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

Rivals
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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.

Paul Longo out as Notre Dame’s Director of Football Strength and Conditioning

Matt Cashore
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Paul Longo is out as Notre Dame football’s Director of Strength and Conditioning. It’s another huge move in an offseason reshuffle that comes on the heels of a 4-8 football season.

Longo will move into a different position inside the program, likely on Brian Kelly’s support staff. He’s been a key fixture inside the Notre Dame football program since he came in 2010, serving in the same role at Central Michigan and Cincinnati for Kelly.

Longo’s reassignment comes as part of a massive restructuring of the football program. Wake Forest defensive coordinator Mike Elko is going through the university’s vetting process and has accepted the job of defensive coordinator. Tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker was relieved of his duties. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford has departed for the head coaching job at Western Kentucky.

The moves might not be finished. Veteran assistant and associate head coach Mike Denbrock‘s place inside the program isn’t certain, as multiple reports have mentioned he will no longer call plays. Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore‘s status is up in the air, he will meet with Elko in the near future. Former Nevada coach Brian Polian has reportedly accepted an offer to join Kelly’s staff, likely as special teams coordinator.

There won’t be all new faces. Recent hires Todd Lyght and Autry Denson appear safe. Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand is as well. While Mike Elston didn’t get promoted after interviewing for the defensive coordinator job, he’ll be retained—assuming he isn’t offered a defensive coordinator position elsewhere. He currently serves as the team’s recruiting coordinator.

While the move to replace a strength coach won’t garner the headlines that a new defensive coordinator brings, it’s a seismic move for Kelly—who considered Longo a coordinator and counted him among his closest advisors. The search for his replacement will be national.

Notre Dame offered no comment on Longo’s reassignment, and will make no comment on any hirings or firings this offseason until the moves are complete.

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

AP
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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.