Notre Dame safeties coach Chris O'Leary has critical work ahead after rapid rise

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Notre Dame safeties coach Chris O'Leary has critical work ahead after rapid rise

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Chris O’Leary didn’t know what to think the first time Notre Dame offered him a job. He had just interviewed for a graduate assistant spot on the Irish staff under Clark Lea, who’d been promoted to defensive coordinator as the replacement for Mike Elko. When that GA job went elsewhere, Lea thought enough of O’Leary to call him on his way out of town. He asked if O’Leary would be interested in an analyst role. He’d be further removed from the players. The pay wasn’t great. But it was an entry into Notre Dame football, which felt like it was worth something.

O’Leary had just finished his first season as a full-time assistant coach at Division II Florida Tech. He had enough responsibility in Melbourne running the secondary to feel like he was making a difference at a program that needed it. He had a mentor there, too, who had called up Brian Kelly to help O’Leary get that first interview in South Bend.

So O’Leary asked Rick Minter, the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator under Lou Holtz and Charlie Weis, what he thought about Lea’s offer. Minter had spent the past two falls at Florida Tech helping run the defense, winding down his four-decade coaching career and focused on helping the next generation land jobs. He wasn’t entirely sure what O’Leary was asking.

“Initially Chris told me, ‘Coach, I don’t know if I want to do that job at Notre Dame,’” Minter said. “I told him to give me a good reason. He said he wanted to coach his own guys. I told him, ‘Listen, you can coach here at Florida Tech as long as you want to. But you only get one opportunity to get your foot in the door at Notre Dame.’”

“You don’t have to be in driver’s seat, just make sure you’re in the car.”

Minter told O’Leary not to worry about the Notre Dame job now. He wanted O’Leary to think about what the Notre Dame job might become. Because if he didn’t take it now, he was delaying his clock on becoming something bigger than an analyst at Notre Dame.

In not so many words, Minter told O’Leary to get packing. And so he did.

That analyst job in 2018 expanded into a senior analyst role a year later and a graduate assistant post last season, working with the Rover linebackers. That meant O’Leary had a hand in the Butkus Award-winning season of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah while also pitching in on recruiting. Now, the 29-year-old O’Leary is Notre Dame’s new safeties coach, with his first spring practices coming later this month.

The Terre Haute native will inherit All-American safety Kyle Hamilton and a handful of questions. And with Hamilton severely limited during spring practice by offseason ankle surgery, O’Leary will face some urgency to find answers from Houston Griffith, D.J. Brown, K.J. Wallace, Litchfield Ajavon or a handful of early enrollees. Still, this opportunity is one O’Leary didn’t have to consider after impressing Notre Dame’s last defensive coordinator and its current one.

Sources told The Athletic that Taver Johnson and Kerry Cooks were both considered for the post, a couple of older hands with coordinator and/or NFL experience. Johnson had connections with new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman from Ohio State and Purdue. Cooks was Notre Dame’s cornerbacks coach and co-defensive coordinator during a five-year run from 2010 to ’14. He was a defensive analyst at Notre Dame last season following stints at Oklahoma and Texas Tech.

Johnson and Cooks have a combined 27 seasons of experience as full-time coaches at Power 5 programs. This fall will be O’Leary’s first.

“I think Chris was a home run hire for them,” Lea said. “Sometimes the best option is the one right in front of you. And I think that was the case in that situation.

“He’s the total package. He’s a three-tool coach. The relationship, the fundamental-technical, and then the tactical. He has strengths in all those areas.”

Kelly called O’Leary’s time on the staff an “on the job interview the past two years,” although his connections to this program run much deeper. Beyond the Rick Minter link, O’Leary’s first college coach at Indiana State was Trent Miles, a former assistant under Tyrone Willingham at Notre Dame. O’Leary’s second college coach was Mike Sanford Sr., a former Notre Dame assistant whose son Mike Sanford Jr. was Kelly’s offensive coordinator in 2015 and ’16.

Rick Minter’s son Jesse was the defensive coordinator at Indiana State when O’Leary was a player and the defensive coordinator at Georgia State under Miles when O’Leary was working as a graduate assistant with both the line and the secondary. Jesse Minter is now Lea’s first defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt.

“The first time I noticed him, honestly, he played scout team quarterback at Indiana State and I was DC,” Jesse Minter said. “To me, when you’re a DC, you want practice to run smoothly and one of the most important pieces is how your scout QB is. Do they have leadership qualities? Do guys enjoy practice? Does he challenge your defense?”

O’Leary did all that. He did it so well that he developed a give-and-take relationship with Jesse, jabbing at the defensive coordinator when the scout team offense won the day. Minter hated it. He also loved it. O’Leary moved to receiver at Indiana State after Miles and Minter left for Georgia State.

When Georgia State had a graduate assistant opening after O’Leary’s college career wrapped, Miles and Minter wanted him back. During the 2015 season, O’Leary worked with the defensive line. Minter watched from a distance, but O’Leary’s work ethic showed. A season later, O’Leary moved to the secondary and became Minter’s right-hand man despite being a graduate assistant. O’Leary still had the first-one-in, last-one-out vibe, but he was adding a tactical acumen that Minter noted.

“You see a bunch of those go-getter types,” Jesse Minter said. “But that second year, his football acumen kept up with all the other areas. At that point, it’s like, ‘This dude has a chance.’ He understood how to teach concepts. He could go into a meeting and teach it to the guys. That is way more rare than just being gung-ho.”

O’Leary spent those two seasons at Georgia State, then a single fall at Florida Tech, then moved on to Notre Dame. Even if the newest Irish assistant coach couldn’t have predicted how quickly he’d climb the ladder in South Bend, this outcome is exactly what both Minters felt could happen.

Maybe O’Leary landing the safeties job at Notre Dame should haven’t been a surprise at all considering the connections. Rick Minter and Brian Kelly remain close after both served as head coach at Cincinnati. He’s recommended coaches to Kelly before, but it’s usually via text. O’Leary warranted a call. The Miles and Sanford connections didn’t hurt either, at least when it came to understanding Notre Dame.

“We all stand on somebody else’s shoulders,” Rick Minter said. “You need somebody to give you that break. Now it’s up to you what you do with it.”

Notre Dame is about to find out.

(Photo courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics)