With Charley Molnar set to officially take over the UMass football program, the Irish coaching staff will make its first change since Brian Kelly took over the football program. After two years of staff continuity, Kelly will need to look into the marketplace and hire a coach — be it an offensive coordinator to work alongside him, or a quarterback coach to replace Molnar’s day-to-day duties with a position group.
With the usual suspects being gathered, it seemed like a perfect time to look back at the hires Kelly made in his first days at Notre Dame. One of the biggest eyebrow raisers came when Kelly named Mike Denbrock his tight ends coach, bringing the former Ty Willingham assistant back to South Bend for a second tour of duty.
In retrospect, we should’ve seen this coming. Denbrock and Kelly spent eight years together at Grand Valley State, starting as graduate assistants before Denbrock eventually served as one of Kelly’s key lieutenants. That Denbrock had experience at Notre Dame, a reputation and knowledge base of West Coast recruiting, and a background as both a tight end and offensive line coach made the fit perfect.
Of course, that isn’t how the hire was seen back in January of 2010. The hiring of Denbrock, who was serving as an associate head coach at Indiana State, seemed like a head coach reaching for comfort food instead of finding something of sustenance. Kelly’s staff — not assembled nationally, but built from a pool of coaches that had largely worked under him before — were going to collectively find out how different Notre Dame was, with only Denbrock remotely familiar with the university.
Denbrock was the face of the “small time” narrative that was being written by skeptics of the hires. Kelly was putting the state of California, capably manned by recruiting ace Brian Polian before him, in the hands of the guy that was coaching linebackers and special teams for the Indiana State Sycamores? This was how the Irish were going to continue reeling in talent from the West Coast?
In a word: Yep.
In his second trip to South Bend, Denbrock has been one of the stars of the coaching staff — building a terrific depth chart at tight end while also enhancing the Irish’s recruiting presence in talent-rich California. It started by holding onto recruits Justin Utupo and Cameron Roberson in 2010. Denbrock did himself one better by reeling in twins George and Josh Atkinson and potentially one of the biggest difference makers in the class, athlete Troy Niklas, from the heart of USC country. But perhaps his biggest victory has been the commitment of two more Northern California stars, wide receiver Deontay Greenberry and cornerback Tee Shepard, two recruits that’ll help the Irish from day one next season, with Shepard set to enroll next moonth.
Denbrock’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Recruiting czar Tom Lemming named Denbrock one of his six national assistant coaches of the year, linking Kelly’s old Grand Valley pal with guys like Curtis Luper of Auburn, Sal Sunseri of Alabama, Fred Jackson of Michigan, Brian Polian of Stanford, and Tosh Lupoi of Cal. Denbrock’s the only guy out of that group that fights for players outside of the school’s natural footprint, and he’s shown more than capable of doing great work as a position coach as well.
With Irish fans wanting to forget just about everything but the first eight games of the Willingham era, Denbrock got a bum rap almost from the day he set foot back on campus. But after two seasons, two All-American level tight ends, and a handful of recruits that might not have ever stepped foot on campus without the man recruiting them, he’s certainly made his mark.
(Photo courtesy of Mark Jalovec, and shows a younger and svelter Denbrock and Kelly pictured with the 1987 Grand Valley State coaching staff…)