Harry Hiestand leaves Notre Dame on good terms and in good shape


There are no hard feelings between Notre Dame and departing offensive line coach Harry Hiestand as he heads to the Chicago Bears. That much was most clear when the Irish released a statement not only from head coach Brian Kelly but also from Hiestand late Wednesday evening, a clear difference from just last week when Kelly issued a standalone statement in a seemingly-similar circumstance.

“Harry is an outstanding coach — one of the best offensive line coaches in football,” Kelly said. “He developed young men in the spirit of Notre Dame. I know this was a difficult decision for him based upon his feelings for this program, this University and his student-athletes.”

For six years, Hiestand and Kelly worked together by essentially working apart. By no means was that a sign of a strained relationship. Rather, Kelly trusted the most-veteran assistant on his staff to operate autonomously. Hiestand rewarded that trust by producing cohesive and productive units time and time again, no matter what first-round NFL Draft pick had just walked out the door.

“I’m thankful to Coach Kelly for letting me coach my way,” Hiestand said. “I’m also appreciative of the offensive linemen for being the best part of every day here and working extremely hard to be the best.”

There are no hard feelings between Hiestand and his positional charges, either. Rather than take to social media with shocked emojis or vague questions of loyalty, senior center Sam Mustipher and senior right guard Alex Bars both praised Hiestand alongside Kelly’s words.

“Coach Hiestand built upon the standard of Notre Dame offensive line play,” said Mustipher, expected to anchor that line in his fifth season with Bars at his side once again. “He helped bring it back to where it made those before us proud to tune in every weekend. The lessons he taught me as a football player, and as a man, will carry me through the rest of my life.”

Praising a football coach for growing a player into a man may come across as cliché, and lauding offensive linemen in general for being better-spoken than many of their teammates no matter the team is a premise widely-accepted by football media members. But the degree of which that latter statement has been true among the Irish for the last few years is a testament to Hiestand upholding the former sentiment.

“Harry’s been an incredible influence on me and all the offensive linemen that he’s coached,” Bars said. “He’s shown us the way and we’ll continue to maintain the standard of excellence expected by a Notre Dame offensive lineman.”

There would never be an ideal time to lose a coach of Hiestand’s caliber, but losing him at the same time as two consensus All-Americans depart in left tackle Mike McGlinchey (68) and left guard Quenton Nelson (56) will be especially difficult to overcome. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Without Hiestand, reaching that standard of excellence will become much harder. Exactly how much harder cannot be known until the vacancy is filled, but there are few, if any, offensive line coaches of Hiestand’s caliber. One with a delicate touch will be needed to figure out the process of replacing two first-round picks in left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey.

Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson gathered from offensive coordinator Chip Long before the Citrus Bowl that Notre Dame will look to move freshman tackle Robert Hainsey over to left tackle, leaving sophomore Tommy Kraemer at right tackle. The two split time at right tackle this season.

In that scenario, the new offensive line coach will need to prepare Hainsey for arguably the toughest offensive line spot, coach up Kraemer in pass protection and, most of all, find a left guard to complete the unit. He will have a number of highly-touted and well-coached options to choose from, beginning with junior Trevor Ruhland, sophomore Liam Eichenberg and freshman Josh Lugg.

Hiestand would have looked at that puzzle with a version of zest. Unseen, of course, as he hardly ever showed any emotion* aside from frustration with anything not focused on football and, more specifically, the finer points of offensive line play. Such tunnel vision will be nearly impossible to find in any possible candidate.

That single-mindedness earned his players’ respect. It, and Hiestand, certainly played a role in repeatedly convincing highly-considered draft picks to return for one more season with the Irish. The likes of Nelson, McGlinchey, Ronnie Stanley and Zack Martin all turned down possible first-round selections for another season under his tutelage. They both trusted Hiestand to improve them further and felt some degree of loyalty to his cause that they wanted to aid it for another fall, helping groom another generation of offensive linemen in doing so.

It paid off. Stanley heard his name called with the No. 6 pick in 2016. Martin went No. 16 in 2014. There is a good chance both Nelson and McGlinchey are drafted sooner than that this spring.

Chris Watt turned a third-round selection into a three-year career thus far, despite hampering injuries. Nick Martin went from the 50th overall pick in 2016 to starting the first 14 games at center for the Houston Texans this season before injury cut short his season.

Hiestand’s methods yielded dividends both for the players and the team as a whole. In three of the last six years, Notre Dame’s rushing attacked finished in the top 40 in both yards per game and yards per rush. Twice in the last three years that latter figure landed in the top 10, at No. 3 in 2017 and No. 8 in 2015. (As always when discussing national ranks in regards to rushing totals, these were not adjusted for sacks, although Hiestand’s offensive lines gave up only a few of those, highlighted by 0.62 per game in 2013.)

This departure is one that will set the Irish back, but it was not unforeseen and it was entirely understandable.

“While disappointed to see Harry go, I’m not surprised by his decision,” Kelly said. “We knew six years ago when we hired him that his final step in coaching could be in the NFL.”

Filling Hiestand’s shoes might not be truly possible for Kelly, but aiming high for a top-line coach will be a priority, nonetheless. That unit’s success affects literally every offensive decision.

*One occasion Hiestand did border on showing emotion came when Notre Dame received the Joe Moore Award as the country’s most outstanding offensive line this year. Kelly set up the presentation by calling Hiestand in front of the team. Unless the video shared on social media was heavily-edited, Hiestand responded by not moving, averse to the spotlight as any offensive line aficionado would be. As soon as Kelly hands the moment over to former Irish offensive lineman and Joe Moore Award founder Aaron Taylor, Hiestand knows what is happening and a smirk flashes across his face.

The response of the entire auditorium illustrates a respect the entire Notre Dame program had, rather, has for Hiestand and his work.

OUTSIDE READING: Notre Dame’s Moore Award personal for Taylor

2012: 189.4 rushing yards per game, No. 38 in the country; 4.87 yards per rush, No. 31.
2013: 151.3 yards per game, No. 80; 4.47 yards per rush, No. 52.
2014: 159.5 yards per game, No. 68; 4.28 yards per rush, No. 67.
2015: 207.6 yards per game, No. 28; 5.63 yards per rush, No. 8.
2016: 163.3 yards per game, No. 80; 4.47 yards per rush, No. 63.
2017: 269.3 yards per game, No. 7; 6.25 yards per rush, No. 3.

Reports: Notre Dame loses Harry Hiestand to the Chicago Bears


A day after securing what seemed to be some coaching staff stability, Notre Dame may lose its most-established assistant coach to the NFL. The Chicago Tribune reports Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand will join the Chicago Bears and their new head coach, Matt Nagy. NBC Sports Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz confirmed the report.

Hiestand has been with Notre Dame and head coach Brian Kelly since 2012, following a two-year stop at Tennessee. Before that, Hiestand spent five seasons with the Bears in the exact role he is expected to reprise.

While with the Irish, Hiestand’s offensive lines were consistently the best units on the roster. His tutelage led to multiple first-round NFL Draft picks — Zack Martin and Ronnie Stanley — and established a number of others for NFL careers, such as Nick Martin and Chris Watt. Zack Martin and Stanley will likely be joined in that listing of first-round picks by Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey this spring.

Nelson’s and McGlinchey’s departures underscore the timing of Hiestand’s return to the NFL. Pro Football Focus graded Nelson as the country’s best guard this season and McGlinchey as its best tackle. The offensive line as a whole received the Joe Moore Award, recognizing it as the best offensive line in the nation.

The 2017 Notre Dame offensive line with the Joe Moore Award, given to recognize the country’s most outstanding offensive line. (@NDFootball)

Next year, Hiestand would have had to replace Nelson and McGlinchey, an unenviable task no matter how many worthwhile options there are on the roster. Those options are headlined by current starting right tackle sophomore Tommy Kraemer, backup left tackle sophomore Liam Eichenberg and freshman Josh Lugg.

Kelly has one in-house option he can turn to if wanting to keep as much consistency as he can.

Whomever Kelly turns to, he will have Kraemer, co-starting right tackle freshman Robert Hainsey, senior center Sam Mustipher and senior right guard Alex Bars returning.

Notre Dame promoting Lea & Elston bodes well for at least the short term


Following the debacle of 2016, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly had little choice but to look across the country to fill out his coaching staff. On the Pacific Coast, he found Tom(my) Rees, bringing back the former Irish quarterback from the San Diego Chargers to tutor a new generation at that position. Del Alexander came from Arizona State to work with those quarterbacks’ targets, and Brian Polian returned to Notre Dame from Nevada to lead the special teams and Kelly’s recruiting efforts.

A bit south, Chip Long left Memphis after only one year as offensive coordinator to take the same position under Kelly.

And out east, there were Mike Elko and Clark Lea at Wake Forest, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, respectively.

Kelly needed to cast such a wide net to find a new variety of voices needed on his staff. Coaches at different points in their careers — Rees just beginning, Polian entering his third decade, the rest somewhere between — would provide different points of view. New schemes from new coordinators could reinvent the Irish approach.

The result? A 10-3 season concluding with a New Year’s Day bowl victory and a slot at No. 11 in the polls.

The unfortunate side effect of that came in Elko turning the impressive defensive revival into an even bigger check at Texas A&M after just the one season, somewhat akin to Long parlaying a season at Memphis leading the No. 15 scoring offense in the country (38.8 points per game) into a gig at Notre Dame.

This time, Kelly did not need to change his staff’s dynamics, he did not need to find a new defensive approach, and he did not need to look further than the hallway to fill the hole left by Elko. Lea was right there, fluent in the current scheme, known to the current roster and with relationships with both signed and targeted recruits.

“Clark has demonstrated an ability to motivate, lead, teach and mentor through a positive teaching environment, while also developing the necessary traits of excellence in our players,” Kelly said in a statement announcing the promotion Tuesday. “Clark has an incredible football knowledge, a keen understanding of personnel and a fierce work ethic, which leaves no doubt in my mind that we’ll maintain the defensive standard necessary to win at the highest level.”

Kelly saw the effects Lea can have on players in the progressions of current junior linebacker Te’von Coney and senior linebacker Drue Tranquill this year. The development of those two complemented the known commodities of seniors Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini to create a quartet totaling 368 tackles, the top-four tacklers for the Irish in 2017.

With Lea aboard, that development should continue and the scheme will remain the same, a design seemingly-perfect for Tranquill to once again be a consistent playmaker. In his debut season at rover, Tranquill managed 10.5 tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks, broke up three passes including one interception, and forced three fumbles with one recovery.

That scheme was in mind when Notre Dame sought out four linebackers, three of them four-stars, in this recruiting class thus far. Lea certainly played a distinct role in securing that haul, filling a depth chart need.

This promotion resonated well with consensus four-star Jack Lamb (Great Oak High School; Temecula, Calif.), for example.

“This is the best possible choice that could have been made, in my opinion,” Lamb told Irish Illustrated’s Kevin Sinclair. “It’s going to keep the defense pretty much the same with a new voice at the top. I think it’s going to be great for the team and great for the defense.”

If Kelly had looked far and wide for Elko’s replacement, he would have opened a door to a shift to a 3-4 defensive front. Such a change would be one in the wrong direction if playing to this roster’s strengths. All reasoning also says it would have sent Lea to A&M with Elko, logic ND Insider’s Eric Hansen reports as fact.

Then Kelly would have been searching for two new coaches only 12 months after revamping this staff once already.

Lea’s promotion does not come without questions. He has never led a defense before, though his dozen years in coaching have all focused on that side of the ball. Three of those years came under Elko, including the last two. Did Lea learn how to balance an aggressive scheme with weekly adjustments? Yes or no, he will fortunately have time to get up to speed.

The Irish open with Michigan on Sept. 1. The Wolverines struggled mightily on offense this season, averaging 25.2 points and gaining only 348.9 yards per game, the latter being No. 105 in the country. For that matter, Michigan may have more questions at quarterback moving forward than Notre Dame does.

In that regard, Lea will have until the season’s fifth week and a visit from Stanford on Sept. 29 before his defense is genuinely tested. That soft opening should give him a chance to ease into the added aspects of his new role.

In maintaining a successful defensive scheme, knowing the current roster and having already proven worthwhile recruiting acumen, Lea represented the greatest short-term reward for Kelly. His inexperience as a coordinator and thus inherently-unproven ability to match wits with an opposing play caller also make him the biggest long-term risk.


On Elston as Associate Head Coach
Notre Dame also announced the promotion of defensive line coach Mike Elston from assistant head coach to associate head coach. This nomenclature differentiation acknowledges Elston was at least in the mix for the defensive coordinator role, and it almost certainly comes with an uptick in the appropriate ACH payment.

“In many ways, Mike can best be described as the backbone of our coaching staff,” Kelly said. “… He’s, without a doubt, a future head coach and we’re very, very fortunate to have him on our staff.”

The public recognition of Elston serves notice Kelly knows the only remaining assistant from his original Irish staff will not be around for much longer. Elston has further goals in mind, and Kelly will not stand in the way of those.

Along with the assumed paycheck change, the shift from assistant to associate will also apparently include more front-facing duties.

“In addition to his duties related to coaching the defensive line, Elston will represent the program when directed to so by Kelly or when Kelly is unavailable,” the statement announcing the promotion read. “This will include but not be limited to assisting in managing the football program, participating in press conferences, making public appearances (including alumni and donor functions) and attending departmental and University meetings.”

That is not mere press release filler. Those are duties Elston will need to handle when he has a program of his own. In essence, Kelly is attempting to craft a head coach training program for his longtime assistant, proof of good faith in helping Elston to his next opportunity.

Without that, there would be inherent risk to Elston leaving abruptly after being bypassed for defensive coordinator for the second time in two offseasons. Again, it would be far from ideal to replace multiple coaches after 2017 redirected Notre Dame in the preferred direction. Losing Elston would have been especially bothersome, considering his hand in transforming the defensive line from presumed weakness to source of strength.

Now, Kelly still needs to find a safeties coach.
Lea will remain with the linebackers and Elston with the defensive line. Todd Lyght is still around to work with the cornerbacks. Kelly needs a safeties coach, especially this year. It is the position most needing development if 2018 is to thoroughly build on the positive work Elko started.

The assured short-term gains of Lea’s rise and the steadying influence of Elston on board will keep the Irish defense on that track as a whole.

Report: Notre Dame to promote Clark Lea to defensive coordinator

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Notre Dame will replace former defensive coordinator Mike Elko from within, according to a report from Yahoo.com’s Pete Thamel.

Lea joined Irish coach Brian Kelly’s staff along with Elko last offseason, coming from a season as the linebackers coach at Wake Forest learning Elko’s scheme. Lea had previously spent the 2012 season in the same capacity when Elko was defensive coordinator at Bowling Green.

In turning to Lea, Notre Dame will maintain the momentum its defense built this season, sticking with a 4—2.5—4.5 system, considering the rover as half-linebacker, half-safety. That rover role led to senior Drue Tranquill’s breakout this season.

Lea also played a part in junior linebacker Te’von Coney’s emergence. In not only keeping Lea from following Elko to Texas A&M but also promoting him, Kelly cannot hurt the chances of Coney returning for his senior season rather than head to the NFL. To a lesser extent, the same likely applies to junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.

Lea should also be to continue the pursuit of a few more recruits before the Feb. 7 signing day, namely consensus four-star safety Julius Irvin (Servite High School; Anaheim, Calif.) and consensus four-star linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu (Mater Dei H.S.; Anaheim, Calif.). Notre Dame has three spots to fill in the class of 2018.

If Lea is indeed hired as the Irish defensive coordinator, he and Kelly will presumably look to add a safeties coach to complete the staff and replace that piece of Elko’s expertise, especially considering the work needed at that position moving forward for the defense to be a complete unit in 2018.

Monday’s Leftovers: On Notre Dame’s dual needs at defensive coordinator

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Notre Dame’s search for a defensive coordinator hinges on a balance of the near and distant futures. Ideally, Irish coach Brian Kelly would find someone who would both maintain schematic consistency and has a penchant for developing talent with time.

Neither of those traits is a common one on its own. Thus, the combination will be a difficult one to not only come across but then to also convince to join the Notre Dame coaching staff.

In most cases, the schematic consistency would not be as much of a necessity, but turning to a third approach in three seasons would likely lead to chaos within a defense previously expected to be the backbone of a 2018 season with grandiose expectations. Mike Elko’s ability to create a worthwhile unit in his vision in only one season was the welcome surprise of 2017. It is a task not easily replicated.

Notre Dame’s defense will have much better chances of success in 2018 if senior linebacker Drue Tranquill is as well-utilized as he was this season. (Getty Images)

That vision put senior safety-turned-rover Drue Tranquill in proper position for the first time in his career. (Health also helped, naturally.) It led to the rapid development and deployment of junior linebacker Te’von Coney. If Coney opts to follow Tranquill’s lead and return for one more season, the two were expected to build on those successes in Elko’s 4—2.5—4.5 system, if you’ll grant the rover as a half-count amid both the linebackers and the safeties.

A change to a 3-4 should be off the table given the personnel gathered for a year, especially considering the Irish defensive line went from a weakness to a strength over the season. The idea of taking away snaps from freshmen tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish after they spend a full year in a collegiate weight room would be a flawed concept given how impressive they were in their debut seasons with minimal appropriate strength and conditioning.

The more playing time current freshman defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (right) can see moving forward, the better it bodes for the Irish. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Yet, Kelly cannot sell out for that stability without thinking about the years down the road. It is always possible he will not be around to see Tagovailoa-Amosa’s and Hinish’s final seasons, but there is no reason to presume as much. If they do not develop, Kelly will be shorting any possible 2019 or 2020 success for the hopes of it in 2018.

In these respects, replacing a successful coordinator may hold more pressure than replacing a failed one. If Elko had not found success this fall, it would have been very easy to point to his predecessor’s failings in development, schematic implementation and recruiting as setting Elko up for failure. If the next Notre Dame defensive coordinator stumbles in 2018, no such crutches will be available, courtesy of Elko’s successes in all three categories.

Speaking of recruiting
Coney has one more week to declare any intention to head to the NFL this spring. Technically, Tranquill does, too, but such a backtracking would be inconsistent with his actions throughout his career, both on and off the field. (Yes, he flipped from a commitment from Purdue, but it was not exactly a surprise.)

One player — well, 12 players, but one in particular as an example — heavily influenced by Elko does not have the option of following the assistant coach out the door. Consensus four-star linebacker Shayne Simon, just like the 11 other defensive commitments signed by the Irish during the early period in December, is bound by the signature on his National Letter of Intent as far as the NCAA is concerned.

Elko targeted Simon as a rover of the future. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds in signing day boasts, Simon has both the frame and the speed to serve the dual role of tracking down running backs and matching up with tight ends serving as pseudo-receivers. But now, there may not be a rover on the Notre Dame defense when he is due to earn his playing time.

This is both the flaw and the reality to an early signing period. Then again, it is not all that different than normal courses of action.

As an easily-found example, consider Oregon co-offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo, also handling the duties of coaching the Ducks’ quarterbacks and tight ends. When Willie Taggart arrived at Oregon as head coach the first week of December 2016, he set to filling out his coaching staff as much as he could. Arroyo did not join the Ducks until mid-February, though.

He had been busy as the running backs coach at Oklahoma State, signing three running backs in that class. Then, up he went to join Taggart.

Assistant coaches have long and often waited until after signing day to move to a new gig. Now they just do it after the early signing period but before the traditional February date, when recruits could genuinely still be considering schools. The difference is only theoretical, not actually seen in practice.

Speaking of that traditional February date …
The Irish signed 21 players in December. Another, consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.), committed a week later. Thus, three spots remain in the class before Notre Dame reaches the maximum allowed of 25.

With Jones and those 21 signees, the Irish roster for 2018 currently includes 87 players. That counts both Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, also considering the NFL, as well as junior tight end Alizé Mack. It also factors in the fifth-year seniors long expected such as Tranquill, tight end Nic Weishar and center Sam Mustipher, and then one arguable surprise. ND Insider’s Eric Hansen reports receiver Freddy Canteen is expected to be one of eight returnees.

A graduate transfer from Michigan, Canteen’s 2017 was cut short by a shoulder injury. Inviting him back for another season, which he was always going to be eligible for, may be the Irish coaches honoring a two-year commitment when they recruited him last winter or it may be a sign they truly want a chance at utilizing his speed. Either way, he counts toward that 87.

Such a count does not include sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson (indefinitely suspended), senior defensive tackle Daniel Cage (health), or either of junior running back Josh Adams or junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (declared for the NFL Draft).

One way or another, that 87-to-90 needs to be at 85 by the fall. Transfers such as freshman defensive end Jonathon MacCollister’s aid that cause and are thus natural for the time of year.

Expect a few more. With 10 receivers and nine linebackers on the roster, those both seem like prime spots for further attrition, based solely on those numbers and the realities of on-field deployment.

Of those 87, six are tight ends …
Which makes sense when considering:

A thought sparked by former Irish tight end Ben Koyack winning an AFC Wild Card Game on Sunday.