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Great on paper, rebuilt staff needs to hit the ground running

Todd Lyght ND


Joe Raymond

It’s official: Brian Kelly’s new coaching staff won the press conference.

Just about universally positive reviews came from Monday’s official announcements, with new coaches Mike Sanford, Autry Denson, Keith Gilmore and Todd Lyght winning the day.

Sanford lived up to his reputation, much more than a boy wonder with the look of a future head coach. Denson’s energy and passion for Notre Dame is the same as it was as a player.

Gilmore returns to a staff with two college teammates and a head coach he’s known for most of his adult life. And if Todd Lyght is the novice on this coaching staff, the Irish are in a very, very good place.

But a collection of brainpower is only the first step. And a large part of pushing back spring practice wasn’t necessarily just the search that took Brian Kelly across the country, but rather the work Kelly must now do working with his staff.

Kelly has spoken about “coaching his coaches” in the past. And one of the strongest benefits of continuity on a staff was that both assistants and head coach share the same message.

But new blood has certainly shown itself to help as well. Kelly’s 2012 staff featured three new faces and the result was an undefeated regular season. And in bringing in four new staffers, Kelly is likely hoping to recharge a staff that said goodbye to two original members and shifted Bob Elliott off of the field.

But in a spring that stands to be among the most important in the program since Kelly arrived, there is little time for learning on the fly or taking baby steps.

On defensive, Brian VanGorder needs to prove that he’s coaching the unit that played the first half of the season, not the group that got torched in November. That means coming up with a solution for slowing down up-tempo offenses, not to mention a few better schemes for shutting down the option.

Gilmore will help as a teacher along the offensive line, while Mike Elston becomes the voice leading the linebackers. Lyght, in his first full-time position coaching job, is in charge of a secondary that in previous seasons demanded two coaches

Over at, Lyght talked about his one-on-one session with VanGorder as they talked Xs and Os, a meeting of the minds of a mad scientist defensive coordinator and a coach who showed himself capable of achieving at the highest level on the field but is still emerging as a teacher.

“We were supposed to work only 45 minutes and it turned into an hour and a half and getting into deep conversations about 4-3, 3-4, techniques, teaching progressions,” Lyght recalled. “Coach Kelly came back in about an hour and half later and said, ‘You guys done yet?’ We broke for lunch and then got back on the board again.”

As confident as Lyght is in his abilities, he also is aware that he does not have all the answers. He is still a novice when it comes to having his name on a position group and recruiting on the road.

“I said I want to be put in a position where somebody was going to mentor me, to bring me along and teach me how to be the defensive coordinator for the future,” Lyght said. “I think Coach VanGorder with his extensive knowledge of football can be a great teacher for me. I’m learning every day too, so I look at this as a great experience for me not only as a secondary coach but as a future defensive coordinator down the line.”

Offensively, a crowded brain trust seemed to be far from a problem when it’s being discussed behind a podium. But we’ll find out how it works when the Irish need to convert a third down or reach a mutual decision on the quarterback battle.

The distinction between coordinating and implementing seemed to actually make sense when Kelly talked about it on Monday. But that’s the benefit of a head coach who served as the university PR department last season.

For his part, Sanford said all the same things, comfortable in his partnership with Associate Head Coach Mike Denbrock—who wasn’t made available, but presumably is on board with the changes as well.

But Sanford’s edict—to turn the offensive room upside down—sounds a lot better in quotations. That was likely Charlie Weis’ intention when he brought in Jon Tenuta to work with Corwin Brown after one season as coordinator, too.

Make no mistake, Kelly’s moves look nothing like the Tenuta debacle. But neither did Tenuta’s hiring at the time.

So with a press conference victory in the rearview mirror and spring football just ahead, it’s time for this coaching staff to hit the ground running.