After a rocky 8-5 season, Brian Kelly has to replace three assistants, including key pieces on his offensive coaching staff.
That's because Kelly faced the same scenario after the 2011 season, replacing Charley Molnar, Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton in a staff reshuffle that led to an undefeated regular season and a chance to play for the national championship.
Needless to say, Kelly set the bar high in his initial staff moves. And with 19 starters returning (not including the likely reinstated KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams) those lofty standards are already in place for the 2015 team.
That's what makes the next month critical for Kelly. With spring practice slated to start in less than a month, Notre Dame's sixth-year head coach needs to find replacements for Kerry Cooks, Matt LaFleur and Tony Alford.
Cooks headed to Oklahoma to coach defensive backs—a parallel move that came a year after he was passed over at defensive coordinator in favor of Brian VanGorder. While multiple reports tag former Irish All-American and Pro Bowler Todd Lyght as his replacement, Kelly will need to find a replacement for Cooks on the recruiting trail, where the native Texan built major inroads into his home state.
Kelly also needs to replace quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur. After one season in South Bend, LaFleur decided to return to the NFL, reuniting with Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta, where he'll coach quarterbacks for new head coach Dan Quinn.
LaFleur's early departure is perhaps the biggest miscalculation that Kelly has made on the hiring circuit. While the young assistant will also get the chance to work with his brother (also hired as a Falcons offensive assistant) in Atlanta, keeping LaFleur for just 12 months after Kelly meticulously weighed his options before hiring him was a misfire.
Kelly trusted LaFleur with recruiting California, giving prime real estate to the young assistant as Mike Denbrock recovered from cancer surgery and worked through his promotion to offensive coordinator. LaFleur came up mostly empty out west, landing just Equanimeous St. Brown while coming up short on numerous other top prospects.
Perhaps the biggest loss for the Irish is the departure of Alford to Ohio State. Notre Dame's recruiting coordinator and running backs coach, Alford will take on the assistant head coach title with the Buckeyes along with coaching the running backs, making the move because he believes it'll help him better prepare to one day run his own program.
"This isn’t a move for today, this is a move where I’ve tried to calculate five years out," Alford told Irish Illustrated. "There’s forward thinking here, where it could potentially propel me to."
Forward thinking is a key to the next few moves for Kelly. Especially when it comes to recruiting. Alford's on-field role with the Irish isn't where his value derived, but rather it was the work he did with recruits and players as a trusted confidante.
As Notre Dame's lead recruiter in Florida, Alford established a presence in a state notoriously difficult to pull players from. And while he may have lost more battles than he won, Alford's greatest hits include recruiting wins like Louis Nix, Aaron Lynch (maybe call it a draw), Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston and incoming freshman Dexter Williams, who wasn't exactly happy about the news.
If there is some good news during this staff upheaval, Kelly seems to have some trusted lieutenants waiting on deck. None more so than former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn, who served as Kelly's offensive coordinator at both Cincinnati and Central Michigan.
Irish Illustrated reports that Quinn is set to join Notre Dame's coaching staff, likely as the quarterback's coach. With offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock turning down the head coaching job at Central Michigan, Kelly will be adding another established leader, though his fit as quarterbacks coach might take some transition time.
(Then again, Kelly's previous quarterbacks coach was Chuck Martin, who transitioned from coaching safeties.)
From there, Kelly's next hire may be to find not just a running backs coach, but an assistant who can be a force on the recruiting trail. Many believe that to be Autry Denson, the career rushing leader at Notre Dame who just took a job coaching running backs at USF for Willie Taggart.
Denson is a Florida native with established ties after coaching Pope John Paul II High School in Boca Raton for a season. He also spent three years coaching at Bethune-Cookman, more recruiting time in Florida, albeit at the FCS level.
Last year, Denson coached for Chuck Martin at Miami (Ohio). Kelly will easily have the ear of his former assistant before deciding on Denson. He'll also kick the tires on other assistants looking to make the jump to Notre Dame, especially if he's able to offer a recruiting coordinator position.
The loss of Alford and Cooks to traditional power programs has Irish fans reeling. Not just because they lost two proven recruiters, but because two assistants took the same job at a different program, and Notre Dame didn't (or couldn't) match the money.
But it's worth pointing out that both assistants missed out on promotions in the last calendar year, Cooks to VanGorder and Alford to Denbrock. And while financials certainly played a role in the moves, a change of scenery often follows a missed promotion, regardless of the program.
So the doldrums of February will now be replaced with a multi-pronged coaching search. And Notre Dame's head coach will need to reboot his coaching staff once again, finding the correct balance for success on the field and on the all-important recruiting trail.
All before one of the most important spring practices in recent memory.
After acing his last big staff reboot, Kelly will have to do it again. Especially if the Irish want to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff next season.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.