Notre Dame football offense gets a meaningful makeover
SOUTH BEND — Ultimately, it didn’t turn out to be as much of a grand unveiling of the final two pieces of Brian Kelly’s revamped coaching staff as it did a revelation about the redirection of the Notre Dame offense.
And just how much the fifth-year Irish football coach’s fingerprints will be all over it.
It’s not that newly promoted offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock and recently anointed quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur, both introduced to the media Friday at a press conference, will be bystanders in the retro-look makeover. But it’s clearly Kelly’s vision in the middle of it all.
“If you've watched Coach Kelly's offenses in the past, I think they encompass an offense that's more in an attacking style,” Denbrock said. “He likes to go fast. He likes to keep the defense on their heels. He likes to be very aggressive with what he does, and I think that's the direction we're certainly moving into.
“With the athletes that we have, we feel like we're in a position offensively to push the tempo more and to put our playmakers in positions where they can make big plays and do the things that all of us hope our offense looks like, one that's dynamic and can score more points and move the football consistently.”
Kelly’s offenses have consistently been more productive at his other coaching stops than in his first four seasons at Notre Dame. At Grand Valley State, Kelly’s first uptempo, spread offense team averaged more than 50 points a game in 2001 and played for a Division II national championship. The next two seasons they won titles and continued to obliterate school records.
The ensuing three seasons at Central Michigan (2004-06) — two of which counted LaFleur as a member of the offensive staff — the Chippewas incrementally improved offensively to the point they ranked 23rd nationally in scoring offense, 32nd in total offense and 29th in pass efficiency in Kelly’s final season there. Notre Dame hasn’t come anywhere close to those rankings under Kelly, even with the resources to have better run/pass balance and better variety of personnel (namely elite tight ends).
Two of Kelly’s three Cincinnati teams finished in the top 16 nationally in scoring and in the top eight in passing efficiency. ND’s numbers this past season? A national ranking of 74th in scoring and 56th in passing efficiency with an experienced, mentally tough, unselfish quarterback in graduating senior Tommy Rees.
But not one that ever really fit what Kelly wanted to do offensively.
“We’ve been driven behind the tackles for the last couple of years,” Kelly said. “We’d like to be a little more dynamic outside the pocket.”
And Kelly believes since he knows that version of the offense best, it’s best that he take the lead for now.
Denbrock will still map out the game plans and handle the day-to-day duties of putting Kelly’s vision into motion. But Kelly will go back to calling offensive plays on Saturdays.
LaFleur — a Mt. Pleasant, Mich., native who outed himself Friday as a former University of Michigan fan — will handle the day-to-day coaching of formerly exiled junior quarterback Everett Golson, redshirted freshman Malik Zaire, and soon-to-be signed prospect DeShone Kizer.
But again, Kelly will have a presence in the QB meeting room.
“I’ll be there as a resource,” he said. “It’s important that you’re always communicating with the quarterbacks, so they know what I’m thinking as well.”
And what he’s thinking now, predictably, four and a half weeks before the start of spring practice on March 3, is that he wants returned-from-exile Golson to feel the pinch of competition, real or embellished.
“Physically he's put on a lot of weight. (He is) stronger, more mature, something that we would expect,” Kelly said of Golson, his starter on the 2012 team that played for the national title but then was suspended for the 2013 season for academic misconduct.
“But it's Jan 31st, so there is a long way to go. I know we're always in this rush to move to Everett, but I just want to caution everybody that we have, I think, a very good quarterback in Malik Zaire as well. And I'm not ready to hand everything over to Everett.”
LaFleur, coaching QBs for the NFL’s Washington Redskins at the time, did have a chance to see Golson from a distance during the 2012 season, but hasn’t had a chance to seriously evaluate much more than his and Zaire’s demeanors and smiles to this point.
“Both these guys are coming in with a blank slate as far as I'm concerned,” he said. “I don't have history with either one of these guys, so I'm just excited to see what these guys are all about and watch them work and see how they compete, just kind of learn along the way.
“I try to get the most out of my players, how ever that would be. I think each guy learns a little bit different, and really ultimately you have to find out what makes each guy tick. That's what I'm going to try to do over these next few months, is really develop that relationship with these guys and find out how they perform (to) the best of their ability.”
And at the same time plug them into an offense that really neither of them is particularly familiar with and yet one that will continually be tweaked and honed as the Irish approach the Aug. 30 season opener with Rice.
“I've always considered my offense the ‘coast-to-coast’ offense,” Kelly said. “I've stolen great ideas from one coast to the other, and that's really what this is about. We look to find great ideas that can help our offense, and we will continue to do that. They (Denbrock and LaFleur) will bring in great ideas that will continue to strengthen what we do offensively.”
Kelly has filled two of his three graduate assistants slots, and with two names that may have a familiar ring to them.
Former Notre Dame safety Kyle McCarthy and Mike Hiestand, son of ND offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, have joined the staff.
McCarthy spent five seasons as a player at ND (2005-09), all under former head coach Charlie Weis. He was a starter in both 2008 and 2009. McCarthy spent parts of the past four seasons on NFL rosters (Broncos, Chiefs and Raiders).
Hiestand is a 2011 graduate of Illinois State. He had GA stints at Miami of Ohio in 2012 and Florida International last season.
The rumblings that Notre Dame would flip to a base 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder from its multiple 3-4 look of the past four years has been overstated per Kelly.
“We will operate out of our base, three-down,” Kelly insisted. “And my philosophy and Brian's has not changed. We're still going to be 50-50, and we've aired that out accordingly.
“Look, it's always going to be personnel-driven, relative to your defensive structures, but we're going to be both three-down and four- down.”
Of the handful of Notre Dame players recovering from injuries and/or surgeries this offseason, middle linebacker Jarrett Grace has been the most challenged.
The junior started three games last season and played in six before suffering a broken leg against Arizona State in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 5, which ended his season.
“He broke that bone in four places, so that is a little bit slower in developing,” Kelly said, “but he's making progress there with what was a very complicated fracture.”
-- Two players well ahead of expectations are outside linebacker Ben Councell (shoulder) and center Nick Martin (shoulder), the latter of who was a starter in 2013.
“If they walked through here right now, you would not know they had surgery,” Kelly said.
-- Safety Nicky Baratti (shoulder) hasn’t been cleared for contact for the spring yet, even though Kelly said the sophomore would likely be cleared to play if there were an actual game scheduled. If Baratti is given extra rest, it would be a precautionary measure.
-- Redshirted freshman linebacker Doug Randolph (shoulder) is ready for contact in the spring as is junior defensive end Chase Hounshell (shoulder), Kelly said.
-- Junior Tony Springmann, a candidate to get significant playing time at nose guard in 2014 if healthy, has made a turn for the better in his long recovery from preseason knee surgery. He still hasn’t been cleared for spring practice, but at least it’s a possibility now.
An infection in the fall set back Springmann’s recovery and rehab.
“It's much better.” Kelly said. “He's moving around quite well, and we will see where it moves, but we're hoping that we're going to get a lot out of him moving forward.”