Notre Dame football - Denbrock brings ‘trust’ to equation

South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK - It’s not just the years, it’s the dreams they’ve shared along the way.

Which is why Mike Denbrock’s near-month-long interim run as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator has an audition feel to it, even though he and Irish head coach Brian Kelly both insist it’s not.

“I really look at it more as an opportunity to step into a role that needed filling, so our football team could come here and have success against Rutgers,” Denbrock said Thursday night from Yankee Stadium, where the 25th-ranked Irish (8-4) will take on the roughly two-touchdown underdog Scarlet Knights (6-6) in Saturday’s New Era Pinstripe Bowl (Noon EST; ESPN).

“That’s really all it is for me right now. We haven’t even broached or talked about any of that stuff that I know is out there and people are wondering about. We’ve kind of just concentrated on preparing these guys the best we can. I try to fill that void as much as I can, so that the kids can feel a sense of normalcy about the way we’re doing things and what we’re doing. So they can go out and play their best.”

Denbrock’s elevation to his maybe-temporary, maybe-vesting position came in the hours that followed then-offensive coordinator Chuck Martin’s departure to become the head coach at Miami of Ohio on Dec. 3. Denbrock is actually one of three coordinators in this bowl game wearing an interim tag.

Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco landed the UConn job days after Martin left, with cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks taking his place. Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood, meanwhile, on Dec. 8 purged his defensive coordinator, David Cohen, in the hours following Rutgers landing the invite opposite Notre Dame.

Cohen presided over the nation’s No. 4 rushing defense, but also a unit that was gashed for the most passing yards in school history this past season – 3,737. Cohen also was accused of bullying cornerback Jevon Tyree, who quit the team over the alleged abuse. Quarterbacks coach Rob Spence and offensive lineman Damian Wroblewski were also let go at the time that Flood fired Cohen.

Rutgers interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said Thursday night he didn’t expect to see Denbrock try to put his stamp on the Irish offense on Saturday.

“I’m fairly certain they’ll be running Brian Kelly’s offense,” he said.

But Denbrock, or whoever eventually lands the job, is such a critical piece in exhuming the firepower in Kelly’s offenses prior to arriving at Notre Dame. In four seasons under Kelly, ND has yet to produce a quarterback who finished in the top 50 in passing efficiency or an offense that landed in the top 40 in scoring.

And next year’s team figures to have to lean on its offense more than any other Kelly-coached team at ND, perhaps even if defensive end Stephon Tuitt decides to put off the NFL Draft for another year.

So what does Denbrock bring to the equation, however long it lasts?

“I think it’s the trust,” he said. “I think (Kelly) trusts me and knows that everything that I do I do with the idea of making Notre Dame football better. From my standpoint it’s a loyal friendship first and then a working relationship that has stood the test of time over a number of years and just the best possible situation that an assistant football coach could be in.”

Denbrock, at Division II power Grand Valley State a couple of decades ago, worked for Kelly on both sides of the ball. But their relationship and trust goes all the way back to 26 years ago, when the two graduate assistant coaches pooled expenses and moved in together to stretch their respective miniscule stipends.

“I don’t think either one of us did much cooking,” Denbrock said. “It was a lot of fast food.”

He did volunteer that Kelly had a pretty thick Boston accent at the time, a distinction that’s since seriously faded. But none of the other facets of their relationship has.

“We know when each other’s going to turn left, when they’re going to turn right,” Denbrock said. “We’re not fumbling. We’re not in each other’s way. We know how each other acts and coaches and deals with the kids on a day-to-day basis, so it’s been a real smooth transition going from what I’ve been doing to what I’m doing now.”

Giant-sized impression

Former Notre Dame standout and current New York Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck addressed the Irish after practice Thursday at the Giants’ practice facility in East Rutherford, N.J.

“That was awesome,” Denbrock said. “Those guys, obviously, they’ve watched Justin at the Super Bowl and have seen the great success that he’s had. They know he’s lived in the same dorms they have. They know he’s gone through the same things at Notre Dame that they’ve gone through.

“That voice — somebody in particular who has lived their life and been there, the things that they have to do every day — it really is a morale booster for the players, and they really take it to heart and really identify with what’s being said to them.”

ND numbers game

Kelly did some number crunching recently on the potential size of the current recruiting class and how the 10 players who had potential fifth-year options at season’s end work into the equation.

Kelly currently has 22 verbal commitments, including two players who plan to enroll early (wide receiver Justin Brent and defensive end Andrew Trumbetti). Because of that, Kelly said he could go as high as 27 players in the class that will sign national letters-of-intent in February.

“Whether we get to 27 or not, I don’t think we get to that number,” he said. “We could institutionally if we wanted to.”

As far as the fifth-years, nose guard Louis Nix has already declared for the NFL Draft, and three others – tight end Alex Welch, cornerback Lo Wood and quarterback Andrew Hendrix – have requested releases from their scholarships to pursue grad school-style transfers, which don’t come along with the normal one-year sitting-out period.

Kelly said he’ll also look at players who are potentially medical hardship cases, are struggling academically or haven’t conducted themselves to program standards when doing the scholarship math that must add up to 85.

“You better have a plan if you’re over,” Kelly said. “You can’t come into the season and run somebody out of the program, just because they’re not a good player. We’re not doing that here.”

Notre Dame assistant coach Mike Denbrock fields a question during media day on Aug. 22 at Notre Dame Stadium. SBT photo/JAMES BROSHER