A seismic change? Staff, shifts could lead to new-look Irish

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Mike Denbrock found out quickly about the boundaries of his offseason promotion, specifically when it came to one-time offensive prodigy Jerry Tillery.

Denbrock smiles when he tells the story now, but his reaction when he first found out Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly had green-lighted a flip to defense for the elite offensive tackle prospect, shortly before the freshman from Shreveport, La., enrolled in January, was beyond somber.

“Oh God, I had tears,” ND’s associate head coach and wide receivers coach said Wednesday after practice, No. 9 of 15 this spring and the first to be staged outdoors.

“I don’t like to admit, as a man, that I cried, but that was a tough one, for sure. Obviously, we’re all in it to do what’s best for our football team, but if he’s doing the amazing things he’s doing on defense, you can imagine what he’d be as a left tackle.”

In reality, other than a decidedly more cumbersome nameplate and likely more lucrative paycheck, Denbrock’s role is very much the same as it was when he wore the title of offensive coordinator last season.

Notably, he remains in charge of the offensive staff and still puts together an offensive game plan with the input of the other offensive coaches and Kelly.

It’s the offense around the 51-year-old Denbrock that’s changing, with more voices, notably from new offensive coordinator/QBs coach Mike Sanford and new offensive analyst Jeff Quinn, and an openness to evolve — radically if that’s what it takes.

“Coach Kelly and I have a lot of experience together running the same style of offense and kind of the same ideas and same adjustments,” Denbrock said.

“If you’ve got a chance to influx into your system, the ideas and the experience and the versatility that I think Mike (Sanford), in particular, brings to the offensive staff, I think that gives you the opportunity to grow as a program and improve in the areas that you feel that you want to improve in.

“Having another strong voice in the room, while maybe viewed by some as a negative thing, I think it’s an incredibly positive thing, because I think it adds to the discussion and makes it better for our offense overall.”

The two most poignant and persistent questions of the spring still yield vague answers — Who’s the No. 1 quarterback? Who’s going to call offensive plays?

But the substance and style surrounding the unanswered queries continue to gain definition. Here’s a glimpse:

1. There is evidence that Everett Golson’s ball security is improving.

The fact that incumbent starting quarterback Golson had 22 turnovers, as many or more than 75 of the 125 FBS teams in 2014, is the reason there is a QB open audition this spring.

Golson’s attempts to put separation between himself and junior-to-be-challenger Malik Zaire isn’t as simple as the fifth-year senior dramatically reducing that turnover total. But it would be a great start.

“We’re definitely putting him in a lot of (practice) situations that are tempting him to not secure the football,” Denbrock said, “that are putting him in a situation where he’s under pressure.

“So we’ve tried, at least through the first part of the spring, to really emulate some of the situations that occurred to him during the season to see what his response was. And so far it’s been very positive, so we’re encouraged.”

Added Sanford, “The thing I really appreciate about Everett is his buy-in.”

For Zaire, the point of emphasis starts with his evolution into “a well-tuned pocket passer.”

“If he can do that,” Sanford said, “the sky’s the limit with his athletic ability and what he can do outside the pocket.”

2. ND’s leading receiver in 2014 is even better.

Somehow Will Fuller’s 75 receptions for 1,094 yards and 15 TDs — third most nationally — eluded the Biletnikoff Award folks, never making one of their unwieldy watch lists or getting on their official ballot.

What has not escaped the 6-foot, 180-pound junior-to-be is making significant leaps in his game this spring, even while being stuck wearing a cast on his wrist this spring.

“It’s his route-running, deeper understanding of the game,” Denbrock enumerated, “what leverage means, what safety rolled over the top of him means — you know all the different coverage variations that he can see during the course of the season.

“I don’t think there’s anything that can hold Will Fuller back from being great at what he does. The only thing that can do that is Will Fuller, and I don’t see him standing in his (own) way. I think he’s a hard-working kid, that wants to be the best at what he does, and I think he’s growing as a player. I think it’s going to be exciting.”

3. Quenton Nelson is the offensive complement to Tillery

The 6-foot-5, 325-pound redshirt freshman left guard mashes and grinds and brings a snarling, in-your-face presence to an offensive line that finally bumped up its toughness quotient in the upset of LSU in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30.

“I don’t think he’s the only one of the offensive line that carries himself that way, which is a blessing,” Denbrock said of the contender to grab the only open spot on the line. “I think we have a number of guys who are willing to play with that style.”

The surprise among them is junior-to-be right guard Steve Elmer, who continues to be among the most dramatic transformations on either side of the ball this spring.

The power-heavy offensive template ND used to bully the nation’s No. 9 defense in Nashville, Tenn., has carried over — not necessarily in terms of X’s and O’s, but in the state of mind behind it.

“It’s the way Notre Dame should play football every Saturday,” Denbrock said. “I think it’s a beginning. I wouldn’t pigeon-hole it by saying every game’s going to look like the LSU game, but I would say we definitely want to enter every week and every game with the mentality that we’re going to physically take the fight to our opponent and we’re going to match ourselves up and see what good can come of it.”

4. To play fast or not isn’t a QB-driven decision.

Not entirely anyway. The quarterback’s ability to handle Oregon-esque tempo — and Denbrock assures both Golson and Zaire can — is just one factor in whether Notre Dame will actually accelerate its pace offensively.

“It can be how you are up front, do you have enough skill guys on the perimeter?” Denbrock said. “How’s your defense? Do you want them playing 90 snaps? How do you want the game to play out so that it gives your football team the best opportunity to win?

“I think every year you sit down and you say, ‘Let’s talk about how we’re going to play.’ If we thought it was in our best interests to go at warp speed, we would.”

5. Kelly is open to seismic change if that’s what it takes.

Denbrock and Kelly weren’t on the same staff when the latter made his most profound offensive shift. It came before the 2001 season, Kelly’s 11th as head coach at Grand Valley State, where Denbrock’s and Kelly’s paths had crossed earlier in his regime.

GVSU had a string of 14 straight non-losing seasons at that juncture, with Kelly as either the head coach or an assistant, when he installed spread offense version 1.0. The ensuing season resulted in a Division II national runner-up trophy, followed immediately by back-to-back championships.

“He had just kind of had enough,” Denbrock said of the old Kelly offense. “He’s always an innovative thinker and he’s a guy that has incredible feel for where the game is headed and what direction the wind is blowing and where this thing’s going to move as time goes along.

“And I think he had a feel that this is where it was headed, way back then, and began to explore it and move around and ask questions and develop it over the course of time.”

He’s asking the same kinds of questions this spring. Will a profound evolution follow?

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Notre Dame associate head coach and wide receiver coach Mike Denbrock has a similar role to before his promotion, but the offense around him could be in for a shake-up. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)