Notre Dame coaching overhaul may redefine Brian Kelly

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The easy move for Brian Kelly would have been to stay in his comfort zone.

The sixth-year Notre Dame head football coach opted instead for a revolution of sorts, at least on paper, especially when it comes to the part of his own skill set in which he invests most of his time, resources and reputation: Managing the offense and developing quarterbacks.

New offensive coordinator/QBs coach Mike Sanford, 33, is just one of a plethora of coaching/staff additions and reassignments Kelly made official at a Monday press conference on campus, but the one that carries the most potential of redefining Kelly himself.

“We were looking for somebody that could turn the room upside down,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s history as a head coach is full of more rhetorical makeovers than actual ones. And the fact he professes to be undecided over who will call offensive plays in the fall perhaps falsely hints that there’s more bluster than substance in where all this is headed.

But the one time in his head coaching career that Kelly did turn the room upside down, on himself no less, was between the 2000 and 2001 seasons at Grand Valley State. That shake-up — specifically an offensive makeover — turned a 7-4 team into one that went 41-2 over the next three seasons, with two NCAA Division II national titles and a runner-up finish.

Recently deposed University at Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn was Kelly’s co-conspirator on offense in that era and for much of Kelly’s head coaching career until the latter moved to ND.

There were rumblings, and actually some errant media reports, that Quinn was to be part of the group that was introduced Monday, which included running backs coach Autry Denson, defensive backs coach Todd Lyght and defensive line coach Keith Gilmore.

Instead, Kelly and Mike Denbrock — the latter promoted from offensive coordinator to associate head coach and a big part of the offensive collaboration moving forward — opted for Sanford. The former Penn High School backup QB was embarking on his college career at Boise State when Kelly was shaking up Division II with his offensive pyrotechnics.

“We're not bringing in a new offensive structure relative to terminology,” Kelly said. “What we're doing is we're bringing in more ideas. Mike Denbrock will oversee that. We'll put in what we think can make us more efficient, more dynamic, and at the end of the day be a better offense than we were last year.”

Sanford’s philosophical influences, in a 10-year-career that started as a grad assistant coach for his dad (Mike) at UNLV and include a season as an offensive coordinator (last season at Boise State), have a wide and varied range he is open to tapping into — and more importantly, Kelly and Denbrock are too.

“Mike Denbrock and I had a number of conversations,” Kelly said. “ ‘Do we go this direction? Do we go this direction?’

“As we got a chance to really think about it, we've been at it a long time, and I think we came to the agreement that we're going to get somebody in here that it's going to keep us on our toes, is going to bring that room up to a level that is going to create such synergy and energy on a day‑to‑day basis that it's going to make everybody better.”

And at the top of the list is making the quarterbacks better.

Sanford walks into a situation in which incumbent Everett Golson went from Heisman Trophy mention to job time-share over a turnover-filled second half of the season.

The senior with a fifth-year option has an escape hatch, as a grad school-style transfer, should the situation regress this spring, though Golson has never suggested he’s pondered potential landing spots.

Sophomore Malik Zaire carries the momentum of winning the MVP of the Music City Bowl last December in his first collegiate start, a 31-28 Irish upset win, in which he and Golson faced the nation’s No. 1 pass-efficiency defense.

“I want those guys to go out there and be the best versions of themselves and let the chips fall where they may,” Sanford said of the two at the top of the depth chart, as well as redshirted freshman DeShone Kizer and incoming prodigy Brandon Wimbush.

“Compete against yourself. See how high your ceiling can be, and that’s going to be our intent every day, myself included.”

Sanford has already met one-on-one with all the QBs and scout-teamer Montgomery VanGorder, and has pored through film of Golson’s 2014 season and what little Zaire got on the field.

“The biggest thing I’m excited about is those fundamental improvements that we can find,” he said of the QBs. “There’s technique that we can enhance. There’s footwork that we can enhance, and we’re already in the process of doing that.

“I really believe that the quarterback is built from the ground up and he’s only as good as his base and his footwork are, and that’s one thing that’s going to be a huge emphasis of ours in the spring.”

Gilmore, meanwhile, will be charged with getting a largely green defensive line group to complement senior-to-be Sheldon Day rather than be carried by him.

Mike Elston moves from defensive line, where he’s spent the past five years, to linebackers and adds the title of recruiting coordinator.

“Mike brings an attention to detail, a vision for what it takes to communicate to today's kids out there that are being recruited,” Kelly said, “whether it be through the social media aspects or simply finding the right buttons to push when it comes to recruiting.

“Great recruiters today have to have something to recruit to, first and foremost, but they also have to be able to connect. Mike has done a great job since he's been here. He's arguably been our best recruiter day in and day out. If you just look at our roster, it's proven that to be the case.”

Bob Elliott, who coached safeties for two seasons then outside linebackers in 2014 at ND, moves into an administrative position titled “special assistant to the head football coach.”

“Everything from researching some of the current trends in option football, to analytics, to roster management, to our bridge program in the summer,” Kelly detailed.

And while Elliott won’t be an on-field coach on game day, Kelly is excited about having him as a resource to tap into during the week.

The same goes for former Irish QB Ron Powlus, who returns in an administrative role as director of player development.

He, Denson, Lyght and newly named grad assistant Maurice Crum not only give the staff much more of an ND flavor than at any time in the recent past, they are four coaching/administrative pieces that bring star power from their playing days.

“It does get your attention, I will tell you,” Kelly admitted.

But it’s only part of the picture, he emphasized. Kelly said Denson’s ND connection was what got him the interview, but that it wasn’t going to land him the job.

“I really didn't think I was going to hire him, quite honestly, until he interviewed,” Kelly said. “He blew me away in the interview. We had a long list of guys that we had ready to interview. We called them up and said that we found our running back coach in Autry Denson.

“They’re all good people,” Kelly said of the newcomers with ND connections. “I want to be around good people.”

Denbrock’s increased role/responsibility may have been the most overlooked detail on the day by everyone but Kelly.

“It can't be just being a good soldier,” he said. “That isn't what this is about. This is about being part of what we want to achieve on offense. Mike is more than that.”

Which coaxes the question of who will Kelly be in the weeks and months ahead. For the first time since stepping into Charlie Weis’ worn path in December of 2009, the trail of tweaks, good intentions and hope for evolution may lead to significant change, if not improvement.

“It’s a collaborative approach to it, no egos,” Kelly said. “Best idea wins is the philosophy that we have really used as our mantra for the offensive side of the ball. I just want to be part of the solution.

“I don't have to be the play-caller. I don't have to be the quarterback coach. I've hired people to do all those jobs. If it means at the end of the day I don't have to be involved in that, but that puts us in a better position, I'm 100 percent OK with that.”


Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly pictured here after a 43-40 overtime loss to Northwestern on Nov. 15, my alter his own role and perspective significantly with a massive staff shuffle. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

Brian Kelly —Head Coach

Mike Denbrock — Associate Head Coach/Wide Receivers

Brian VanGorder — Defensive Coordinator

Mike Sanford — Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks

Mike Elston — Recruiting Coordinator/Linebackers

Scott Booker — Special Teams Coordinator/Tight Ends

Autry Denson — Running Backs

Keith Gilmore — Defensive Line

Harry Hiestand — Offensive Line

Todd Lyght — Defensive Backs

Maurice Crum Jr., Mike Hiestand — Defensive Grad Assistants

Ryan Mahaffey, Dominic Raiola — Offensive Grad Assistants