Learning curve easier for new ND D-line coach Keith Gilmore

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

A surreal October weekend at Notre Dame ended with a long day for Keith Gilmore.

As North Carolina’s defensive line coach, Gilmore was able to reunite with some familiar faces at Notre Dame from his playing and coaching career. Gilmore played at Wayne State with Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and director of football strength and conditioning Paul Longo. He later coached for Brian Kelly at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

“It was fun to be around all the people I've known for years with Longo and knowing (director of football administration) Beth Rex and all the people involved with the program,” Gilmore said. “It was fun in that respect. I never would have dreamed that five months later I'd be working here.”

Then the nightmare started. The Tar Heels allowed 519 yards and 50 points in a shootout loss to Notre Dame on Oct. 11 of last year.

"It wasn't good for me that day,” Gilmore said with a laugh. “It was a bad night for us. But it was a lot of fun getting a chance to compete against your ex-boss and friends.”

On Monday, Gilmore formally reunited with Kelly and his staff as the new defensive line coach at Notre Dame. He inherits the role from Mike Elston, who switched from defensive line coach to linebackers coach on Notre Dame’s 2015 staff. The same shuffle involving Gilmore and Elston happened in 2006 at Central Michigan.

“It will be very helpful in knowing some of the nuances and the communication that have taken place in the past,” Gilmore said of working with Elston. “My learning curve won't be as tough because I have him to lean on … We've got this down pretty good.”

Kelly said the shift of Elston to linebackers and the hiring of Gilmore came for a confluence of reasons. VanGorder wanted to float away from being the linebackers coach in addition to his defensive coordinator role and Elston had the experience at linebacker (as a player and coach) and wanted to be more involved in defending the pass.

“Then, with a lot of young players, we wanted somebody that is a great mentor,” Kelly said. “Not that Coach Elston isn't, but somebody that fit that bill was coach Gilmore, who is a great technician and has 30 years of d-line experience. So I think it's a little bit of all those things.”

Gilmore, 56, knows the longer transition will come in developing a relationship with his players. But in 30 years of coaching, Gilmore has learned how to make that transition easier. Notre Dame will be the 12th different school at which he’s coached.

“They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Gilmore said. “My first business is to make sure that I create a positive relationship with my players so they know that I have their best interest at heart and in mind. Then they take the coaching a little better when you're correcting them, when you're disciplining them and when you're doing those things. They know that you're truly trying to help them accomplish their goals.”

Setting the tone in winter workouts ahead of the start of spring practice on March 18 is a priority for Gilmore. He said heading into fall camp he should already have a good grasp on the talent and personalities in his unit.

“Everything that they do at the position is a reflection of me as a position coach,” Gilmore said. “Whether it be being on time, turning in a paper, doing things the right way. That's what I expect and nothing less. I'm not going to accept anything less.”

“We came in my first day and a kid had a little bit of an issue, and we had a little discipline issue. I wanted that to be the message right away. Anything less than being your best is not going to be acceptable."

Gilmore’s defensive line at North Carolina produced well below what any would consider its best in 2014. The Tar Heels allowed 240.5 rushing yards per game, which finished ranked No. 117 in the FBS and ahead of only eight schools. The unit’s 1.69 sacks per game slated slightly higher at No. 91.

But Gilmore has had success in those categories at previous stops. Arguably his best defensive line production came in 2011 during his four-year tenure at Illinois. The Illini finished sixth in the country in sacks (3.15 per game) and No. 26 in rushing defense (123.85 yards per game).

That Illinois line featured defensive end Whitney Mercilus, a former three-star recruit who led the nation in sacks with 16. Mercilus was drafted in the first round by the Houston Texans the following April.

Producing NFL Draft picks has come with regularity for Gilmore. Kelly noted as much at Monday’s press conference. Five of Gilmore’s defensive linemen have been selected in the last four drafts including two first rounders — Mercilus and defensive tackle Corey Liuget (2011).

Gilmore said he’s coached a mix of players who were clearly bound for the NFL early in their college careers and even more who made a leap to the next level after a lot of growth physically and mentally. Mercilus, for instance, recorded only 16 tackles and one sack in 2010. Then he blew up as a junior.

“Two years prior to that he didn't do a whole lot,” Gilmore said. “He was just a solid player and did his job. But then that last year he began to get more confident. I said, ‘Whitney, just cut it loose and let it go. Don't be afraid to make a mistake. Be yourself.'”

“Next thing you know, he leads the country in sacks and ends up being a first-round pick. I've seen it both ways. Guys that were great players from the beginning, and guys that you see grow into that role."

Assessing the talent on Notre Dame’s defensive line has already begun for Gilmore. As the staff reviews the 2014 season on film, Gilmore’s catalog of knowledge on each player grows.

“I'm able to take a look at all the guys and evaluate them and see what they've done to this point,” Gilmore said. “It's been good that I've had a chance to watch tape along with getting out and having them in the workouts and just seeing the physical talents of each kid.”

Development will certainly be needed. After standout defensive tackle Sheldon Day, the Irish defensive line depth consists of mostly younger players who were thrust into bigger roles last season with a group of inexperienced players behind them.

Gilmore expects improvement along the defensive line to mirror improvement in VanGorder’s defense in his second season at Notre Dame.

“Year two is always a lot better when you put a system in,” Gilmore said. “The first year everybody's playing a little bit tentative with a new system. They'll all be better. We'll be better. I think we're going places."

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

Former North Carolina defensive line coach Keith Gilmore has been reunited with Brian Kelly and several other members of the Irish coaching staff. (Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications/JEFFREY A. CAMARATI)