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.