Denbrock makes sense as Kelly’s next move at Notre Dame


South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - By the time Brian Kelly is allowed to unveil his new defensive coordinator, at a 3 p.m. Tuesday press conference, the Notre Dame head football coach likely will know who his next offensive coordinator will be as well.

Not that a public announcement regarding the latter is imminent. Since the George O’Leary résumé flap roughly 12 years and a month ago, the vetting/human resource piece to ND athletic department hires is understandably protracted, painstaking — and even sometimes painful for those who follow ND football closely and emotionally.

In the 54-year-old Brian VanGorder’s case, it was 16 days between the time he reportedly agreed to leave his linebackers coaching job with the NFL’s New York Jets until Notre Dame unfurled the press release late Monday afternoon.

In the interim, his new world changed fairly significantly — ND’s top defensive player, end Stephon Tuitt, entered the NFL Draft; the Irish landed elite linebacker recruit Nyles Morgan; defensive line recruit Matt Dickerson decommitted; and ND got involved with a new batch of defensive line recruits, whom VanGorder will get his first chance to impress when the national recruiting dead period goes live on Thursday.

In that same time frame, Kelly has had plenty of time to ponder whether he wants to go inside or outside in naming former offensive coordinator Chuck Martin’s replacement.

When you consider what Kelly has both intimated and outright publicly stated what he wants in an offensive coordinator, the list of outside names that are bubbling up as possibly joining the Notre Dame staff should be for the next quarterbacks coach, not the next offensive coordinator.

On some level, none of them makes sense as OC — either for the individual, Notre Dame or both.

Unless, that is, in one particular instance, Kelly simply wants to match Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who recently hired former USC head coach Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator, for a weirdness factor.

Kelly isn’t likely to evoke either the weird or the wow factor with this hire, because the best fit looks, on the surface, like simply the path of least resistance.

In reality, it’s a home run in disguise. Current wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Mike Denbrock.

Here’s why. You start with Denbrock’s experience. He has coached every position on the offensive side of the ball. He knows not only what the pieces should look like but how they fit together.

He’s been an offensive coordinator and a defensive coordinator — and coached on both sides of the ball under Kelly before — in the 1990s at Division II power Grand Valley State.

“Really, the knowledge that I think that I gained from being on the defensive side for a period of time was really kind of invaluable,” Denbrock said a couple of days before he served as Kelly’s interim offensive coordinator in a 29-16 Pinstripe Bowl victory over Rutgers, Dec. 28 in New York.

“Having coached that yourself kind of lends itself to having insight into what (defense coordinators are) going to do and what the next move may be.”

Just who was calling the offensive plays against Rutgers was a topic Kelly never let himself get pinned down on, but both he and Denbrock hinted it was a collaboration.

The 29 points on a sloppy, slippery track against Rutgers was hardly prolific, but some of the numbers that came out of that game with Denbrock sharing the joystick were impressive.

•Like a season-high 90 offensive plays run, at an uptempo pace that Kelly wants to return to in 2014, really consistently for the first time since his last season at Cincinnati (2009). ND’s previous high in plays in 2013 was 75. In fact, the total in the Pinstripe Bowl constituted the most offensive plays snapped off in a regulation game in Kelly’s four seasons at ND. The Irish did run 104 in a triple-overtime win over Pitt in 2012, but only 87 of those plays were run in regulation.

•Like a season-high 16:32 positive differential in time of possession, and 494 total yards in offense — third most behind 543 vs. Temple and 506 against Navy.

•Like 175 rushing yards against a team that finished the season fourth nationally in rushing defense (100.8 yards allowed per game, 3.1 per carry).

•Like converting a fourth-down play after being 4-of-12 in that category during the regular season.

It’s a small sample size, but the same can’t be said of the chemistry the two coaches have had on and off through their careers, starting with them being roommates during their grad assistant days at Grand Valley State in the late ’80s.

“We know when each other’s going to turn left, when they’re going to turn right,” said Denbrock, who turns 50 in a couple of weeks. “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.”

Fitting together is underrated on a coaching staff. Kelly’s predecessor, Charlie Weis, said one of his most valuable — and painful — lessons learned at ND was understanding the value of staff chemistry when hiring assistant coaches.

At Notre Dame, it’s even more so a requisite rather than a luxury. Because of the many directions Kelly is pulled that have nothing to do with football, he needs to be able to trust the people in the leadership positions on his staff. He needs to trust that they can express and materialize his vision when he can’t do it himself, which is more often than you might think.

When they are in the same room, Denbrock’s calming, confident style will complement and balance Kelly’s intensity. When you put all the pieces together, they simply make each other better.

Add to that Kelly’s desire to run his own offense and run it his way. Kelly is open to new ideas, new tweaks, new wrinkles — which he should be, given that ND’s offenses all four seasons under him have labored as much as they’ve flowed.

But he’s not open to an overhaul. And Kelly doesn’t want to be challenged in every meeting and on every point. He also doesn’t want to do a lot of hand-holding.

Kelly is looking for someone who can build on his ideas, not deconstruct them.

“I think he trusts me and knows that everything that I do, I do with the idea of making Notre Dame football better,” Denbrock said. “And 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.”

Maybe it’s about to get better. Don’t be surprised if it does.

Will Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, left, name wide receivers' coach Mike Denbrock, right, his new offensive coordinator?  (Tribune file photo)