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Notre Dame Football

Potential Safeties Coach Candidates for Notre Dame

January 14, 2021

When Clark Lea left for Vanderbilt, change on the defensive staff was inevitable and not just a coordinator. With guys on the staff looking to be elevated, there was no guarantee they were going to be content to stick around if Notre Dame made an outside hire.

In the same respect, that outside hire, Marcus Freeman, probably doesn’t mind having more coaches working with him that he’s familiar with. He might get the chance to bring someone on who he already knows now that there is a coaching opening in the defensive backfield.

Whether it’s someone connected to Brian Kelly or Freeman, looking at coaches they are familiar with is a good place to start. That’s why this list of potential safety coaches all have some kind of previous connection to the staff or the program.

Kerry Cooks | Notre Dame Defensive analyst

A familiar name made his way back on to the staff last year after being at Oklahoma for four years and Texas Tech for one. Cooks coached corners at Notre Dame from 2010-2014, but has coached defensive backs and safeties as well.

A strong recruiter who made more of an impact in Texas in his last couple of years at Notre Dame, Cooks is a plus in that category, though, landing prospects from there has gotten much more difficult than it was six years ago. His relationships in the state can’t hurt.

It wouldn’t be the flashiest hire to promote him, but Brian Kelly would know he has a plus recruiter and plus coach at the position if this is the move.

Robert Steeples | De Smet Jesuit Head coach (Missouri)

A candidate for the cornerbacks job that went to Mike Mickens, Steeples has been extremely successful running his program that has gone 29-4 in the last three seasons. He took over it when things were not good and he’s turned them into a powerhouse.

He’s a former NFL defensive back who has trained college and high school DBs privately. Steeples is more than qualified from a technical standpoint to coach the position and he would be a great fit with the culture of the program and recruiting into it.

There aren’t many high school coaches who would get consideration for a job like this, but Steeples is an exception for a reason.

Jeff Burris | Louisiana Tech Defensive backs

Everyone knows his name and knows his background. He has been with Skip Holtz at Louisiana Tech the last few years, but was an analyst at Notre Dame before that. Yes, it was the ugly 2016 season, but the work he put in with a very young defensive back group was looked on favorably.

His group didn’t have the strongest year in 2020, but it’s a bit deceiving because they lost two starters to the NFL Draft (both fourth round picks that Burris helped develop), the pass rush was putrid (82nd in sack rate), and their numbers were much more respectable against comparable talent in their conference.

His 2019 secondary had 14 interceptions and La. Tech was 13th in the country in passes defensed. This isn’t just a name because he has a Notre Dame connection. Burris is a quality coach.

Cory Sanders | Pitt Safeties coach

Sanders is considered a young coach on the rise and was a finalist for the cornerbacks job that went to Mike Mickens last year. He’s been at Pitt the last three seasons and he already has experience running his own program (D-II Saint Joseph’s (Indiana)) and has run a defense before (D-II West Florida).

Pat Narduzzi didn’t have Pitt playing great defense right away when he took that job, but they were 11th in S&P+ after being 48th the year before Sanders came. They also finished 11th in pass efficiency defense after being 88th two years ago. Pitt dipped this season (44th), but more of that had to do with cornerback play and opt outs.

Known as a hard working recruiting and good evaluator of talent, it’s more important that Sanders can flat out coach. His group at safety was very good for Pitt with Paris Ford and Damar Hamlin combining for 25 passes defensed in 2019. It was Ford’s first year at safety and Sanders helped him become a first team All-ACC selection.

Ford opted out before the season was over, but had 9.5 Havoc plays in seven games. Hamlin had 12.5. Sanders’ safeties tackled well and consistently found the football.

From his time at Michigan State to now, Narduzzi has identified and groomed good defensive back coaches. Sanders is the latest one who is primed for a bigger opportunity.

Taver Johnson | Las Vegas Raiders Assistant Defensive backs

Johnson has spent most of his career coaching in college, but the last two seasons with the Raiders. They are remaking the defensive staff there so it’s uncertain if he’ll be a part of that.

There is an Ohio State connection with him and Marcus Freeman. He coached defensive backs from 2007-2011 and then came back on the staff in 2018. He and Freeman were also on staff together at Purdue from 2014-2016. It’s easy to connect the dots between the two and he was a graduate assistant at Notre Dame back in 1999.

He’s recruited well in his previous stops and coached a ton of great players. If Freeman and Notre Dame are looking for a veteran voice, Johnson is an obvious contender for the job.

It’s worth mentioning that Johnson was also in the mix before Notre Dame ultimately hired Terry Joseph when the job was last open.

Joe Danna | Jacksonville Jaguars Secondary coach (Safeties)

With Urban Meyer about to take the Jacksonville job, Danna could be looking for work. He’s been in the NFL for 13 years, but was previously an assistant under Brian Kelly at Central Michigan where he also coached safeties.

Kelly has never been shy about bringing back assistants that he worked with previously and that’s primarily why Danna is listed. How he would fare as a recruiter is unknown, but spending the last decade working with NFL players in the secondary is something that not many other candidates could bring to the table.

Derek Jones |Texas Tech Co-DC/Defensive backs

Jones had been with David Cutcliffe at Duke since 2008 before moving on to Texas Tech. Since he left a place he had been loyal to, it may mean he is open to another move. He’s certainly qualified to coach at any program in the country.

They played sound football in the secondary at Duke and had done so for years (the last three in the top-40 in pass efficiency). That was largely because of Jones. His experience at Duke means he knows how to recruit for fit. If he were at Notre Dame, it would be a natural place for him to recruit to and he’d be able to go after better talent.

Paul Haynes | Minnesota Cornerbacks

Haynes is another coach with a connection to Freeman. He was on the Ohio State staff when Freeman was both a player and graduate assistant.

He’s been a coordinator (Arkansas) and a head coach (Kent State). He’s coached a lot of great players, mostly at Ohio State and Michigan State, where he had two stints coaching defensive backs. The most recent one was in Mark Dantonio’s final two seasons.

There’s a more recent connection with Johnson, but Haynes is another coach with Ohio roots and PJ Fleck is someone who doesn’t hire position coaches on his staff who don't get after it as a recruiter.

Haynes is someone to include in the veteran pile who has coached at big programs for a long time.

Nick Lezynski (Senior Analyst) and Chris O’Leary (Graduate Assistant)

These are two internal candidates who have been a big part of coaching the defense the last couple of years. Lezynski is the name more people are familiar with, but O’Leary has worked with defensive backs while Lezynkski has worked with linebackers.

It wouldn’t be shocking if Lezynski was promoted. It just would have made more sense at linebacker if that job was open, so it will be interesting to see how serious a look he might get for this position.

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