Notre Dame’s hiring of Mike Denbrock as offensive coordinator marks his third hiring by the Irish. The 59-year-old play-caller first spent three seasons from 2002 to 2004 coaching the Notre Dame offensive tackles and tight ends. He returned for seven seasons from 2010 to 2016 in different capacities. That stint included handling the team’s passing game for two seasons in 2012 and 2013, followed by a one-year run as offensive coordinator in 2014.
Denbrock’s career has long been connected to the fortunes of former Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, beginning with a seven-year run from 1992 to 1998 at Grand Valley State. When Kelly took over the Irish program in 2010, the two coaches reunited, a run that included a trip to the 2012 BCS title game.
Queen City Run
The success of Denbrock’s second stretch at Notre Dame led to his hiring in 2017 as offensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati under new head coach Luke Fickell. On that same staff during Denbrock’s first four seasons was current Irish head coach Marcus Freeman, who watched Denbrock methodically energize the Bearcats’ offense.
During that 2017 rebuilding campaign, the Bearcats struggled on the field with a 4-8 record but managed to throw for over 2,500 yards and toss 20 touchdown passes. In addition, Cincinnati offered a balanced running game in which four different runners ran for at least 300 yards.
Shifting Into High Gear
The following season, the Bearcats transformed into an 11-2 team that returned to bowl competition. Denbrock’s influence began to take shape as Cincinnati averaged just under 35 points per game, thanks to the team’s talented new signal-caller, Desmond Ridder.
Ridder threw for 2,445 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2018 and was aided by six different receivers catching at least 20 passes on the year. Denbrock’s play-calling found a way to offer the Bearcat offense some balance in the form of running back Michael Warren, who rushed for 1,329 yards and reached the end zone 19 times.
Building on that momentum, Denbrock’s 2019 Cincinnati offense largely mirrored the previous year’s emergence. Ridder threw for 2,164 yards and 20 touchdowns and spread the ball around, with seven receivers making at least 10 catches on the year. The team’s running game was once again powered by Warren, who ran for 1,265 yards as the Bearcats put up 415 points for the year.
The pandemic-affected 2020 season limited Cincinnati to just 10 games, but the Bearcats won nine of those contests. They finished with a 9-1 record, ranking eighth in the final Associated Press poll. In six of those contests, the Bearcats scored at least 30 points.
Despite the reduction of games, Ridder again put up strong numbers with 2,296 yards through the air and 19 touchdown passes. Nine different Bearcat receivers reached double-figures in receptions. In addition, Denbrock’s calls with the running game resulted in an average of 212 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry.
Denbrock Magic in 2021
After that season, Freeman moved on to become Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator. During the ensuing campaign, he had problems handling Denbrook’s high-powered offense during Cincinnati’s 24-13 win over the Irish. In that game, the Bearcats picked up 394 yards of offense.
That victory was part of an undefeated regular season for Cincinnati and led to a Cotton Bowl berth against Alabama. While the Bearcats fell to the Crimson Tide in that contest, Denbrock’s impact caught the attention of Kelly, who hired him as LSU’s new offensive coordinator for the 2022 season.
Roaring Tiger Offense
LSU finished 10-4 in 2022, aided by a 137-point jump in scoring from the year before. This season, the Tigers won nine of their 12 regular season games, with the offense delivering a high-energy experience all season long. In those 12 contests, they scored an eye-popping 557 points.
The main weapon wielded by Denbrock during his two seasons was quarterback Jayden Daniels, who had transferred from Arizona State after the 2021 campaign. Daniels first threw for 2,913 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2022, a mere precursor to his eruption this past season.
Daniels followed up by throwing for 3,812 yards and 40 touchdowns and was also dangerous with his legs, rushing for a team-leading 1,134 yards and 10 scores. Not surprisingly, Daniels ended up capturing the Heisman Trophy.
Denbrock arrives just days after his predecessor, Gerad Parker, accepted the head coaching job at Troy. In the final weeks of this year’s regular season, some speculation about Parker’s future with the Irish emerged, even though Freeman gave no indications that a change was in the works.
Like his first season at LSU, Denbrock will be integrating a transfer quarterback into his 2024 offense. While Riley Leonard isn’t likely to put up similar numbers to Daniels, his talents and mobility figure to be a combination that Denbrock will make every effort to exploit. Changes in the running game as well as the receiving corps will also be fascinating to watch as the Irish look to again challenge for a national title.