Notre Dame Football: Examining the Coaching Staff and Brian Kelly's Options

Keith Arnold@@KeithArnoldNotre Dame Lead WriterDecember 20, 2013

Notre Dame Football: Examining the Coaching Staff and Brian Kelly's Options

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    In addition to preparing his team for the Pinstripe Bowl and finalizing a recruiting class, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly needs to replace both of his coordinators.

    The departure of Chuck Martin to Miami (Ohio) and Bob Diaco to UConn leaves Kelly with some intriguing options. He could fill vacancies by promoting capable assistants from within or reach outside his program and make a splashy hire. 

    For those worried about Kelly's ability to adapt and replace two trusted lieutenants, consider that every coordinator he's had in the last five years has become a head coach. First it was offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn, who left Cincinnati for the Buffalo head coaching job. Two offseasons ago, Charley Molnar left the Irish to lead UMass into the FBS level. Now Martin and Diaco get their shot at running a program.

    While the Irish head coach demands loyalty from his assistants, he also knows that success in South Bend brings opportunities for his staff.

    "I know that my coaches won't leave for lateral moves. They'll have to be leadership positions," Kelly said last week. "So I'm certain of that. But if there's a head job out there that makes sense for one of the assistant coaches, I'd look at them. I have really good football coaches.

    "You never know. But, as I said, my guys aren't out sending resumes looking for jobs. If the right situation comes along, all these guys, especially the ones that have been with me a long time, they know what it looks like. They'd be great at running programs." 

    Because Kelly has had such success priming assistants, expect the open positions on his staff to be coveted. 

    Let's walk through the head coach's options on both sides of the ball as well as some of the candidates Kelly is likely vetting.

Offensive Breakdown

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    The last time Brian Kelly had to hire a new offensive coordinator, he passed up offensive line coach Ed Warinner and chose Chuck Martin. Moving the team's safeties coach to the head of the offense was an unorthodox selection, but Kelly had great trust in Martin, who inherited the Grand Valley State program and brought it to new heights.

    Martin didn't just coordinate the offense, he coached the quarterbacks. Kelly has taken over that duty this postseason, working quite a bit with freshman quarterback Malik Zaire. But it'll be interesting to see if Kelly chooses to hire an outside coordinator or promote from within and hire a quarterbacks coach.

    Either way, don't expect the offense to change ( subscription required). Incoming freshman receiver Justin Brent heard it straight from the head coach, telling

    We sat down for a little bit and he was like, "I don’t know if you heard, coach Martin’s gone. He had a four-year apprenticeship and now that’s over and it’s time for him to do something big," ... He said the offense is still gonna stay the same. It’s the same offense he ran at Notre Dame and nothing’s gonna change.

    Let's take a look at some of the candidates for both the offensive coordinator job and the vacant quarterbacks coach job.

Mike Denbrock

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    Current Title: Interim offensive coordinator

    Previous Title (2012-13): Outside receivers coach and passing game coordinator 

    Why He's Worth Watching: Mike Denbrock is the leading candidate in the clubhouse to take over the offensive coordinator position. He's known Brian Kelly since their earliest days in coaching at Grand Valley State, and Denbrock could make the transition from Chuck Martin seamless. 

    A strong X's and O's coach who has the respect of players, Denbrock has coached offensive linemen, tight ends and receivers while at Notre Dame. He also served as Kelly's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at GVSU. 

    It remains to be seen if Kelly would also have Denbrock coach quarterbacks. It doesn't seem like a fit for the veteran assistant, so Kelly could hire an outside position coach to handle the signal-callers. 

    Gut Feeling: I expect Denbrock to be named offensive coordinator after the new year. 

Tony Alford

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    Current Title: Running backs, slot wide receivers and recruiting coordinator 

    Previous Title: Wide receivers coach (2010-11) 

    Why He's Worth Watching: Tony Alford was the lone holdover from the Charlie Weis staff. He's coached both running backs and receivers under Kelly and took over the recruiting coordinator title in 2012. One of the elite recruiters on the staff, this would be the type of promotion that's natural for a valued assistant like Alford, who some believe has head coaching potential as well. 

    Yet Alford's best assets are his ability to connect with young players, not necessarily scheme a game plan. While Kelly keeps close tabs on the offense at all times, it still might be a stretch to assume Alford could step in and run the unit. 

    Gut Feeling: Alford keeps his title as recruiting coordinator and possibly adds associate head coach. But he stays a position coach.

Bill Cubit

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    Current Title: Illinois offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach

    Previous Title: Head coach, Western Michigan (2005-12)

    Why He's Worth Watching: If Kelly is going to look outside his staff, Bill Cubit might be a guy to keep an eye on. After a successful run at Western Michigan, where he went 51-47 (and split games vs. Brian Kelly at Central Michigan), Cubit took over the Illinois offense for head coach Tim Beckman. The Illini made incredible improvements under Cubit's watch, jumping over 58 spots in the national rankings in six major offensive categories. 

    The connectivity is there. Kelly's coached against Cubit at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame, a place Cubit raved about when he visited with his Western Michigan team in 2010. 

    Gut Feeling: A contract extension and raise made official on Wednesday could take Cubit off the market for a number of teams looking to give their offense a boost. While Cubit might make an ideal quarterback coach to bring in, it will be tough to match the $500,000 salary that Illinois is paying him. 

Rick Neuheisel

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    Current Title: Pac-12 network analyst

    Previous Title: UCLA head coach (2008-11), Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator (2007) and quarterbacks coach (2005-06). 

    Why He's Worth Watching: Rick Neuheisel had success at his three college head coaching stops, finishing two seasons in the Top 10 at Colorado before winning a Rose Bowl at Washington. While he wasn't able to win consistently at UCLA, he's known for his ability to mentor quarterbacks.

    Neuheisel was a presenter at Brian Kelly's coaching clinic and has a regular conversation with Kelly as a radio co-host on SiriusXM. He isn't likely to be a coordinator for Kelly, as their base systems aren't similar, but Neuheisel is known for his ability to coach quarterbacks. 

    Gut Feeling: An interesting wild-card candidate for the quarterbacks coach job. Neuheisel has great connections on the West Coast but was born in the Midwest. If he feels like getting back into coaching, some successful work with Everett Golson could put him back on the head coaching radar quickly. 

Defense Breakdown

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    Expect the defensive coordinator to have a bit more autonomy, making the hire far more interesting. Right now, co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks is acting as the team's interim defensive coordinator for the Pinstripe Bowl. But while Cooks has shared the coordinator title since the 2012 season, this will be the first time he's led the unit.

    Kelly could go a number of ways with the hire. He could hire a coordinator from the outside. He could take the interim tag off Cooks—the first leadership promotion Kelly's given to a staff member he hadn't worked with before his stint at Notre Dame. 

    Cooks is hardly the only guy with valued experience on the current defensive staff. According to Pete Rousel of, Mike Elston reportedly turned down an opportunity to join Diaco in Storrs as his defensive coordinator. Current safeties coach Bob Elliott has over a decade of defensive coordinator experience as well. 

    After establishing the Irish as a multiple-front team, working between three and four down linemen, Kelly talked about the versatility he's looking for in a defensive coordinator earlier this week: 

    "As long as we have the ability to play both three and four down, and we have the ability to adjust to playing option, playing spreads ... Our defensive coaches and the schedule that we have have got to have a great deal of flexibility.

    "One of the most important things is you don’t have a lot of knowledge of your opponents, unfortunately, with so many different teams that come in and off our schedule. So you have to have a great bank of experience.

    "Now, you can gain a lot of that by maintaining continuity on your staff. I expect to do that. I expect to keep all my staff, other than losing my coordinators."

    On the recruiting trail, this tweet from Rachel Terlep of the Elkhart Truth, gives you an idea of what the coaching staff is telling committed players:  

    According to @AnnaHScout, safeties coach Bob Elliott told ND commit Jonathan Bonner the new DC would be promoted from within the program.

    — Rachel Terlep (@eTruth_Irish) December 12, 2013

    Let's take a look at some candidates on the defensive side of the ball. 

Kerry Cooks

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    Current Title: Co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach

    Previous Title: Wisconsin defensive backs coach (2006-09)

    Why He's Worth Watching: After joining the staff as the outside linebackers coach, Kerry Cooks quickly slid back to cornerbacks, a position he's more comfortable coaching, especially after playing defensive back in the NFL. 

    Cooks received a title promotion to co-defensive coordinator before the 2012 season, when his name was rumored for multiple coordinator positions. Given the first chance to run the defense for the Pinstripe Bowl, Cooks has a firm grasp of the system, played collegiately with Bob Diaco at Iowa, and has spent over a decade coaching collegiately. 

    Gut Feeling: Even if he's next in line, it's not a sure thing that Cooks gets the coordinator job. If Kelly stays in house with the coordinator job, Cooks has to be considered the front-runner, though he could share the title with defensive line coach Mike Elston, with Cooks still coaching cornerbacks and Elston sticking with the defensive line. Then Kelly would hire a new linebackers coach. 

Mike Elston

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    Current Title: Defensive line coach 

    Previous Title: Defensive line coach and special teams coordinator (2010-11) 

    Why He's Worth Watching: Mike Elston is another bright, energetic, accomplished assistant. He's been with Kelly since Central Michigan. He served as a co-defensive coordinator there, and has coordinated special teams for Kelly at all three FBS stops. 

    Elston's work transforming the Irish defensive line has been impressive, and this year's job showed his ability to develop young players quickly. Kelly talked about his assistants being loyal to him. Elston showed his loyalty. Now it's time for the head coach to reciprocate. 

    Staying at ND. Love thee Notre Dame. Go Irish.

    — Mike Elston (@CoachMikeElston) December 14, 2013

    Gut Feeling: I wouldn't be surprised if Elston gets a promotion in title. If Kelly chooses to promote from within, Elston will continue to coach the defensive line but could add a co-defensive coordinator title or perhaps an associate head coach tag.  

Luke Fickell

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    Current Position: Ohio State co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach

    Previous Position: Ohio State interim head coach (2011)

    Why He's Worth Watching: Luke Fickell's name has been thrown around for a job with Notre Dame back into the Charlie Weis era. He was interested enough then to reportedly check out South Bend, and there have been rumors about his level of happiness working under Urban Meyer

    Fickell's system isn't a perfect fit for what Kelly wants to do, but Fickell's a dogged recruiter and has a great pedigree. If the Irish are trying to replace Bob Diaco's youth and passion with someone similar, Fickell checks a lot of the same boxes. 

    Gut Feeling: Fickell's role with the Buckeyes could change with Zach Barnett of Football Scoop's report that co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers has taken the James Madison head coaching position. It's either the first step in a clean sweep for Meyer, who was disappointed with his team's defensive performance down the stretch, or a sign that Fickell will be given full control of the defense. 

    While some fans see this as a good fit, it's a long shot.

Dave Aranda

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    Current Position: Wisconsin defensive coordinator 

    Previous Position: Utah State defensive coordinator 

    Why He's Worth Watching: If you're looking for a great fit to replace Diaco from the outside, Dave Aranda is your guy. Traveling with Gary Andersen to Madison, Aranda's defense took the Big Ten by storm, finishing the season in the top 10. 

    Aranda was a Broyles Award finalist in 2012, the same year that Diaco took home the award. He plays a multiple defense, slides between three- and four-man fronts, and his defenses have sacked the quarterback and forced turnovers, two things the Irish desperately need. 

    Gut Feeling: Aranda spent a season with Andersen at Utah State before heading to Madison. Leaving for South Bend would be three jobs in three seasons—not the easiest thing for a coach with three kids. Aranda is making a reported $480,000, a nice number but not something that would stop the Irish from giving chase.

    There's been no word that Aranda is looking to leave or that Kelly is looking at the Wisconsin assistant. But it certainly is an intriguing fit. 

Justin Wilcox

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    Current Position: Washington defensive coordinator

    Previous Position: Tennessee defensive coordinator

    Why He's Worth Watching: Justin Wilcox could be in a messy spot, stuck contractually at Washington while he reportedly planned to join Steve Sarkisian at USC, per Adam Gorney of Yet Wilcox's contract has a substantial buyout that Trojan athletic director Pat Haden is trying to negotiate down. 

    Wilcox worked for new Washington coach Chris Petersen at Boise State, losing just four games in the four seasons he coordinated the Broncos defense. Wilcox left Boise and spent two seasons coordinating Derek Dooley's defense at Tennessee. He's paid handsomely at Washington, a reported $800,000 a year, and is one of the rising stars of the profession, still just 37 years old.  

    Gut Feeling: 

    There are literally a million reasons why this hire won't happen (Wilcox's $1,000,000 buyout). But if Kelly was looking to make a splashy move, this would be it. Plus, that money would be well spent, dealing a blow to the Trojans, who expected Wilcox to come with Sarkisian to Southern Cal. 

    The last time Notre Dame reached for a big-name defensive coordinator, it hired Jon Tenuta. The circumstances and personnel were much different back then, but while hires like this are discussed by fans on the Internet, this would be a shocking move by Kelly.

Ron Vanderlinden

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    Current Position: Unemployed, according to multiple reports 

    Previous Position: Penn State linebackers coach (2001-13) 

    Why He's Worth Watching: If Kelly decides to promote an assistant, someone still needs to coach the linebackers. If the Irish are looking for a veteran assistant, Ron Vanderlinden fits the mold. 

    In addition to spending over a decade coaching linebackers for Joe Paterno, Vanderlinden had a stint as Maryland's head coach. He was also an assistant head coach and defensive coordinator at Northwestern. 

    Gut Feeling: Vanderlinden fits if Kelly is looking to hire a linebackers coach. But it'll be interesting to see if he chooses to add a veteran assistant (like Harry Hiestand) or promote graduate assistant Josh Reardon, who has spent two seasons as a graduate assistant for the Irish, his second stint with Brian Kelly after fulfilling the same duties for two years at Central Michigan.  

    Reardon is handling the linebackers on an interim basis right now. I tend to think his promotion is more likely than hiring Vanderlinden. 

    *Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter. 


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