Past aids Notre Dame OC Mike Sanford's coaching evolution
A hair less than three years before Malik Zaire’s ankle buckled and Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff hopes plunged into sudden peril, Stanford replaced starting quarterback Josh Nunes in a road win over Colorado.
The struggling Nunes, stumbling through his first season as the Cardinal starter, was pulled in favor of a rising sophomore by the name of Kevin Hogan. Prior to the season, Hogan had taken none of the first team reps. He was an assumed backup, talented but publicly anonymous.
All Hogan did next was win five straight games, snatch Pac-12 championship MVP honors and lead his team to a 20-14 Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin.
Mike Sanford saw it all. He digested it and learned from it.
“I was the running backs coach at the time. I became the quarterbacks coach the next year,” Sanford recalled on Monday. “I think the whole team was kind of like, ‘What are we going to do now?’”
A similar sentiment likely pervaded throughout the road locker room following Notre Dame’s 34-27 victory over Virginia on Sept. 12, a week after Zaire completed 19 of 22 passes in a decisive demolishing of overwhelmed Texas. Now, his season was over. His ankle was shattered.
The weight of championship expectations shifted to the shoulders of an inexperienced sophomore.
“Hurt for (Zaire). Hurt for us. But be proud of yourself,” Sanford told replacement DeShone Kizer, whose 39-yard touchdown pass to Will Fuller with 12 seconds left lifted the Irish over Virginia. “Be proud of yourself. You have a lot to be proud of.”
Like Nunes, Zaire was a redshirt sophomore who entered the season as the unquestioned starter. And like Hogan, Kizer was a tall, strong sophomore with dual threat capabilities but zero career starts.
Sanford knew from experience that even without Zaire, Notre Dame could keep winning. He used that banked memory to prepare Kizer on the fly and infuse faith into his quarterback.
“I think just having gone through that experience at Stanford and (seeing) the way Kevin responded, but more importantly how the coaching staff from the head coach on down and the players responded, it gave me some confidence in preparing DeShone and empowering him and giving him the confidence to go out there, that we believed in him,” Sanford said. “He took it and ran with it.”
Kizer’s numbers, in 11 starts: 2,884 passing yards, 21 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions, a 63 percent completion percentage, 520 rushing yards and a school record 10 touchdown runs. That’s a testament to the 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback, as well as head coach Brian Kelly and the wealth of playmakers that surrounded him.
It’s also proof of Sanford’s continued evolution. Notre Dame’s second-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach absorbs information like a sponge. He thirsts for it, thrives off of it. Each year, he is more experienced, more knowledgeable, more complete than the last.
But it isn’t enough to simply understand a play or scheme. Sanford’s true talent lies in his ability to communicate it.
“He’s a big enthusiastic guy when he’s coaching, but he makes the game fun and makes it simple,” said former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson, who played under Sanford last spring. “That’s received well by the quarterbacks. They can go out there with a clear mind and say, ‘Cool, I’m going to go play. I’m not going to sit here and think and think and think.’ He does a great job with those guys.”
This spring, Sanford has three primary guys to work with: Zaire, Kizer and sophomore Brandon Wimbush. He charts and grades every quarterback, every play, every practice, every day. He attacks their weaknesses with the meticulousness of a mathematician, leaning on a wealth of data to expose minute imperfections. He stresses fundamentals, decision-making, communication, leadership. They make strides, and he makes strides.
The quarterbacks, in this case, aren’t the only ones improving.
“Each and every year, I feel like I start out and I’ve got to be better than I was last year,” Sanford said, red visor pulled low over his head, whistle dangling around his neck, play sheet folded and hanging like an accessory from his shorts. “I think the improvement comes with the comfort that I have in coach Kelly’s offense. Having been in a west coast offense for so long at Stanford and really implementing that offense at different places I’ve been a part of, you get such a comfort level with the ‘whys.’ Not just, ‘What are you calling?’ but ‘What’s the history behind that call?’
“That’s been fun, to be with someone (Kelly) who actually created this offense and evolved this offense. You have a great resource. It’s like having Bill Walsh himself in the building. That’s just been an ongoing learning process for me.”