SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – It took DeShone Kizer and Will Fuller less than 15 minutes Monday to unwind a mystery Brian Kelly had spent all year curiously constructing.
It started simply, Fuller asked about the edge coordinator Mike Sanford had brought to Notre Dame’s offense. Then the receiver detailed how Sanford called plays during Notre Dame’s final practice before Christmas break, a change from the advertised collaborative among Sanford, Kelly and associate head coach Mike Denbrock.
“(Sanford) was calling plays, a lot of double moves, a lot of deep down the middle throws, just right off the jump,” Fuller said. “I liked it.
“Coach Denbrock can be a little conservative sometimes.”
Fuller added that Denbrock can get plenty direct on Saturdays, although Kizer suggested that was Sanford’s influence coming through the call sheet. And Notre Dame has been aggressive, producing 7.13 yards per play, 34.8 points and 215.2 rushing yards per game, all high marks of the Kelly era.
“I see the success that he had at Boise and every time he calls plays he’s gonna take shots on you,” Kizer said. “He’s not gonna accept a four-yard out cut. He wants to double move you, he wants to go vertical. That mindset is what changed us to a more explosive offense throughout the season.
“Now, he’s not out there calling the plays (in games), but he is game planning and he is putting together things that allow us to go down the field with guys as talented as Will Fuller.”
In other words, Denbrock calls the plays, Sanford helps craft the call sheet and Kelly oversees the entire operation. While the public misdirection about who’s doing what can get awkward – Notre Dame put forward Denbrock and Sanford on Monday for media availability when the Fiesta Bowl mandated the offensive coordinator show – there’s no debating it’s worked.
And this week is a reminder it almost never happened.
Sanford could have still been at the Fiesta Bowl this week, but as Ohio State’s quarterbacks coach. When Urban Meyer lost Tom Herman to Houston last winter, he reached out of Sanford, who’d just finished his first year at Boise State, his alma mater, as offensive coordinator.
Sanford wasn’t looking to leave and a source told Irish Illustrated no firm offer was made, with Ohio State’s offensive coordinator post going to former Notre Dame assistant Ed Warinner. Instead, Meyer hired Tim Beck and the Buckeyes never got a grip on their three-headed quarterback monster. Meanwhile, Sanford turned Kizer into a revelation after Malik Zaire’s broken ankle at Virginia.
Regardless of how serious Ohio State and Notre Dame got with Sanford last off-season, he could make an educated decision on both. Father Mike Sanford Sr. and Meyer were both former Irish assistants, and Sanford Sr. served as Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Utah. So when Meyer came calling, Sanford had to listen.
“Yeah, there were conversations. Absolutely,” Sanford said. “It was a great opportunity and on both sides of the spectrum it just wasn't the right fit from a people standpoint.”
Notre Dame has proven to be exactly that for Sanford while working under Kelly and Denbrock. While there’s no question the 33-year old assistant is on the fast track for a head job, he’s in no hurry to walk away from the good thing he’s helped build at Notre Dame.
After watching Everett Golson go away, Zaire go down and Kizer step up, Sanford should return one of college football’s most competent quarterback depth charts next spring with Zaire, Kizer and Brandon Wimbush. Sanford said he’s already started thinking ahead to that competition, one where the only sure winner is Notre Dame’s offense.
“The most important thing in any offense if you look at the National Football League and the top teams in college football, when your quarterback is right, your team is right,” Sanford said. “By far that’s the position I enjoy coaching the most and it’s a complex position. There’s so much to that position just beyond the X’s and O’s and the physical development.”
Sanford has thrived in those intangible areas all season.
Regardless of whether he’s calling plays or not, Notre Dame has been better for it.