Denbrock tasked with leading (and evolving) offense

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Yes, Brian Kelly will call the plays next season.

But that takes nothing away from the responsibilities Mike Denbrock now has. After Chuck Martin took the head coaching job at Miami (Ohio), Kelly turned the keys to the offensive meeting room over to his most trusted advisor, with the clear objective of making the offense better.

Wednesday, Denbrock gave his first progress report, meeting with the local media to discuss the offense’s progress, life with Everett Golson back at quarterback and a depth chart full of talent but not so much experience.

“It’s awful good to be on the practice field. I really like the attention to detail that the guys are trying to go about,” Denbrock said. “We’re nowhere near where we’re going to be or where we’re going, but the work ethic, caring, their willingness, all those things that you like to see when you’re trying to incorporate some changes to the offense… all those things are in place for us to continue to improve offensively. I like the way they’re going about their business every day.”

The biggest piece in place is at quarterback. For the first time in Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, he’ll have a depth chart that fits one game plan. No longer are quarterbacks like Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix square pegs in mostly round holes. Even the attrition of Gunner Kiel helps streamline a skill set that now exists in Golson, rising sophomore Malik Zaire and soon-to-be freshman DeShone Kizer.

Denbrock talked about what having continuity at quarterback does for this offense, essentially opening up a playbook with built in zone read principles thanks to a mobile quarterback.

Here’s a fairly long snippet from Denbrock that helps explain why the ground game should immediately improve:

“Having the versatility we do at the quarterback position opens up a whole assortment of nuances and subtleties to some of the schemes that we were already running,” Denbrock explained. “Putting defenses in a position that if they do want to put an extra defender in the box you can account for him with the quarterback running the football.

“The blocking for the offensive line is very similar to some plays that we ran a year ago, although you add into it a read off of the extra defender in the box by the quarterback and give it or keep it and those types of things… Just the opportunity to get the quarterbacks with their athletic ability out in space and the defense a little bit more than we had are really the things that we’re kind of exploring and looking at and continue to tweak.”

Another factor that will open up the running game is the diversity of the three running backs competing for the starting job. Unlike George Atkinson, who struggled with certain facets of this offense, Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant all seem comfortable as both a runner and receiver.

That allows the Irish not to tailor snaps for their running backs’ skill set, taking away from the sometimes predictable playcalling that came with a running back’s inclusion and personnel grouping.

“I love the versatility of those three guys in particular because I think we don’t have to be, if you will, predictable with who’s in the game and what type of scheme we’re playing,” Denbrock said. “I think we can branch out and do a number of things with those types of guys.”

That happened far too often over the last few years, whether it was Atkinson’s inclusion in the backfield, Theo Riddick used for passing plays or Daniel Smith split out as a glorified blocker. If that’s the biggest thing Denbrock changes it’ll be of help to the offense, and it seems to already be in progress.

We’ve seen in UND.com’s practice reports the usage of Greg Bryant split out wide. Both Folston and McDaniel have also made contributions in the spring passing game and Amir Carlisle’s cross-training ability signifies an added emphasis on including running backs in the passing game.

“You can put those guys in different situations and not pigeon hole them necessarily into, ‘you’re an outside runner, you’re an inside runner,'” Denbrock said. “Those guys can take all the reps at all the different things and you can let them sort it out themselves, which is always a good thing.”

While many wondered if Kelly was going to make a flashy hire at offensive coordinator, ultimately Denbrock’s hiring might be the best thing to happen to the Irish offense. It’s allowed Kelly to keep the identity of his offense to his liking, especially now that the personnel matches his intent.

But Denbrock’s promotion still allowed Kelly to reach outside the program for a quarterback specific coach, with Matt LaFleur coming from the NFL to teach the position. And it’s taken a valued teacher who has coached just about every position group on the offensive side of the ball and plugged him into the decision making process.

Denbrock understands that while the plays will be dictated by Kelly, his stamp will still be all over this offensive identity.

“It’s absolutely driven by coach Kelly as the leader of the offensive unit,” Denbrock said. “He’s the guy who’s obviously going to be calling the plays, so he’s going to have the most influence on what we’re doing. But there’s not a time or a situation where the offensive staff isn’t involved in decision making processes and I think we all bring something different to the table.

“We’ve always had the ability as a staff and we’ve always had the team’s best interests at heart and we’ve always had an opportunity to kind of voice our concerns and change in some instances and stay the same in some instances too. Those decisions obviously get made by coach Kelly primarily but myself as well.”

 

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover