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Wake Forest’s Mike Elko set to be Irish defensive coordinator

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Wake Forest’s Mike Elko is coming to South Bend. Multiple reports confirm that the Demon Deacons defensive coordinator is Brian Kelly’s choice to come to Notre Dame to fix the Irish defense.

Perhaps the most important hire of Kelly’s tenure in South Bend, Elko comes on the heels of an eight-loss season and confidence in the Irish head coach at an all-time low. And as rumors swirl about major changes to the Irish coaching and support staff, Elko is the major offseason move that most were waiting for.

SI’s Pete Thamel broke the news on Thursday that Elko was accepting the job. Multiple reports have confirmed as much, with the university vetting process now trudging along, with Elko ready to hit the recruiting trail after the dead period ends after the holidays.

While Elko’s first job will be to hit the road and introduce himself to a recruiting class that’s holding strong but in need of a good finish, his main job will be to pick up the pieces left behind by Brian VanGorder. Interim coordinator Greg Hudson stopped the bleeding– with a huge assist from Mike Elston. But Elko will bring a fresh approach to the defensive side of the ball, a critical move for Kelly who went outside his network to bring Elko into the fold.

While Elko isn’t a name that made waves on the national radar, his work at Wake Forest and Bowling Green is certainly impressive. With a more modest talent base, his three defenses in Winston-Salem were better than Notre Dame’s last three defenses, and he was a large part of David Clawson’s revival of Bowling Green as well, two top ten units in his final two seasons with the MAC program.

The hire certainly isn’t without concerns. The first might be the recruiting trail, where Elko hasn’t been asked to battle against giants like Harbaugh, Meyer and national powers. The next will be the Notre Dame pressure cooker, with the new coordinator’s three-year deal not indicative of the tight rope this staff will be walking next season.

While Kelly had no connectivity to Elko, he could certainly appreciate his resume and job path. Coaching stops at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and places like Stony Brook, Fordham and Hofstra certainly don’t point to a guy who has blue-blooded football roots. But an Ivy league background (Elko went to Penn) and a successful track record at the college level is more in line with the program than VanGorder’s travails in the NFL.

Notre Dame has not commented on the hire. Other rumors are currently swirling as Brian Kelly’s staff is in the middle of a major shakeup.

Torii Hunter Jr. exits program for baseball career

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Notre Dame captain Torii Hunter Jr. is passing on a fifth year. After a star-crossed four years in South Bend, Hunter is saying goodbye to the gridiron and pursing a career in baseball.

The Texas native made the news public, sharing via social media the following message:

I came to Notre Dame to challenge myself, both in the classroom and on the field, but in my time here I found that this university offered a lot more than I would’ve ever imagined. The wisdom and knowledge that I’ve gained from my professors, the lifelong friendships, and the personal growth are only some of the things that have made my Notre Dame experience truly invaluable.

It’s hard to believe that my time at Notre Dame has come to an end. This university has provided me all the necessary tools, including an Information Technology Management degree, to transition smoothly into the next phase of my life.

After long consideration and prayer, I’ve decided not to pursue a fifth year at the University of Notre Dame, but rather follow a dream of playing professional baseball with the Los Angeles Angels.

I want to say thank you to my coaches, teammates, professors, classmates and fans for all the support throughout my career.  I’m truly blessed to be a part of the Notre Dame family. Go Irish!

Hunter was drafted last offseason by the Los Angeles Angels in the 23rd round, the same team where his father spent five years in center field. And instead of returning for his final year of football in South Bend, Hunter will leave with his degree in hand and start a climb up the minor league baseball ladder—a significant climb after playing just part-time in South Bend, hitting just .167 in just 12 at-bats scattered over two seasons.

The move isn’t unexpected, with C.J. Sanders hinting at it a few weeks ago on social media and whispers emerging earlier this fall. And after battling significant injuries for the majority of his time at Notre Dame, a move away from football might be an easy choice.

It’s easy to wonder what could’ve been for Hunter. After being name the MVP of The Opening and an Army All-American as a four-star prospect, Hunter suffered a broken femur in the practices leading up to the game, taking a medical redshirt as a freshman after a slow healing process. Other injuries included a groin tear that cost him a large portion of the 2014 season and a concussion suffered against Texas in the season opener that cost him a game and a November knee injury.

For his career, Hunter made 73 catches for 949 yards and six touchdowns over three seasons.

Report: Scott Booker out at Notre Dame

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Scott Booker is out at Notre Dame.

Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister reported the news Tuesday morning, with the Irish special teams coordinator and tight ends coach relieved of his duties. It was a move that felt a long time coming, especially with special teams flubs happening almost weekly and the tight end position plateauing.

Brian Kelly has not fired assistants in his time at Notre Dame until this year, firing Brian VanGorder midseason and making the move on Booker as the Irish coaching staff heads into a recruiting dead period. Mike Sanford is also departing the staff, expected to be introduced on Wednesday as the head coach at Western Kentucky.

Booker joined Notre Dame’s staff as a coaching intern in 2010 before being elevated to a full-time assistant in 2012. He was viewed as a skilled recruiter, making some impressive inroads in Georgia with a high-energy approach, and landing two top tight end prospects that are preparing to sign in 2017, Cole Kmet and Brock Wright.

Report: Mike Sanford headed to Western Kentucky

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Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford is expected to be Western Kentucky’s next head coach, Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel reports. The 34-year-old has served as the quarterback coach and offensive coordinator for the Irish the past two seasons, coming to South Bend after serving in the same role at Boise State.

Sanford is on pace to be college football’s youngest head coach if he’s hired. A second report, this one from WBKO in Bowling Green, Kentucky, states that Sanford is only a “candidate,” though his connection to the university and program makes for a unique fit.

The move would be a homecoming of sorts, as Sanford coached at WKU under Willie Taggart in 2010, serving as the quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. It was the first year of Taggart’s rebuild, a 2-10 campaign that ended with Sanford moving on to Palo Alto, to work under David Shaw at Stanford, where he stayed for three seasons.

Sanford’s arrival in South Bend was a big splash, a move that shook up the program just a year after Mike Denbrock was awarded the coordinator job. His work was heralded and he immediately became a hot national candidate after the Irish offense put together huge numbers with backup quarterback DeShone Kizer at the helm.

Sanford is still a risk for a program, even the Hilltoppers, who need to replace Jeff Brohm, now in charge at Purdue. A young assistant who didn’t called plays at Notre Dame, Sanford could now shape an entire program, inheriting a first-place team that won Conference USA with 10-wins and plays Memphis in the Boca Raton Bowl on December 20.

No official word has come from either school, though a move is expected by week’s end.

DeShone Kizer declares for NFL Draft

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DeShone Kizer is going pro. Notre Dame’s third-year quarterback, fresh off his team-MVP season, is forgoing his final two years of eligibility and entering the NFL Draft.

Kizer made the announcement via a Bleacher Report video. He’s a candidate to be the first quarterback chosen in the draft, and recently received his grade from the NFL advisory board. A source with knowledge of that grade said Kizer received a first-round evaluation, helping solidify the decision.

It was a move that was expected, but not finalized—at least as recently as Friday night—when Kizer discussed the stay-or-go conundrum. Named one of the team’s seven captains at the annual football banquet, Kizer instead will begin preparations for his professional career, turning the keys to the Irish offense over to Brandon Wimbush.

Head coach Brian Kelly released the following statement.

“DeShone is an extremely gifted quarterback that was faced with a difficult decision,” Kelly said. “He could return as a senior captain at Notre Dame — a place that he loves, and with a program that respects him immensely. Or, he could begin the next chapter in his life and accept the opportunity that likely awaits in the NFL.

“While he chose the latter, the type of leadership DeShone displayed this past season will benefit our program moving forward. He’ll certainly be missed on and off the field, but we’re very happy for him and his family. DeShone will always represent this University with the utmost professionalism and class.”

Kizer released his own statement:

Three years ago, I made a decision to attend the University of Notre Dame. I found a second home and a second family. I made many connections, on and off the field, that changed my life in a positive manner. I’m truly grateful and blessed for everything that I’ve received.

I have an opportunity to continue my football career in the NFL. My family and I have taken the last couple weeks to collect all the necessary information to make a decision that will impact our future. After discussing with my family and coaches, and weighing the pros and cons of remaining at Notre Dame, I believe it’s time to change my path.

I’ve decided to declare for the 2017 NFL Draft. I’m ready to accept this challenge.

I want to thank the University of Notre Dame, its fans, my teammates, my coaches and the entire football staff for standing beside me and believing in me throughout my career. I’m a better person today because of this support.

I will forever be Irish at heart.

Even after some struggles this season, Kizer’s departure feels like the logical next step.  But it ignores the amazing ascent he had these past two years. Buried on the depth chart and hitting rock bottom just two springs ago, Kizer finished the Blue-Gold spring game at No. 3 behind Everett Golson and Malik Zaire and was outperformed by walk-on quarterback Montgomery VanGorder in the intrasquad scrimmage, finishing just 1 of 5 for three yards.

But Golson’s departure for Florida State and Zaire’s injury against Virginia threw Kizer into the starting job and he seized that opportunity. His debut season was a phenomenal success, leading the Irish to the Fiesta Bowl and a 10-win season, completing 63 percent of his throws for 21 touchdowns while running for 10 more scores.

With an inexperienced receiving corps and a rebuilt offensive line, Kizer’s accuracy dipped to just under 59 percent in 2016, but he improved his touchdown passes to 26 while cutting his interceptions from 10 to nine. He ran for eight more scores and finishes his career at Notre Dame with 47 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions while scoring 18 times on the ground in two seasons.