Play-calling by committee works for Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Maybe not quite the Holy Trinity of play-calling, but the three wise men who make the Notre Dame football team’s offense function seem to have made it a positive experience.

At least that’s what the results on the field say.

Start with the premise that head coach Brian Kelly revels in the notion of total control of his offense. A couple seasons ago he abdicated play-calling to coordinator Chuck Martin. When Martin left to take over at Miami of Ohio, Kelly was again the only voice on the headset, even though Mike Denbrock was offensive coordinator.

Enter Mike Sanford. When luring one of the top young guns in the coaching profession to be the Irish offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, a promise of input into the play-calling had to be made. That left Kelly, Sanford, and Denbrock (now associate head coach and wide receivers coach) as the decision-makers – though Kelly retained his veto power of any suggestion.

Each has his own style and personality that stirs the pot they call an offensive game plan. Sanford’s arrival from Boise State provided an infusion of fresh blood into the thought process that will add a dimension to the Irish offense against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl Friday.

“(Sanford) gave us another opportunity to really assess, ‘Is this working or is this not working?” Denbrock said Monday during Notre Dame’s media session. “’If it’s not working, give us an idea that you’ve seen or done that you think could make this better.’

“We would give him first right of refusal to analyze what we were doing, then his idea would get torn to pieces by Brian and I. That’s kind of the dynamic. It’s like, ‘OK, Mike Denbrock’s got a good idea for a play we want to run.’ Mike Sanford’s job and coach Kelly’s job is to tear that to pieces until it’s either on the board as a play we’re gonna run or we can’t live with it.

“That’s kind of the dynamic we have. It’s a positive thing. It’s a great situation.”

Sounds like it could be rough. Does that dynamic need a thick skin to handle?

“Not if your heart and your mind is in the right place,” Denbrock said. “It all goes back to making sure you ask a lot of your players to be unselfish and buy in and do things the right way. Coaches gotta be the same way.”

Denbrock’s the epitome of a good soldier. He’s had two tours of duty at Notre Dame – 2002-04 under Tyrone Willingham, then back in 2010 when Kelly arrived (he coached with Kelly previously at Grand Valley). When Kelly suggested the offense needed a third voice, it had to have bothered Denbrock – right?

“That’s probably human nature,” Denbrock said. “We had a lot of conversations about where coach Kelly’s vision was for what he wanted to do offensively.

“It wasn’t necessarily a huge change. It was more an (addition) of someone who hadn’t been in the same meeting room together for 20 years.

“Brian and I have spent a lot time in meeting rooms together questioning whether we’re doing things the right way, trying to figure it out. To have a fresh perspective come into that the way Mike has, with the attitude he has about being part of it, it’s been incredibly positive.”

And productive.

The Irish rank 24th in the country in total offense (471.5 yards), while going 10-2. Last year, Notre Dame was ranked 35th (445 yards), and 8-5.

The fingerprint each coach puts on the offense is obvious, at least to the players.

“(Sanford brings) a different mindset,” said receiver Will Fulller. “He can put his two cents in to a play call and coach Denbrock can put his two cents in to a play call. We’re always going to have the best play call because they’re always thinking together.

“(Sanford has) been more aggressive. Our last practice before we went home, he was calling the plays and there were a lot of double moves, deep, downfield throws, just right off the jump.

“Maybe coach Denbrock can be a little conservative sometimes, but he’s definitely aggressive in the game as well. I like coach Denbrock’s play calling.”

“The development and maturation and growth has been all of us working together with different personalities,” Sanford said. “You're dealing with three guys with myself, coach Denbrock and coach Kelly that don't care about getting the credit. We just want to win football games. I know it sounds cliche, but that's who we are. Outside of two Saturdays, we've been pretty successful at it. That's really to the credit of these players for taking the plans we have in place and executing them.”

Injuries to key players from start to finish didn’t provide any excuses or any barriers.

“You keep yourself focused on the end goal, which is to help the kids be the best they could possibly be,” Denbrock said. “You don’t worry about where you fall in the equation, or what your responsibilities are. You kind of soldier up and go to work and do the best you can for the football team.

“Out of all of it, that unselfish attitude we have in the offensive staff room has helped us be consistently good offensively.”

Kinda sounds pretty wise, after all.

Notre Dame wide receiver Chris Brown, left, and Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford speak to reporters during a Fiesta Bowl press conference on Monday, Dec. 28, 2015, in Phoenix, Ariz. (SBT Photo/Robert Franklin)