Hansen: Unscrambling Notre Dame's big picture in the search for its next offensive coordinator

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

As Brian Kelly continues to ponder how he’ll retool his Notre Dame football offensive coaching staff, it’s worth noting that the hottest name in offensive innovation on the college level these days, four years ago was a linebackers coach.

At William & Mary.

The next two seasons he was a grad assistant at Penn State, on offense. That was followed by what he himself describes as being an assistant to an assistant coach for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints for a couple of years.

That’s what the résumé of first-year LSU passing game coordinator/wide receivers coach Joe Brady looked like when Tigers head coach Ed Orgeron hired him last offseason to revolutionize the LSU offense.

Brady has since added to it the 2019 Broyles Award, as the nation’s top assistant coach.

The 30-year-old had zero play-calling experience before this seaosn, and his boss with the Saints, head coach Sean Payton, told him going to LSU at that stage of his career was a mistake, per a report by the Baton Rouge Advocate’s Brooks Kubena.

“So much for what I know,” Payton said recently.

Much of what made the Brady experiment work — to the tune of a nation’s best 48.9 points-per-game scoring average heading into the CFP National Championship Game on Jan. 13 — was how the pieces fit together on the LSU staff.

Incumbent Tigers offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger was willing to collaborate and put ego aside for the good of the team.

Which brings us back to Kelly’s mission to not only replace deposed offensive coordinator/tight ends coach Chip Long, but upgrade the staff overall in the process. That’s a tall order but doable.

In fact, if Notre Dame is going to win a playoff game in Kelly’s remaining time as ND’s head coach, it’s on the list of “musts.”

With all that in mind, here’s a deeper dive into some of the factors that may shape where the search heads from this point forward and ultimately lands.

• While many on the outside looking in have a hard time warming up to the idea of 27-year-old Irish quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees moving into an elevated role in year four back at his alma mater, it’s hard to find someone who’s worked closely with Rees who has the slightest bit of hesitancy.

That not only applies to his long-term potential as Kelly’s sixth offensive coordinator at ND, but to the belief Rees can operate in that position at a high level as soon as 2020 as well.

Former ND standout center Braxston Cave, a teammate of Rees’ from 2010-12, is the latest to join the chorus of Rees supporters, a group that also includes Rees’ own coordinator and position coach Chuck Martin, now head coach of the Mid-American champion Miami (Ohio) RedHawks.

“Tommy is a brilliant football mind,” Cave said on the latest ND Insider Pod of Gold podcast. “He grew up around it, with his dad (Bill) being a coach and working in the NFL. You look at other guys, like Charlie Weis Jr. (27-year-old offensive coordinator at South Florida).

“They’ve been around it their whole lives. Their minds, their brains just function different than other people’s.”

Cave, currently the general manager for Lippert Components Inc., in Elkhart, remains in regular contact with Rees and the Irish football program.

• Watching Cincinnati clobber Boston College, 38-6, in the Birmingham Bowl on Thursday, I couldn’t help but wonder if a reunion with former Irish offensive coordinator/play-caller Mike Denbrock might make some sense for both sides.

Here’s why: Denbrock remains Notre Dame’s best play-caller over the past 15 seasons when measured by both the frequency of his offenses exceeding the opposing defenses’ averages in scoring (89 percent) and yards allowed (77 percent).

Chip Long, by comparison, was at 74/71 percent. Brian Kelly was 61/67. Charlie Weis was 72/70. And Denbrock did it against the toughest defenses comparatively. He faced top 43 (top third of the FBS) defenses in 65 percent of the games in which he called offensive plays, and top 10 defenses 19 percent of the time.

Long faced top 43 defenses 29 percent of his games at ND and top 10 in 16 percent.

That doesn’t mean Denbrock would call plays at ND, as he’s doing now at UC. But his value as a veteran presence to help groom Rees in that role, contribute offensive expertise in meetings and on game day, coach tight ends and perhaps help upgrade the offensive line play could be attractive for both parties.

The Irish would also be adding an elite recruiter and one that is especially effective in California, a talent-rich state where top prospects are increasingly open to turning their backs on UCLA and USC.

The Bearcats went 4-8 in Denbrock’s first season there (2017), under head coach Luke Fickell. The past two seasons, though, they’re a combined 22-5.

His biggest battle in returning is perception, or misperception. Denbrock gets unfairly and incorrectly lumped into part of the staff that was purged after ND’s 2016 season that ended with a 4-8 record. He would have kept his title as associate head coach had he stayed on, but he would not have been calling the plays in 2017.

There are a number of other veteran offensive coaches (Mark Helfrich, Joe Moorhead among them) who would make sense in pairing with Rees — if that’s the direction momentum continues to take Kelly. But as was the case at LSU, the ability to put ego aside is a dynamic that shouldn’t be overlooked. And that’s where Denbrock might make the best choice — if he were interested.

• There may be no better time in the last 15 years to be ND’s offensive coordinator, in part because of the talent that’s already on and/or on its way to joining the roster, and in part because who the defensive coordinator is.

Denbrock’s proficiency as offensive play-caller was somewhat obscured because Brian VanGorder’s defenses put so much pressure on the Irish offenses in the 2015 season and in 2016 until he was ousted four games into that season.

VanGorder’s defenses held opposing offenses below their scoring average 53.3 percent of the time during his 30-game run at ND and below their yardage averages 43.3 percent of the time. Compare that to second-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s marks of 92.3 and 76.9 percent, respectively.

When paired with a top 25 defense, an offense doesn’t need to take as many chances, especially on third and long or fourth down. You can punt the ball away, knowing there’s a good chance the defense will get you the ball back.

Notre Dame will finish this season tied for 18th in total defense nationally and 12th in scoring defense. The team immediately behind them in both categories? Alabama.

And if the Irish can find some answers at cornerback this offseason, the defense may be even better next season.

• Recently fired Harry Hiestand won’t have trouble finding a new job after two years as the offensive line coach in his second tour of duty with the Chicago Bears.

But a source told the Tribune there’s zero chance that landing spot will be a return to Notre Dame, where Hiestand flourished from 2012-17.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly continues to ponder his options for the vacant offensive coordinator position.
Could a return to Notre Dame by former Irish assistant Mike Denbrock make sense for both parties?