Notre Dame Hit Homerun with Mike Sanford, Autry Denson

Mike Sanford Notre Dame OC
Notre Dame Offensive Coordinator Mike Sanford – Photo: Matt Cashore // USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame fans had every reason to feel anxious heading into the 2015 season. Head coach Brian Kelly had masterfully managed to keep cohesion within his coaching staff since heading to South Bend in 2010, but the endless coaching carousel of college football can only be kept at bay for so long. Kelly lost a number of assistant coaches this past offseason, although none as costly as Tony Alford, Notre Dame’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator. Alford was the one Kelly would dispatch when making one last recruiting pitch to a blue-chip prospect, and Alford served as Notre Dame’s main recruiting presence in Florida, arguably the most talent-rich state in the country. The losses to Brian Kelly’s staff were significant.

Complicating matters was the unproven nature of the new hires. Mike Sanford, the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, arrived with the reputation as one of the hottest young coaches on the market, but at the age of 33 there was still the question of experience. Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher and new running backs coach, Autry Denson, only received an interview out of respect for his history with the program before earning the job after an impressive interview. Denson, a Florida native, was a gamble considering he had only coached one season at the FBS level at Mid-American Conference member Miami (OH).

Not only did the anxiety prove to be unfounded, but Notre Dame would not be set to square off with Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl without Sanford and Denson, who have more than proven their coaching mettle against unthinkable odds.

Mike Sanford had the unenviable task of overseeing the quarterback duel between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire this spring, balancing time between fine-tuning Golson’s mechanics while preparing Zaire for life as a possible starter. The “quarterback whisperer”, as ESPN labeled Sanford in September, endured setback after setback in 2015, with the transfer of Everett Golson to the loss of Malik Zaire to injury, forcing an inexperienced redshirt freshman named DeShone Kizer into the lineup. And Sanford succeeded at developing whoever was lined up behind center no matter how limited their experience.

Malik Zaire, in his first appearance as the undisputed starting quarterback, recorded the second highest completion percentage in school history en route to a 38-3 manhandling of the Texas Longhorns. And when Zaire went down with injury, Sanford took DeShone Kizer, a quarterback who spent most of the spring practice session holding for kickers rather than taking reps at his position, and made him a solid starter capable of leading Notre Dame to an 8-2 record, with the lone losses coming on the road against top ten ranked teams in the waning seconds of the game.

Autry Denson faced a similar uphill battle after former five-star running back Greg Bryant left the program and starter Tarean Folston was lost for the season with a torn ACL. The running back position quickly transformed from a position of strength to one lacking any form of depth. Denson was charged with turning C.J. Prosise, a former safety prospect moved to wide receiver, into Notre Dame’s starting running back despite Prosise having never played the position at any level. Prosise became one of the most productive running backs Notre Dame has had since Julius Jones. But Denson’s most impressive feat involved the play of true freshman running back Josh Adams. Adams, forced into the starting lineup due to a Prosise injury, ran circles around Stanford’s Heisman candidate, Christian McCaffrey, gaining 168 yards on only 18 carries (9.3 yards per carry) to McCaffrey’s 97 yards on 27 carries (3.5 yards per carry).

The success of Notre Dame’s new assistants has created waves in the college football world. In addition to his on the field production, Autry Denson is making the most of his notoriety and is developing a reputation as an elite recruiter after securing an official visit from Ben Davis, an Alabama native whose father played for the Crimson Tide, as well as the No. 1 inside linebacker prospect in the nation. Mike Sanford living up to his status as one of the best up-and-coming coaches has led to his name being connected to several head coaching vacancies – with the most recent being Virginia – although Sanford has reportedly informed recruits he intends to stay at Notre Dame.

Concerns about the lack of experience of Notre Dame’s new hires have been answered, and Brian Kelly has done an excellent job of identifying new coaching talent. And while hanging on to that new talent will be a challenge – as it is for every elite program – it’s a welcome change for a Notre Dame team seeking to join its ranks.

Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at or follow him on Twitter.

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  1. ie. “Deal with the defense, NOW”? Fellas, we’re 2-plays-away from being 12-0 right now. Clemson man-handled us and a rookie, former practice squad/kicking team QB. Stanford validly just beat us. Technically, we’re 2-pays-away from being 12-0. But as I read elsewhere, we’re 2-plays-away from being 8-4. Luck, be it good or bad, happens. As men we like to think we win by design; we lose due to bad luck. (that’s also A big reason coaches paid big bucks) Serenity is a life-skill I’ve mastered as a disabled dude. AS FANS, (not coaches) we should all employ this maturity. (coaches are paid NOT to accept defeat but to prevent it)

  2. Sanford and Denson have both done an outstanding job.The Irish scored 36 pts at Stanford with their 3rd string QB and 4th string RB as the starters. Rankings were based at the time they were heading into spring camp.

  3. @ Scott Janssen – It’s been clear that the defensive secondary has been confused and has not bought into or understood BVG’s scheme. It’s not for a lack of effort on behalf of BVG. It’s just a scheme that is not working and is predictable in the secondary. All of the other coaches that BK brought in have done a great job. Let’s hope that this team is properly prepared for this bowl game! I’d love to see the Irish play their best football of the year against Ohio State and come away with a convincing victory!


  4. @ Frank Buzolits

    I did leave Keith Gilmore and Todd Lyght off intentionally but not for the reasons you might think. When you look at the body of work it’s just hard to argue that anyone did a better job than Mike Sanford and Autry Denson. It really is incredible how much success Notre Dame had at quarterback and running back given the circumstances. However, I’m really high on Keith Gilmore and Todd Lyght.

    The defensive line may not get the attention other positions do but I think Gilmore did a great job. Gilmore was finally able to generate some pass rush out of Romeo Okwara, something we’ve all been waiting to see. I don’t think the talent is there to generate a pass rush consistently right now, but Gilmore is also proving to be a pretty good recruiter.

    Todd Lyght, in my opinion, is the most underrated coach on the coaching staff. I completely understand why anyone would question me on that, but having seen Lyght in person at the Coach’s Clinic, he’s a walking encyclopedia when it comes to fundamentals, and he has the type of personality and coaching style that will get players to run through a wall for him. Obviously people will point to the production in the secondary and say he did a poor job, but if you look at the tape you’ll see safeties who look lost with their job responsibilities. And if you want my honest opinion, it’s VanGorder’s scheme that’s to blame, not Todd Lyght’s effectiveness as a coach.

  5. Because of how well their units contained Stanford during the last 30 seconds of the biggest game of the year I suppose

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