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.