QBs coach LaFleur ready to step into the bright lights

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Matt LaFleur was supposed to be an interested bystander that week, or at the very least a non-distraction for his father, Denny.

The elder LaFleur, an assistant coach at Central Michigan University at the time, was busy teaching defensive fundamentals during the school’s week-long football summer camp for high school players when his heart began to sink, unable to locate his oldest son.

And just as quickly, panic turned to relief and then to pride.

He spotted Matt, then a middle school quarterback in Mount Pleasant, Mich., on the field with offensive players, throwing them passes and directing them down the field.

“Somehow, he got himself on a team without me knowing it,” Denny LaFleur recalled with a hearty laugh.

“He was out there playing quarterback with these older kids, and he wasn’t even enrolled in the camp. I just had to laugh and ask myself, ‘What is he doing out there?’ And then I knew the answer. Even back then, he wanted to make a difference.”

Two decades later, the same yearning to catalyze, along with Notre Dame fifth-year head coach Brian Kelly’s desire to reboot a stagnant dynamic at the quarterback position, has Matt LaFleur in college football’s bright lights.

It’s not quite a reinvention on Kelly’s part, but his offseason moves — which included installing LaFleur as ND’s full-time quarterbacks coach — are far from nuanced or subtle.

The missing piece in Kelly’s Notre Dame regime to date is the very thing that helped him climb on the coaching back roads to his current position — elite quarterback play. It’s also part of the metrics that run through almost every national championship team of the now-closed, 16-year BCS Era.

A robust national standing in total defense is still the predominant predictor, but an upper-echelon passing efficiency rating is also a necessary element.

Three of the past four national champions led the nation in that category. All but four of the 16 BCS Era titlists ranked in the top 15. None sunk below No. 37, the standing of LSU in 2007. Conversely, Kelly’s four ND teams have ranked 59th, 59th, 74th and 56th in passing efficiency.

Square-peg syndrome and, at times, inexperience at the position can account for some of that consistently mediocre range, but Kelly has committed to tag-teaming with LaFleur, sitting in on every QB meeting for instance, to evolve the position.

“Matt will have the autonomy of running those meetings;” Kelly said. “I will be there as a resource. It's important that you're always communicating with the quarterbacks, so they know what I'm thinking as well. But Matt will be in charge of developing those quarterbacks and having the day-to-day responsibilities of making sure that all of that information is passed on to them.”

But it’s more than communication. It’s fundamentals. It’s accessibility — LaFleur is ND’s third QBs coach in Kelly’s five years at ND but the first not to have to balance offensive coordinator duties along with that job.

It’s the infusion of new ideas and, at the same time, like-mindedness.

The latter isn’t totally surprising, given that LaFleur’s first job in coaching — after a one-year breaking-in at alma mater Saginaw Valley State — was a grad assistant gig for Kelly at Central Michigan a decade ago. LaFleur also played against Kelly’s powerhouse Grand Valley State teams when he was a quarterback at SVS.

When Denny LaFleur describes the young Brian Kelly who leaped from Division II Grand Valley State to Central Michigan in 2004, his overriding takeaway was how Kelly always coaxed the most out of his players, no matter what the talent level.

When he describes his own son’s coaching call card, he plays the same refrain.

It’s how they arrive at the bottom line that may differ. Kelly tends to be in-your-face, LaFleur more in your head.

“He’s very technique-conscious,” Denny said of Matt. “He’s footwork, fundamentals, those types of things. I think he can really relate to young adults. He gets to know them and finds out what makes them tick. And when he does, he not only gets them to work well above their abilities, he makes those players believe that they’re going to be better players.”

Indelibly, Denny was a coaching influence on Matt and his younger brother Mike, the latter of whom just jumped from an assistant’s job at FCS’ Davidson College to an offensive internship in Johnny Manziel’s world with the Cleveland Browns.

But Denny, a standout linebacker on Central Michigan’s 1974 national championship team (playing then in NCAA Division II), said his impression on Matt had nothing to do with X’s and O’s.

“I’m not even on the same page as either Matt or Mike,” said Denny, now a middle school Phys Ed teacher in Mount Pleasant and assistant coach with the high school football team in town.

“I can’t even read his offensive notebook. But when Matt and Mike get together, it’s like a clinic. It’s philosophy. It’s terminology. It’s everything. I just listen and say, ‘Oh my God.’ But I’d like to think that if I started talking defense with them that I could screw them up, too.”

Denny’s legacy with his two quarterback and offensive-minded sons is his passion. That’s goes double for Matt and Mike’s mother, Kristi, a high school Phys Ed teacher in Mount Pleasant, and a former competitive cheer coach and a current girls track coach. She too came from a football coaching family.

“When the kids went to college and decided to major in Phys Ed, we kind of knew the coaching thing was coming,” Denny said.

Denny himself coached for two decades at Central Michigan, his long run starting when Tyrone Willingham was hired away to take an assistant’s job at his alma mater, Michigan State. Willingham would later serve as the head coach at Notre Dame for three years (2002-04).

The elder LaFleur was purged after the 1999 season, when the school let go head coach Dick Flynn. A miserable four-year stint by Mike DeBord (12-34) followed and eventually opened the door for Kelly to walk in and rebuild.

Matt LaFleur was there too for the launching. He showed up for what he thought would be an job interview, all dressed up and with a portfolio and a DVD to show Kelly what he could do. Kelly simply told him to get admitted to grad school and to get to work.

When he did get to work, he helped mold an up-and-coming QB talent, Dan LeFevour, a former draft pick of the Chicago Bears who was still playing professionally as of last season, with the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

As the 34-year-old LaFleur eyes the job ahead of him this fall, he sees a blank slate when he looks at the three scholarship quarterbacks — senior Everett Golson, sophomore Malik Zaire and freshman DeShone Kizer. And in one sense, he’s being quite literal.

None of them took a live snap for ND last season. Golson was in academic exile, Zaire fermenting as a redshirt and Kizer still racking up wins for Toledo (Ohio) Central Catholic High School. The only glimpses LaFleur had of any of them until walking in the door last January was passing snippets of Golson playing during ND’s 2012 run to the national title game.

LaFleur was the Washington Redskins’ QB coach at the time, and his Saturdays were so full of his own obligations, his glances at Notre Dame games were too casual and too scattered to leave a lasting impression.

“I didn’t sit down and study it,” he said.

But he did circle back to the film when he arrived at Notre Dame to watch cutups from those 2012 games, primarily to see what put Golson in a comfort zone.

“I want to do what they (the quarterbacks) are comfortable with, because I ultimately know they’re going to have more success doing it,” LaFleur said. “But it’s got to be consistent. If you watch Malik’s drops and Everett’s drops, each one of them has a different drop. But as long as the timing element’s the same, I’m good with it.

“What I’ve learned in my coaching career is everybody’s a little bit different. When you study quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers does it different than Tom Brady, but they both do it at a high level. And whatever you do, you better be consistent with it, and so I‘ve kind of given a little bit of freedom in that regard.”

Occasionally, LaFleur will show his ND quarterbacks film clips of Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor who followed a celebrated rookie season in 2012 with a physical and statistical plummet in 2013.

Those close to the situation say LaFleur actually mitigated a loud and public fallout between eventually purged Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan and his falling star, rather than contributing to it.

“He has a good relationship with Robert, a good relationship with (backup) Kirk Cousins,” a source close to the team said. “(LaFleur) is really a hard-working guy, a genuine guy, a guy who spent a lot of time in film study trying to get himself better and help those quarterbacks to get better. That’s what Notre Dame is going to get.

“He can tell the young quarterbacks he coaches what it takes to get to the NFL, because he knows first-hand what it takes.”

Intangibles and leadership, LaFleur says. are part of what goes into that formula.

“You’ve got to take charge,” he said. “You’ve got to be accountable, No. 1, for yourself and you can’t expect anybody to follow you if you’re not taking that accountability and being that dependable teammate.”

Denny LaFleur can’t wait to watch it all unfold this fall. It takes on a little more special meaning because of his own near miss with Notre Dame during his coaching career.

“I believe it was in the early ‘90s, our secretary came running into my office one day and said, ‘Lou Holtz is on the phone.’ I thought it had to be a prank.

“But I had heard him speak at clinics, and I don’t want to be negative, but I did recognize the lisp. What kept running through my mind was, ‘How did he get my name?’ ”

Holtz had an opening on his staff for a defensive assistant. And after the two men talked briefly, Holtz asked to speak to Denny LaFleur’s boss,. Herb Deromedi.

“Herb was like, ‘You better clean up your résumé. You’re probably going to get an interview.’ Bur the only thing I got was a nice thank you letter for my time. Sometimes in this business, you just need one break.

“I’m just happy Matt got his. And I have no doubt he knows how to make the best of it.”

A coaching career that included two years at Central Michigan with Brian Kelly now finds Matt LaFleur at Notre Dame. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)