents itself to do that somewhere other than Notre Dame (Irish Illustrated (subscription required) reports Diaco is targeting Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston as a possible coordinator at Connecticut), Cooks may decide to move on as well. Even simply being passed over for the position in favor of an outsider may drive Cooks to look elsewhere.
Losing Diaco, Martin and Cooks just before a crucial close to the recruiting cycle could be damaging to a class that, while solid, needs a couple more big pieces for the Irish to meet their goals. Currently at 19 commitments, the Irish have enough open scholarships to sign 23-24 players in this class, pending any further transfers and whether or not defensive end Stephon Tuitt returns for his senior season.
There’s no need to make any drastic changes. Yes, the defense slipped from 2012 this season, but the scheme and philosophy aren’t broken. Cooks has known Diaco for 20 years since they were teammates at Iowa, and the transition should be relatively seamless. Safeties coach Bob Elliott could then assume full control of the secondary.
Continuity is a rarity in the modern era of college football. By promoting Cooks (and perhaps Alford on offense), Kelly can smooth the losses of both coordinators. Success breeds change. Just ask Lou Holtz, who saw defensive coordinators Barry Alvarez, Foge Fazio and Rick Minter all leave for either the NFL or head coaching positions during his tenure in South Bend.
In Cooks, Kelly has a coach who knows the scheme that has proven successful for four seasons, recruits well in a state with as much talent as any in the country and understands the personnel on the roster. The right call for Kelly is to remove the interim label and hand over full control of the defense to Cooks.