Mike Denbrock's absence is first litmus test for Notre Dame football

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Part of the charm of relocating the first five practices of fall camp to Culver., Ind., in Brian Kelly’s mind, was the opportunity to throw a few curveballs at his Notre Dame football team and see whether it congealed them or created fissures.

He may have delivered the most challenging one Sunday night, before the team even left for the Culver Academies campus. This one, though, wasn’t part of the plan.

Offensive coordinator/receivers coach Mike Denbrock won’t be with the team when Kelly, ND’s fifth-year head coach, revs up the decibels at 11 a.m. Monday an hour south of South Bend for the start of training camp.

Kelly released a statement late Sunday afternoon explaining that the 50-year-old Irish assistant would miss actually the first few weeks of preseason prep while recovering from an undisclosed surgical procedure performed last week.

“Mike is doing extremely well,” Kelly said, “and everyone associated with the program looks forward to his return.”

The presumption is that Denbrock would return on or before the last week of August, when the 17th-ranked Irish hone in on their season-opening opponent, Rice. Those two teams clash on Aug. 30 in the first game played in Notre Dame Stadium on artificial turf.

But there are no guarantees, even with all the advances in medical science, that the presumption will stick.

“I’m resting and feeling better every day, but I won’t be able to join the team for the beginning of preseason camp,” Denbrock said in the statement. “Safe to say, I’m already champing at the bit to get back with the guys.”

So what does that mean in the interim?

Kelly becomes the offensive CEO AND a position coach until Denbrock comes back.

Synching up afterward won’t be a problem. Even, though Denbrock is in his first year as ND’s offensive coordinator, he’s been on the staff since early 2010, shortly after Kelly’s coronation. His resumé also includes previous stints as both Kelly’s offensive and defensive coordinator in the 1990s, when the two coached together at Grand Valley State.

Before that, they were roommates at GVS in their ramen noodle days as grad assistants with tiny compensation packages and big dreams.

“We know when each other’s going to turn left, when they’re going to turn right,” said Denbrock back in late December, a few weeks before ascending to his current post. “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.”

The reality of the moment, though, is ND is a man down, when the staff is re-installing the offense, looking for separation at the top of the quarterback depth chart, trying to round out a deep wide receiver rotation and penciling in the final starter in a talented offensive line group.

All along, the plan was for Kelly to call plays on game days this fall, but can he spend as much time with the quarterbacks leading up to the opener as he originally had planned? That answer will reveal itself in the coming days.

In the weeks and months before Denbrock’s surgery, heretofore reserve and reserved junior wide receiver Chris Brown surged with both the consistency of his play and, perhaps surprisingly, his ability to be a leader.

The Irish need more of that now that adversity has come knocking. Sounds like an opening for reinstated academic casualty DaVaris Daniels to make an impact?

Culver, like Camp Shiloh last August, is designed to foster team-building, but team chemistry can’t be forced or faked. Kelly won’t have to wait long this time to see how his team responds to its first real opportunity to grow together.

Eric Hansen: 574-235-6112

Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame assistant coach Mike Denbrock will miss the first few weeks of preseason camp while recovering from a recent surgery. (SBT File Photo)