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Report: Mike Denbrock headed to Cincinnati as OC

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Mike Denbrock is on the move. Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel is reporting that Notre Dame’s associate head coach and play-caller will join new Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell’s coaching staff.

It’s a huge move that removes one more trusted insider from Brian Kelly’s coaching staff. Yet it’s also not surprising, and fits into some of the information that has been coming out of South Bend, as Denbrock was likely to lose play-calling duties after a disappointing 2016 season.

Brian Kelly has been interviewing a wide array of offensive coordinator candidates, with Irish Illustrated reporting that Kelly talked with former Pitt OC Matt Canada before he took the same job at LSU under Ed Orgeron. Kelly’s also been linked to conversations with former Baylor assistant Kendall Briles and former Michigan and Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges, coaches with very diverse offensive backgrounds.

The move of Denbrock and the reports of national interviews suggest that Kelly plans to hire someone from outside the program, not simply plug back in Denbrock or former coordinator Jeff Quinn, who is expected to take over as tight ends coach. It also looks less likely that Kelly will hire a quarterback coach like he did with Matt LaFleur, rather look to find someone who’ll handle the quarterbacks and the coordinator role.

Notre Dame has already announced the hiring of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who coached his final game on Tuesday with Wake Forest, a dominant performance in an upset win over Temple. Brian Polian’s return to South Bend was made official today as well, hired to coordinate the special teams.

Thamel’s report is the first on the potential move and hasn’t been confirmed by anyone at Cincinnati or Notre Dame. The Bearcats finished 4-8 in the American Conference, firing Tommy Tuberville and hiring the former Ohio State defensive coordinator in mid-December.

Denbrock has had two stints in South Bend, coaching 10 total seasons at Notre Dame under Ty Willingham and Kelly, who he first worked with at Grand Valley State.

Brian Polian officially introduced as Notre Dame special teams coordinator

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 29:  Head coach Brian Polian of the Nevada Wolf Pack stands on the field before his team's game against the UNLV Rebels at Sam Boyd Stadium on November 29, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Nevada won 49-27.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Brian Polian‘s return to Notre Dame is official. After four years as Nevada’s head coach, Polian is back in South Bend, coordinating the Irish special teams, a position he held under Charlie Weis, and also held at Stanford and Texas A&M.

Head coach Brian Kelly released the following statement:

“Brian not only brings a successful history of coaching special teams, but he’s also considered one of the nation’s top recruiters. He simply understands Notre Dame, what it’s about, and the type of student-athlete that we need to succeed at the highest level. I’m extremely excited to have Brian join this program, and our players will benefit from his mentorship, passion, energy and enthusiasm — both on and off the field.”

Polian, whose Nevada team lost to Notre Dame this September 39-10, began his coaching career when Charlie Weis hired him in 2005, spending five seasons under Weis in South Bend. He has coached under Nick Saban, George O’Leary, Jim Harbaugh and Kevin Sumlin and is the son of Hall of Famer and six-time NFL executive of the year Bill Polian.

The 42-year-old coach got his first head coaching job when he replaced heralded Nevada coach Chris Ault. He won just four games in his first season before back-to-back seven-win seasons, winning the Arizona Bowl over Colorado State in 2015. He was fired after Nevada went 5-7 this season.

“I’m thrilled about the opportunity to return to Notre Dame,” Polian said in a statement. “This is a very special University and football program. I want to thank coach Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for the opportunity to re-join the Fighting Irish family. Laura and I are looking forward to coming back to this wonderful community. I’m excited to go to work, get to know the terrific student-athletes and prepare for a great 2017 season.”

Polian’s time in South Bend is best marked by his recruiting win of five-star linebacker Manti Te’o over favorite USC. He’ll likely recruit the West Coast and help in Texas as well, areas he’s worked before as both a head coach and assistant.

Ex-ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco fired at UConn

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Bob Diaco is out as the head coach at UConn after three seasons.

The architect of Brian Kelly’s best defenses at Notre Dame lost his job on Monday afternoon after a 3-9 season, finishing at 11-26 in his three years in Storrs. Diaco’s firing is effective January 2nd, likely a negotiated date as his contract buy-out drops significantly after the new year. Diaco had received a contract extension through 2020 that included a pay raise heading into the season.

The news of Diaco’s firing comes just days after Notre Dame announced the hiring of new coordinator Mike Elko. While there’s absolutely no indication that Diaco would be willing to return to South Bend—or Kelly would pursue a reunion—it’s an eye-opening move as Kelly rebuilds his coaching staff before the new year with a mix of new and familiar faces.

Other than Elko, the timing of the announcement of that rebuilt staff will hopefully be revealed after the recruiting dead period ends right after the new year. Kelly has made no public comments other than those released in written statement following the Elko hire, but did discuss the timeline for coaching moves with Jack Nolan in the latest episode of Inside Notre Dame Football, detailing the next few critical months for both the head coach and his program.

“I’d like to get the staff solidified before the holidays, if we can do that. Maybe that might be a stretch in some instances, but for the most part have that solidified, so nobody is going through the holidays not knowing what their situation is,” Kelly told Jack Nolan.

“Then we get the staff back in here right when recruiting opens back up. Attack the recruiting, finish up—we only have a few spots left in the recruiting. And then get to work on this football team.

“When they get back on campus, it’s going to be pretty exciting, but it’s going to be a great challenge as well. Our football team is going to learn the grind necessary to win games in the fourth quarter and that will be the emphasis.”

Brian Polian has already been reported to have accepted a coaching position, likely special teams coordinator. Former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn, who served as Kelly’s offensive coordinator at Cincinnati and has served in a variety of off-field roles the past two seasons in South Bend, is rumored to be moving to a coaching role, likely tight ends.

While Elko’s hiring announced, Kelly is still looking for a quarterback coach and potentially an offensive coordinator, though it helps to be reminded that he’s chosen different ways to fill that vacancy—hiring Matt LaFleur to be just the position coach while Mike Sanford was both coordinator and quarterbacks coach. (Chuck Martin held both positions after coaching safeties and coordinating recruiting.)

Whoever is hired, Kelly talked about the task of replacing the offensive, defensive and special teams coordinator in one offseason.

“It’s absolutely critical that you find the right people that recognize the vision that you have and embrace the vision that you have for your program and understand Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “We have a uniqueness here at Notre Dame that you need to embrace. And then, they have to be compatible to the things that we want to do on the field.

“I think in all three of those positions, they’re going to make a huge impact. I think we’re going to be able to improve our football team with these three hires and we’re right in the middle of that process, but one that I’m very excited about.”

Five early-enrollees set for spring semester

CJ Holmes
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Notre Dame’s recruiting class will get a jump start as five early enrollees will be on campus and beginning classes when school returns in mid-January. Offensive linemen Aaron Banks and Robert Hainsey, running back C.J. Holmes, defensive back Isaiah Robertson and tight end Brock Wright have all signed paperwork and are officially cleared to be the first to join the 2017 recruiting class.

The five early-enrollees match last year’s total and are the high-water mark for Notre Dame, who began early admission for recruits back in 2006. All five will take part in spring practice, each hoping to get a jump start on a 2017 football team that’ll likely go through a hard reset of sorts with a reshuffled coaching staff and new leaders on both sides of the football.

Banks and Hainsey enter an offensive line room that may welcome back five starters, but needs to infuse depth. Holmes will step in and challenge a talented group of runners, but at a position group that was stuck in neutral in 2016. He also has the ability to play receiver. Wright is a highly sought-after talent at tight end, a position that’ll welcome their entire depth chart back, and also Alizé Jones, who missed last season after academic issues.

Robertson is a multi-dimensional player with some positional flexibility, though he’s believed to start his career at safety. With Drue Tranquill entering his final season of eligibility and Devin Studstill having an up and down freshman season, there’s room for someone to come in and compete for a job, especially with new coordinator Mike Elko.

The connection between early enrollment and early success isn’t necessarily there. Some, like Tommy Rees, TJ Jones and Steve Elmer, have seen the benefits. Others have not. Still, as Brian Kelly looks to turn around his program after a massively disappointing 2016 season, getting five freshman on campus before National Signing Day is a boost.

Official: Mike Elko named defensive coordinator

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Notre Dame has officially hired Mike Elko as their defensive coordinator. The university made the announcement Tuesday afternoon, with Elko joining the program from Wake Forest.

Head coach Brian Kelly gave the following comment in a prepared statement:

 

“Mike has consistently coordinated defenses that keep the points down, negate big plays, creative negative plays, excel in the red zone and, quite simply, force opposing offenses to execute at an extremely high level to move the football. This rare combination of consistent success in those facets of defense, along with a proven ability to develop talent and fit it into his system, really places Mike in a class by himself among defensive coordinators across the country.

“As importantly, Mike’s commitment to helping young men reach their full potential in the classroom and in the community make him a perfect fit for Notre Dame.”

The 39-year-old defensive coordinator was Kelly’s choice to reboot an Irish defense left in disarray after Brian VanGorder was fired in late September, but one that also rallied under the guidance of interim coordinator Greg Hudson and linebackers coach Mike Elston, who also interviewed for the position.

Wake Forest had a Top 25 defense under Elko, finishing No. 20 in scoring defense this season as the Demon Deacons finished the year 6-6 and went to its first bowl game since 2011. He came to Winston-Salem with head coach Dave Clawson, serving as his defensive coordinator at Bowling Green, and had many stops along the way after playing his football at Penn.

Elko made the following statement:

“I’m excited to join a program with the prestige of Notre Dame that can recruit the nation’s highest caliber of student-athlete and compete for a national championship. We hope to dictate the pace of the game with an attacking and aggressive style defense, mix physicality and toughness with exceptional fundamentals and, lastly, play with great effort at all times. I can’t wait to dive in and help these players achieve the standard of success necessary to win at the highest level.”

While he might not have been a big-name candidate, Elko’s hiring has received near unanimous approval, with SI’s Pete Thamel deeming Elko one of the hottest defensive coordinator prospects in the country with interest from multiple Power 5 schools. A profile of Elko’s from the South Bend Tribune should be required reading for those looking to learn more about Notre Dame’s new coach, with Elko’s football acumen obvious, even as a player.

Elko is one of just two defensive coordinators to have a Top 40 defense in each of the last seasons. His task will now be to transform an Irish defense that badly needs a pass rush and must continue to develop young players like Daelin Hayes, Julian Love, Troy Pride, Devin Studstill and Donte Vaughn.