When Brian Kelly tabbed 33-year-old Mike Sanford in early-March to hold the title of offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, it summoned the infusion of a fresh set of ideas to an offense that had just reached its zenith.
After failing to reach a 30-points-per-game average from 2010-13, Kelly’s 2014 unit – with Mike Denbrock in his first season as offensive coordinator -- averaged 32.8 points per game and set regime highs in passing (285.5 ypg.) and total offense (444.9 ypg.).
So why the need for more offensive input? They say if you’re staying even, you’re falling behind.
“We played pretty solid offense last year barring the mishandling of the football, which is ridiculous,” said long-time Kelly assistant coach Mike Denbrock, who was elevated to associate head coach with the naming of Sanford as coordinator. “If you look at the way we played and some of the ways we were able to move the football on a consistent basis, (the 2014 performance) was a positive thing.
“But if you know one thing about Brian Kelly, he’s never going to change for the sake of change. And yet if there’s an opportunity that he feels is out there to improve the status of the football program or the staff or to put us in a better position for success, he’s going to take it.”
Sanford – the son of Mike Sanford the elder, who coached quarterbacks at Notre Dame from 1996-98 – attended high school locally during his father’s stint in South Bend. He grew up with stars in his eyes when it came to Notre Dame football. The idea of joining the Irish staff had considerable appeal.
So, too, did the title of offensive coordinator following his first year in that capacity at Boise State, his alma mater, where the Broncos were one of five FBS programs that ranked among the nation’s top 30 in all four major offensive categories in 2014.
When Kelly introduced Sanford the first week of March, he showered praise on the young offensive mind, claiming that he wanted “somebody that was going to turn the room upside down.”
Kelly was not talking about Sanford’s architectural skills, but rather, a fresh, progressive, dynamic approach to running a college football offense and calling plays.
The three-pronged brain trust is just a bit more than a week away from unveiling the new-and-improved offensive presentation, and yet some things haven’t changed. Kelly remains the likely play-caller come Sept. 5 against Texas; Denbrock remains the man Kelly trusts when they crawl into the foxhole together. Sanford occupies the third seat in that foxhole.
“It’s important that everybody understands that at the very beginning, Mike Denbrock is taking the entire offense and presenting it to the assistant coaches, and then they have to execute it,” Kelly said. “That is the practice organization, the installation, and the preparation work.”
Regardless of specific titles, Kelly’s description of Denbrock’s role is, in essence, what a coordinator of a college football offense does. There is no one on the staff that Kelly trusts more than Denbrock, who is in his 30th season of coaching, 14 of which have overlapped with the Irish head coach.
Kelly and Denbrock first hooked up in Allendale, Mich., in 1987 when both were graduate assistants for the Lakers. Within five years, Kelly ascended to head coach – at the age of 30 – and Denbrock became his quarterbacks/receivers coach.
Denbrock would eventually become Kelly’s defensive coordinator for three seasons before branching off into the college game with Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington under Tyrone Willingham. He made a one-year stop at Indiana State under another former Willingham assistant, Trent Miles, before returning for his second stint with Notre Dame/Kelly.
Kelly places great importance on his quarterbacks coach forming a bond with his personnel. That’s at least in part why he tabbed 34-year-old Matt LaFleur in 2014 and now a comparably-aged Sanford.
“I’ve got two guys that I’m going to lean on heavily on game day in Mike Sanford and Mike Denbrock,” Kelly said.
Denbrock has remained unaffected by the media hoopla surrounding the search for the exact roles of the Irish coaches. He’s always been a guy whose ego blends in with the landscape. His voice has one of the highest decibel levels on the practice field, but that’s merely to make sure what needs to be accomplished is achieved.
“I didn’t personally know Mike at all, but it took about five minutes to realize what an asset he would be to what we were doing,” said Denbrock of Sanford.
“He has experience and a good depth of knowledge of coaching the game of football. It was another piece of the puzzle we could add to make our overall football team better.”
Sanford’s fingerprints are on what Denbrock believes is Notre Dame’s new ability to play at several different tempos, a goal of Kelly’s since his arrival from the fast-paced attack offered at Cincinnati. Denbrock said the Irish can play offense at about five different speeds now.
Kelly also has cited Sanford for being in accord with him on “movement keys and progression reads,” which Kelly said the Irish lacked at times in 2014.
Kelly recently commented about a play he used in his early days at Cincinnati that popped upon on Sanford’s play sheet at Boise State a year ago.
“Everything we do offensively gets thrown against the wall,” Denbrock said. “We dissect it, analyze it, and tweak it. There have been ideas that Mike has brought to the offense that we’ve tweaked from the way they did it at Boise but fit better into what we’re doing now with our overall offensive scheme.
“There have been things that Coach Kelly has either talked about to a coach in the NFL or from another college team where we say, ‘Hey, I think this may be an improvement from what we’ve been doing,’ and I’ve kind of done the same thing.
“So it’s been a constant flow of information among the three of us to zero in and get ourselves in a position scheme-wise where we’re doing the best things for the players we have.”
But with the game on the line and when the moment of truth is at hand – when Kelly is seeking one final word of assurance – he’ll likely turn to his trusted confidante for the last say.
“Mike Denbrock sets the table for everything,” Kelly explained. “On a day-to-day basis, Mike Denbrock really takes the offense and presents it as I have set it for him, and then he runs with it.”
Come Sept. 5, Kelly, Denbrock and Sanford will be off and running, together, but in that order.