Analysis: How will Brian Kelly co-exist with new Notre Dame OC?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The fragments of just who is soon-to-be anointed Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long continue to consolidate, but that doesn’t necessarily unscramble the bigger picture.

The 33-year-old import — most recently from the University of Memphis — has Bobby Petrino and Todd Graham influences in his philosophical makeup, has primarily been a tight ends coach but has a broad enough knowledge base to have expertise in other position groups, and has been lauded as an elite recruiter.

Dangling mysteries — such as whether the Tigers’ lackluster No. 84 ranking in rushing offense (four spots worse than ND’s standing in 2016) was the result of intent on an otherwise dynamic offense or a play-caller deft enough to adapt to his inherited talent — will have to wait.

So will the most pertinent unanswered question regarding the future of the Irish offense:

Who is Brian Kelly?

More to the point, who is the eighth-year Irish head coach and patriarch of the ND offense on the other side of a thorough staff makeover that has yet to run its course? And how does that knit with Long’s visions and aspirations for a Brandon Wimbush-driven Irish offense in 2017 and beyond?

The assumption is that Kelly, at the very least, will be calling the offensive plays for the first time since the 2014 regular-season finale at USC, when Wimbush, his presumptive No. 1 QB, was still in high school.

That desired play-calling takeover, after 26 games of delegating and collaborating, was the tipping point that coaxed associate head coach and play-caller Mike Denbrock to entertain and ultimately accept, with a heavy heart, late last week the offensive coordinator position at the University of Cincinnati.

Long, meanwhile, experienced his first and only season of play-calling in 2016 after following first-year head coach Mike Norvell from Arizona State to Memphis.

In a year so pivotal and defining to Kelly’s Notre Dame tenure at ND, it seems only natural for him to want both hands on the offense’s steering wheel. But is the aftertaste of a 4-8 season so pungent and overpowering that the best answer is sitting in Kelly’s blind spot?

Denbrock’s departure suggests it just might be, not that significant staff turnover hasn’t been good for Kelly in the past.

His two most successful seasons at ND, in fact — a No. 4 finish in 2012 (12-1) and No. 11 in 2015 (10-3) — came immediately after three and four assistants moved on, respectively, in the preceding offseasons.

But this is a more radical shift, with the leadership of the offense, defense, special teams and reportedly strength and conditioning all turning over, with only offensive coordinator Mike Sanford’s and Denbrock’s departures voluntary.

And now, with defensive assistant/recruiting coordinator Mike Elston as the lone remaining original staff member, you could argue the balance between change and continuity could end up being more disruptive than constructive.

Denbrock’s impending departure leaves holes on so many levels, starting with the consistent development of his position group, wide receivers. Take, for instance, freshman Kevin Stepherson, an unheralded three-star prospect Denbrock was won over by after watching his attention to detail in practice drills.

Stepherson’s production this past season (25 receptions, 462 yards, 5 TDs) easily outdid the respective freshman seasons of the four Irish wide receivers to earn All-America status in the past 25 years — Will Fuller (6-160 1 TD), Golden Tate (6-131 1 TD), Jeff Samardzija (7-53 0 TDs) and Derrick Mayes (10-272 3 TDs).

In the wider-angle view, in meetings, in practice and particular on the game day sidelines, Denbrock’s reassuring demeanor was a perfect complement to Kelly’s intensity.

And in recruiting Denbrock was strong on the West Coast as well as with receivers in any part of the country.

Where Kelly may miss him most, though, ironically, is with regard to play-calling.

The numbers bear out that Denbrock may not only have been ND’s best offensive play-caller over the past dozen seasons by far, he also by far faced the highest percentage of strong defenses.

The methodology used here is by no means comprehensive and doesn’t take into account turnovers, special teams variables and points scored by the defense, but the times ND scored more than its opponents’ defensive scoring average and exceeded in total yards opponent averages in that category lean heavily toward Denbrock.

His first game with that duty came in ND’s 31-28 upset of LSU, against the nation’s No. 9 defense, in the 2014 Music City Bowl. And he continued in the play-calling role for the next 25 games over two full seasons.

In total, Denbrock’s offenses outscored opponent defensive averages 88.5 percent of the time. The three times it didn’t — all in 2016 — were the Hurricane Matthew-infiltrated loss to N.C. State, the Stanford loss in which Kelly pulled starting QB DeShone Kizer for several series, and the 28-27 loss to Navy in which the ND offense got the ball for just six possessions (the Irish averaged 13.5 in their other 11 games).

Kelly’s percentage in the 64 games at ND he’s been play-caller is 60.9 percent, with former head coach Charlie Weis at 71.7 percent, and offensive coordinator Mike Haywood 55.6 percent in the first nine games of 2008 before Weis retook control.

Denbrock’s games in which he faced a top 10 or top 43 (top third of the FBS) defense are also significantly higher than the other play-callers — 19.2 and 65.4 percent, compared to Kelly (15.6 and 45.3), Weis (11.3 and 41.5) and Haywood (11.1 and 22.2).

Weis’ run as play-caller has the most highs and lows. His two BCS teams (2005-06) with Brady Quinn, the school career record-holder in most passing categories and in his third and fourth season as a starter, had Weis with a 92 percent rate over opponents’ scoring defense averages.

Then in 2007 and the last four games of 2008, he was 1-of-16 in that category, followed by a 12-for-12 showing in 2009 in the year he was fired. But it should be noted that Weis did not face a top 20 defense that season.

Denbrock (and also Kelly in 2014) had little room for error offensively because of the shortcomings of recently purged defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

In VanGorder’s 30 games as defensive coordinator, he held opponents below their scoring averages 53.3 percent of the time and below their average yardage output 43.3 percent of the time. The Elston-led collaboration that finished the 2016 season did so 75 percent of the games in points and 87.5 in yards.

What’s more, VanGorder never faced a top 10 offense in his 30-game run and faced only a top 43 offense 26.7 percent of his games.

The most curious comparison, though, is if you stack the ND version of play-caller Brian Kelly next to the Cincinnati version (2007-2009, as well as the 2006 International Bowl after predecessor Mark Dantonio left for Michigan State).

In those 40 games at UC, Kelly had a 77.5 success rate in both points and yards and against roughly the same percentage of top 10 and top 43 defenses.

It makes one wonder if the figurehead part of being the head coach at Notre Dame bleeds into Kelly the play-caller/QBs mentor. Former Irish offensive coordinator (2012-13) Chuck Martin hinted that might be the case in an interview that preceded the 2012 season.

“It’s not Central Michigan or Cincinnati anymore, so his time away from the trenches is more than it’s ever been,” said Martin, now the head coach at Miami (Ohio). “He’s always been the most hands-on coach in America. And to me that’s been the biggest disconnect here.

“He needs to work in the trenches to make it go to the level he wants it to go.”

If that’s still Kelly’s desire, and it appears to be just that, can he push back on the non-coaching part of his job enough to make that happen, not just in 2017 but for good?

Most coaches apparently don’t even try.

According to the website coachingsearch.com, roughly 28 percent of the 128 FBS head coaches served as their team’s primary offensive play-caller in 2016. Long, meanwhile, was one of nine — head coaches or assistants — who were trying on the offensive play-calling hat in 2016 for the first time.

Long was first among them, and 16th overall, in scoring offense; third among the newcomers, and 28th overall, in total offense.

There’s also returning running backs coach Autry Denson and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand in the big-picture offensive mix, as well as yet-to-be named quarterbacks and wide receivers coaches. Those could turn out to be the same person until the NCAA passes legislation in April for a 10th full-time assistant.

Regardless of who eventually calls the plays, the importance of how Kelly and Long fit together can’t be overstated. In the 18 games Kelly was in the offensive meetings and Denbrock was the play-caller, they never fell short of outscoring the opponents’ defensive average.

It was only after Kelly moved over to help put a tourniquet on the defense that the three games Denbrock fell short occurred.

So synthesis matters. Chemistry matters. Mixing new AND old ideas matter. At least it did in Kelly’s past.

Now what about in his future?

Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, left, and associate head coach Mike Denbrock work the sidelines in 2010. While it was a collaboration of sorts, the departing Denbrock called offensive plays the past two seasons. Kelly likely will do so in 2017. (Tribune File Photo)