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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Post: Offensive coordinator candidates from ‘don’t hang up the phone’ to ‘if we have to’

With the departure of Tommy Rees to Alabama, this offseason will mark the fourth consecutive year Notre Dame will be in the market for a coordinator. 

Almost certainly, Marcus Freeman’s second coordinator hire will be his biggest yet. Last offseason when Freeman sought to find his successor at defensive coordinator he knew he would be overseeing their work regardless of their experience due to his defensive background. 

Offensive coordinator is a different story. Rees had by all accounts near-complete autonomy as a play caller, and Freeman himself will tell you the offensive side of the ball is very much still a developing part of his expertise. Whoever Freeman hires to run the offense will have a uniquely large influence, getting to not just call plays but likely mold the entire offense as they see fit without meddling from a watchful head coach. 

And with Sam Hartman arriving as a graduate transfer quarterback for 2023, the Irish have a one season window to maximize what will likely be the most talented Irish offense in years. So, who are some of the options Notre Dame might consider to take the reigns? Here are eight potential names that could come across Freeman and Jack Swarbrick’s desks, divided into four different tiers. 

TIER A: In case they don’t hang up the phone right away

Brian Hartline

Let’s be clear, there’s almost no shot Hartline has any interest in coaching Notre Dame. He was just promoted to offensive coordinator at his alma mater, Ohio State. The Buckeyes beat the Irish last year in a head to head matchup, and ended their season a hooked field goal away from a national title berth. The roster Hartline is set to direct next year in Columbus may be more rich with weapons than any other in the country. In case those last three sentences didn’t clarify that enough, I’ll reiterate: this is as long of a shot as Notre Dame can take.

That being said, there is one interesting pitch Freeman can attempt to make to Hartline, and that’s his autonomy as offensive coordinator in South Bend. While Hartline was recently promoted to offensive coordinator, it's unclear how much his role will actually change. Historically, Ohio State’s play-calling has been done by Ryan Day, the Buckeyes’ offensive-minded head coach. Barring a change from Day, Hartline could find himself in a largely advisory role on the sidelines in 2023. At Notre Dame, Hartline would be calling all the shots. It’s unlikely that’s enough to sway the lifetime Buckeye, but it would be worth trying for his unmatched skill as a recruiter. Ohio State has become a factory of elite receivers under Hartman’s leadership, and the passing games he’s designed have matched such talent.

Ryan Grubb

These are long shot options for a reason. But what better way to respond to Alabama hiring Tommy Rees than to hire the man who was initially in talks with Alabama for that same role in the first place? Now, if Grubb turned down the sport’s unquestioned leading dynasty for the last decade, it’s highly unlikely he’d be especially interested in Notre Dame. But as with Hartline, there is a pitch to be made.

Like Hartline, Grubb could be perhaps swayed by the autonomy he’d have under Freeman. Grubb currently works with an offensive-minded head coach at Washington in Kalen DeBoer. And Saban, who he snubbed with Alabama, is known for his hands-on management style. It’s difficult to draw a more stark contrast between Saban’s meticulous involvement in his offenses and the free reign Rees ostensibly had calling plays for the Irish. Grubb, who also has Midwest roots he could be tempted by, may be enticed by the chance to develop an offense exclusively in his own image. Though Grubb has just one year of power five experience as a coordinator under his belt, that one year was an impressive one. He helped engineer a drastic turnaround at Washington behind star quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who blossomed under Grubb’s tutelage.

Brian Johnson

A couple names have been floated for the Notre Dame job from NFL ranks, the most popular of which being Bills’ quarterback coach Joe Brady. But another quarterbacks coach who the Irish could try to lure to the Gug is the Eagles’ Brian Johnson.

Johnson’s credentials as a quarterback guru have shined this year to the extent of potential NFL offensive coordinator interest. Obviously, such interest makes him highly unlikely to pick up the phone if Freeman called. But if he did pick up, Freeman would likely move mountains to bring Johnson to South Bend. Under Johnson’s tutelage, Jalen Hurts blossomed from a promising but flawed rookie to a dynamic MVP candidate. Johnson is also proven outside the NFL as he ran Florida’s offense and engineered one of the nation’s top units in both scoring and total offense before he arrived in Philadelphia.

As with Moorhead and Ludwig, a major part of Johnson’s case is how well he’d fit with Freeman’s vision for his staff. He’s well-traveled, having held offensive coordinator posts at Utah, Houston and Florida (of note: each offense he’s led has been more high powered than the next). That experience will matter for a head coach who prides himself on learning from everyone he talks to. But at just 35, he wouldn’t be out of place among the energetic vibe Notre Dame has emphasized in hiring young, up-and-coming position coaches.

TIER B: Realistic but strong

Joe Moorhead

Moorhead offers a wealth of experience few other coaches on this list could match. He’s been the engineer of offenses on two different sides of the country at Penn State and Oregon and has held head coaching gigs in three different conferences. But despite his extensive experience, Moorhead is just 49 years old. He’d be far from a retread.

When Freeman hired Al Golden as defensive coordinator, Golden’s work as a former head coach was considered a key factor as Freeman sought to build a “sounding board” that would ease his own growth as a young head coach. While Moorhead’s tenure in Mississippi State lasted just two years, before his Starkville tenure he built a strong program at Fordham where he faced many challenges that mirror those Freeman faces at Notre Dame. 

From a track record standpoint, two things standout about why Moorhead would make a good fit at Notre Dame. One notable strong point is his ability to find an offensive rhythm regardless of personnel. At Penn State, Moorhead leaned on future NFL star Saquon Barkley while also unlocking the passing game through Trace McSorley with an RPO based offense. At Oregon, Moorhead found success with a similar RPO-heavy scheme, but this time emphasizing a deep stable of rushers. Quarterback Anthony Brown, and running backs CJ Verdell and Travis Dye combined to average nearly 200 rushing yards per game until Verdell’s week five injury. It’s easy to imagine Moorhead finding success with Notre Dame’s deep running back stable. But the best part of his resume? Moorhead boasts a 2-1 record against 2023 Irish opponent Ohio State as a coordinator, with wins in 2016 and 2021.

Andy Ludwig

Ludwig is tailor-made to fit what Freeman has preached he wants in his offense and his coordinators. His recent Utah teams have found success winning in the trenches and running the ball effectively. He also checks the sounding board requirement, having worked as a coordinator at an FBS level since 1998. With stops at Fresno State, Oregon, Utah, California, San Diego State, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt and Utah again, Ludwig has worked under a number of different coaches and would have plenty of advice for Freeman on how to manage difficult decisions on and off the field. 

Unlike Moorhead, however, enticing Ludwig would likely be an upward battle for Freeman and Swarbrick. Moorhead would stand to have his salary at least tripled by a move to South Bend. Ludwig is already making seven figures on a per-year basis and he’s a Utah native, growing up less than an hour's drive. 

It would be a difficult but doable task to bring Ludwig to South Bend. The prospects of working with one of the nation’s most accomplished quarterbacks in Sam Hartman could have serious swing on the man who helped develop Cam Rising into one of the PAC-12’s best gunslingers. Ludwig, fresh off back-to-back ten win seasons ending in conference championships, would be a coup for Freeman and a flex of muscle by Notre Dame as a program. 

Slade Nagle

Speaking of unconventional, how about a tight-end coach from Tulane? Nagle is so off the radar to the casual college football fan he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page someone could look him up on. But those familiar with Tulane’s impressive rise from AAC bottom dwellers to Cotton Bowl champions understand why Nagle’s name would be floated for the Irish job.

Nagle helped engineer and call plays for a Tulane offense that caught fire over the back half of 2022, culminating in a 46 point showing in the Green Wave’s Cotton Bowl victory over USC. Coaching a squad that ranked 75th in the country in 247’s 2022 Talent Composite rankings, Nagle had to become a master at both developing players and scheming ways to maximize his available weapons. Those are skills that should translate smoothly to the next level. Experience sticks out as the knock on Nagle, who has only served as offensive coordinator for one year officially.

TIER C: “If we have to” options

Gerad Parker

If the Irish choose to keep the offensive coordinator hire in-house and work off the foundation Rees already built, Parker appears the most likely choice. For one, he’s the only member of the offensive staff who has prior experience as a coordinator. Reports have also indicated that he’s close with Freeman and generally well-respected around the Gug. 

However, Notre Dame choosing to hire within the existing staff would seem unlikely, and frankly foolish given the current overall state of the program. With Freeman still very much on his own development curve as a head coach, and the Irish slated to play as many as three different top ten teams in 2023, Notre Dame can’t afford a coordinator who’s learning on the fly. Parker’s prior two years of coordinating experience at West Virginia didn’t go well. He was demoted in favor of new hire Graham Harrell shortly before his departure to join Freeman in South Bend. 

Parker is as respected as he is by the Notre Dame staff for a reason, and could be a candidate for the job down the line. But with the Irish set to go chips-in on a short term option at quarterback in Sam Hartman, it seems imprudent to experiment with an offensive play caller still developing his form.

John McNulty

Remember how clear I made it that Notre Dame hiring Hartline wasn’t much of an actual option? The Irish hiring McNulty is as every inch as unlikely. If this was last year, McNulty would likely fill Parker’s slot as “well-respected veteran position coach already on the staff.” Such logic is why Boston College hired him to be the offensive coordinator in Chestnut Hill last offseason.

But McNulty’s tenure with the Eagles is also what likely rules him out as a potential hire this time around. The Boston College offense sputtered all season against ACC opposition, the culmination of such struggles being a 44-0 domination at the hands of the Irish on McNulty’s return to South Bend. So bad were the frustrations that McNulty was fired by the Eagles at the end of the season. 

Unjust? Perhaps. Both head coach Jeff Hafley and defensive coordinator Tem Lukabu were retained by Boston College for an additional year. Would it be a shock for McNulty to return in some capacity to the Notre Dame staff in 2023 now that he’s a free agent? No. One of the things that has made Nick Saban so great at Alabama is his willingness to bring in coaches who struggled elsewhere as analysts. But it would be more than just surprising if he’s calling plays for the Irish week 0 against Navy next season.