Pressure is On Brian Kelly to Find Offensive Coordinator

Photo: © Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Photo: © Matt Cashore // USA TODAY Sports

With Thursday’s news that Mike Denbrock is leaving Notre Dame to become the offensive coordinator for Cincinnati, the pressure just dialed up on Brian Kelly.  Notre Dame’s embattled head coach has three vacancies on his offensive staff and Denbrock’s departure tells us Kelly didn’t want to give him too much control of the offense.

Mike Denbrock has called the plays for Notre Dame the past two seasons despite Mike Sanford holding the offensive coordinator title. With Sanford out, the easy move would have been for Kelly to simply promote Denbrock and give him control of the offense.  Denbrock leaving for Cincinnati is a tell tale sign that Kelly didn’t want to do that.

When news broke on Tuesday night that Denbrock was likely leaving, it was quickly shot down by multiple reports that he was still deciding.  The day and a half in between those reports and last night’s news that Denbrock accepted the Cincinnati position likely involved some decision making by Brian Kelly.  Should he give the keys to the offense over to Denbrock or does he keep them locked up in his office?

Last night’s news let us know what Kelly decided.

By letting Denbrock – one of his best recruiters – walk out the door and travel just a few hours southeast to Cincinnati, Kelly has dialed up the already mounting pressure on him heading into 2017.  Five weeks before Signing Day he lost one of his best recruiters and he now has another major decision to make.  Does he take over full control of the offense and either right the ship or go down with it? Or does he bring in a brand new voice on the offensive side of the ball?

With Sanford, Denbrock, and Scott Booker all no longer on his staff; Harry Hiestand and Autry Denson are the only offensive assistants who will be back in 2017.   That type of overhaul could open the door for a major change for Kelly on the offensive side of the ball.

While that line of thinking is nice, it also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense knowing what we know about Brian Kelly.  The first time he replaced an offensive coordinator at Notre Dame he moved Chuck Martin over from defense to be his OC because he knew him.  When he replaced Martin after he got the Miami of Ohio job, Kelly tapped Denbrock – another known quantity for him.

The only time Kelly has ventured outside of his offensive safe zone during his time at Notre Dame was when he hired Sanford.  And even when he brought in the up and coming offensive coordinator and gave him the title that Denbrock had occupied the season before, he still let Denbrock call the plays.

In short, Kelly has never let anyone have full reign of the Notre Dame offense.  Part of the problem in 2016 was the three headed monster he created in the process.

The name Mark Helfrich has been floated around the last couple days in connection with the opening at OC at Notre Dame. Let me go ahead now and say hiring Helfrich would be akin to Charlie Weis’s decision to hire Jon Tenuta and give him full control of the defense in 2009.  That move played an integral role in the failures of the 2009 Fighting Irish that led to his dismissal.

Recruiting Impact

On the recruiting trail, the loss of Mike Denbrock may have already played a role in Jordan Pouncey’s decision to decommit earlier this week.  It could also impact Notre Dame’s chances of adding any more wide receivers to the class of 2017.  Currently the Irish only have one wide receiver committed – Michael Young – but do have several targets left on the board.

If Notre Dame comes up empty in adding anymore wide receivers in February though, Kelly need only look back to this decision as one of the reasons.  For all the criticism (some of it unwarranted) for Denbrock on the message boards for his coaching, he was a hell of a recruiter and was one of the biggest reasons this class hasn’t fallen apart as the losses mounted this fall.

Denbrock excelled at identifying raw wide receivers and coaching them up like Will Fuller and most recently Kevin Stepherson.

Is the Next OC Already at Notre Dame?

Logic is telling us that Notre Dame’s next offensive coordinator is already in South Bend.  Jeff Quinn has held various roles at Notre Dame the last two seasons without being a full-time assistant, but he did serve as Kelly’s OC at Cincinnati, Central Michigan, and Grand Valley State.

Brian Kelly had Jeff Quinn along side him as his offensive coordinator as he ascended up the coaching ranks to become the hottest name on the coaching search market following the 2009 season.  As Kelly looks to reverse course at Notre Dame and get back to where it appeared he had this program headed just 12 months ago, all signs point to Jeff Quinn as being an obvious choice.

Quinn also could serve as the tight ends coach for Notre Dame which would give Kelly one vacancy and one position to fill at wide receiver.  Who knows, maybe Kelly will find some young up and coming wide receivers coach who will some day win a national title at Notre Dame.  Nah, that’s too unbelievable.

Just because logic is pointing in that direction and Brian Kelly’s past history indicate that is exactly the move he would make doesn’t make the decision the right one though.  There is a very valid argument to be made for bringing in an outside voice and letting them run the Notre Dame offense while Kelly focuses on the entire program.  Doing that, however, would be a rarity for Kelly.

At the same time, the last time Kelly tapped a longtime friend and associate to run his offense was prior to the 2012 season when Martin moved over from the Irish secondary to run the offense.  At the time it looked like a curious move.  It ended up working out alright that time though.

Make or Break Decision for Brian Kelly

Whatever route Kelly takes here, he won’t be able to hide from the decision to let Mike Denbrock walk out the door of the Gug if the Notre Dame offense does not return to form under first year starter Brandon Wimbush.  Denbrock will be right down the road essentially and if he has any level of success with the Bearcat offense, it’ll be unescapable for Kelly.

Logic is telling us where this is where we’re headed, but hell, logic told us all that Notre Dame wouldn’t throw the ball repeatedly in a hurricane in Raleigh in October.  Look how far that got us.

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  1. Sick and tired of hearing about this way and that way, this guy and that guy. KISS, just give ball to the stud and play cloud of dust college ball!

  2. Just read that ND maybe hiring Memphis OC Chip Long. Not familiar with him, but did read he is one of the top recruiters in the nation.

  3. My opinion is this…

    Kelly knows he is on the hot seat to where he may be fired, even mid-season, if his team doesn’t begin to produce wins. He knows the offense was a huge struggle this year and he had the confidence in Denbrock (call plays) and Sanford (analysis in booth) to basically run the show. This clearly didn’t work out.

    If Kelly’s specialty as a coach has been running an offense and has had huge success in the past doing it, then he needs to take full control of the offense and call the plays this season, even as the head coach. The reason for doing this is so that he has nobody but himself to blame if the offense fails.

    I don’t know about you all but if my job is on the line, I would want complete control and not rely on someone else to get the job done. Obviously Kelly cannot control the whole team but offense is his subject matter expertise so this is absolutely where he should focus. He should call plays, build the gameplans, etc.

    Doing this may help him save his job another year if the offense becomes very successful again, even if the defense struggles a bit and ND doesn’t get 10 or more wins as he will have the argument that a 1st year d-coordinator is on his staff. If the offense is putting up huge yards and points a game, then that could be considered a success for the team since this year’s offense was terrible and show that ND is at least moving in the right direction on offense again.

    If I’m Kelly, this is how I would approach it.

  4. While we’re at it (looking for an OC), why not ask him to bring in a new OL coach also. I know a lot of you are, but I’m not a fan of HH. Just from observation, it appears that our QB has less time to find open receivers than opponent’s QB’s have. More time to throw, more first downs, more time off the clock, less strain on our D, more wins.

    1. If you were watching only Notre Dame games, then you may be right. However, I would say that might be more due to Notre Dame’s D ranking near last place in sacks/game then anything else.

      1. @MRP…yes I agree, improve our D. But short of that major task, why not improve our OL. Seems like to me, an obvious first step.

  5. It really appears to me at this may be the beginning of the end for Kelly. I say that as a guy who truly believes finding another coach that’s “as good”…may be way harder than the average fan believes it is.

    Firstly, we have an untested, 1st year starter in the spring. Granted, the kid can play ball but there’s gonna be growing pains.

    We need a new OC…errr new OC TITLE to give to a new coach. History tells us that kelly is really stingy with fully empowering a single guy with offense. I’m to assume/presume that the offense play calling will look exactly the same as it has for last 7 years.

    We have a new DC! That’s a good thing…however I can’t say I have a lot of confidence that he’s going to mirculasly turn these kids into a top tier defensive unit by late August of 2017. Is he that good of a coach? It’s not going to take him 2-3 years to fully bring these kids up to speed in his defensive packages?

    I really want to believe he New ST coach can make an impact. thats an area that will improve.

    Idk, perhaps I’m really negative after the 2016 season. Vacated wins. Players legal problems. It really seems like next year may be the straw that breaks the camels back for Kelly.

    We shall see.

  6. Kelly either has to have full control of the offense and change it to an I formation, pro style offense along with running spread mixed in ala, Michigan, Michigan State, Florida, State runs or The other choice I would like to see is Kelly hire a great offensive coordinator and give him full control. If he brings in someone and he has his involvement in it then expect more of what we have seen the last 7 years, inconsistent play.

  7. Didn’t everyone bitch about play calling this year? Wasn’t Denbrock calling the plays? I like his hire for D-coordinaor and he needs to hire an offensive coordinator and let him run the offense

    1. Jack,

      Yes everyone was bitching about the play calling because it was the worst we all had seen as ND fans. However, I’m not sure most were even aware that Denbrock was calling the plays, Sanford was performing offensive analysis up in the booth, and Kelly was just sort of overseeing it all.

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