Cory Yeoman was a young football coach at mighty Penn High School in northern Indiana when a willowy quarterback by the name of Mike Sanford Jr., was matriculating through the program that has produced five state titles and a 130-27 mark under Yeoman since he took over for Chris Geesman 12 seasons ago.
The Kingsmen would lose Sanford Jr., prior to his senior year when Mike Sanford Sr., departed Notre Dame as quarterbacks coach to instruct receivers in the NFL for the San Diego Chargers.
Yeoman, a coach’s kid himself, knows the characteristics of a football lifer.
“He was a real long kid, tall, and was just starting to fill out,” Yeoman said. “He was just trying to catch up to his body at that time, like a lot of kids are, and you knew his best football was ahead of him.
“He loved sports and you could tell he had been around it his whole life as a coach’s son. You could tell he was a gym rat as a kid. He understood the concepts of the game, whether it was football or anything else. He’d been around athletics a lot in his life and had a good mind for the game.”
That mind is now considered one of the sharper young ones in the game when it comes to offensive football, and after one year as coordinator of the powerful Boise State offense, Sanford Jr., will be applying his concepts to Notre Dame’s offense as coordinator/quarterbacks coach under Brian Kelly.
At Boise State, where offenses thrive, it wasn’t like Sanford Jr., had to reinvent the wheel. In 2013, the Broncos averaged 37.5 points, rushed for 198.3 yards per game and passed for another 277.7 to rank 20th in the nation in total offense.
Yet Sanford managed to add productivity to the Boise offensive attack, upping the scoring by a couple of points (39.7), the passing by a few yards (280.4/game), and the total offense to No. 14 nationally.
The biggest difference was in the run-pass distribution. The Broncos went from a 51-49 percent run-pass split to a 57-43 run-pass split. Rushing touchdowns went from 33 to 39. Rushing yardage improved by 15 yards per game to 213.8. Yards per carry bumped up from 4.58 to 4.92.
Leading the way on the ground was Jay Ajayi, a 6-foot-0, 220-pounder who rushed for 1,823 yards, 5.25 yards per carry and 28 touchdowns in ‘14. No FBS runner carried more than Ajayi (347 attempts).
“Everybody has his own philosophy, and our philosophy has always been to run the football and defend the run,” said Yeoman of the Penn High School program. “You look at a lot of teams that are championship-type teams, and that’s what they do.
“Everybody wants to talk about balance, but balance is about not necessarily making it even run versus pass, or the number of yards. Balance is being able to run when you want to run and pass when you want to pass. Teams that do that are your more successful teams.”
The true shaping of Sanford Jr.’s philosophy came mainly from the Sanford household where dad – a USC Trojan quarterback from 1973-76 – knew all about the importance of feeding the rock to the running backs. Tailback U. catered to the ground game, and Sanford Sr. was a product of the system.
His first coordinator’s job came at Long Beach State in the mid-‘80s. He made stops at Purdue, his alma mater USC, Notre Dame during the Lou Holtz-to-Bob Davie transition years, and the NFL’s Chargers. He then returned to the college game as an offensive coordinator at Stanford, held the same title under Urban Meyer at Utah, and coordinated the Louisville offense, all of which wrapped around a tough five-year stretch as head coach at UNLV.
As Sanford Sr. eases into the home stretch of his coaching career as head coach at Division II Indiana State, he just took a 1-11 Sycamore program and turned it into an eight-game winner in 2014.
“Being a coach’s son, you’re constantly around coaches and listening to how coaches talk to each other and talk to players and handle themselves,” Yeoman said. “Mike (Jr.) has been around that his whole life.
“Sometimes guys go on and play high school, college and maybe play in the NFL, but Mike has been around the game beyond his own playing experiences his whole life, at home as well as watching his dad work at practice and games. He’s got a lot of insight.”
A Boise State graduate where he played quarterback from 2000-04, Sanford Jr., served as a graduate assistant for his father at UNLV, and then landed an offensive assistant’s spot at Stanford (2007-08). He then went to Yale as tight ends/fullbacks coach while getting his first recruiting coordinator’s shot at the tender age of 26.
Sanford Jr., moved up to quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator at Western Kentucky, and then moved on to Stanford where he coached quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers, and eventually became the Cardinal’s recruiting coordinator. In 2013 as quarterbacks coach, Sanford Jr., instructed Kevin Hogan, who was 21st in the country in passing efficiency.
Following his aforementioned success in his first year as offensive coordinator at Boise State – which included a 38-30 victory over Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl in which the Broncos totaled 471 yards, and Ajayi carried 22 times for 134 yards and three touchdowns -- Meyer came calling at Ohio State, as did Oregon State and Vanderbilt.
But it’s at Notre Dame where Sanford Jr., will be putting his offensive lessons learned along the way into play.
“He’s been on the West Coast for so long it’s hard to see him on TV, but you see the success that he’s had offensively, and that’s impressive,” Yeoman said. “I know he was a real personable kid when he played for us, spoke extremely well, and was a pretty heady young man.
“As a high school coach, I’m a little more of an X and O guy, so I can’t speak to the best recruiters in the country. But I know he’s well prepared for any recruiting issues that come up. That’s a tough, key part of the job, and watching what they did offensively last year at Boise State, that was impressive.”