Notre Dame OC Mike Sanford officially hired as Western Kentucky coach

Notre Dame OC Mike Sanford officially hired as Western Kentucky coach

Western Kentucky on Wednesday officially unveiled Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford as its next head coach, an announcement that came on the heels of reports Monday the second-year Irish assistant would take over in Bowling Green, Ky.

"This is an incredible opportunity for a tremendous football coach and an even better person,” coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Mike possesses all the qualities you’d want in a head coach — clear communication, organization, commitment, passion and an astute teacher of the game. As a coach’s kid, Mike learned these traits at a young age and developed them throughout his career, especially over his two years at Notre Dame. He’ll work tirelessly to not only uphold the standard of success at Western Kentucky, but also build upon it. He’s truly excited (for) this opportunity and I’m excited for him, Anne-Marie (his wife) and the kids.” 

Sanford got his first full-time coaching gig at Western Kentucky in 2010, when he served as now-Oregon coach Willie Taggart’s passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Sanford, a former Boise State quarterback who attended Penn High School in South Bend from 1996-1998, also had stops at Stanford (running backs, recruiting coordinator, quarterbacks/wide receivers) and Boise State (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks) before being hired by Brian Kelly in the winter of 2015. Sanford's father, Mike, is the head coach at Indiana State and was Notre Dame's quarterbacks coach in 1997 and 1998. 

Kelly’s goal in bringing in Sanford was to “turn the room upside down,” with the goal behind that quotable quip adding a fresh voice to Notre Dame’s offensive coaching structure. Mike Denbrock, who was the team’s offensive coordinator in 2014, was moved to an associate head coach/wide receivers role but became the play caller of the offense for Sanford’s two years on campus. 

With Sanford heavily involved in gameplanning, Notre Dame’s offense exploded to rank 7th in S&P+ in 2015 and average 34.2 points per game. While the offense took a step back in 2016 (38th in S&P+, 30.9 points per game), Sanford can be credited with developing quarterback DeShone Kizer from being a relative unknown to a legitimate collegiate star and potential 2017 first-round NFL Draft pick. Sanford’s work with Brandon Wimbush, the redshirt freshman quarterback who will take over for Kizer next fall, could show itself in the future as well. 

The Western Kentucky program Sanford will take over has had plenty of success over the last few years, including its first top 25 finish in 2015. The last three Western Kentucky coaches have gone on to become Power Five coaches, too, in Taggart (South Florida to Oregon), Bobby Petrino (certainly some extenuating circumstances there, but to Louisville) and Jeff Brohm (Purdue). 

Sanford is the fourth Kelly assistant to land a head coaching job from Notre Dame, joining former offensive coordinators Charley Molnar (UMass) and Chuck Martin (Miami Ohio) and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco (UConn). At 34 years old, Sanford is now the youngest head coach at the FBS level. 

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.”