Seems like it wasn’t that long ago that we were writing about Notre Dame DC candidates. Oh, that’s right, it wasn’t. Sigh. Well, once more unto the breach, dear friends… With the somewhat unexpected departure of Mike Elko, Notre Dame finds itself back in the market for a defensive coordinator. We’ll take a look at some potential candidates and why each might be interesting, and handicap the likelihood of their addition.
Some Familiar Names
Let’s start with a review of the guys we mentioned in last year’s post. Some aren’t available, some haven’t exactly acquitted themselves well, and some might still be solid options.
- Pete Kwiatkowski, DC, Washington: Kwiatkowski was always a long shot, as he’s been with Chris Petersen forever. With Washington’s continued success this year he’s even more of a long shot. I like him but I just can’t see him leaving Petersen, unless it’s for a head job.
- Alex Grinch, DC, Washington State: Grinch was alone at the top of my list last year, and he would’ve been this year too. Unfortunately, Ohio State hired him as co-DC just in the past week. Presumably the Ohio native will lose the “co-” in a year or two when Greg Schiano moves on.
- Tony Gibson, DC, West Virginia: After steadily improving West Virginia’s defense from 2013 to 2016, the Mountaineers fell off in a big way this year, dropping to 79th in FEI defense and 96th in S&P+ defense after peaking at 16th and 37th, respectively, last season. Down years happen, but that much of a dip is a serious red flag.
- Todd Orlando, DC, Texas: Orlando was included in the event that he didn’t follow Tom Herman out of Houston. As it happens, he did, and there’s likely almost no chance he can be pried out of Austin. Too bad, since his solid work in Houston doesn’t look like a fluke; he took the Longhorns from 45th to 7th in FEI defense and from 60th to 21st in S&P+ defense.
- Dave Aranda, DC, LSU: We included Aranda last year in the event that Herman took the LSU job and didn’t retain him. In the past week Aranda signed a 4 year, $10 million, fully-guaranteed contract with LSU, so it’s still safe to consider him off the market.
- Marcel Yates, DC, Arizona: Yates was DC at Boise State after Petersen and Kwiatkowski left, and he did a pretty good job. Rich Rodriguez hired him at Arizona in 2016, and, well, Arizona has stunk on defense since then. He was tabbed as the interim head coach when Rodriguez was dismissed last week under a cloud of misconduct allegations, and he could end up losing the interim tag. Regardless, given his results in the desert, Yates is an uninspiring candidate.
- Tim DeRuyter: At the time of last year’s post, DeRuyter had just been fired as Fresno State’s head coach. He did a good job at Air Force and at Texas A&M, but then he trended the wrong way at A&M and trended hard the wrong way at Fresno State. Justin Wilcox added him to his Cal staff as DC this year, and Cal was sort of non-terrible, but I’d take a hard pass on DeRuyter myself.
- Nate Woody, DC, Appalachian State: I really liked Woody as a dark-horse candidate last year based on his two years at Appy, and he went out and built on that this season. Unfortunately, Georgia Tech will name him as their new DC in the next few days.
- Jon Heacock, DC, Iowa State: Heacock Did Good Things™ in two years at Toledo before stepping up to Iowa State last year. He had Iowa State ranked 31st in both FEI defense and S&P+ defense, after they ranked 103rd and 96th in his first season. The Ohioan was Jim Tressel’s DC at Youngstown State and succeeded Tressel as head man there as well. He has spent 30 of his 34 years as a coach in Ohio, Michigan, or Indiana. Could the Irish lure him back to the Midwest?
- Mike Elston, DL, Notre Dame: Yeah, I know, everybody hates Elston; I think he’s actually pretty good as a coach and a recruiter. Is he Larry Johnson or Sean Spencer? No. But he’s pretty good. Of course, he would probably also be the most diploma-burn-y choice, so there’s that.
- Clark Lea, LBs, Notre Dame: Lea represents the best shot at continuity, but he’s not without some risks. He knows Elko’s system inside and out, but he has never run his own defense before. There’s also a decent chance that Elston would leave if Kelly hires over him again, which is a little less continuity. And of course this all assumes that Elko won’t lure him to College Station, which seems pretty likely.
- Jim Leonhard, DC, Wisconsin: Leonhard has done a great job in one year as Wisconsin’s DC. He’s smart; with the Jets, Rex Ryan couldn’t sit him because he was the only guy who understood the defense. But he’s a Wisconsin alum, and it might be too difficult for him to leave his alma mater. Notre Dame would definitely win a bidding war with the notoriously cheap Barry Alvarez, though. It’s certainly worth kicking the tires.
- Scottie Hazelton, DC, Wyoming: Wyoming’s 2016 ranks in scoring defense, total defense, pass efficiency defense, FEI defense, S&P+ defense: 101st, 104th, 86th, 52nd, 96th. Wyoming’s 2017 ranks: 9th, 23rd, 15th, 24th, 7th. Sold. Hazelton was Brian Polian’s first DC at Nevada before taking a job with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Prior to Nevada he coached linebackers for Lane Kiffin at USC. (Shout out to friend of the site and ISD stalwart Jamie Uyeyama for putting Hazelton on our radar.)
- Kerry Coombs, DBs, Ohio State: Before you die laughing, consider this… There were rumors last offseason that Coombs was considering a jump to Cincinnati to be Luke Fickell’s DC. He was Brian Kelly’s secondary coach for all three seasons in Cincinnati too. He’s a great coach and an excellent recruiter. Would Notre Dame be able to pry him away from Urban?
- Jimmy Lake, DBs, Washington: Continuing the theme from Coombs, many rumors have circulated about Lake’s desire to move up into a DC role. With Pete Kwiatkowski firmly entrenched in Washington, it’s not happening there. Lake is another plus recruiter and coach. He would be a very ironic hire, as well, since he hammered recent Washington signee and top ND target Kyler Gordon with the thought that Kelly wouldn’t be around for Gordon’s whole career.
Very Well-Informed Opinions (a.k.a SWAGs)
Of the names we looked at last year, I think only Jon Heacock is either worth revisiting or potentially available. I think Elston would be OK (shoot me, I know), but the fan base would be uninspired at best and more likely in open revolt. I like Lea for continuity’s sake and I think he’s an excellent coach, but I’m extremely leery of his relative inexperience. If I had to pick an order, I’d go Leonhard, Hazelton, Coombs, Heacock, Lea, Lake, Elston. In his statement announcing Elko’s departure, Kelly said he would move quickly to bring someone else in. How quickly? Stay tuned, folks.