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As the Coaching Carousel Turns: Notre Dame in the Market

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The last week for the Irish coaching staff could best be described as a whirlwind, with three coaches leaving the Irish staff. What could the future hold?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Kerry Cooks heading to Oklahoma... Catastrophe! Matt LaFleur returning to the NFL in Atlanta... Chaos! Tony Alford joining forces with the Dark Prince of the Oblate Spheroid in Columbus... ANARCHY! What on earth has been going on in South Bend over the last week, and how will the Irish staff move forward? Well, let's start by taking a very quick look at each move.

The Peripatetic Triumvirate

Kerry Cooks: When Cooks was passed over for the defensive coordinator job last year, it seemed likely that his time in South Bend would not extend too far into the future. Fast forward a year, and he seems to be making a lateral move of sorts - he was Notre Dame's secondary coach, and he'll be Oklahoma's secondary coach. There are some mitigating factors that make this easier to understand, though: Cooks is from Dallas and played at Iowa, so he's returning to his Big 12 (or Big 8, if you prefer) roots, and rumor is that Oklahoma set a goal of dramatically overpaying the best secondary coach they could find to help fix their 117th-ranked passing defense. So Cooks likely returned to his roots for an above-market-value salary.

Matt LaFleur: LaFleur left the Redskins in the Mike Shanahan purge to take the same position at Notre Dame - regardless of Notre Dame's status in the college football pantheon, that's definitely a demotion. And LaFleur's a young guy, so it's not all that surprising to see him jump back to the League - especially since Dan Quinn also hired his brother, Mike, as he assembled the Falcons' new staff. This seems like the move the staff has known about for the longest time, since LaFleur mysteriously disappeared from the California recruiting trail a couple of months ago, as well as the move that probably troubles Notre Dame fans the least. LaFleur has nowhere near the history that Cooks or Alford has in South Bend.

Tony Alford: Oof. Tony Alford wants to be a head coach someday. After Alford interviewed for and lost the head coaching opportunity at his alma mater, Colorado State, for the second time this offseason, he felt that he needed to do something to upgrade his resume. He's done great work at Notre Dame and he truly loves the university, but he knew he wasn't going to make a move up here anytime soon and that didn't jive with his long-term plan. The thing that makes this move sting more is the fact that he left to work for Urban Meyer - I don't know about you, but there is literally no other move he could make that would bother me more. I would rather see Tony at USC than with Urban. The Irish lost their best recruiter, which needs to be addressed somehow in the eventual hires.

So... What Now?

Well, we already know who one replacement is. Per multiple reports, former Irish standout Todd Lyght will join the staff in some sort of capacity in the secondary - Kerry Cooks was the secondary coach last year, but previously shared the secondary when Elliott coached safeties. At this point it's unclear if Lyght will simply replace Cooks or if he will come on as cornerbacks coach and Elliott will return from outside linebackers to safeties. I think Lyght is a home run hire - you have the veteran Elliott to mentor him, however the titles fall out, and he brings the credibility that only a two-time All-American, national champion, All-Pro and Super Bowl champion can bring. Sure, today's recruits were in diapers when he was playing, but that resume speaks for itself.

Lyght started his coaching career at Bishop Gorman High, alma mater of Ronnie Stanley, Alize Jones, and Nicco Fertitta, then worked with Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich in Oregon, then joined Kelly in Philadelphia last season. He had just accepted a job at Vanderbilt a few weeks ago, but didn't hesitate when offered the chance to return to South Bend. He certainly has the subject matter expertise to coach the position, and he's an impressive voice on the recruiting trail.

The projections on who will replace Alford and LaFleur get a bit fuzzier. There have been a couple of names that have floated already for a new running backs coach, most notably Autry Denson and Eddie Gran. Denson and Gran are two extremely different candidates that each have pros and cons:

  • Denson is, as you might remember, Notre Dame's all-time leading rusher, is a proud Irish alum, is young, is from Florida, played parts of three pro seasons in Florida with Tampa and Miami, and has coached high school (Pope John Paul II) and college (Bethune-Cookman) in Florida. He no doubt has plenty of connections in Tony Alford's old stomping grounds. On the other hand, his coaching resume is pretty thin - one year of high school, one year of FCS, and one year with Chuck Martin in the "other" Miami. Is he prepared to go head-to-head on the recruiting trail with the big boys?
  • On the other end of the spectrum, Gran has about as impressive a resume as you could ask for. Currently serving as Cincinnati's offensive coordinator, Gran has been a college coach for 24 years, with stops at Miami, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Auburn, and Florida State. Before becoming Cincinnati's OC, he was Florida State's running backs coach and special teams coordinator. By all accounts, he's also a phenomenal recruiter - and he's a guy who has probably gone to war in SEC country more times than he can remember. But would the lack of an instant connection, like Denson has, make him any less able to sell Notre Dame? And would he really want to step back from being a coordinator to a position coach? Even if he is, would he want a coordinator job at Notre Dame or elsewhere in the near future?
Tough call. My heart says to pick Denson, but my head says Gran. That kind of experience is tough to turn down if he's interested - and rumor is he would be interested - and he could, believe it or not, represent a two-pronged improvement over Alford, who I love. Realistically Denson, who was just hired at South Florida as their running backs coach for 2015, could probably use some more seasoning and might be an ideal next choice for the Notre Dame job. Even so, I don't think Denson would be a bad choice by any means and I'd be happy to have him too.

When you move on to LaFleur's replacement, things get sketchier still. The eventual addition of Jeff Quinn to the Irish staff, who was Kelly's offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Cincinnati, Central Michigan, and Grand Valley State, seems to be a question of when, not if. Where will he fit, though? The Irish have respected and effective guys in each of Quinn's wheelhouse positions in offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. Nothing is floating out there about what Quinn's potential title would be, and there's a distinct possibility that he could join the staff in an off-field position. That would be truly fascinating - Kelly's right-hand man for two decades joins the Notre Dame program, but in a position that avoids overshadowing anyone on staff and allows the addition of another position coach with perhaps a different profile.

Honestly, I read as much about this stuff as anyone but I have absolutely no idea on who the quarterbacks coach could be. One interesting twist is that Kelly, when speaking with Brandon Wimbush's mother on Signing Day about  LaFleur's departure, promised that LaFleur would be replaced by a "competent quarterbacks coach" - which implies someone with experience in that role, which is not Quinn, who has exclusively been an offensive line coach.

The Endgame

There are other changes possible among the staff, from reshuffling to reassignment; there's no law that says the three coaches that left must be replaced by three people with the exact same roles. Some possible scenarios, which you could also do mix-and-match with or could all be completely wrong:

- Offense-Only Reassignments: Jeff Quinn does in fact become the quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator, while Autry Denson is hired as running backs coach and mentored by Quinn. Everything else on offense stays the same. Todd Lyght takes over the secondary and all other defensive coaches keep the same responsibilities.

- Offense-Only Reassignments: Eddie Gran is hired as running backs coach and recruiting coordinator, an established quarterbacks coach is hired, everything else on offense stays the same. Todd Lyght takes over the secondary and all other defensive coaches keep the same responsibilities.

- Defense-Only Reassignments: Todd Lyght takes over the cornerbacks and Bob Elliott moves back to safeties. Brian VanGorder expands from inside linebackers to all linebackers. Mike Elston stays at defensive line and adds recruiting coordinator.

- Wholesale Changes: Bob Elliott semi-retires into an administrative role and Scott Booker, a former safety, becomes safeties coach and recruiting coordinator while Todd Lyght becomes cornerbacks coach. Elliott mentors both. VanGorder stays at inside linebackers and Elston moves from defensive line to outside linebackers (which he has played and coached before), Mike Denbrock adds tight ends to his receivers coach responsibilities, and the new running backs coach - perhaps Eddie Gran - also becomes the special teams coordinator. And QB Coach X and DL Coach Y is hired.

That last scenario is quite a shake-up, but I think it has some legs; it seems there was at least some kind of contact between Notre Dame and Brady Hoke, and since Hoke has exclusively been a defensive line coach the implication is that the Irish might be in the market for one. With rumors of Elston being favored for the Central Michigan head job repeatedly shot down by people close to the Chippewa program, reassignment seems like a more likely explanation. This scenario also lets you hire a quarterbacks coach with an eye primarily to coaching acumen and allows you to target an elite recruiter as defensive line coach (Irish fans, prepare yourselves for the Era of Lupoi). I think there's more continuity here than there seems at first glance, and lots of opportunity. I vote for this one.

Some other names floating through the rumor mill - I can't even make a projection on how all these guys might fit in because there are just too many pieces, but they're good to keep in mind:

  • Louis Ayeni, Iowa State running backs coach, is a name that keeps coming up and is widely regarded as one of the next "it" guys among young position coaches. Minnesotan who played at Northwestern and in the NFL.
  • Chad Scott, Kentucky running backs coach with Florida roots who has recruited Florida and Texas before. Also played nine seasons in the NFL for the Steelers and Patriots.
  • Vince Marrow, also at Kentucky, as their tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator. A well-traveled guy who played four seasons in the NFL and has coached in high school, Europe, the MAC, the UFL, and Nebraska as well as Lexington.
  • Derek Lewis, Florida tight ends coach under Muschamp and a Louisianan, and perhaps more importantly a highly-regarded recruiter. Easy to hire, too - he's out of work since Jim McElwain decided not to retain him.
  • Charles Huff, Penn State running backs coach and a Maryland guy. Followed fellow Maryland guy James Franklin from Vandy to Happy Valley, though, so I don't know how likely he is to jump.
  • Ron Powlus needs no introduction to Notre Dame fans, setting many records during a roller coaster career at the helm of the Irish offense. Powlus kicked around a few NFL practice squads before Charlie Weis brought him back to Notre Dame; he was most recently Weis's quarterbacks coach in Kansas.
No projections on defensive line coaches - that need is less obviously open.