Mike Denbrock

Report: Mike Denbrock headed to Cincinnati as OC

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Mike Denbrock is on the move. Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel is reporting that Notre Dame’s associate head coach and play-caller will join new Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell’s coaching staff.

It’s a huge move that removes one more trusted insider from Brian Kelly’s coaching staff. Yet it’s also not surprising, and fits into some of the information that has been coming out of South Bend, as Denbrock was likely to lose play-calling duties after a disappointing 2016 season.

Brian Kelly has been interviewing a wide array of offensive coordinator candidates, with Irish Illustrated reporting that Kelly talked with former Pitt OC Matt Canada before he took the same job at LSU under Ed Orgeron. Kelly’s also been linked to conversations with former Baylor assistant Kendall Briles and former Michigan and Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges, coaches with very diverse offensive backgrounds.

The move of Denbrock and the reports of national interviews suggest that Kelly plans to hire someone from outside the program, not simply plug back in Denbrock or former coordinator Jeff Quinn, who is expected to take over as tight ends coach. It also looks less likely that Kelly will hire a quarterback coach like he did with Matt LaFleur, rather look to find someone who’ll handle the quarterbacks and the coordinator role.

Notre Dame has already announced the hiring of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who coached his final game on Tuesday with Wake Forest, a dominant performance in an upset win over Temple. Brian Polian’s return to South Bend was made official today as well, hired to coordinate the special teams.

Thamel’s report is the first on the potential move and hasn’t been confirmed by anyone at Cincinnati or Notre Dame. The Bearcats finished 4-8 in the American Conference, firing Tommy Tuberville and hiring the former Ohio State defensive coordinator in mid-December.

Denbrock has had two stints in South Bend, coaching 10 total seasons at Notre Dame under Ty Willingham and Kelly, who he first worked with at Grand Valley State.

Kelly: Play-calling will be a collaboration

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So who’s calling the plays? That was one of the main questions  still unanswered heading into the season’s opening game, and when head coach Brian Kelly was asked about it, he was staying mum.

With Mike Sanford (the offensive coordinator) taking his cues from Mike Denbrock (the associate head coach), you already knew that the org chart looked different than most. So maybe it makes sense that Kelly’s going relatively new-age with his philosophy on play-calling.

“We are going to collaborate,” Kelly said Tuesday. “There will be collaboration. Mike Sanford, myself, Coach Denbrock, there will be collaboration on Saturday.”

In theory, it makes sense, and likely shows just how much Kelly trusts the opinion of both Denbrock, an assistant coach Kelly’s know for the better part of 25 years, and Sanford, an assistant he’s worked with for roughly nine months.

With Kelly and Denbrock on the sidelines and Sanford upstairs in the box, game day operations will be worth watching. Especially the first time Zaire gets behind center only to notice that the playclock is moments from zero and a blown timeout earns the scorn of the Irish head coach. Collaboration? That’ll be the collective groan you hear emanating from Notre Dame Stadium.

Yet there’s a good chance that frustrating scenario might not ever happen. In fact, you could also argue that this collaboration could actually speed up an operation that sometimes struggled to move quickly, with both Tommy Rees and Everett Golson prone to evaluating what the defense showed and then counter-punching.

Building on this theory, you could also take the leap that the three-man effort could be to help speed up an operation that wants to move at significant pace this season. With Sanford above the action, he can better fill in Kelly and Denbrock on what he sees and what the defense is doing. With the game plan set and scripting in place, the Irish offense could finally dictate terms to the defense, after years of watching quarterbacks read and react.

Of course, we’ve spent five years talking about Kelly’s offense going up-tempo, a veritable white whale for some Irish diehards. And for all the clamoring and discussion about turning Kelly’s offense into Oregon’s, we’ve really only really seen it happen a handful of series. But with Zaire at quarterback and Notre Dame’s best running signal caller since Carlyle Holiday, the option to finally “call it and haul it” is available to this offense, if they choose to utilize it.

Kelly confirmed Tuesday that he holds veto rights on what play goes to the quarterback, pretty much what you’d expect from a head coach with a reputation for being one of the best play-callers in America. (Yes, Irish fans, that’s what people outside our little bubble think.) But with Zaire, a veteran of roughly six quarters of action and a new offensive coordinator, the Irish offense is finally an unknown, likely the head coach’s rational for playing this one very close to the vest.

“I’m just not going to give you much more than, you know, all three of us are collaborating,” Kelly said. “We’re all in unison as to how we want the game to unfold. So we are all going to be working off the same play sheet. We are going to all be working off the same openers. We are going to all be working off the same down and distance sheet.

“So whether it’s coming out of Mike or Mike or Brian’s lips, is really immaterial as far as I’m concerned. All I know is that we’ve got great collaboration between the three of us.”

For Golson, challenges won’t disappear now that he’s at FSU

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Everett Golson left Notre Dame for Florida State. Degree in hand, free agency well earned. But for some who thought Golson left South Bend because he wanted nothing to do with a quarterback competition that Malik Zaire seemed to embrace, the fifth-year quarterback’s arrival in Tallahassee won’t mark the end of a position battle.

Golson left a competition for the starting quarterback job at Notre Dame for the vacancy Jameis Winston left behind at Florida State. And Jimbo Fisher apparently made it clear that he welcomed the Irish transfer to campus, but guaranteed him little more than a shot at the starting job.

“Controversy and competition is two different things. It’s competition,” Fisher told the AP’s Ralph Russo. “And players on the team, when a guy is a competitor and he does well — whether it’s Sean [Maguire], it’s Everett, it’s De’Andre [Johnson], it’s J.J. [Consentino], it’s Deondre Francois — whoever is on our team, they’ll follow the guys who play the best, respond the best and lead them the best.”

There’s few who doubt that Golson will win the starting job in short order. But then again, few looked at Notre Dame’s spring practice and saw a job that didn’t look like Golson’s, either.

So as we step back and look at Golson’s decision to start anew, it’s worth looking closer at the relationship with the quarterback and his head coach, and also the instability at the top of the offense, with Golson asked to establish yet another relationship in the more-than-fluid offensive leadership under head coach Brian Kelly.

While Golson only played in one system at Notre Dame, he had multiple teachers. During his freshman year, Charley Molnar was the quarterback coach and offensive coordinator. After Molnar left to take over the UMass program, Chuck Martin ran the offense and the position during Notre Dame’s 2012 BCS title game run.

After Golson’s academic detour in the 2013 season, he returned to a reshuffled coaching staff after Martin took the head coaching job at Miami (Ohio). Golson was then working under Mike Denbrock‘s leadership with new quarterback coach Matt LaFleur asked to work on technique and position responsibilities with Golson and a young depth chart.

LaFleur’s short stay in South Bend was a misstep for Kelly, the young assistant happier in the professional game and returning to work with Kyle Shanahan. Enter another young offensive assistant in Mike Sanford, who had just weeks to build and develop a relationship with his embattled starting quarterback, and it’s fair to consider these factors when people talk about Golson going to learn and work with completely new coaches.

Of course, Golson’s primary coach has always been Kelly. From Day One, the Irish head coach has kept Golson’s tutelage under his purview. And as Kelly moves forward running the Irish program, the head coach needs to take a step back and access whether that arrangement serves his football team best.

Multiple sources close to Golson cite the head coach-player relationship as a significant factor in Golson’s decision to depart. And while some fans would point out that Kelly stuck by and believed in Golson for far longer than any reasonable coach should have, the decision to seek a clean slate was one that hinged on the working relationship between the two men most responsible for the offense’s efficiency.

With Sanford’s arrival and the addition of off-field resources like former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn, there’s no shortage of proven offensive leaders in the Notre Dame coaching room. And while Kelly’s DNA won’t change from that of an offensive coach, given a new opportunity to work with Zaire, perhaps the singular nature of the relationship between head coach and his quarterback will change.

All that being said, Kelly isn’t the first head coach to tightly manage the quarterback position. Successful coaches at every level establish that bond with their quarterback, and if there’s any blame to assign—or any perceived failure in Golson deciding to leave—it’s fair to put some of that on the quarterback’s shoulders.

Golson isn’t a guy completely comfortable in the spotlight. And in a program and playing a position where eyes are always watching, the minor details—things like body language on the sideline and press conference demeanor—end up being fair game. And as the mistakes piled up last season, Golson became less and less able to deal with the adversity, finally benched after a flat-line performance against the Irish’s biggest rival in USC.

Even if his season ground to a halt before playing well in limited minutes against LSU, there’s no reason to think that Golson won’t have a good season at Florida State. For all the worries that the offense is too complex and Golson’s timeline is too truncated, this is an offense that allowed players like JaMarcus Russell to thrive, and turned mediocre NFL players like Christian Ponder and EJ Manuel into first-round picks. Golson’s a smart kid with better-than-most skills. He’ll be just fine.

So while Notre Dame fans can only wonder what the Irish offense would’ve looked like with the 1-2 punch of Golson and Zaire, it’s one thing to embrace an unknown quarterback platoon as a fan. It’s an entirely different thing to do it as a player, especially one that hopes to continue his career at the next level.

Golson’s move to Florida State will certainly cut both ways when NFL talent evaluators access his abilities—both to play and to lead at the next level. So while Golson made one difficult decision when he decided to leave South Bend, he faces another set of challenges at Florida State.

 

After chaotic spring, offensive roles can come into focus

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Spring practice is in the books. The Blue-Gold game is history. (Not here, we’ll talk about that thing all week…)

So after a frantic few months in the Gug, the focus of Notre Dame’s rebuilt offensive staff can change from planning practices to… planning—well, just about everything.

Brian Kelly‘s three-headed monster atop the offensive meeting room can stop and breathe for a bit. With new OC and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford still unpacking his things in South Bend, the man charged with turning the room upside down can now go about officially finding his place in a room that’s likely—and understandably—plenty cluttered right now.

The 2015 calendar year has been a whirlwind for Sanford. A new job, a new son, a new house in a new city—not to mention learning a new offense.

So while we’ve spent most of our time wondering about playcalling duties next fall and Mike Denbrock‘s role in the offense now that he’s associate head coach, Kelly spent some time after the Blue-Gold game clarifying how things will look moving forward, pumping the brakes on any official gameday duties with over four months before the Irish take their next meaningful snap.

“I said this I think when we were here [introducing Sanford], that his focus right now is we’ve got two very, very good quarterbacks,” Kelly explained on Saturday. “His focus is on our quarterbacks right now and learning the offense and that’s job one. The next job will be obviously continue to grow and learn the offense so there’s play calling opportunities there. Mike Denbrock right now is running the entire offense. Those are his calls and his decisions to make.”

For some, that news is a shocker and feels a little bit like walking back on the bold declarations both Kelly and Denbrock made after Sanford’s move to South Bend became official. But logistically, the objectives of the spring and where Notre Dame’s offense needs to be next fall are two incredibly different things. So credit Kelly (not to mention Sanford and Denbrock) for understanding that and getting the entire offensive staff and personnel to buy in.

Job one for Sanford was the most important one of any staff member working for Kelly: Engaging both Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. Make them both believe they could and should win the starting job, while also making them better quarterbacks.

We heard about the lengths Sanford went to do that, grading and breaking down every practice snap. We also saw some of that progress on Saturday from both quarterbacks.

Golson displayed much better technique in the zone-read game with vastly-improved footwork and depth in the pocket while also protecting the ball as a runner. He made quick decisions and some solid throws moving the chains. After a head-scratching opening throw by Zaire, the challenger did all you could ask of him, dropping a dime on a perfect deep throw to Will Fuller while carrying the load as a runner and ball carrier.

Just as important, after 15 practices, you have to feel like the odds of both Golson and Zaire spending next season as Notre Dame quarterbacks got considerably better, Task A, B and C for Sanford if we’re being honest about spring’s true objectives.

“Mike [Sanford] really is somebody capable of doing all of those things, but not at this time. His focus right now is working with the quarterbacks. And so when we put a timetable on it, right now I’m more ready to be the play caller until all these guys are in a position where they can take more of a role offensively. That’s just a matter of where we are right now because most of Mike’s time has been developing the quarterbacks.”

Sanford’s got four months to learn the offense and settle into his role—whatever that may be on Saturday. Until then, it was all about making sure both Golson and Zaire improved.

In their first televised dress rehearsal, things went well. On a Saturday where Alabama’s offense turned the ball over six times in their spring game, the Irish’s only turnover came when Kelly told safety Max Redfield the play in advance.

So settle in, coaches. Because come Texas on September 5, that’s when things will start counting.

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.