Denbrock Kelly GVSU

Second time around, Denbrock has made mark

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With Charley Molnar set to officially take over the UMass football program, the Irish coaching staff will make its first change since Brian Kelly took over the football program. After two years of staff continuity, Kelly will need to look into the marketplace and hire a coach — be it an offensive coordinator to work alongside him, or a quarterback coach to replace Molnar’s day-to-day duties with a position group.

With the usual suspects being gathered, it seemed like a perfect time to look back at the hires Kelly made in his first days at Notre Dame. One of the biggest eyebrow raisers came when Kelly named Mike Denbrock his tight ends coach, bringing the former Ty Willingham assistant back to South Bend for a second tour of duty.

In retrospect, we should’ve seen this coming. Denbrock and Kelly spent eight years together at Grand Valley State, starting as graduate assistants before Denbrock eventually served as one of Kelly’s key lieutenants. That Denbrock had experience at Notre Dame, a reputation and knowledge base of West Coast recruiting, and a background as both a tight end and offensive line coach made the fit perfect.

Of course, that isn’t how the hire was seen back in January of 2010. The hiring of Denbrock, who was serving as an associate head coach at Indiana State, seemed like a head coach reaching for comfort food instead of finding something of sustenance. Kelly’s staff — not assembled nationally, but built from a pool of coaches that had largely worked under him before — were going to collectively find out how different Notre Dame was, with only Denbrock remotely familiar with the university.

Denbrock was the face of the “small time” narrative that was being written by skeptics of the hires. Kelly was putting the state of California, capably manned by recruiting ace Brian Polian before him, in the hands of the guy that was coaching linebackers and special teams for the Indiana State Sycamores? This was how the Irish were going to continue reeling in talent from the West Coast?

In a word: Yep.

In his second trip to South Bend, Denbrock has been one of the stars of the coaching staff — building a terrific depth chart at tight end while also enhancing the Irish’s recruiting presence in talent-rich California. It started by holding onto recruits Justin Utupo and Cameron Roberson in 2010. Denbrock did himself one better by reeling in twins George and Josh Atkinson and potentially one of the biggest difference makers in the class, athlete Troy Niklas, from the heart of USC country. But perhaps his biggest victory has been the commitment of two more Northern California stars, wide receiver Deontay Greenberry and cornerback Tee Shepard, two recruits that’ll help the Irish from day one next season, with Shepard set to enroll next moonth.

Denbrock’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Recruiting czar Tom Lemming named Denbrock one of his six national assistant coaches of the year, linking Kelly’s old Grand Valley pal with guys like Curtis Luper of Auburn, Sal Sunseri of Alabama, Fred Jackson of Michigan, Brian Polian of Stanford, and Tosh Lupoi of Cal. Denbrock’s the only guy out of that group that fights for players outside of the school’s natural footprint, and he’s shown more than capable of doing great work as a position coach as well.

With Irish fans wanting to forget just about everything but the first eight games of the Willingham era, Denbrock got a bum rap almost from the day he set foot back on campus. But after two seasons, two All-American level tight ends, and a handful of recruits that might not have ever stepped foot on campus without the man recruiting them, he’s certainly made his mark.

(Photo courtesy of Mark Jalovec, and shows a younger and svelter Denbrock and Kelly pictured with the 1987 Grand Valley State coaching staff…)

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.