Leftovers & Links: Track records of young, first-time head coaches, a la Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame
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Marcus Freeman’s birthday was earlier this month, most notable in that it will change offseason headlines from “35-year-old first-time Notre Dame head coach” to “36-year-old …” and in that its timing does away with any “Happy birthday” fodder before late-October press conferences as was the norm during Brian Kelly’s 12 years in South Bend.

Freeman’s age is less a factor as a head coach than his inexperience in the position is, the latter arguably detectable during the second-half Irish faceplant in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day, but because humans evolved to have 10 fingers on their hands, Freeman’s age will undoubtedly be discussed until he turns 40.

With that in mind, some outside help was sought in putting together a comprehensive list of hires of 30-somethings as head coaches since 2000. (That outside help is usually a bad influence, but sometimes the Split Zone Duo Discord yields helpful insights.)

There have been 28 instances — Freeman makes 29 — of Power Five teams hiring a head coach younger than 40 at the season’s start since 2000. That list includes Lane Kiffin twice, Matt Campbell and nearly a decade of Pat Fitzgerald, hired at 31 in 2006 at Northwestern. (That tally does not count the interim situation handled by Luke Fickell at Ohio State in 2011. It also does not include Kirby Smart’s hiring at Georgia in 2016, when he was 40, but that omission deserves acknowledgment these days.)

Of those 28, 21 of them were first-time head coaches, including the likes of Lincoln Riley, David Shaw and Dabo Swinney, all of whom will be on Notre Dame’s schedule in 2022. It does not include Kiffin, as he had already coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007 at 31, something that still defies comprehension. It does include Clark Lea’s one season at Vanderbilt, a note that emphasizes that these coaches are often in tough spots.

But they were not prohibitively tough spots. When taken collectively, those 21 coached their teams to essentially the same level as they had performed in the year prior.

Year before hires: 133-123, 0.520 winning percentage.
First year: 135-130, 0.509 winning percentage.

Five of them lost at least two more games in their first season compared to the year prior, including Fitzgerald and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy. Seven of them won at least two more games, perhaps because they followed Tyrone Willingham at Washington or because Lea took over a truly dire program at his alma mater.

One notable exception to that trend stands out. Of those seven occasions of at least two wins in improvement, only two did so when taking over teams that were already better than .500. Swinney’s first year at Clemson jumped the Tigers from 7-6 to 9-5 and then there is Bret Bielema’s replacement of a legend at Wisconsin …

Barry Alvarez lasted 16 seasons leading the Badgers, becoming their all-time winningest coach by the time he stepped aside in 2005. Bielema had served as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator for all of two seasons, with no ties to the program before that. He took over a team that had just gone 10-3, hardly in need of massive changes.

In 2006, Bielema led the Badgers to a 12-1 season, though it ironically ended in a Citrus Bowl victory just as 2005 had. (Michigan beat Wisconsin in the regular season in 2006, and thus got the Rose Bowl bid when Ohio State went to the national championship game. Of those three Big Ten teams, only the Badgers won in January.)

Obviously, the sample size of one relatively new defensive coordinator taking over for a legend is too small a sample size to draw any conclusions, but the parallels to Freeman’s ascension at Notre Dame are too many to completely ignore.

The more notable sample size conclusion is that young, first-year head coaches have largely been able to maintain their program’s trendlines in their debut seasons across the last two decades.

The other notable realization from these names is that even the ones who initially failed were generally evaluated correctly by those who hired them. 12 of the 21 are still head coaches at the NFL or FBS levels, with six of them still in those original outposts. These coaches were seen as quite talented at a young age, and their lasting power reflects that. (It may also reflect the lack of originality in many hires, a shot that could be pointed at either Bielema at Illinois or Karl Dorrell at Colorado.)

FIVE COACHES WITH QUICK STRUGGLES
Rich Rodriguez — 2001 — West Virginia — 7-5 to 3-8
Mike Shula — 2003 — Alabama — 10-3 to 4-9
Karl Dorrell — 2003 — UCLA — 8-5 to 6-7
Mike Gundy — 2005 — Oklahoma State — 7-5 to 4-7
Pat Fitzgerald — 2006 — Northwestern — 7-5 to 4-8

SEVEN COACHES WITH QUICK SUCCESS
Bret Bielema — 2006 — Wisconsin — 10-3 to 12-1
Ron Prince — 2006 — Kansas State — 5-6 to 7-6
Dabo Swinney — 2009 — Clemson — 7-6 to 9-5
Steve Sarkisian — 2009 — Washington — 0-12 to 5-7
James Franklin — 2011 — Vanderbilt — 2-10 to 6-7
D.J. Durkin — 2016 — Maryland — 3-9 to 6-7
Clark Lea — 2021 — Vanderbilt — 0-9 to 2-10

THE REST
Mike Leach — 2000 — Texas Tech
Dan Mullen — 2009 — Mississippi State
Will Muschamp — 2011 — Florida
David Shaw — 2011 — Stanford
Kliff Kingsbury — 2013 — Texas Tech
Mark Helfrich — 2013 — Oregon
Barry Odom — 2016 — Missouri
Lincoln Riley — 2017 — Oklahoma
Jonathan Smith — 2018 — Oregon State

227 DAYS …
The requisite way-too-early top-25 rankings forecasting the 2022 preseason mostly have Notre Dame somewhere in the back half of the top 10, and they nearly unanimously had Ohio State at No. 2.

The last time the Irish opened the season with a top-10 matchup was 1990, when No. 1 Notre Dame beat No. 4 Michigan, 28-24, thanks to a touchdown pass from Rick Mirer to Adrian Jarrell with only 1:40 left on the clock. It would be the last night game in South Bend for 21 years.

INSIDE THE IRISH
The difference between Notre Dame and Georgia? It widened since 2017, but maybe has finally started to close again
Dozen early enrollees get head start at Notre Dame, led by quartet of linebackers
Notre Dame reportedly pulls former Clemson staffer from Baylor to be WRs coach
Defensive line coach Mike Elston leaving Notre Dame to join Michigan staff
Grading preseason predictions, focused on the offensive line and September successes
Grading preseason predictions, in which the defense exceeded expectations and the Irish won every expected game
Coaching turnover continues: Lance Taylor heads to Louisville, DL coach Al Washington reportedly hired

OUTSIDE READING
‘It’s starting to feel like it was before’: Pandemic looms over start of semester
Notre Dame adds graduate transfer kicker Blake Grupe from Arkansas State
A dozen non-conference games to look forward to in 2022
Exhausted and exasperated, college football officials still unable to agree on Playoff model
NFL mock draft 2022: Mel Kiper’s predictions
College football way-too-early Top 25 for 2022
Stewart Mandel’s too early Top 25 for the 2022 college football season
The 2022 way-too-early college football top 25
College football’s top 100 games of the 2021 season — Nos. 100-51

Notre Dame coaching turnover continues: Lance Taylor heads to Louisville, DL coach Al Washington reportedly hired

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 13 Notre Dame Spring Game
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One Notre Dame assistant coach leaves. Another new Irish assistant is reportedly hired. So continues these weeks of staff turnover, something that would not have been entirely unexpected even if Brian Kelly had never abruptly left for LSU and seems odd now only because Notre Dame seemed so solid in its continuity after Marcus Freeman was promoted to head coach in early December.

Early December, of course, is not when these things happen, so that six-week-old presumption was clearly premature.

Irish running backs coach Lance Taylor has been named the offensive coordinator at Louisville. Taylor had been at Notre Dame for three seasons. In that stretch, Taylor oversaw Tony Jones leading the Irish rushing attack in 2019 with a 6.0 yards per carry average as he went from fringe prospect to someone still in the NFL, and then the sudden and rapid rise of Kyren Williams, heading to the NFL this spring as a likely second-day pick.

Taylor will take over an offense at Louisville that could be primed for continued success in 2022 — after averaging 31.6 points and 6.68 yards per play in 2021 — returning both veteran quarterback Malik Cunningham and its top two running backs.

Taylor’s departure means Notre Dame will return only two offensive coaches next season: offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and tight ends coach John McNulty. Rees and Freeman have already reportedly hired a new offensive line coach in Harry Hiestand, yes that Harry Hiestand, and receivers coach Chanci Stuckey from Baylor.

Freeman also reportedly will hire Al Washington as its next defensive line coach, replacing Mike Elston only days after he jumped to Michigan, Elston’s alma mater. Multiple Sunday morning reports indicated the former Ohio State linebackers coach will reunite with Freeman, whom he coached with in 2017 at Cincinnati.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported the Washington hire.

The Buckeyes defensive coaching staff has undergone extensive turnover this offseason as a result of struggles in September. Washington fell victim to that, as new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles focuses on the linebackers.

Prior to his three seasons at Ohio State, Washington spent one at Michigan, also as linebackers coach.

With the hire of Washington and the departure of Taylor, Notre Dame now needs to find a defensive coordinator and a running backs coach.

Grading preseason predictions, in which Notre Dame’s defense exceeded expectations and the Irish won every expected game

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame
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The first half of this space’s preseason predictions were overwhelmingly successful, anticipating the slow start for Notre Dame’s offensive line as it found some chemistry, but not expecting those struggles to trip up the Irish in September. If being honest, though, most of those predictions were more likely than not.

The second half of the 40 “Inside the Irish” preseason predictions were not as generous. How did they fare? And in answering that question, how did Notre Dame fare compared to its August expectations?

RELATED READING: Grading the first half of the predictions, going 16.5-3.5

21) Sophomore running back Chris Tyree will gain more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage.
VERDICT: Not even close, in part due to those aforementioned offensive line struggles, but mostly due to turf toe limiting Tyree through the season’s second half. As he said in the lead-up to the Fiesta Bowl, Tyree would not wish that injury on his worst enemy. He finished with 222 rushing yards and 258 receiving yards. The 480 combined yards included three touchdowns, but even if adding his 347 kickoff return yards (and one score), Tyree would not have cracked four digits. (16.5-4.5)

22) Junior running back Kyren Williams will gain more than 1,550 yards from scrimmage.
VERDICT: He came close, with 1,361, but this cannot be graded as correct even in spirit, given the impetus of the prediction was that Williams would eclipse the Kelly-era high of 1,468 yards from scrimmage set by Josh Adams in 2017. (16.5-5.5)

23) “No fewer than six players will score on the ground for the Irish.”
VERDICT: If only freshman Audric Estime had found the end zone in his limited action. Alas, this fell short by one player. The prediction gave effort at figuring out who the six would be, but with no receiver getting into the end zone on a jet sweep and senior running back C’Bo Flemister spending the season alternating between the dog house and the injured list, those musings never stood a chance. (16.5-6.5)

24) Both Williams and junior safety Kyle Hamilton will head to the NFL after the season.
VERDICT: Correct, even before the season technically ended, as the two — more so Williams than Hamilton — became the first notable opt-outs in Notre Dame history. (17.5-6.5)

25) Neither center Jarrett Patterson nor fifth-year Josh Lugg will return in 2022, leaving the Irish with only two returning starters along the offensive line next season.
VERDICT: Have you ever been so glad to see this space so wrong about something? Well, perhaps not, because if Patterson and Lugg had gone to the NFL, that would suggest the offensive line played better this past season. But regardless, the Irish will return four starters next season, and that count can be bumped to five if generously counting freshman Blake Fisher’s two starts to bookend the season. (17.5-7.5)

26) Drew White will lead Notre Dame in tackles. That will need more than his 57 a year ago to finish second behind Kyle Hamilton’s 63, numbers deflated more by the slow-paced Irish offense in 2020 than by a schedule shortened by one game. They’ll need more because Notre Dame will average more than the 6.2 yards per play it averaged last season.
VERDICT: Wrong on all accounts. Junior linebacker JD Bertrand led the Irish with 101 tackles, nearly double White’s 55, again second on the team. And Notre Dame averaged 6.14 yards per play. (17.5-8.5)

27) Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer will finish the season with at least 55 catches, 800 yards and eight touchdowns.
VERDICT: We are going to count this as correct, even if Mayer fell one touchdown short. He set the Irish record for catches by a tight end in a season, as well as touchdowns by a tight end in a season, with 71 for 840 yards and seven scores. Mayer led Notre Dame’s offense all season, and his 2022 should be something to behold. (18.5-8.5)

28) A conditional prediction, “If Notre Dame has a receiver — not a running back, not a tight end — with 1,000 receiving yards in 2021, the Irish will go 12-0.”
VERDICT: Well, senior Kevin Austin finished the season with 888 receiving yards, so the prediction was correct as written. Remove his bowl game stats and that falls to 783 yards.

The prediction was also correct in its intent. In the one Irish regular-season loss, Austin had one catch on two targets for 17 yards. Yes, he was going up against the best cornerback duo in the country, but it is not hard to imagine that if Austin had shined on the first Saturday in October, perhaps to the tune of 129 yards, then Notre Dame would have indeed gone 12-0. (19.5-8.5)

29) Freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner will not attempt more than six passes in 2021.
VERDICT: This prediction put too much faith in sophomore Drew Pyne remaining entrenched as the No. 2 quarterback. Buchner went 21-of-35 for 298 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. He attempted a pass in 10 different games, including going 6-of-14 in two quarters of action at Virginia Tech. (19.5-9.5)

30) The best quarterbacks Irish fans will see this season will be on the opposite sidelines. … No Notre Dame opponent will (win  the Heisman).”
VERDICT: The intention here was to credit USC’s Kedon Slovis and North Carolina’s Sam Howell. The latter showed up against the Irish, averaging 10.3 yards per pass attempt, but the best quarterback performance Irish fans saw all season may have come from Oklahoma State’s Spencer Sanders’ 371 yards and four touchdowns. (20.5-9.5)

31) “The Irish will give up more than 20 points per game for the first time since 2017.”
VERDICT: Even when including the Cowboys’ 37-point explosion on New Year’s Day, Notre Dame gave up only 19.7 points per game this season. Quite literally, one more made field goal — eight Irish opponents missed at least one — would have made this prediction correct. (20.5-10.5)

32) “(Marcus) Freeman will hold USC below its team total, whatever that team total is on Oct. 23, yet Trojans head coach Clay Helton will still be at his post in 2022.”
VERDICT: Helton was not even coaching USC when it came to South Bend halfway through the season, though the Trojans did fall short of their team total of 25.5 points, losing 31-16. That probably will not happen often under Lincoln Riley. (21-11)

33) Stanford will win four or fewer games. The same goes for Georgia Tech. Both Wisconsin and North Carolina will reach 10, as will Cincinnati.
VERDICT: If placing these wagers in real life, the hope would be to simply go 3-2. That would be enough for a profit. And sure enough, the Cardinal (3-9), Wreck (3-9) and Bearcats (12-0) provided three winning tickets. (22-11)

34) “Georgia will make the Playoff, which might seem unrelated to everything here, but given how closely the Irish played the Dawgs in 2017 and 2019, it serves as evidence of how close Notre Dame is to the top tier. It is not in it, but it is firmly in the second tier, if not at the top of the second tier.”
VERDICT: Nailed it. (23-11)

35) “The Irish have beaten 32 unranked teams in a row. That will reach 40 this year.”
VERDICT: It actually reached 42, thanks to USC and North Carolina both falling so far so fast. This should be one of the metrics applied to Marcus Freeman’s first year as Notre Dame’s head coach. Can he keep winning the games the Irish should clearly win? Few teams can, as evidenced by this being the longest streak in the country. (24-11)

36) “Notre Dame will finish 2021 with an 11-1 record. This space will not predict who the Irish will lose to, but 11-1 is the most likely record, with 10-2 more plausible than 12-0.”
VERDICT: If any preseason prediction deserves double credit, it is the season record. It will not be counted double here, but it is always a nice peg to hang a hat on. (25-11)

37) “The Irish will not finish the season unbeaten at home. That streak is currently at 24. It will end somewhere between 26 and 28.”
VERDICT: It ended at 26 when Cincinnati prevailed 24-13 in South Bend. The new streak, currently at four, would need to include wins over Clemson (Nov. 5, 2022), Ohio State (Sept. 23, 2023), USC (Oct. 14, 2023) and Texas A&M (Sept. 13, 2025) to crack that stretch of 26. (26-11)

38) “A coin flip should decide if this prediction sends the Irish to the Peach Bowl (Dec. 30, Atlanta) or the Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 1, Phoenix), but let’s ride the Georgia thought from earlier and look forward to some barbeque.”
VERDICT: Staking a prediction on barbeque cannot be criticized, even if it led to the prediction being wrong. (26-12)

39) “In a welcome prediction, Notre Dame will not lose a game to the pandemic, be it by its own testing results, an opponent’s or even local order. The season will be played as scheduled.”
VERDICT: The only real concern was the bowl game. Thankfully, neither the Irish nor the Cowboys had pandemic-related absences on New Year’s Day. (27-12)

40) “And fans will be in the stands for all 13 games.
VERDICT: We shouldn’t take that for granted. (28-12)

Grading preseason predictions, focused on Notre Dame’s offensive line and September successes

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Preseason predictions help set a bar for the season. Once removed a bit from the frustrations of Notre Dame’s faceplant in the second half of the Fiesta Bowl, looking back at those predictions can remind how the Irish fared compared to expectations in 2021.

A recap of those predictions can also serve as an exercise in personal accountability for your resident prognosticator, as well as help fill the slow time that is the next six weeks as we await spring football. With no further stalling, a look at the first half of our preseason predictions, with a judgment on each one’s eventual accuracy …

1) A relatively young offensive line will lack chemistry to start the season before finding itself by the end. Thus, the Irish will average more rushing yards in November than in September.
VERDICT: That could not have ended up much more accurate, and it would have been even if Notre Dame had rushed for more than three yards on 32 carries against Wisconsin in Chicago. The Irish averaged 80 rushing yards per game through September and 195 in November. (1-0)

2) The same will apply to sacks. Notre Dame will give up more sacks in September than in November.
VERDICT: Again, spot on. The offensive line struggles of September led to 20 sacks allowed. The “hurry-up Jack” offense of November led to the ball getting out quicker and only nine sacks allowed. (2-0)

3) Freshman Blake Fisher will start at Florida State, becoming only the second freshman in Irish history to start a season opener on the offensive line.
VERDICT: Of course, Fisher did not even make it to halftime that night before a meniscus injury cost him the next 11.5 games, but the prediction held up. (3-0)

4) “When Notre Dame hosts Toledo in its home opener on Sept. 11, some moment will welcome (fifth-year defensive end Myron) Tagovailoa-Amosa. It will be loud, resounding and poignant. And he will respond with a sack that afternoon.”
VERDICT: In his first appearance at Notre Dame Stadium since losing his father unexpectedly in August, Tagovailoa-Amosa had two sacks with a forced fumble against the Rockets. Those were, in fact, his only sacks of the season.

Sometimes a correct prediction feels even better than usual, and seeing Tagovailoa-Amosa notch a sack at the end of the first quarter that afternoon was one of those moments. Always a sincere and forthcoming interview, always with his emotions on his sleeve for the world to see, Tagovailoa-Amosa getting that moment after his previous month was a small good moment in life. (4-0)

5) The outcry when NBC and Notre Dame announced that home opener would be available exclusively on Peacock, NBC’s streaming app, would quiet with time and that Saturday would be a non-issue.
VERDICT: If it had been an issue, there would still be complaints months later. There aren’t. Calling this correct. And looking ahead, Marshall had a decent 2021, but to be completely honest, this space does not yet have any idea how much or little the Thundering Herd will return in 2022. Regardless, would anyone be that shocked to see another home opener on the streaming app on Sept. 10? (That is not some inside-NBC knowledge. The bottom of the totem pole is offered no such insights.) (5-0)

6) Many Irish fans will keep their Peacock subscriptions.
VERDICT: I have and even enjoyed binging “Yellowstone” with it. (6-0)

7) Drew Brees will be well-received as the new “ND on NBC” analyst.
VERDICT: Even when Notre Dame faced Brees’ alma mater, Purdue, in his second game in the gig, complaints were few and far between. (7-0)

8) Toledo will win more than 8.5 games. Kent State will win more than 5.5 games.
VERDICT: If Kent State had delivered in the MAC title game, this 1-1 showing would feel much better. (7.5-0.5)

9) New overtime rules will not impact the Irish.
VERDICT: Aside from the season-opener, there was no overtime to worry about, and never a second overtime, when the new, shortened rules would begin to have an impact. The fact of the matter is, Notre Dame probably will not worry about these rules in 2022, either, though doing so would certainly be a quick litmus test for how Marcus Freeman intends to handle many game scenarios as head coach. (8.5-0.5)

10) “The Irish will enjoy a kick or punt return to the opponent’s side of the field within the first three games of the year.”
VERDICT: Oh so close. Two bad punts against Purdue gave Notre Dame plus-field position, but neither even involved a return. So a strict grade here cannot count them. And just one game later, Chris Tyree broke that game-changing kickoff return for a touchdown against Wisconsin. But that was too late for these concerns. (8.5-1.5)

11) Brian Kelly will tie Knute Rockne’s career wins record at Notre Dame by starting the year 3-0.
VERDICT: (9.5-1.5)

12) The Irish will win two of their first three games by at least 17 points.
VERDICT: Though it looked like Notre Dame would get this off to a strong start in the opener, that fourth-quarter collapse in Tallahassee began a stretch of three games closer than they should have been, part of the struggles the Irish offensive line had to start the season. (9.5-2.5)

13) “Those strengths in the trenches will set Notre Dame’s floor. If that comes across as a vague prediction, let Fisher’s and Tagovailoa-Amosa’s successes serve as validation for it.”
VERDICT: The offensive line struggled for much of the season, but Notre Dame’s ability to roll through November and reach the cusp of the Playoff was due to that offensive line coalescing, though without Fisher, and the defensive line continuing to be impressive, setting a Kelly-era high for sacks with 41.

If the Irish floor was a New Year’s Six bowl, that is attributable to those trenches. (10.5-2.5)

14) Senior receiver Kevin Austin will not see much usage against at least one of Toledo or Purdue, a result of going three-plus years without playing extended football.
VERDICT: Austin finished that two-game stretch with just four catches for 63 yards, all against Toledo, on 16 targets. (11.5-2.5)

15) The 11 a.m. local kickoff in Chicago against Wisconsin will temper tailgates.
VERDICT: There was no version of this world where this prediction would be graded as incorrect, but those tailgates were relatively impressive, nonetheless.

See you at Lambeau in 2026. I’ll host the tailgate. (12.5-2.5)

16) “Kelly will break Rockne’s record in September.”
VERDICT: The real prediction here was that Notre Dame would beat Wisconsin to reach 4-0. (13.5-2.5)

17) “Notre Dame will celebrate Kelly doing so with no mention, at least none larger than the fine print, of the 21 wins vacated by the NCAA.”
VERDICT: It has been remarkable, really. Since Kelly bolted for LSU, many Irish have fans have gone back on their years of ignoring the vacated aspect of 21 of Kelly’s wins, as ruled by the NCAA, and now insist those wins should be taken off the record books. They want to eat their cake and have it, too. (14.5-2.5)

18) “As teams worry about their rankings this year, the expansion conversation will hit the back-burner this fall.”
VERDICT: After ACC commissioner Jim Phillips’ comments on Friday, 2026 might be the only timeline for expansion. (15.5-2.5)

19) Sophomore cornerback Clarence Lewis will have multiple interceptions this season.
VERDICT: Many of these were layups of predictions, intended more to preview the season than to truly forecast amidst the second football season played during a pandemic. But this one was rather specific and, to the letter, wrong. Lewis had only one interception this season, though Irish cornerbacks had four total, four more than the position group had entering the season. (15.5-3.5)

20) “This fall, Notre Dame will announce a 2022 game in Las Vegas, deeming it the next iteration of the Shamrock Series. This prediction may be an attempt at manifesting a want into a reality as this entire column was written from the back row of a Vegas sportsbook.”
VERDICT: This remains one of my better moments of the fall. There was no reporting to this, just logic, and that logic was proven correct before the Irish even began their season.

Now to book a trip to the desert for these coming weeks to collect on those Georgia futures … (16.5-3.5)

Reports: Defensive line coach Mike Elston leaving Notre Dame to join Michigan staff

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 23 USC at Notre Dame
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In a reversal from his adamant comments in December, defensive line coach Mike Elston will leave Notre Dame to join the staff at Michigan, his alma mater, per multiple reports Thursday afternoon.

Irish Illustrated first reported Elston’s decision to join Jim Harbaugh’s staff.

Elston came to Notre Dame with Brian Kelly in 2010, the only staffer to last through all 12 years of Kelly’s tenure in South Bend. They had coached together since 2004, so when Kelly jumped to LSU abruptly after this season, there was widespread speculation Elston would join him.

Instead, Elston stayed on new head coach Marcus Freeman’s staff as defensive line coach, with some expecting him to at least be a candidate as defensive coordinator. Elston insisted his decision was not based on any job prospects or a lack of loyalty to Kelly, but instead simply what was best for his family.

“People think it’s loyalty to certain people, and at the end of the day, my family is the most important thing in my life,” Elston said on Dec. 15. “To move a daughter who is a junior in high school right now, starting her senior year. To move my middle daughter, Sophia, who is 14, and she’s going to be starting freshman year, who is a top-10, top-15 fencer in the country, and a lot of places don’t have fencing, pulling her away from an area that she’s able to flourish (in).

“So it’s a family decision for me and it will always be a family decision. It’s not about money. It’s truly about — my kids want to go to Notre Dame, too. It’s a family decision, and that’s why I’ve always really turned down opportunities for myself.”

Returning to his alma mater, where he worked as a student assistant in 1997 and as a video intern in 1998 before serving as a graduate assistant for two years, was an opportunity Elston apparently could not turn down.

Elston called Notre Dame’s defensive plays in the Fiesta Bowl, giving up 30 straight points in less than half the game. Freeman never framed that afternoon as an audition for Elston, but it should be noted that in recent weeks, Elston’s name has not been among the rumored candidates to be the new Irish defensive coordinator.

It should also be noted that Elston making this move suggests Harbaugh has reassured those around him he will not be taking an NFL job, simply based on logic.

With Elston’s unexpected departure, Freeman now needs to hire two assistant coaches. He needs a defensive coordinator, as well as a position coach to work with either the defensive line or the linebackers, whichever the defensive coordinator does not handle, unless Freeman intends to still handle the linebackers. That would be a surprise, but it would create some possible flexibility among the coaching staff.

Notre Dame finished 2021 with 41 sacks, a high for the Kelly era, and after Elston convinced Isaiah Foskey, Jayson Ademilola and Justin Ademilola all to return last week, the Irish return 30.5 sacks along its defensive line and 34.5 total.