New coaches ready to recruit for Notre Dame

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame finally introduced its new assistant football coaches until Monday, but the recruiting responsibilities had long been handed out.

Each new coach received different territories in which they will head Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts. Now that the map has been divided, the coaches will start communicating with prospects in the 2016 and 2017 classes. Some, if not all, had already been in touch with recruits before the Monday unveiling.

“It's been really great,” said defensive backs coach Todd Lyght. “Kids have been really receptive.”

The new coaches — defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, offensive coordinator/QBs coach Mike Sanford, running backs coach Autry Denson and Lyght — bring a wide variety of experience on the recruiting trail. Notre Dame will be the 12th college Gilmore has coached at in his 30-year career. Lyght’s first full recruiting cycle as an assistant coach will be the current one.

Sixth-year Irish assistant coach Mike Elston now leads ND's recruiting efforts. He takes over the title of recruiting coordinator from former ND running backs coach Tony Alford, who held the post for three seasons before leaving for a job at Ohio State last month. 

Gilmore, whose recruiting territory will include much of the Midwest, the eastern half of North Carolina, and an emphasis in Michigan, said he has learned to adapt his recruiting approach depending on where he’s working.

"The schools do make a difference,” Gilmore said. “The thing that we have here is the combination of being a great academic institution along with the traditions of super football at Notre Dame. I think you have a little bit different product to sell by being here, and it's a good product.”

Recruiting to a prestigious academic school is nothing new for Mike Sanford. His 10-year coaching résumé includes stops at Stanford and Yale. He even served as Stanford’s recruiting coordinator in 2012 and 2013 (as well as Yale's).

Sanford, a 2005 Boise State graduate, will recruit in large parts of Texas (Dallas to Austin) and California (all but the Los Angeles area) and will also be responsible for Idaho and New Mexico.

“The power of that monogram is strong, not just in the football environment but also in the real-world environment after football,” Sanford said of ND. “I love having the ability to sit in a kid's living room and talk about what that degree can do for you.”

Sanford’s familiarity with Notre Dame reaches back to the two seasons (1997-98) his father spent coaching wide receivers for the Irish. Coaching against Notre Dame while at Stanford gave him another close look at what the Irish program presents.

“I love that part of being at Notre Dame: that you can legitimately and honestly look a kid in the eye and say you will get a football experience that will change your life,” Sanford said. “There's no other atmosphere on game day like Notre Dame Stadium, and quite frankly there's no atmosphere like an away game with the Notre Dame faithful being there. I know, because our sellout every year at Stanford was when Notre Dame came. It was the hardest ticket of the year.”

Denson, a Florida native, will be asked to recruit in the Sunshine State. Florida’s reputation as one of the most fertile recruiting states in the country brings with it a difficulty in luring prospects away from the heavy competition.

“Everybody is going through Florida,” Denson said. “You are literally competing against every school at every level. Maybe they feel like he has some grade issues or character issues. Everybody feels like they have a shot. You literally have to compete against everybody in the country. I welcome it at the same time. It's why I left Florida to come to Notre Dame — because of that national stage.”

Denson’s recruiting experience as a coach comes from his three seasons at FCS-level Bethune Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., one season at Miami of Ohio and a short stint at South Florida.

The path that led him from Nova High School in Davie, Fla., to becoming Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher and then to the NFL is one he can share with recruits. Denson said he will also recruit in Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina.

"I think it makes it even more personal. I truly believe in it,” Denson said. “I'm living it. I know the benefits of it. I know I can represent every facet of the university. It's one thing to know about it — and not a knock on anybody. You can have coaches that have been here a long time, but I lived it.”

Denson can even vouch for elements of Notre Dame that don’t always stand out as appealing to recruits. Having to live in the dorms with regular students is an experience Denson still values.

“I've benefited from that my entire life from the time I graduated,” Denson said. “I'm able to speak on those things with a different perspective and with a lot more conviction. Very rarely are you asking somebody to do something that you believe in so much that you did it first."

Lyght’s lack of experience in recruiting is counterbalanced by his accolades as a football player. He won a national championship as a cornerback at Notre Dame (1988), earned unanimous All-American status (1989), was a first-round NFL Draft pick (1991), and won a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams (1999).

“I bring a credibility factor, because I've been there, done that,” Lyght said. “All the things that these young men want to achieve, I've done that. I have that experience.”

Lyght’s regional recruiting responsibilities include the Houston area in Texas, Louisiana, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Montana. He spoke Monday like a coach well-versed in Notre Dame’s recruiting pitch. Now he and the rest of the new staff will push forward in the 2016 class.

“We can really do something special here, because we can go after the best athletes across the country,” Lyght said. “I think that there are a lot of guys that want to come out and challenge themselves.”

“The great thing about Notre Dame is, one, you get a first-class education, two, you're going to get to compete on national TV every weekend and, three, you're going to get a chance to compete for a national championship every year. When you look at programs across the board, there's not a lot of programs that can match up.”


Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame football coaches from, left Mike Sanford, Keith Gilmore, Brian Kelly, Autry Denson and Todd Lyght strike pose Monday after the four new assistants were introduced by Kelly. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)