Polian and Elston swapping roles brings Notre Dame ‘fresh perspective,’ particularly in recruiting

Brian Polian
Notre Dame Athletics
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If Notre Dame needed a change in the recruiting office, Mike Elston felt it was only because of the success Brian Polian had produced as the recruiting coordinator the last four years. And if the Irish needed a new right-hand man for Brian Kelly, Polian felt he was an obvious choice to take some of the head-coaching duties off the head coach’s plate.

Thus, Kelly swapped Elston’s and Polian’s secondary roles this offseason. (Or perhaps they are the primary roles? Splitting hairs, to say the least.) Elston, better known as the defensive line coach, became Notre Dame’s recruiting coordinator this winter, a job he held earlier in his 12-year stint as the only assistant to last all of Kelly’s tenure in South Bend, and Polian, also the special teams coordinator, became the Irish associate head coach, a nod toward his past as the head coach at Nevada between stretches at Notre Dame.

“It’s a little bit unusual that responsibilities would shift the way they did with no turnover on the staff, but philosophically for coach Kelly, a fresh perspective and a little bit of change, while keeping continuity, is a good thing,” Polian said, suggesting neither he nor Elston received either a promotion or a demotion. “That’s the way I viewed it.”

The associate head coach’s work is largely behind the scenes, coordinating the entire staff so Kelly can focus on other big-picture needs or occasionally handling some of those big-picture items. Polian went only 23-27 in four seasons leading Nevada, but he still grew to understand and appreciate all that a head coach has to handle, something just he and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn (Buffalo) have first-hand awareness of among Kelly’s staff.

“I am able to take my experience from my time at Nevada as the head coach and I can apply those things to the responsibilities that coach Kelly’s asked me to take on, whether it be a liaison with NCAA legislation, seeing the big picture with our football team, communicating with our football team, whatever it is he asks me to do,” Polian said Tuesday. “Some of the football responsibilities I had just naturally taken to already. The communication throughout the course of the game, all those things kind of fit the job description already, anyway.”

If all those things occur without much notice from the Notre Dame fan base, the recruiting efforts Polian had spearheaded since returning to South Bend in 2017 have been scrutinized at length. The 43-8 record across the last four seasons is in no small part a reflection of recruiting success, both of Polian’s and of Elston’s, who preceded and now succeeds Polian as recruiting coordinator.

Elston held together the recruiting class of 2017 while Kelly overhauled his coaching staff following the 2016 debacle, a recruiting class that included four-year starting right tackle Robert Hainsey, eventual All-American left guard Aaron Banks and a pair of three-year starting defensive linemen in Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, the latter pair still around. Hainsey and Hinish, in particular, were credited with aiding Elston’s work to keep the recruiting class intact while Kelly interviewed coordinators. One of those coordinators was Polian, who took over not only the special teams but also the roster management innate to recruiting.

“It was fun to watch Brian Polian … it was really fun to watch the personal side of it,” Elston said Thursday. “His strengths come out with evaluation and really getting the roster right with positions and very integral in that part.

“Those aren’t necessarily my focus right now because that’s been done really well over the last four years.”

In the last four years, be it under Kelly’s edict or Polian’s direction, the Irish recruiting office has been built out. Most notably and publicly, Bill Rees’ evaluation work is usually a class ahead of the assistant coaches’, streamlining their focus from the outset. But evaluation is only half the recruiting formula, and Elston sees some work to be done in the sale.

“My strengths are the creative part and ‘how we get them to say yes’ part,” he said. “… Brian was really good at the evaluation part, so I learned a lot from that and it’s been really fun. Now to come back and help implement a little bit more of the creative side and lean on the things that Brian put into place in evaluation.”

Elston’s creative side already showed itself a month ago when Notre Dame put out an all-out recruiting blitz on St. Patrick’s Day. This space does not devote time to the day-to-day aspects of recruiting offers, visits and top-five lists (half sanity-preservation and half time constraints), but Irish recruiting reporters likened the pile of 2023 scholarship offers to the headlines of National Signing Day. Elston made the same comparison.

“We had just changed some things within the evaluation piece to make sure we were going ahead and evaluating the 2023 and 2024 classes ahead of time, ahead of when we normally would do it,” he said. “We had a lot of information we were gathering from transcripts to character. We wanted to check a lot of boxes, but we knew by St. Paddy’s Day, we would have a lot of underclassmen we wanted to offer.”

No explanation should really be needed why that particular day became the date of the push, branded a “Pot of Gold.”

“St. Paddy’s Day, the luck of the Irish, no one else can really utilize that day like we can. It almost had a feel of a National Signing Day and that’s what we were going for to get some good buzz and on the cusp of really rolling out a new plan for the 2023 class and getting ahead of the curve.”

And with Polian handling some of the usual head-coach duties, Kelly had the time to join the social media aspect of the St. Patrick’s Day recruiting, arguably making a fool of himself but coming across as relatable all the same.