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New Irish coaching staff prepares for season

| Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Irish head coach Brian Kelly officially introduced the plethora of new faces coming to the Irish coaching staff for the 2017 season Monday.

“We made quite a few changes,” Kelly said. “It’s important to certainly look at where you are, where you were and for me, I know I’m going to always be reminded about last year, and I clearly understand that.

“Having said that, there always are going to be changes when you look hard and look at yourself and look at where your program needs to be, and we fell short of all those goals.”

After Kelly fired Brian VanGorder mid-season, finding a new defensive coordinator was at the top of the to-do list, with Kelly stating he was specifically looking for someone who could force turnovers.

Kelly found his answer in Wake Forest defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“Mike Elko, one of only two defensive coordinators in the nation … to have a unit in the top 40 in total defense in the last five years at Wake and [Bowling Green],” Kelly said. “There were three teams that took the ball away as many times, 20-plus times: It was Clemson, Alabama and Wake Forest.”

“The biggest thing that we’re going to try to do is we’re going to try to put our kids in positions to be successful at what they do,” Elko said of his scheme. “ … It’s an adjustable scheme that we constantly evaluate what positions are we putting our kids in, what are we going to ask them to be able to do this week and can they do it.”

Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko speaks with the media during the introductory press conference for new coaches Monday.Marek Mazurek | The Observer
Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko speaks with the media during the introductory press conference for new coaches Monday.

Greg Hudson took over the position on an interim basis last season and was given an interview, Kelly said. Ultimately, the head coach decided to go in another direction, but he said he is still looking into potentially finding a place for Hudson on the staff.

Elko brings Clark Lea as his linebacker’s coach, the position Lea held under Elko at Wake Forest.

“He’s a great coach, and I think he can coach this scheme really well,” Elko said of Lea. “With our ability and our need to get this thing going quickly, he’ll do a great job helping with that.”

Kelly said Mike Elston, Notre Dame’s linebackers coach last season, will move to the defensive line and also retain his position as recruiting coordinator.

After former offensive coordinator Mike Sanford left to take the head coaching job at Western Kentucky in the offseason, Kelly said his priority in the new hire was finding a “play-caller.” He said the name that kept hanging around was Memphis offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“As I looked around the country, I was able to compile a very short list of guys that called plays through my eyes. In other words, the way I like our offense to look,” Kelly said. “And the guy that kept coming to the top of the list was Chip Long.”

“ … [He] didn’t rely heavily on a passing game when he was forced to make up ground late in games. Utilized two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move towards with the great depth that we have at that position.”

Kelly fired former special teams coach Scott Booker in the days after the loss to USC, but he said he was “able to hit a home run” by hiring former Irish assistant Brian Polian, who agreed to part ways with Nevada at the end of last season.

“It’s different in every facet,” Polian said of returning to special teams coordinator after spending the last four seasons as head coach at Nevada. “It’s just something that I have to get adjusted to, and it’s no concern. It will just take a little bit of time … I want to coach football, and I’m looking forward to doing that again.”

A familiar face returns with the Irish quarterbacks, who Sanford also coached, in former quarterback Tom Rees.

Or, is it Tommy?

“Some of you may know him as Tom Rees,” Kelly said. “You can call him whatever you like. I think he would answer to either Tom or Tommy. But what I like to call him is our quarterbacks coach.”

Technically, Kelly said, Rees is only a graduate assistant, but Kelly said he expects Rees to be in full control of the quarterback room.

“He is fully empowered to coach them,” Kelly said. “He will have the room. He will coach those quarterbacks on a day-to-day basis.”

Rees joked the campus looks a little different than it did when he graduated three years ago, but said he was excited about getting the chance to coach a first-year quarterback after DeShone Kizer declared for the NFL and Malik Zaire announced his intention to transfer.

“You start with a fresh slate and a group of kids that are really eager to learn and eager to play,” Rees said of the quarterbacks. “So they’re all ears right now.”

Kelly also introduced DelVaughn Alexander as Notre Dame’s new receivers coach, adding he liked Alexander’s organizational skills and experience from Arizona State, Wisconsin, Oregon State and UNLV.

“We’ve got a veteran wide receiver coach, well-established in his profession and in his interview was extremely detailed and organized in laying out what his role will be in developing our fairly young wide receiving core,” Kelly said.

Additionally, Kelly named Matt Balis as Notre Dame’s new strength and conditioning coach after Paul Longo had to step down for health reasons, adding Balis comes recommended from former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. Balis was on Diaco’s staff at UConn last season.

Dave Ballou (strength and conditioning), Jeff Quinn (senior offensive analyst), Jeff Burris (defensive analyst) and Bryce Tracy (offensive analyst) rounded out the hires Kelly announced Monday.

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About Zach Klonsinski

A History graduate, Zach spent all four of his years on campus as a resident of Knott Hall. Hailing from Belgrade, Montana, he covered a wide variety of sports in his time at Notre Dame, including Football, Hockey, Men's Basketball, Men's Soccer, Women's Tennis, Fencing, Rowing, Women's Lacrosse and other events around campus. You can contact him in his post-graduation travels and job search at [email protected]

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