BEAVERTON, Ore. - Mike Sanford is building a stronger reputation in the quarterback world with each passing prospect.
Years as a quarterbacks coach with stops at Stanford (twice), Western Kentucky and Boise State helped set a foundation for success. Sanford has since expanded on it at Notre Dame, where he’ll enter his second year as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator this fall.
Notre Dame’s reach with upcoming quarterback prospects is national. That’s offered Sanford an even bigger platform from which to teach the position.
Plenty of the nation’s top quarterbacks have taken notice, even those that committed elsewhere. Turns out, Avery Davis and Phil Jurkovec aren’t the only quarterbacks who like how Sanford teaches the position.
“He’s a great guy and he’s a really exciting recruiter,” said Sean Clifford, a Penn State commitment and Elite 11 finalist. “He got me excited about Notre Dame. It wasn’t the fit, obviously. But he’s a great coach. I looked into him a lot. I was excited about him when I was looking there. He’s done a really good job.”
Clifford, a four-star prospect that attends St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, was on the Notre Dame radar early in his recruitment. He landed offers from several major programs but never the Irish before choosing Penn State last July.
Four-star Hunter Johnson, another Elite 11 finalist, got to know Sanford even better.
Johnson, who’s from Brownsburg, Ind., was the first quarterback Notre Dame offered in the Class of 2017. Sanford and Brian Kelly hosted Johnson and his family on multiple occasions and for Irish Invasion last summer, working him out in person. Johnson did plenty of homework on Sanford along the way, past stops included.
“He’s a great coach,” said Johnson, who eventually chose Tennessee before flipping to his current Clemson pledge. “Great coach, one of my favorite coaches going throughout my recruitment process. I liked Notre Dame. I just really didn’t feel like it was the place for me. I’m very, very happy where I’m at with Clemson. Coach (Brandon) Streeter I think is very similar. He’s awesome. It’s a great fit.”
Sanford also represents a recruiting paradox.
More than ever, prospects are researching programs not only for their head coach but also the coordinators and position coaches. Perhaps no position exemplifies this shift toward detailed background checks like quarterback.
System and fit are paramount at the most important position in all of sports. Johnson learned much about Sanford’s success at Boise State and Stanford. Johnson also knew that upward trajectory could very well take Sanford away from Notre Dame before long.
Johnson saw the hallmarks of a young coach rising up the ranks. He also wasn’t sure what to make of it while trying to think of his own playing career over the next half decade.
“That was one of the things with coach (Sanford),” Johnson said. “He’s such a great coach, young coach. I was thinking he might have the chance to go to the next level. With coach Streeter, because he played at Clemson, I feel really strongly that he’ll be there for my career.”
In the end, Johnson could still be wrong.
Sanford might end up at Notre Dame for longer than expected. Streeter could be off to another job sooner than later. Predicting the lifespan of an assistant coach in college football at a particular program is next to impossible.
Clifford experienced this firsthand: Joe Moorhead is the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Penn State after a staff shakeup in Happy Valley. Ricky Rahne spent two years working with the quarterbacks and is now tight ends coach while retaining his title as passing game coordinator.
Moorhead came from the Football Championship Subdivision, where he led Fordham to 38 wins and three playoff appearances during four seasons while running an up-tempo offense.
During his recruitment, Clifford researched all kinds of quarterbacks coaches and coordinators. He had to do it all over again when Penn State hired Moorhead, even as a longtime commitment.
“I think it was a lot of my process,” Clifford said. “With the switch between, for my situation at Penn State, from coach Rahne to coach Moorhead, I’m not saying I was gonna de-commit or do anything like that. But you’ve gotta get to know the new guy. Especially being new to the program, he was definitely someone I had to get to know.”
So, therein lies a delicate balance.
Quarterback prospects need to get to know their potential position coaches while also realizing there’s a possibility they’ll be gone before they sign. Prospects also need to get that research done in a hurry, even if later on it’s moot.
Scholarship offers go out early to quarterbacks. Notre Dame already has Davis (2017) and Jurkovec (2018) committed with an offer out to J.T. Daniels, a rising sophomore in the Class of 2019. Daniels started for Mater Dei, a California powerhouse, as a freshman.
Clifford has been committed to Penn State since last summer. Johnson has been committed to Clemson since the winter. Spots are at a premium, especially at top tier programs.
“Definitely with quarterbacks, schools usually only take one,” Johnson said. “Two at max. You wanna be very deliberate and looking at schools hard because some guy might commit before you and you can’t go there anymore. It’s just part of it.”
Sanford is just one example across a vast college football landscape. Could he stay at Notre Dame into the distant future? Sure. But it’s more likely he lands a head coach job elsewhere sooner than later, especially since he’s already been considered a candidate for some.
Prospects can put their faith in a coach. And they’d better believe that assistant’s potential replacement won’t be a downgrade.
“I think you take them at face value because you know he’s gonna do great things,” Clifford said. “Even with Notre Dame being a great program like that, if coach Sanford were to leave there would be a new guy that’s just the same.”