The Ever-Evolving Notre Dame Offense

Associate head coach Mike Denbrock is buoyed by myriad options for the 2015 Irish offense -- and encouraged by one necessary trait that manifested the last time they competed between the lines.

In the beginning, they went up-tempo (and lost), then downshifted out of necessity (and won).

They've since traveled a season in which they switched quarterbacks, first from season-opener to season's end in 2011 (and faired poorly), then from game-to-game and seemingly drive-to-drive in 2012 (and reached the title game as a direct result).

They've featured two tight ends (Tyler Eifert/Troy Niklas; Niklas/Ben Koyack) and conversely nearly exhausted one to the tune of an absurd 1,000-plus snaps (Koyack last fall). And along the way they've found room for every conceivable stature of wide receiver (from Michael Floyd, to T.J. Jones, to Will Fuller) to thrive as a playmaker in between.

They are the Notre Dame Fighting Irish under head coach Brian Kelly. And as the squad breaks for Easter at the midpoint of spring ball 2015, the only certainty agreed upon to date is that the program's offensive evolution will continue.

And, according to Mike Denbrock, that the preferred approach offensively was achieved the last time the Irish played a football game.

"It's the way Notre Dame should play football every Saturday," said Denbrock who's served as either a passing game or offensive coordinator for Kelly in each of the last four seasons. "Line up, (display) physicality, leaning on the big boys up front to create space for the running backs and get the ball in space to some skilled receivers that can make some plays.

"Playing sound, fundamental football. When I think of Notre Dame football, that's what I think of and that's what we're trying to get to."

Just not exclusively.

"I think it's a beginning," Denbrock said when asked if a 31-28 Music City Bowl win over LSU is the template. "I wouldn't pigeon-hole it into saying every game is going to look like the LSU game, but 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, we're going to match ourselves up and we're going to see what good can come of it."

That annual goal could become a reality because since the arrival of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand prior to the 2012 season, the Irish have recruited to that end.

"Coach Hiestand has done a phenomenal job of zeroing in on the top offensive line prospects that we can get our hands on, and then getting those kids here." said Denbrock. "It's time for those guys to really blossom and be the strength of our offense and if that's the case, we're going to be hard to stop, because we have a lot of guys around them that can make plays with the ball.

"We've made a concerted effort over the course of the last three years to make sure we were recruiting the best of the best along the offensive line and talking them into coming and being part of what we're doing. Based off of that mentality of how we want to play the game up front."

AND AT THE CONTROLS?
With six potential starters (left guard remains a competition), Notre Dame's starting quintet will showcase five players between six-feet-four and six-feet-seven and between 300 and 325 pounds. But the massive, physical front does not yet know which triggerman it will be charged with protecting.

Nor will they likely before semester's end.

"I don't know that it necessarily matters. It'd be great if one would separate and you had a no-brainer decision," said Denbrock of the ongoing competition between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire under center. "But they're both doing such good things in practice at times that it's going to be a hard decision to make. Obviously that's going to be made by Coach Kelly in time in the best interest of the program.

"I don't know that defining it is critical at this juncture of the year," Denbrock continued. "I think the players on offense have confidence in both kids and are happy for the success of both of them at the same time. I don't think it's necessarily anything that would drive a wedge in our offense or our football team in general. There's enough confidence in what both of those guys can do that whatever decision is made we're going to rally around that guy and get ready to go."

The decision, it would seem, would impact the modus operandi of the 2015 offense.

"You always have to play to your players' strengths. All of us would agree that Malik is a little bit better runner and Everett is a little bit better thrower, but both are fully capable of doing both," said Denbrock. "So yeah, there would be some adjustments made. I think you saw that in the LSU game, it was tailored toward strengths of the individual more than a blanket philosophy on attacking LSU. That will always be part of it and part of the thought process.

"We hope to accentuate the strengths of both, but where they need work, turn those (deficiencies) into strengths as well, so we don't have to do as much that (tailoring to the individual)."

Asked if the offense could feature both, presuming the pair continues to improve but no true separation exists, Denbrock understandably deferred to his boss -- while letting a personal preference slip.

"That's Coach Kelly's decision to make," he said. "I can't have an opinion on that to be honest, but I don't think it would be a bad thing (if both quarterbacks played). We'll see how it plays out. Hopefully there'll be a clear, defined winner and we can build our system around it."

And if history is the Irish fans' guide, be prepared for myriad in-season adjustments thereafter.

 

 


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