Getting coaching staff hires right critical for Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

Getting coaching staff hires right critical for Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

If Brian Kelly is able to generate a much-needed rebound in 2017 — which looks like a make-or-break year for his tenure in South Bend — he’ll have to fix massive problems on defense and special teams that persisted in 2016. 

On those fronts, the reported hires he’ll make appear encouraging. 

On Thursday, Sports Illustrated was the first to report Wake Forest defensive coordinator Mike Elko was nearing a multi-year deal for the same position at Notre Dame. And on Friday, multiple reports surfaced that former Nevada coach Brian Polian will be hired as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator — a post he previously filled for the Irish from 2005-2009. 

Both hires have drawn national praise, for what it’s worth. 

Elko’s defenses have been among college football’s toughest since he became a full-time FBS defensive coordinator in 2009 at Bowling Green. In 2012 at Bowling Green, Elko’s defense allowed an average of 4.68 yards per play (12th in FBS) and 16.8 points per game (10th). A year later, Bowling Green’s defense allowed 5.06 yards per play (24th) and 15.9 points per game (5th), which helped propel Elko and coach Dave Clawson to the same positions at Wake Forest. 

Despite a lack of recruiting star power, Wake Forest’s defenses ranked 36th, 64th and 40th in yards per play and 60th, 43rd and 20th in scoring defense from 2014-2016. 

While Notre Dame still needs an offensive coordinator to replace Mike Sanford, who left to take the head coaching gig at Western Kentucky, 2017’s offense should remain powerful enough that all the Irish need out of Elko’s defense is a relatively steady baseline of success. Think of it, at worst, needing to be along the lines of Notre Dame’s 2012 offense, which was remedially run and largely avoided catastrophic mistakes. 

As for special teams, Polian has had success with that unit in South Bend before. In 2008, Notre Dame led the nation in a statistical category for the first time in 20 years when it averaged an FBS-best 16.5 yards allowed per kickoff return. Shoring up some of the massive breakdowns that befell that group in 2016 is a priority, and landing Polian — who took Nevada to a pair of bowl games in four seasons in Reno — should help with those efforts. 

Polian, too, proved to be an ace recruiter during his time at Notre Dame, as he is credited with convincing 2012 Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o to take the leap from Hawaii to northern Indiana back in 2009. 

These are two hires Kelly absolutely has to get right to set Notre Dame up for a rebound in 2017. And in reportedly landing Elko and Polian, Kelly — at least initially — appears to have got them right. 

Notre Dame announces new WR, strength coaches

Notre Dame announces new WR, strength coaches

Notre Dame on Thursday announced the formal hiring of two new assistant coaches, one of which featured a somewhat surprising postscript. 

The program's new wide receivers coach will be DelVaughn Alexander, who joins the Irish from Arizona State. Alexander coached tight ends for the Sun Devils in 2016 and spent 2012-2015 as ASU's wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator.

Prior to his stint in Tempe, Washington was Wisconsin's receivers coach from 2007-2011 and also spent time at UNLV, Oregon State and San Diego State. 

"I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country,” Alexander said. “Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” coach Brian Kelly said “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

In addition to Washington, Notre Dame announced the hiring of Matt Balis as strength and conditioning coach, with Balis replacing longtime Brian Kelly lieutenant Paul Longo in that position. Longo has "taken a leave of absence" from the Irish, according to the program's press release. 

Balis has served in strength coach roles at Houston (2001-2002), Utah (2004), (Florida 2005-2006), Virginia (2007-2008), Mississippi State (2009-2013) and UConn (2014-2016). At UConn, Balis worked under former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco; while at Utah and Florida, Balis worked with current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. 

Whatever changes Balis brings to Notre Dame strength and conditioning will be necessary, as the Irish frequently ran out of gas late in games in 2016. By S&P+, Notre Dame had the second-best first quarter offense in college football last year, but ranked 90th in the fourth quarter. Similarly, Notre Dame's defense had its lowest ranking (61st) in the fourth quarter. 

Granted, some of those struggles were due to poor playcalling and gameplanning, but far too often did Notre Dame's players hit a metaphorical brick wall in the final 15 minutes. Perhaps an infusion of new energy into the weight room will help reverse that trend. 

"It's an honor and dream come true to be part of the Notre Dame football program," Balis said. "I'm humbled by this opportunity and I'll work hard everyday to give our players and program my absolute best."

"Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh," Kelly said. "He's already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn't be more excited to have him in place moving forward."

Notre Dame officially hires Clark Lea as linebackers coach

Notre Dame officially hires Clark Lea as linebackers coach

Mike Elko's first coaching staff as Notre Dame defensive coordinator is beginning to take shape, with the Irish announcing Thursday the hiring of Clark Lea as linebackers coach. 

Lea spent 2016 as Wake Forest's linebackers coach -- under Elko -- and previously held positions on coaching staffs at Bowling Green, Syracuse and UCLA. 

"Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system -- having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

In 2016, Lea coached Demon Deacons linebacker Marquel Lee, who was the only FBS player with 100 or more tackles, 20 or more tackles for a loss and 7 1/2 or more sacks last fall. Nationally, Lee ranked 62nd in tackles (105), 10th in tackles for a loss (20) and 53rd in sacks (7 1/2).

Lea also worked with former All-American linebacker Akeem Ayers at UCLA. 

The Nashville native and Vanderbilt alum (he earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees in political science) was also nominated by FootballScoop for its linebackers coach of the year award in 2012 while working with Elko at Bowling Green. 

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”