Autry Denson will make one last run in South Bend – not on the hallowed grounds of Notre Dame Stadium this time, but down Angela Boulevard on his way to the airport. Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher and erstwhile running backs coach has accepted an offer to be the head coach of FCS Charleston-Southern, according to numerous reports. While recruitniks often gnashed their teeth over Denson’s inability to garner attention from elite backs, there’s no argument against his production as a coach; all he did was turn out elite backs, whether it was CJ Prosise, Josh Adams, or the reinvented Dexter Williams we saw this past season. Even Jafar Armstrong, after a season as a receiver, stepped in and made a difference this season. Deon McIntosh came out of nowhere last season to register 368 yards and 5 touchdowns. The guy can coach.
He was also an excellent representative of the university. Denson was the consummate teammate in his playing days, accepting a move from defensive back without argument; obviously that worked out really well, but he couldn’t have had any idea at the time. As a coach, he has built a reputation for fairness, kindness, integrity, and faith. From how you hear people talk about him I think he had a steadying influence in the locker room, and that will be missed.
Who Could Replace Him?
We’ll take a quick look at a few names that could potentially step in for Denson. Pete Sampson tweeted the other day that if Denson left, we should “expect Notre Dame to move quickly” to hire a replacement. One might assume that Brian Kelly already had some names in mind, and we won’t have to wait long to find out whether any of them are one of these guys. I took a look at some guys who are associated with good rushing performance and/or recruiting prowess. I also left out guys I consider complete pie-in-the-sky, like Alabama’s Joe Pannunzio and Clemson’s co-OC Tony Elliott. Much like head coaches, position coaches at Tier 1 programs aren’t going to make a lateral move absent some kind of compelling context.
Without further ado, then, the list of guys I would kick the tires on if I was Brian Kelly:
Tony Alford – Ohio State
We’ll start with a familiar face. Kelly’s lone holdover from Charlie Weis’s staff left for Columbus to burnish his resume for a potential head coaching offer that never came. He knows how to coach the position, he knows the school, and he knows how to sell it. With Urban Meyer out, would Alford consider a return? Would Notre Dame be willing to step him up from his $500K salary? Would his AHC title come with him, even though Mike Elston already holds the AHC title now? There are obstacles, but it’s not totally impossible.
Thomas Brown – South Carolina
Brown has bounced around a bit, but he’s also logged three top 20 S&P+ rushing performances in the last five seasons; in that time he coached Melvin Gordon at Wisconsin, Nick Chubb at Georgia, and Travis Homer at Miami. South Carolina snapped him up quickly after Manny Diaz fired him at Miami, but we know how much of an impediment “was just hired” is in the modern coach movement era. He has shown that he’s an excellent recruiter, from drawing four-star Georgia safety Arrington Farrar to Wisconsin to landing a couple of five-stars at Miami. Brown is from Georgia and played for Georgia, and aside from the one season in Wisconsin has spent his whole career south of the Mason-Dixon, so he can relate to Southern recruits. If you want coaching and recruiting chops, you could do a lot worse than Brown.
Charlie Huff – Mississippi State
Huff put himself on the national map at Penn State when protege Saquon Barkley ran wild in the Big Ten. He followed former Penn State OC Joe Moorhead to Mississippi State and picked up right where he left off, coaching S&P+’s 6th-ranked rushing offense in 2018. He has worked with Ralph Friedgen, PJ Fleck, James Franklin, and now Moorhead, which is a pretty solid group of mentors. Since 2014, 247 credits Huff with landing 16 four-stars and two five-stars. That’s some serious production on the recruiting trail. He holds an AHC title at Mississippi State, so he probably wouldn’t be the cheapest option, but there’s a lot of things to like about Huff.
Derrick Nix – Ole Miss
We’ll stay in the Magnolia State for a moment… Nix was a star running back at Southern Mississippi around the turn of the century before joining the Golden Eagles staff, in which capacity he was responsible for Southern Mississippi’s first 2,000-yard season in 20 years. In ten seasons at Ole Miss he has put up some solid rushing performances, including the 15th-ranked S&P+ rush offense this year, and his backs have notched three of Ole Miss’s ten best seasons ever. He has a solid history on the recruiting trail, landing a baker’s dozen of blue-chip recruits at Ole Miss. He’s from Alabama and aside from one year with the Atlanta Falcons in quality control he has spent his entire playing and coaching career in Mississippi; I don’t know how likely it is he would leave the South at this point, but it’s worth asking.
Andre Powell – Pitt
Powell has quietly churned out a pretty good list of alumni through multiple career stops. He has coached running backs and special teams for Virginia, Clemson, Maryland, and Pitt; among his pupils on that career path are Tiki Barber, CJ Spiller, Stefon Diggs (as an all-conference return man), Lou Groza winner Brad Craddock, John Conner, and Qadree Ollison. The dude can coach. He’s the oldest guy on this list and his recruiting track record won’t blow you away, so that might be a bit of a concern. Still, there’s no question that the football side of it would be very well taken care of.
Thad Ward – Illinois
Ward had paid his dues, working up through a couple of FCS stops and then a couple of MAC programs before Lovie Smith hired him in 2016. He has been an active recruiter and I think he’d be fine in that respect, but more importantly, he is seriously Doing Good Things™ with Illinois’s running game. In his three seasons there he has improved their S&P+ rushing rank from 73rd to 60th to 9th. Their lead rusher this past season, Reggie Corbin, averaged 8.5 yards per carry, and as a group their backs averaged 7.4 yards per carry. That is… attractive. Just three years at a lower-tier Power 5 program (sorry, Illini fans) might be some cause for reservation, but it sure looks like he can get results.
Dark Horse Candidates
These are guys I liked but, for one reason or another, didn’t think of as realistic choices. I would put all of them in the “guys to keep tabs on” category.
Georgia’s Dell McGee has done excellent work in a short window in Athens; I normally would doubt his availability, but maybe if he doesn’t mesh with new OC James Coley… You can’t argue with the results that Wisconsin’s John Settle has produced, but he’s been with Paul Chryst at multiple stops and doesn’t seem that likely to leave… Similarly, Ohio’s Tim Albin has done some really good things in the MAC, but he’s been there with Frank Solich since 2005 and also worked with Solich at Nebraska. And he has the AHC/OC titles…
Virginia Tech’s Zohn Burden has done some good things in Blacksburg, but not quite good enough to pique my interest yet. I remain attentive, though… I really like what Anthony Jones did in Memphis in 2018, but his exposure to big-boy football is limited as he was a high school head coach in 2017. If he can keep that success going he’ll belong on future short lists… Jafar Williams, late of Maryland, logged S&P+’s 18th ranked rushing offense in 2018 but was a career receivers coach before last season. When he lands somewhere, we’ll see if he continues that success.
A quick note on the concern I’ve seen popping up on message boards lately that Kelly will hire a “crony” to replace Denson, since, you know, he’s so big on that… This is one of the most persistent and at the same time most wrong of the fan base’s criticisms of Kelly. Naturally, when Kelly was hired, he brought some of his Cincinnati staff with him. That’s what most guys do. From that transition forward, here are the changes Kelly has made:
- Out: OC/OL Jeff Quinn (Buffalo HC), QB Greg Forest (Buffalo OC), AHC/DB Kerry Coombs (stayed at Cincinnati), TE Lorenzo Guess (ND S&C assistant), OLB William Inge (Buffalo DC/LB)
- In: OL Ed Warriner (Kansas AHC/OC/QB, no connection), TE Denbrock (Indiana State AHC/LB/ST, worked with Kelly at Grand Valley State), WR Tony Alford (retained from Charlie Weis’s staff), Chuck Martin (GVSU HC, worked with Kelly at GVSU), OLB Kerry Cooks (Wisconsin CB, no connection)
- Out: None
- In: None
- Out: QB Charley Molnar (UMass HC), OL Ed Warriner (Ohio State co-OC/OL), RB Tim Hinton (Ohio State TE)
- In: OL Harry Hiestand (Tennessee OL, no connection), TE Scott Booker (Western Kentucky DB, no connection), S Bob Elliott (Iowa State DB, no connection)
- Out: None
- In: None
- Out: OC/QB Chuck Martin (Miami-OH HC), AHC/DC/LB Bob Diaco (UConn HC)
- In: QB Matt LaFleur (Washington Redskins QB, no connection), DC/ILB Brian VanGorder (New York Jets LB, worked with Kelly at GVSU)
- Out: QB Matt LaFleur (Atlanta Falcons QB), RB Tony Alford (Ohio State AHC/RB), OLB Bob Elliott (ND analyst), DB Kerry Cooks (Oklahoma DB)
- In: QB Mike Sanford (Boise State QB, no connection), RB Autry Denson (Miami-OH RB, no connection), DL Keith Gilmore (North Carolina DL, worked with Kelly at GVSU, Central Michigan, and Cincy), DB Todd Lyght (Philadelphia Eagles assistant, no connection)
- Out: None
- In: None
- Out: AHC/WR Mike Denbrock (Cincinnati OC/QB), QB Mike Sanford (Western Kentucky HC), TE/ST Scott Booker (Nebraska S), DC Brian VanGorder (Oklahoma State analyst), DL Keith Gilmore (no destination)
- In: OC/TE Chip Long (Memphis, no connection), QB Tommy Rees (San Diego Chargers analysts, former Kelly QB), WR Del Alexander (Arizona State, no connection), DC/S Mike Elko (Wake Forest DC, no connection), LB Clark Lea (Wake Forest LB, no connection), ST Brian Polian (Nevada HC, no connection)
- Out: OL Harry Hiestand (Chicago Bears OL), DC/S Mike Elko (Texas A&M DC)
- In: OL Jeff Quinn (ND analyst, worked with Kelly at GVSU, Central Michigan, and Cincy), S Terry Joseph (North Carolina DB, no connection)
- Out: RB Autry Denson (Charleston-Southern HC)
- In: ???
Heading into this offseason, Brian Kelly has filled 22 assistant coach positions at Notre Dame. Fifteen of those 22 coaches, and six of the eight he’s hired since the end of the 2016 season, have no prior direct connection to him. Yes, some knew guys who worked for him – like Cooks and Elliott, who were both connected to Diaco before, and Denson, who worked for Martin at Miami-OH. Good luck finding head coaches who never hire someone with references. That’s completely normal. The fact that Kelly tabbed guys he had already worked with for seven out of twenty-two hires hardly supports the rampant idea that he engages in cronyism. Please, let’s retire this one. He made some unfortunate decisions, and one galactically stupid one, based on knowing a guy. For the most part, though, he looks outside his tree, and he hires from within it at a standard rate.