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Joseph: Changes in football coaching staff may bring success (March 29)

Allan Joseph | Wednesday, March 28, 2012

There are some familiar faces, and a couple new ones.

The offseason saw a high-profile departure join a former Notre Dame coach, while new additions are onboard for the spring.

Most importantly, this group will have more to do with the success of the 2012 season than any other.

No, I’m not talking about quarterbacks. I’m talking about assistant coaches.

Former offensive line coach and run game coordinator Ed Warinner was one of the unsung heroes of the first two years of the Brian Kelly era. In case you don’t remember, the offensive line under Charlie Weis was, well, not so stellar.

While Weis recruited big, talented linemen, those linemen never reached their full potential. They got bigger, sure, but were regularly manhandled in terms of speed and technique.

It’s why Jimmy Clausen struggled so much under center.

Warinner revamped that entire offensive front and quietly made it one of the strengths of the 2011 squad. The offensive line’s improvements were most noticeable in the run game, which had an outstanding year under former running backs coach Tim Hinton. Running back Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray nearly pulled off dual 1,000-yard seasons, and they often had gaping holes to run through – they couldn’t have racked up those yards without them.

Now Warinner and Hinton have offices 280 miles to the southeast in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, where they are on Urban Meyer’s Ohio State staff. Former offensive coordinator Charley Molnar left to take a head coaching job at Massachusetts.

The faces are a mix of new and old.

Former safeties coach Chuck Martin is back on the other side of the ball to replace Molnar. Kelly approached Bob Elliott from Iowa State to replace Martin and convinced Tennessee offensive line coach Harry Hiestand to take over Warinner’s duties in 2012. Other staff members switched some of their duties to cover the remaining holes.

By and large, last year’s staff worked. It remains to be seen if the new one will.

Hiestand and Elliott are well-regarded coaches, but will they be able to build the same rapport with their players as the previous coaches could?

Martin has experience on the offensive side of the ball, but he inherits a squad searching for a quarterback among four competitors who just lost their most regular coach. Can Martin pick up where Molnar left off?

The answers to these questions will largely determine the outcome of the 2012 season, especially considering the difficulty of the upcoming slate.

If the offensive line struggles, it really doesn’t matter who’s under center. If the safeties can’t keep receivers in front of them, the talents of the monster defensive line are all for naught.

It comes down to that oft-clichéd word: fundamentals.

Position coaches are where players learn and develop fundamentals, and without fundamentals, Notre Dame isn’t going to beat BYU, much less Oklahoma.

Of course, Kelly is ultimately responsible for the successes and failures of his football team – he hired these coaches, after all. Head coaches, however, have to delegate to their assistants. Kelly simply doesn’t have the time to make sure Jamoris Slaughter knows the proper footwork to pick up a post route or to teach Zack Martin how to properly read a zone blitz. Those responsibilities fall upon the assistant coaches.

Assistant coaches won’t get the most press. They definitely won’t get anything close to the most discussion at water coolers and on message boards. But they’ll determine this season’s outcome – and with it, the future of Kelly’s career at Notre Dame.

Contact Allan Joseph at ajoseph2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.