Brian Kelly faces significant challenge replacing Tony Alford

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The offseason coaching carousel has yet to slow down for Notre Dame football.

In less than two weeks, the Irish have suffered an exodus of assistant coaches. The latest came Saturday with running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Tony Alford headed to Ohio State.

The news comes just days after Alford helped secure a top-15 recruiting class on Wednesday’s National Signing Day.

Alford will replace Stan Drayton, former Ohio State running backs coach, who was hired by the Chicago Bears earlier this week. Ohio State has yet to announce the hiring, but Alford did speak with Irish Illustrated, a member of the Scout network, about the move.

“This isn’t a move for today, this is a move where I’ve tried to calculate five years out,” said Alford, who will also be named assistant head coach with the Buckeyes. “There’s forward thinking here, where it could potentially propel me to.”

Alford, who told Irish Illustrated the move was not motivated by money, also interviewed this offseason to become the head coach at his alma mater, Colorado State. The Rams hired former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick reportedly spoke to Colorado State officials on Alford's behalf before the decision was made.

Now, the Irish are left to fill three assistant coaching spots in the coming weeks. Defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks left to become the secondary coach at Oklahoma earlier this week. The Tribune previously reported former Irish cornerback Todd Lyght will be his replacement. Notre Dame quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur is expected to join the Atlanta Falcons staff in the near future.

The loss of Alford will undoubtedly be the most seismic. Widely considered Notre Dame’s best recruiter, Alford led the Irish efforts in Florida and developed relationships with prospects across the country. Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott, a product of St. Louis, expressed his excitement over Twitter about reuniting with the coach who tried to recruit him to Notre Dame.

“This is one of the most important times in modern Notre Dame football history with Tony Alford leaving,” said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming.

The Irish have now lost coaches who recruited in the loaded recruiting states of California (LaFleur), Texas (Cooks) and Florida (Alford).

“It's disappointing because you're losing a strong assistant coach, one of your best recruiters, and a guy that recruited one of the most talent-rich areas in the country, but also one of the toughest areas in the country to recruit,” 247Sports director of recruiting Steve Wiltfong said of Alford’s departure.

Running back Dexter Williams, who signed with Notre Dame on Wednesday after being recruited by Alford out of Winter Garden (Fla.) West Orange High School, said he spoke with Alford both Friday night and Saturday morning. Williams still plans to play for the Irish.

“He told me what's going to happen and everything,” Williams said. “I understood. It's not like I didn't know, but my expectations were that he was going to stay.”

Lemming said in filling the remaining spots on his coaching staff, Kelly has “a couple of the most important decisions he's had to make as a head coach.”

One of those decisions may have already been made. Irish Illustrated also reported on Saturday that former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn will replace LaFleur as quarterbacks coach. Quinn served as Kelly’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at their stops at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

That would leave Notre Dame with just one more assistant coach spot left to fill. An emphasis on recruiting may be required.

"If the money is there, I'd say to Kelly: 'Look to the Southeast Conference,’” Lemming said. “Most of the great recruiters are down there because they have to be. They're paid good money, and they've gone through the wars where they have to battle each other 24 hours a day in recruiting. These guys are outstanding because they've paid their recruiting dues in unbelievable battles.”

The competition for recruits has risen in the past couple seasons for a number of Midwest schools. With Urban Meyer at Ohio State, James Franklin at Penn State and Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, the Notre Dame program will have to keep pace under Kelly.

The tenets of Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts will always rely on the strength of its academic programs and football tradition, but the recruiting trail requires a dedicated focus from the coaching staff. Kelly’s next hire, said Wiltfong and Lemming, needs to be someone who knows how to get the job done.

“Notre Dame is not a place where you can learn how to recruit on the fly,” Wiltfong said. “So you better have a sense of what you're doing when you arrive. At the same time, you have some built-in advantages. I know they want a guy with Florida ties. They need to get a hard-working recruiter.”

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame running backs coach Tony Alford helps the group as they go through drills Saturday, August 16, 2014, at Notre Dame football practice on campus in South Bend. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)