SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Precisely who is calling Notre Dame’s offensive plays remains shrouded in mystery. Is it coach Brian Kelly? Is it offensive coordinator Mike Sanford? Is it associate head coach Mike Denbrock (who, reading the tea leaves, seems to be the guy)? Is it some combination of all three?
Or maybe here’s the better question to ask: Does it really matter?
Notre Dame’s offense was remarkably prolific in the regular season, averaging 7.13 yards per play (5th in FBS) and 34.8 points per game (31st) despite losing its starting quarterback and starting running back in the first two weeks of the season. The Kelly-Sanford-Denbrock offensive triumvirate, then, was a successful partnership.
“I would judge it by the result,” Denbrock said.
But what’s clear is Sanford infused a certain level of aggression into Notre Dame’s offensive mix. The Irish totaled 35 plays of 30 or more yards during the regular season, the highest total in Kelly’s six-year tenure.
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It helps, of course, to have the personnel — a strong-armed quarterback, two speedy/physical running backs, an explosive wide receiver and a dominant offensive line — but Sanford helped take those pieces and mold them into an offense that came a handful of points away from an undefeated regular season.
“He’s going to take shots at you,” quarterback DeShone Kizer said. “He’s not going to accept a four-yard out. He wants to go vertical, and that mindset I feel like is what changed us to more of an explosive offense throughout the season.”
Wide receiver Will Fuller, who ranks sixth nationally with 14 plays of 30 or more yards (and nine of those plays went for touchdowns), said Sanford’s playcalls are generally more aggressive while Denbrock’s lean conservative. That’s some vague insight right into the playcalling, though Kizer said Sanford’s “not out there calling plays, but he is gameplanning,” for what it’s worth.
“You're dealing with three guys with myself, Coach Denbrock and Coach Kelly in guys that don't care about getting the credit, we just want to win football games,” Sanford said. “I know it sounds cliche, but that's who we are. Outside of two Saturdays, we've been pretty successful at it. That's really to the credit of these players for taking the plans we have in place and executing them.”
The process Denbrock described is each member of the offensive trio will present a play to the other two, then have it picked apart and analyzed until it’s either thrown out or stamped as something that could be used on Saturdays.
Kelly and Denbrock first worked together at Grand Valley State back in the 1980s and have an extensive history together. Kelly said he brought in Sanford with idea he’d “turn the room upside down,” but really, Notre Dame’s offense needed a new voice to help progress it to the level at which it needed to be.
“Brian and I have spent a lot time in meeting rooms together questioning whether we’re doing things the right way, trying to figure it out,” Denbrock said. “To have a fresh perspective come into that the way Mike has, with the attitude he has about being part of it, it’s been incredibly positive.”
If Notre Dame is able to beat Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl New Year’s Day, it’ll be because Kelly, Sanford and Denbrock figured out how to solve a defense that didn’t allow many explosive plays this fall. Getting Fuller open is a must, as is establishing the run with the expected return of C.J. Prosise and the continued emergence of Josh Adams.
What will matter on Friday in Glendale isn’t necessarily who’s calling the plays, but how effective those plays are. And through a dozen games, most of those plays have been pretty effective.