Kelly details offensive plan as Denbrock and LaFleur introduced


The evolution of Brian Kelly‘s offense is coming into focus after the long-awaited introduction of offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock and new quarterback coach Matt LaFleur. The Irish head coach, fresh from coast-to-coast recruiting travels, spent some time detailing how things will run in 2014, with Chuck Martin’s departure allowing Kelly to reboot the system.

That’s not to say we’ll see something new. But rather, after working with Tommy Rees and first-time starter Everett Golson, the Irish offense might go back to the vintage Kelly variety, something we haven’t yet seen in South Bend. That’s a big reason why the head coach tabbed himself as the playcaller.

“We’re transitioning back to an offense that I feel is best suited for the personnel that we have, and I think it’s important to really get that philosophy and influence back into the offense, and I know it the best,” Kelly said.

“I think it will give everybody a great visual look at what we want this offense to look like, and I think it starts with me.  I think it’s important that if I want that offense to have the look, it’s important that I have the influence in some fashion and this is the best way to do it.”

That’s not to say that Denbrock’s promotion is one in name only. After working with Kelly as both his offensive and defensive coordinator back at Grand Valley, and after coaching tight ends, wide receivers, and temporarily helping out on the offensive line in between Ed Warinner and Harry Hiestand, Denbrock now ascends to the manager of the offense.

“He’s coached virtually all the positions for me, a great understanding of the offense that we want to run, and certainly has my trust in putting together the offense on a day-to-day basis for us,” Kelly said of Denbrock.

“He will oversee the entire offense and set the table in making sure that all of that is put together and laid out there so we can have a great Saturday in moving the ball effectively, offensively.”

On the subject of his new quarterback coach, Kelly talked about how the position group will function now that the coordinator isn’t also the position coach. That means LaFleur will run the day-to-day meetings, but Kelly won’t be too far away.

“On a day-to-day basis, Matt will be with the quarterbacks, he will be in the quarterback room,” Kelly said. “I’ll sit in the quarterback room as well, but Matt will have the autonomy of running those meetings. I will be there as a resource.”

With LaFleur tasked with quarterbacks and Denbrock organizationally in charge of game plans and installation, there’s a new look to an offense that’ll likely look and feel differently without Tommy Rees, TJ Jones and Troy Niklas.

Potentially playing a true spread for the first time, even without playcalling duties, Denbrock understands the demands of his job, and how the offense will flow with him in charge. 

“I think moving into this role I move into that seat a little bit more where with the help of a very talented offensive staff it’s my responsibility to really make sure this thing looks the way Coach Kelly wants it to look, have the menu, if you feel, available to him that he feels like he needs on Saturday for us to be successful offensively,” Denbrock said.

With the hiring of Brian VanGorder as defensive coordinator, the Irish will have a coach that just two years ago was viewed (by paycheck) as the most valuable coordinator at the college level. 

As Kelly talks of spending time in the quarterbacks meeting room and calling plays, you can’t help but feel that Kelly has turned his focus on upgrading the offense, a group that has stood between the Irish being a good team and an elite one the past few seasons.

With their most talented personnel package and Everett Golson back from exile, there’s reason to believe that both the head coach and his offensive staff are very optimistic for the future.

“With the athletes that we have we feel like we’re in a position offensively to push the tempo more and to put our playmakers in positions where they can make big plays and do the things that all of us hope our offense looks like,” Denbrock said. “One that’s dynamic and can score more points and move the football consistently.”

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”