Tapping the brakes on report Mike Denbrock is leaving Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame’s coaching staff shakeup appeared to have taken a seismic turn late Tuesday night.

But what was first reported as an inevitability appears to be only a possibility at this stage.

SI.com’s Pete Thamel, citing an anonymous source, reported associate head coach Mike Denbrock is leaving Brian Kelly’s staff to become the offensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati.

But two sources close to the situation told the Tribune Wednesday that while an offer has been made to Denbrock by new Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, the 52-year-old Denbrock hasn’t made a decision yet to accept or reject it.

The negotiations have all been done with Notre Dame’s knowledge, according to the Tribune sources, and Denbrock has neither been dismissed, nor is Kelly pushing him out the door.

The two, who cut their coaching teeth together and were roommates as graduate assistants at Grand Valley State three decades ago, reunited at ND when Kelly got the head coaching job after the 2009 season.

Denbrock was the Irish tackles/tight ends coach under Tyrone Willingham from 2002-04 and his initial position in his second tour of duty at ND was as tight ends coach.

He gradually was handed more responsibility to the leadership of the offense and for the past two seasons Denbrock has been ND’s offensive play-caller, wide receivers coach and a heavy influence in the day-to-day operations of the offense.

Denbrock’s career résumé includes serving as a coordinator on both sides of the ball and coaching every offensive position.

In each of his seven years together with Kelly, Denbrock has been a dynamic recruiter, even during the 2014-15 cycle when he was recovering from surgery brought on by prostate cancer.

If Denbrock does accept the position at Cincinnati, he would become the fourth coaching assistant to leave the program since the start of the 2016 season and arguably the most difficult to replace.

Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired Sept. 25. Tight ends and special teams coach Scott Booker was purged earlier this month. Also earlier this month, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford left to become the head coach at Western Kentucky.

A change in leadership in the football strength and conditioning program is expected as well.

Kelly has hired two coaches this month — defensive coordinator Mike Elko from Wake Forest and a dedicated special teams coach in Brian Polian, the former Weis assistant at ND and most recently the head coach at Nevada.

Notre Dame’s national rankings in rushing offense (28), total offense (27), passing efficiency (23) and scoring offense (34) were all Kelly Era bests in 2015 under Denbrock. And those numbers were concocted against a schedule that included nine top 43 defenses, three of which ranked in the top 10.

All those rankings regressed in 2016 with QB DeShone Kizer surrounded by an almost completely new supporting cast. and facing seven top 43 defenses.

However, if you extract ND's 10-3 loss to N.C. State on Oct. 8 played in the periphery of Hurricane Matthew, the numbers look comparable to 2014's and better overall than any of Kelly's first four seasons at ND.

So where does the Irish offense go from here if Denbrock leaves?

There have been whispers Kelly would take back the offensive play-calling, and if Tuesday night’s news eventually comes to fruition, it would only make them louder and more believable.

Notre Dame associate head coach Mike Denbrock (right) reportedly will part ways with Irish head coach Brian Kelly to take the offensive coordinator's position at the University of Cincinnati. (Tribune Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)