Outside of a few slot receivers, no one on Notre Dame’s 2012 offense will have the same position coach that he had in 2011.
Mike Denbrock is used to instructing different positions under head coach Brian Kelly.
• Former safeties coach Chuck Martin will now instruct the quarterbacks and coordinate the offense in place of Charley Molnar, now the head coach at UMass.
• Harry Hiestand was brought in from Tennessee to replace Ed Warinner, now at Ohio State, to coach the offensive line.
• 2010-11 receivers coach Tony Alford is back to his “home base” at running back, replacing Tim Hinton, who also went to Ohio State. Alford’s job description, though, will also have him still coaching Theo Riddick and Robby Toma, who will be among the hybrid running backs/slot receivers (Z).
• Finally, former tight ends coach Mike Denbrock, who worked with two future second-round picks on head coach Ty Willingham’s staff from 2002-04 (Anthony Fasano and John Carlson), along with 2011 second-round pick Kyle Rudolph and 2012 Walter Camp first-team All-American Tyler Eifert on Kelly’s staff, will now handle the outside receivers — the W and X — that Alford had his first two seasons under Kelly.
Such realignment is old hat between Denbrock and Kelly. When Denbrock worked for Kelly at Grand Valley State from 1992-98, he coached the quarterbacks and receivers while coordinating the offense from 1992-95 — and then from 1996-98 he was Kelly’s defensive coordinator and line coach while holding the title of assistant head coach.
Moving from tight ends to outside receivers hardly registers a blip on Denbrock’s screen.
“A lot of what goes into making the tight end a dynamic part of your offense as far as a pass catcher, route runner and the things we’ve been able to develop over the years with those guys translates to the wide receivers,” Denbrock said. “They may be a little shorter and a little faster in some cases, but they need to be just as dynamic as far as technique that they use to run routes, catch the football and create space for themselves in the defense. Those things translate very well from one position to another.”
Next to cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks, Denbrock will be entrusted to handle the least experienced or proven area on the 2012 Irish roster, especially with the graduation of Notre Dame’s all-time leading pass receiver, Michael Floyd.
Leading the way at X will be junior TJ Jones, the fourth-leading pass catcher in 2011 with 38 grabs that averaged a modest 9.6 yards. His numbers reflect how the Irish lacked the vertical element in their passing game. Martin pointed out how only two of the 302 Notre Dame pass completions last year gained more than 40 yards. One of them, a 45-yard dump off to Riddick, came in the closing minute in the regular season finale at Stanford when the Irish trailed 28-7.
The front-runner to replace Floyd at W (although Floyd was moved around everywhere on offense) is fifth-year senior John Goodman. Like Jones, he too averaged less than 10 yards per catch in 2011 (seven catches, 65 yards), and in four years he has 28 receptions. Kelly has labeled Goodman an “enigma” because he often has displayed flashes in practice but couldn’t display it consistently on game day.
“How do we get to that consistency where this is something we can lean on every week?” stated Denbrock. “It’s not something that is hit and miss throughout the season. That starts in the offensive staff.”
Beyond Jones and Goodman on the outside, the Irish this spring have two juniors-to-be in Daniel Smith and Luke Massa, neither of whom has snared a reception in his first two seasons. Both possess 6-4 height but neither appears to be the answer as a downfield vertical threat. Smith has been hampered by numerous injuries, and Massa was converted from quarterback in the spring of 2011 and is a work in progress.
“Our plan offensively will include trying to stretch the field a lot more than we have the first couple of years,” Denbrock said. “We have to create more chunk plays, we have to get some bigger chunks of yardage at times … hopefully one of those guys is already here in the program. If not, hopefully we can develop him if he’s not showing himself yet. If not, we better go find him.”
The Irish thought they had that prospect in five-star recruit Deontay Greenberry, but on signing day he opted to sign with Houston instead of Notre Dame. The Irish did ink two receivers in Chris Brown and Justin Ferguson, but neither is an early enrollee who can work with the team this spring, and neither arrives with quite the fanfare as Greenberry would have.
“Our objective is to maximize the abilities of our young guys and get some of those guys cranked up to speed so that they’re confident and ready to contribute to this football team as we move forward,” Denbrock said. “We’ve got guys with plenty of ability at all the positions on our offensive football team, and those guys have now got to step in to that role.”
Replacing Floyd won’t be possible, but that doesn’t mean the Irish can’t play better collectively as a team. Exhibit A is the current men’s basketball program that has thrived even without star player and All-Big East candidate Tim Abromaitis. Would the team have done as well with him, or would it have looked to him as the crutch and not developed or blossomed collectively?
“I don’t think you can ask one guy to step into Mike Floyd’s role in this offense and say this is the guy who is going to take over his position, he’s ready to go, and anoint somebody and just hope that he works out,” Denbrock said. “I think we’re going to spread the ball around to a lot of different guys. I think we’re going to get as many guys involved as we possibly can in this thing and use the talents that they bring. We’ve got a lot of talented guys offensively, and we’re going to try to use every one of them.”
Because Eifert was a prominent pass catcher and often split out from the formation, Denbrock and the receiving corps are quite familiar with each other, so that transition should be relatively seamless.
“We have a good relationship already headed into this,” Denbrock said. “It’s not like I was isolated or separated from those guys at any point last year.
“My time with Coach Kelly and his time in Grand Valley, I coached the wide receivers and also coached the quarterbacks and the running backs. I’ve seen it from all angles from the offense that he has in place here. I think it’s an easy transition to make.”