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Kelly (finally) reveals complex play-calling system

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Who called plays last year for Notre Dame? Brian Kelly finally expanded on a subject that he didn’t much want to tackle last season.

Talking with the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen, Kelly talked about the three-headed system that included not just the head coach’s voice, but Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford.

(There’s plenty more to dig into from the interview, a snippet from the annual preview magazine the Trib releases every summer.)

Here’s Kelly’s explanation on his play-calling system, where he acknowledged that Denbrock is the actual voice calling the plays.

“You have to understand the way I wanted it set up this year. We pretty much had openers, down-and-distance calls that Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford shared during the week.

“In other words, they crafted and scripted the offense together. I would get asked all the time, ‘Who’s calling the plays?’ They’re really talking on every play.

“And I put Mike Sanford in the box, up top, because he could be the eyes for Mike Denbrock on every down. And they shared in that responsibility. But in actuality giving the play out, Mike Denbrock was giving every single play out.

“Yet if you took Sanford out of the mix, it would be a different dynamic. And if you took Denbrock out of the mix, it would be a different dynamic. I couldn’t tell you who would be calling the plays if they weren’t working together.

“There has to be both of those guys working together, but Mike Denbrock was physically calling the plays.”

There’s been reporting all the way back to the bowl victory over LSU that Denbrock had been the team’s play-caller. But as we see in this explanation, it’s a distinction that probably carries more weight among fans and reporters than it does inside the football program.

While most of us aren’t lip-readers, Kelly also seems very involved with the mechanism of signaling in the play call—from head coach to red army to quarterback. With three voices involved in a constant offensive dialogue—Sanford from the press box and Kelly and Denbrock from the sideline—there’s a balance that the Irish staff clearly got right in this process, a credit to the working relationship (and trust) involved in a coaching structure that had many people wondering if there were too many cooks in the kitchen.