Notre Dame’s assistant coaching staff may have added only two names this winter, but much more of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s staff changed than that. At the top of the list, of course, is promoting Tommy Rees to offensive coordinator in place of Chip Long. While that decision came with an unspoken interim tag, and an oft-repeated “collaboration” qualifier, leading up to the Camping World Bowl, Kelly acknowledged Thursday that month was very much a job interview period for Rees.
Blowing out Iowa State while gaining 455 yards certainly helped Rees’ candidacy, but perhaps not as much as his time coaching Notre Dame’s quarterbacks.
“I wanted the coordinator to be quarterbacks coach,” Kelly said after the first spring practice held in the freshly-finished Irish Athletics Center. “That relationship is really key to having great communication and some of the nuances that occur in play-calling require that relationship to be with the coordinator.
“My success and my experience has found that if you’re not coaching at [quarterback], there’s a bit of separation there that can occur. I wanted it to be at that quarterback position. Tommy had done that and was on a job interview during the bowl preparation and (I) really liked the way that went.”
While working with fifth-year quarterback Ian Book for a fourth season should only help Rees’ first season calling plays, Kelly also made sure to point to Rees’ relationships with the rest of the offense, as well, a dynamic aided by running backs coach Lance Taylor coordinating the run game.
“[Rees] commands the room, he has really good interpersonal skills,” Kelly said. “He has a good sense and awareness.”
The newest addition to that room will be Long’s other replacement, tight ends coach John McNulty. With nearly 30 years of coaching experience, including five as the offensive coordinator at Rutgers during Greg Schiano’s heyday, McNulty brings a veteran voice to both the tight ends position and Rees’ first season.
“We really needed somebody dedicated to the position,” Kelly said. “I think in the interview process, what I really liked about his presentation to me was his focus solely on teaching the techniques and his experience working with multiple tight ends.”
Kelly highlighting McNulty’s comfort with multiple tight end sets indicates Notre Dame will continue to lean on the position group, despite losing Cole Kmet to the NFL draft, welcome news for rising junior Tommy Tremble, senior Brock Wright and incoming freshman Michael Mayer. Furthermore, Kelly speculated having a tight ends coach as a coordinator in the past actually worked against those players.
“I thought last year, when your offensive coordinator was the tight ends coach, the guy that gets left out sometimes is the tight end,” Kelly said. “Because he has so many other responsibilities. That position in itself required much more focus and attention.”
McNulty needed to impress Kelly in the interview process; aside from a year with the San Diego Chargers in which McNulty overlapped with Rees, there was no tie to the Irish staff. New cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens, however, has a clear connection: He played for Kelly at Cincinnati, earning two-time All-American honors.
Despite how well Mickens played, Kelly did not envision this day ever coming, unlike the obvious example of always expecting Rees to enter the coaching profession.
“Mike was very cerebral, very smart, he could always give you back what game plans were and what we wanted to do,” Kelly said. “He was a very sharp player, but I never knew he would want to get into the business itself.
“But Tommy was a no-brainer.”
Maybe not as clear a no-brainer, but it is not exactly surprising former Notre Dame offensive lineman Chris Watt has returned to campus to join the staff as a graduate assistant. A versatile and savvy lineman in his time as a three-year starter back in 2011-13, Watt played alongside some of the best offensive linemen in school history.
“His presence among our players was recognizable still,” Kelly said. “He kind of has that attachment to the McGlincheys and the Nelsons and certainly the Eiferts and the Martins. That group has been very successful, so he carries a lot of that.”
One more name from the past will join the broader staff around the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. Former Irish defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks (2010-14) will serve as a defensive analyst once through the HR process. Cooks was most recently the safeties coach at Texas Tech and before that the defensive backs coach at Oklahoma for four seasons.