OC Mike Sanford settles into the job of advancing ND's QBs
Mike Sanford still hasn’t adjusted to the drive.
He traces the same path to work every morning — some days at 4:45 a.m., others at 5:15 if he decides to sleep in. His car glides down a deserted Angela Boulevard, along the outskirts of a campus still hesitant to start its day, towards Guglielmino Athletics Complex and the prospect of another spring practice.
It’s the same route he took nearly two decades ago, when his father, Mike Sanford Sr., served as the quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame from 1997 to 1998 under Bob Davie.
These streets are comfortable, familiar, even at impossibly early hours. Sanford’s surroundings shouldn’t surprise him.
And yet, more than a month after being introduced as Notre Dame’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, Sanford can’t help but take a deep breath and look around.
“I see the Golden Dome sparkling and think, ‘Man, this is an awesome place to be,’ ” Sanford said Monday. “It is surreal still. Even being on the practice field for the first time all spring, sitting there and taking in the magnitude of the program and the place, every once in a while it hits you.
“Then you get back to work.”
The work, of course, is why he’s here. A season ago, Boise State — Sanford’s alma mater, where he served as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator — finished ninth nationally in scoring offense, notching 39.7 points per game. Its quarterback, senior Grant Hedrick, completed 70.8 percent of his passes, threw 23 touchdown strikes and ran for eight more.
More importantly, the Broncos won. A lot.
His challenge, at a higher rung on the coaching ladder, is to bottle the magic that propelled Boise State to a Fiesta Bowl victory over Arizona on New Year's Eve and duplicate it at Notre Dame. That starts, of course, with his position group — most notably, the starting battle between quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire.
“Farm your own territory. That’s a big thing for me,” Sanford said. “I want to develop the quarterback group positionally. I need to farm that territory. I need to get those guys to a place where we can win a championship.
“I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that (fellow offensive assistants) Harry Hiestand and Mike Denbrock and Autry Denson and Scott Booker are going to develop their groups. But then we get together and we talk through the issues that showed up and we have dialogue. That’s a positive thing.”
The challenge, in any position battle, is to foster healthy competition without allowing the nature of that contest to turn malicious. Sanford, who has both coached through and played in quarterback competitions, has worked to strike that balance during spring practice.
“Sometimes, you create an atmosphere that’s so much about ‘him vs. him,’ ” Sanford explained. “If it’s about, ‘You had a better day than him,’ or, ‘You’re not stacking up,’ then those guys don’t play freely. They don’t worry about their own game. We’re trying to create a positive environment when we’re in the meeting room, a positive environment when we’re on the field.
“When it’s your turn to step on that football field, it’s your turn to operate the offense and be the best version of you.”
The primary question, heading into the fall, is whose best self gives Notre Dame’s offense the most realistic opportunity to win a championship. And while Sanford understands Golson and Zaire have unique and contrasting skill sets, he also contends that each could potentially run the Irish offense efficiently.
“I think really, we’re trying to have both Everett and Malik be multifaceted players — and they are,” Sanford said. “Everett ran the ball extremely well in the live tackle period (on Monday) and had an unbelievable run on a third and short to give us six yards.
"He got north and put his pads down. Obviously, Malik’s known for that. We’re trying to develop Malik even more as a passer.
“But I’ll tell you what, I think both of those guys are capable of doing both things we ask them to do — running the football and distributing it through the air.”
Even if many fans will dwell on the quarterback competition this spring and summer, Sanford can’t afford to. As offensive coordinator, he’s responsible for the forest as well as his individual trees. And though head coach Brian Kelly hasn’t yet come to a decision on who will call the offensive plays just yet, Sanford and the rest of the offensive staff have worked collaboratively to move the offense forward since his arrival in March.
“Coach (Mike) Denbrock and I and the offensive staff really had a good month to sit down and talk through personnel and watch everything from last season, to talk through our concepts, find better ways to implement new concepts and find ways to clean up stuff that had been done in the past,” Sanford said.
“That’s really what we’re all about right now —- all of us together in that room as an offensive staff looking for better ways to do things and putting our players in positions to be successful in a consistent manner. “I wouldn’t say it’s been seamless, but it’s been a good transition.”
Sanford, who was hired at Stanford two days prior to the start of spring practice in 2011, is no stranger to less-than-seamless transitions. Still, despite the lack of an established starter in his position room, despite having to absorb and adapt to an entirely new set of personnel, despite the question marks associated with a team that lost four of its final five games in 2014, he is continuing to settle in and look ahead.
Despite the frenzied chaos of his first spring on the job, the 33-year-old coach still enjoys the morning drives.
“You have fun trying to develop your players and develop our scheme,” he said. “But there are cool moments when you’re able to kind of sit back, take a deep breath and say, ‘This is an unbelievable place to be a part of.’ ”