After spending the days following Notre Dame’s bowl loss in a sprint to the recruiting finish line, Brian Kelly spent Friday morning announcing the staff changes that have taken shape since wrapping up the 2011 season. With offensive coordinator Charley Molnar taking over the football program at UMass, and Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton joining Urban Meyer’s Ohio State staff, the opportunity allowed Kelly to drastically reorganize the offensive coaching staff, something that likely would’ve been on the docket after a disappointing 8-5 finish.
“When you don’t reach the goals that you’ve set for yourself, it’s important that the appropriate measures are taken in terms of evaluating all facets of your program,” Kelly said.
The biggest move made was an internal one, with Chuck Martin making a rare shift from coaching a position group on defense to coordinating the offense. It’s a move that illustrates how strongly Kelly trusts Martin, who will be tasked with running an offense with a vision shared not only by the head coach, but by the personnel and position groups that’ll be tasked with orchestrating it.
“At the end of the day, he’s the leader of the group,” Kelly said of Martin. “I’m looking for someone that can communicate the message clearly across the board without any inconsistencies from group to group. Chuck is a great communicator and that is the strength that he brings to the staff.”
Other major changes on the offensive staff include the move of Mike Denbrock from tight ends to outside wide receivers. Denbrock will also coordinate the passing game, a nice title bump for one of Kelly’s oldest coaching connections. Denbrock once coordinated Kelly’s offense at Grand Valley, so while Denbrock’s long been seen as an offensive line guru, he’ll work with Martin in developing a passing attack that needs to make more big plays.
“We need to make more big plays,” Martin told the Chicago Tribune. “However it is, we need to make more big plays. In the pass game, we had two completions over 40 yards last year. You talk about inconsistency – it’s hard to consistently go on 15-play drive. Part of how you become consistent – you have a couple three-play scores and all of a sudden your consistency level is higher.”
Denbrock’s move pushes first-year assistant Scott Booker to tight ends coach, where he’ll work with arguably the most talented position grouping on the offensive side of the ball. Tasked with coaching All-American Tyler Eifert and developing elite prospects like rising sophomore Ben Koyack and rising junior Alex Welch (who saved a year of eligibility during his freshman season), Booker spent two years interning with the Irish coaching staff after spending five years as a position coach in the MAC conference.
Filling out the rest of the offensive staff is Harry Hiestand, who left Tennessee to coach the offensive line and coordinate the Irish running attack. With a blue-ribbon pedigree that includes a mentor in former Irish offensive line coach Joe Moore, Hiestand will make some subtle adjustments to the Irish line play that’ll help evolve the offense.
“Last year, we were a big gap and pull team,” Kelly explained about the Irish running attack. “You’ll see a little bit more of a zone influence with this offensive group. But more than anything else, it’s Harry’s great experience as an offensive line coach. Having done it and having succeeded, and really wanting somebody that was so focused on technique and development of the offensive line.”
Defensively, the Irish adding veteran coach Bobby Elliott to the staff, giving former Hawkeyes Bob Diaco and Kerry Cooks a coach they’re familiar with both as a colleague and a mentor. On paper, bringing in Elliott seems like a no-brainer, as the former coordinator for Bill Snyder’s best Kansas State teams would be enough to fill the position. Adding his relationship with the leaders of the defense and a sterling reputation only make the fit that much better.
“I want people, first of all, that I enjoy being around,” Kelly said. “Any time you’re hiring you want guys that you enjoy being around, that are passionate for what they do, and have a commonality with everybody in the staff philosophically. That’s what Bobby brings. And certainly his prior relationship with Kerry and Bob Diaco make that an easy fit.”
Perhaps the biggest news of the day was the mention that Scott Booker would take over coordinating special teams for the Irish, replacing Mike Elston who had the job for Kelly’s first two seasons while also coaching the defensive line. Kelly was adamant to stress this wasn’t meant a reflection on Elston’s job running the Irish special teams, but after subpar results — especially in the punt return game — the move was made to Booker, who will receive help from the entire staff.
“His focus is on that defensive line,” Kelly said. “We pulled him in a lot of different directions last year with special teams and it takes a lot of time out of you. Now he can focus strictly on the defensive line. It’s going to make us a better football team… It’s going to be exciting from a defensive standpoint in that room that we can have Mike focused on the defensive line and game planning.”