Brian Kelly

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In a time of change, Denbrock a constant

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Mike Denbrock is a throwback.

He’s the type of coach that existed a generation ago. A top assistant who may have been relegated to the shadows of a head coach, carving out a niche that didn’t usually come with a statue, but brought with gratitude from a fanbase used to seeing plenty of wins.

Denbrock is also a coaching survivor. In 2009, Denbrock was coaching at Indiana State. That he’s back at Notre Dame and the associate head coach and top assistant in one of college football’s flagship programs is certainly not lost on the man who left South Bend after three seasons working with Ty Willingham a decade ago.

That could help explain Denbrock’s mindset. The one that made it easy to turn down overtures from Central Michigan. Not to mention the egoless decision that allowed the Irish to bring in Mike Sanford.

Many openly wondered how Brian Kelly could take away the offensive coordinator title that Denbrock had for just one season, and a playcaller role that lasted just a single game—Notre Dame’s perfectly executed offensive game plan in the Music City Bowl victory.

But while everything around him seems to have changed, you wouldn’t know it by listening to Denbrock.

“It’s almost exactly the same as it was a year ago,” Denbrock said last week, when asked about his role in the offense.

But as the Irish move into 2015 with great expectations, a top-heavy offensive coaching room is certainly an experiment that requires watching. At its worst, moves like this backfire spectacularly, too many cooks in one kitchen.

 

The brain power and veteran coaches demand a new take on an organizational chart. Just look at the names above the line—Kelly, Denbrock, Sanford, throw in well-respected (and one-time running game coordinator) Harry Hiestand and offensive analyst Jeff Quinn. Only Scott Booker and Autry Denson fit the role of young assistants.

While you expect everybody to be talking peace and harmony during spring ball, that can only happen when the games start counting when you have strong leadership. And in Kelly, the coaching staff has its leader. And in Denbrock, the trusted lieutenant, a man who doesn’t sound uncomfortable with his place inside the program—nor with the boss in charge of the football team.

“Coach Kelly and I have a lot of experience together running the same style of offense and the same ideas and the same adjustments,” Denbrock explained. “If you have a chance to influence into your system the ideas and experience and versatility that Mike in particular brings to the offensive staff room, it gives you an opportunity to grow as a program and improve in the areas that you want to improve in.

“Having another strong voice in the room, while viewed by some as a negative thing, I think it’s an incredibly positive thing. Because it just adds to the discussion and makes it better for our offense overall.”

Kelly spoke about Sanford turning the offense upside down. But some thought Denbrock did the same when the Irish transformed in their victory over LSU. So while Sanford’s DNA will certainly show itself in the season ahead, Denbrock also wants to make sure that the Irish don’t lose the look of the group that physically handled LSU’s defense.

“It’s the way Notre Dame should play football every Saturday: Line up, physicality, leaning on the big boys up front to create space for the running backs and getting the ball in space to some skilled receivers,” Denbrock said, as noted by Blue and Gold’s Lou Somogyi. “Playing sound, fundamental football. When I think of Notre Dame football, that’s what I think of and that’s really what we’re trying to get to.

“It’s a beginning. I wouldn’t pigeonhole it by saying every game’s going to look like the LSU game, but I would say we definitely want to enter every week and every game with the mentality that we’re going to physically take the fight to our opponent and we’re going to match ourselves up and see what good can come of it.”

With just two weeks left of spring practice, Notre Dame’s coaches and players will continue to develop the offense until the Blue-Gold game. They’ll have five months from there to figure everything else out. 

So while play-calling, coordinating and overseeing are all still being figured out, whatever his title is, expect Denbrock to help lead the way.

 

 

NBCSN to televise 86th annual Blue-Gold game

Everett Golson
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Just because Notre Dame Stadium isn’t open for business doesn’t mean the Blue-Gold game will be interrupted. After considering off-campus venues like Soldier Field and Lucas Oil Stadium, Brian Kelly will hold his final practice of the spring, the 86th annual Blue-Gold Game, on the LaBar Practice Fields. And it’ll be televised by NBC Sports Network.

Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m on NBCSN. With limited seating options available due to the sheer logistical challenges of housing a spring game on practice fields no equipped with bleachers, Notre Dame won’t be selling tickets to the general public.

Monday afternoon NBC Sports announced that they’d still broadcast the annual scrimmage, giving fans the ability to see the progress made this spring by a promising Fighting Irish squad. It’ll be their first extended look inside the gates of the Irish practice facility.

The game will not only air on NBCSN, but it’ll also stream on the NBC Sports Live Extra App. Brian Kelly will be wired for sound, in addition to several players, along with interviews of current and former players.

After the logistics of this game were up in the air with Notre Dame Stadium undergoing significant construction as part of the Campus Crossroads renovations, finding a way to host this game on campus and still bring it to broadcast is a great final result, not to mention a nice consolation prize for fans used to making the annual trek to the spring game.

Notre Dame will also likely utilize the weekend for another recruiting event.

Spring Mailbag: Tillery, Optimism, and practice updates

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Let’s get to part one of the mailbag. Some very good questions here, so check back over the weekend as there’ll be more to come.

Notre Dame’s annual coaching clinic is in town as well, not to mention some key visitors on the Irish staff’s recruiting board.

Between the Mike Brey’s boys doing their best Rocky impression and the upcoming date with Ivan Drago, it’s a big spring weekend in South Bend.

 

@ReadRoger: Does the emergence of Tillery suggest a continuing issue of a lack of playmakers on the D line?

I don’t see it that way. I see it as a “Holy Bleep, Jerry Tillery is going to be really, really good.”

Again, it’s time to immediately tamp expectations. Kelly did his best to do that after raving about Tillery, but it’s worth doing it again here.

Any true freshman—especially one along the defensive line—is only capable of making a marginal impact. (Look at what Aaron Lynch did.) But as you look at the depth chart up front, Tillery has a chance to immediately insert himself into a young second wave, behind a talented tackle duo of Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones.

Talented isn’t necessarily code for playmakers. And if Day is going to play to the expectations the staff has for him, he’s going to need to make some plays in the backfield. He returned for his senior season to prove that he can do that.

Jones also has a high ceiling, maybe even higher than Day’s. But he’s in the middle of a rehab process that’s considerable, and will need to work his way into shape before fall camp.

But after watching Isaac Rochell come into his own as a true sophomore, I’m expecting a breakout season from him, a key at the strong-side. And finding a good platoon between Andrew Trumbetti and senior Romeo Okwara, and there’s no shortage of capable players.

Where Tillery plays will be interesting. There aren’t too many 6’6.5″ rush ends, and Kelly talking about Tillery’s hand skill and athleticism makes me think he’s a guy who will spell Jones or Day on the inside.

But as we still look for someone to generate a pass rush, Tillery’s quick ascent, something I’m not surprised about in the least, is a great spring story.

 

aisforara: Why do so many of us feel optimistic about the Irish in 2015, when the team is 2-5 in its last seven games?

Because it was fairly easy to see why the Irish went 2-5, and I don’t think it was a shortage of talent.

Beating LSU was a key to the 2015 revival. And so was the emergence of Malik Zaire, proving that he could win football games if Everett Golson continues to put the ball at risk.

Young teams take lumps. They lose games—sometimes in the most maddening ways imaginable. But look at this offense. I’ve never seen a deeper group in my time following this team. Maybe some of Holtz’s rosters had better skill players, but I’m not sure if that’s true, either.

Ultimately, the defense needs to step up. And the offense needs to get out of its own way. Bringing in Mike Sanford was a game-changing move for Brian Kelly. But continuing to bet on Brian VanGorder was a gamble as well.

This will easily be the most talented football team of the Brian Kelly era. What that means? We won’t know until September.

 

luckoirish23: I have watched und.com spring practice report videos for several years; however this spring there has only been one video that was actually long enough for one of your breakdowns. Any idea why we are getting such short videos? Why Jac Collinsworth and no Jack Nolan? Do you think BK is trying to protect his QBs from a media frenzy of interpretations and message board drama? I miss those spring weather reports, position spotlights, and 3 minute practice cut ups….

Remember those videos? Those were fun. I was beginning to think I was the only one missing them. How else would we know Corey Robinson can make catches like Spiderman or Joe Schmidt might actually be a good inside linebacker?

But here’s the thing. That run the men’s basketball team is making? It’s killing our highlight packages. (But this one on Thursday night’s victory over Wichita State is pretty great.) Fighting Irish Digital Media may sound like a gigantic corporation, but they’re actually a pretty compact outfit.

Jack Nolan is the radio voice of the Irish. So while he’s screaming “Gotttttt ittttt!” We’re getting shorted on practice videos and the young Jac Collinsworth is filling in (very capably I might add).

 

Your suspicions are ones that I’ve considered as well. And frankly, it’d be the smartest thing Brian Kelly could do, though he really hasn’t had to thanks to Mike Brey’s boys.

But instead of complaining about it, I tried to help solve the problem. So check out me and Jac breaking down spring practice, and if you don’t blink you might see a few snippets from practice.

***

Irish open spring: Five quick updates from BK

Michigan v Notre Dame
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With Irish eyes already smiling thanks to St. Patrick’s Day, Notre Dame fans got a free double-down with Brian Kelly’s opening press conference before spring practice starts tomorrow.

Kelly, donning a green sweater over a green golf shirt, spoke with the assembled local media over the lunch hour, giving us 50 minutes of long-awaited updates as the spring roster was revealed.

Here are five quick things I found very interesting:

 

Ben Councell is retiring. 

I hinted at this last week, but outside linebacker Ben Councell is not going to pursue a fifth-year. As we looked at the roster-crunch to get to 85 scholarships, Councell was one name that I had heard wasn’t a lock to come back.

Kelly confirmed that on Tuesday.

“He chose not to continue to play. We respected that decision,” Kelly said. “He was offered an opportunity to continue to play. He’s not going to play football anymore. He’s just going to get his degree and move on to the next chapter for him. Ben’s a great young man and we wish him the best.”

Kelly also confirmed Jalen Brown was not returning, while also clarifying that the little used cornerback wasn’t invited back.

 

It’s Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson battling for the open left guard job. 

We’ll get a look at the two redshirt freshmen for the first time. And if Kelly’s comments are any indications, the young players are all that’s been advertised.

After explaining that Nick Martin was returning to center and Matt Hegarty didn’t want to compete for the left guard job, Kelly pointed to the two first-year participants as the top candidates for the vacancy along the offensive line.

“Quenton Nelson, Alex Bars,” Kelly said. “We’ll let those guys battle at the left guard position. That’s going to be fun to watch those two guys battling out at the left guard position.”

While some other players are going to cross-train and add some depth at tackle and center, don’t expect it to be Bars or Nelson. After seeing how difficult that was for Steve Elmer, consider it a lesson learned for Kelly and Harry Hiestand.

 

C.J. Prosise is cross-training as a running back. 

Even though Amir Carlisle was Notre Dame’s starting running back to open the 2013 season, it’s fellow slot receiver C.J. Prosise that’s taking reps at running back.

Kelly confirmed the position tweak for Prosise with Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant the only scholarship backs on the roster until Josh Adams and Dexter Williams arrive this summer.

“He’s been in the running back meetings. He’ll get a lot of work at running back,” Kelly confirmed of Prosise. “Amir will not cross train. He’ll stay at the slot receiver. C.J. will get quite a bit of work at running back.”

After leading the team in yards per catch and showing a ton of explosiveness at 220 pounds, this looks like a smart way to get Prosise more touches while also protecting the depth chart. Expect new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford to enjoy seeing what Prosise can do in a hybrid role.

We’ve talked constantly about finding a Percy Harvin (the game-breaking elite talent not the guy who can’t stick on an NFL roster) for this offense. Prosise might be that guy.

 

Fifth-year candidate Chase Hounshell is attempting to reboot his career as a blocking tight end. 

Long assumed gone after struggling with injuries and the defensive line depth chart, get ready to see a new number—and a new attitude—associated with veteran Chase Hounshell.

He’ll be wearing No. 18 and at 255 pounds will compete to be a blocking tight end. And he’s getting that opportunity because he did everything he could to convince Kelly to give him the chance.

“Chase knocked down my door, wouldn’t leave me alone, just kept coming back and saying, ‘Coach, I want to be part of this team. I have something to offer,'” Kelly explained.

“We don’t really have a role for you on the defensive line, but we could use a big, physical, blocking tight end. Would you be interested in that role? He said, ‘Coach, I’ll do whatever you ask me to do.'”

With just Durham Smythe’s one catch returning to the position and rising sophomore Tyler Luatua the only big-body that looks the part of a run blocker, experimenting with Hounshell at the position is a win-win for both parties.

If a roster crunch comes, Hounshell will have spent the spring staying in shape and could supply some good tape to a program looking for a veteran player, who could also have sixth-year options considering his multiple shoulder injuries.

Jake Golic finished his career at Cincinnati. Perhaps Hounshell will have the same type of opportunity if it doesn’t work out in South Bend. But credit the veteran for wanting to finish things the right way.

 

Any assumptions about the quarterback position should be thrown out. 

After an offseason where many of us (I’m partially guilty, too) have advanced the storyline at quarterback when we’ve heard nothing out of the parties actually involved, Kelly did a nice job resetting the expectation at the position.

While talking about both Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, he laid out his expectations for spring practice, with each player having clear objectives.

But for all the talk about the offense being turned over to Zaire or a ride-share program already being implemented, these comments from Kelly about Golson and his future as the team’s starting quarterback struck me.

“First of all, if I’m Everett, I don’t think that he has to accept that he has to share time with anybody,” Kelly said. “I don’t think that notion has ever been floated to him. I’ve never floated that.

“The only thing that I’ve ever said to Everett is that you have to come in here and compete for the starting quarterback position. I never once said to him, You have to come here and share playing time with anybody. You need to come in here and be committed to competing for the quarterback position. That’s all I’ve ever asked him to do.”

Kelly hits the recruiting trail to bring back Stanley and Day

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Say this for Brian Kelly. He learns from his mistakes.

And after losing Stephon Tuitt and Troy Niklas after just three seasons in South Bend, Notre Dame’s head coach made sure he had a final say before Ronnie Stanley and Sheldon Day made their stay-or-go decision.

Kelly hit the road over winter break to make sure his best two seniors understood how badly the Irish coaching staff wanted them to return next season, and — just as important — how it would be in their best interest to do so.

Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman has more, including quotes from Kelly on the recruiting trips the Irish head coach — and a caravan including assistant coaches and athletic director Jack Swarbrick — took to both Stanley and Day’s homes.

“I’ve had great success keeping Michael Floyd here, keeping Tyler Eifert here, keeping Manti Te’o here and then last year I was disappointed about one of our players not staying,” Kelly told Fox Sports. “I was not going to leave it up to fate anymore that somebody would understand from my perspective that you should stay for these reasons. I was gonna get on the road and make sure we did this.”

For Stanley, that meant bringing Harry Hiestand to Las Vegas and connecting the junior offensive tackle with Dallas Cowboys All-Pro rookie Zack Martin. It also meant bringing an academic advisor along to help better understand the timing of things like OTAs and an academic plan that’ll have him ready for graduation after next season.

For Day, it meant a visit from Mike Elston and Paul Longo. It also meant an apples to apples comparison with former Pitt star Aaron Donald, who Irish fans have already deemed the optimal prototype for the undersized defensive tackle.

“Our strength coach was with us on that one because we wanted to look at some numbers from the Combine that we wanted to make him aware of,” said Kelly. “We felt like we wanted to get him into (former Pitt All-American) Aaron Donald’s numbers. It was, ‘Right now let’s say four teams really like you. If you start hitting these physical numbers, we think 20 teams are gonna really like you, and that’s the net benefit for you.'”

More important than any sales pitch was another option Notre Dame was offering. An insurance policy the university would pay for that would cover any loss of value, a commitment that Swarbrick himself gave to both players.

At a school that’s promoting a 40-year decision, adding success stories like Stanley and Day is crucial to the recruiting message to other elite prospects hoping to have the chance to play at the next level. Adding an All-American like Stanley to the “Notre Dame graduate” list continues to separate the Irish from other programs that look more like football factories.

On the field, bringing back this duo is just as critical. After seeing holes in the depth chart after early departures ripped some key building blocks off the 2014 roster, hitting the road and protecting his own roster is just as key to building the 2015 team as finishing the recruiting class strong.

Do yourself a favor and read Feldman’s complete story here.