Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly will begin evaluating his coaching staff this week, with the No. 1 priority finding a permanent defensive coordinator. But there likely will be other changes coming, too, after the Irish crashed to a 4-8 record in 2016.
Kelly said after Saturday’s season-ending loss to USC that he “absolutely” wants to be back at Notre Dame and denied reports he was exploring other coaching options in an early-morning statement Sunday. Unless something drastic changes, it appears he’ll be back as Notre Dame’s coach in 2017. But how many of his current assistants will be?
Earlier in November, Kelly said he’ll interview both internal and external candidates for the program’s defensive coordinator. That likely means linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston — who’s coached under Kelly since 2004, covering stops at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame — will get a look. Greg Hudson, who moved from an analyst role to defensive coordinator after Brian VanGorder was fired Sept. 25, could be a candidate as well.
“I think they need coach Elston and coach Hudson,” departing defensive lineman Jarron Jones said. “They definitely need them. For the first time in my five years — not to throw shade on any of my other two D-coordinators because they were great D-coordinators as well — I actually had fun in practice. I had fun coming to practice every day and working hard. I had fun going into the games.
“They brought a lot of fun back into the game despite our record, despite what we were going through. They made the transition very smooth for us, especially our young guys because, you know, that can affect our young guys more than anything. They made it as easy as possible for them.”
Still, the defensive structure implemented by Kelly, Elston and Hudson was always meant to be a temporary fix. Going outside the program to bring in a college defensive coordinator, like Wake Forest’s Mike Elko, would seem to be a favorable route given the magnitude of this hire — if Kelly gets it wrong and the defense remains a liability, it could spell the end of his tenure in South Bend.
Beyond the defense, there’s another coaching area that desperately needs a fix: Special teams.
Scott Booker, in addition to coaching Notre Dame’s tight ends, has headed up Notre Dame’s special teams units since 2012, but oversaw a group that allowed five touchdowns this season: A kick return by Duke, a blocked punt by N.C. State, a fumbled punt recovered by Miami and a kick and punt return by USC’s Adoree’ Jackson on Saturday.
In addition to those five touchdowns, Notre Dame gave away possession twice on punt returns. The unit’s only saving grace was C.J. Sanders’ two kick returns for touchdowns, coming against Syracuse and Army. S&P+ ranked Notre Dame’s special teams 80th in FBS.
Kelly said he’ll take a look at team’s offensive coaching structure, too, which has had associate head coach/wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock call plays instead of offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford for the last two years. Sanford came to Notre Dame regarded as one of the brightest young offensive minds in coaching circles, with Kelly hiring him to “turn the room upside down” back in 2015.
Kelly has never had to make major coaching changes that weren’t spurred by assistants leaving (Ed Warriner, Tim Hinton, Charley Molnar, Bob Diaco, Chuck Martin, Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks all left to take other jobs) in his seven years in South Bend. VanGorder is the only coach he’s fired at Notre Dame.
But the optics of staff continuity after a 4-8 season wouldn’t be good. It probably wouldn’t result in a 2017 turnaround, either. So changes are coming, though Kelly is still figuring out to what extent they’ll be.
“Everything’s on the table,” Kelly said. “I think I had to evaluate a lot of things within the program. There’s some really good things in place. But there’s always, I’ve always felt that the blend of continuity and change is the sweet spot. And for me, we need to clearly look at where that is because it was off. And so I have to clearly look at where that mix is of continuity and change.”