Back in the Saddle

In the first of two tight-end related columns to be published today, IrishEyes reviews its conversation with the unit's new leader Mike Denbrock, a veteran coach ecstatic to return to Notre Dame.

New Irish tight ends coach Mike Denbrock barely recognized the streets and surrounding area of his former workplace as he arrived on campus for the first time in five years. Notre Dame's offensive tackle and tight ends coach from 2002-04, Denbrock was taken aback by the change in structure in his time away from South Bend.

"With the closing of (longtime campus thoroughfare) Juniper Road, and the new women's softball complex and the (LaBar Practice Complex) fields moved toward the's almost like a brand new place to me. (The Guglielmino Athletics Complex was not yet complete when Denbrock exited campus with the rest of Tyrone Willingham's staff following the '04 season).

"And this, this is unbelievable," Denbrock continued of the Naimoli Family Club Room inside the new Purcell Pavilion (the renovated Joyce Center). "This is a great asset and obviously nobody makes more of a commitment to making sure you have the resources that you need than the University of Notre Dame."

Denbrock, better than most currently affiliated with the Notre Dame football program, has an understanding of the demands, the expectations, and the necessity for a winner that perpetually exists at the school.

He also understands what it means to have a second opportunity to coach at a place like Notre Dame.

"Previously, my wife and I enjoyed the community and more importantly, enjoyed the mission of the University of Notre Dame and the leadership role they take nationally in developing students and student-athletes and the way they go about their business, is I think a perfect fit for our philosophy.


Denbrock inherits a tight end unit that should rank among the nation's best in 2010, due largely to the presence of junior Kyle Rudolph.

"I'm looking forward to getting to know these guys a little better as we get recruiting wrapped up and spend a little more time with them, but in terms of talent we're as good as anyone, especially with Kyle (Rudolph)," Denbrock stated.

Denbrock won't split his daily duties with the team's offensive tackles as he did in his previous stint with the program. He'll focus on the team's five current tight ends (Rudolph, Mike Ragone, Bobby Burger, Tyler Eifert, and Jake Golic) as well as with another (Cincinnati Elder's Alex Welch) expected to join the program on national signing day (February 3).

"I don't think it's a situation where we'll only use one or be in a situation where we don't use any," Denbrock responded when asked about the changing role of the tight end in the spread offense. "I just think what we'll do is really sit down, go through all of our personnel and we'll make sure we have the best guys on the field that we can have…that might be two tight ends; that might be one tight end; that might be three…it depends on the opponent and what type of scheme based on their abilities that we're going to end up implementing.

"One great thing about Coach Kelly's offense is that it's adaptable to different talents that guys bring to the table, so it makes it as versatile as it possible can be."

Though former head coach Charlie Weis and tight ends coach Bernie Parmalee helped develop two NFL tight ends in Anthony Fasano and John Carlson, as well as mold the early years of another top tier NFL prospect in Rudolph, the position's production level was top-heavy under Weis, as no backup tight end caught more than nine passes (Marcus Freeman) in a single season from 2005-09. And Freeman caught five of those nine balls in a starting role vs. USC, a game that Carlson missed at the end of the 2006 season.

"My message to them is ‘don't be ignored,' Denbrock said of his talented troops. "'Do your job well enough that we have to find a way to get you on the field.'"

In 2003, Denbrock's top three tight ends caught 47 passes for the Irish: Fasano 18, Jared Clark 15, and Billy Palmer 11. (The undervalued Palmer was a member of the Washington Redskins in 2005.) Last season, Brian Kelly's top three tight ends caught 49 passes (27, 12, 10) at Cincinnati.

"The spread offense that we're going to run and the offense that they're bringing with them from the University of Cincinnati is such that the tight end is attached (to the line) at times, but also detached (as a slot receiver) so some of the matchup things that we're going to be able to do with the tight end on linebackers and safeties require a little bit different approach than the offense that was run here in the past.

Assuming good health, the chief recipient of playing time and key to the position's 2010 production will again be Rudolph (who's actually well-versed as a detached receiver). Though neither Denbrock nor the new regime will award a minute of playing time to anyone based on past performance, Denbrock is well aware of everyone's projected starter at tight end.

"When you have a weapon like Kyle to work with, whether you're in a tight formation or spread out, you have to find a way to get the football in that guy's hands, and I think that's one thing that this offense does a great job of – utilizing the playmakers and making sure they touch the football.

"I'm excited for him and I know he's excited as can be, too."

Denbrock is equally excited to reunite with Brian Kelly, and believes Kelly is the ideal choice to lead the program into the next decade.

"I just think he's a great leader of men. He has a unique quality of communicating his message so everyone involved with the program, whether a player, a coach or a support person understands the message and the direction of the program.

"Working with Brian (at Grand Valley State from 1992-98) and knowing his value system and how closely it fits with mine and the University itself, I thought it was a natural fit."

A second opportunity to work under Kelly, coupled with a coaching situation in which his area of responsibility is replete with class-tiered talent has given Denbrock a head start on a second chance few coaches ever receive.

"I just feel so blessed, to be honest with you, to be here. And I'm not going to let you down."

Note: For a historical perspective regarding the tight end position at Notre Dame, please see our feature story: Tight End U which will be published early this afternoon. Top Stories