Notre Dame’s 2017 coaching staff will have a significantly different makeup than the one that oversaw last fall’s 4-8 debacle. But whether or not associate head coach/wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock is part of that turnover remains to be seen.
After Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel reported Tuesday night Denbrock is expected to accept as position as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator, a source close to the situation said Wednesday morning that report was premature and Denbrock hasn’t made a decision. The source also said Denbrock, who called plays in 2015 and 2016 and was coach Brian Kelly’s offensive coordinator in 2014, isn’t being pushed out the door to another job.
Denbrock has long been at Kelly’s side, with the pair’s history dating back to both getting their beginnings in the coaching business at Division II Grand Valley State. Denbrock was both an offensive and defensive coordinator under Kelly at Grand Valley State from 1992-1998, and the two reunited when Kelly accepted the Notre Dame job after the 2009 regular season.
If Denbrock were to leave to join Luke Fickell’s staff at Cincinnati, it would cleave an important deputy away from Kelly’s 2017 rebuilding efforts. While it seems unlikely Denbrock would be given play calling duties again next year — maintaining the status quo on a talented offense that only graded out as mediocre would be a sign of misplaced trust — his presence on the practice field is a large one that extends beyond his receivers group.
Within that receivers group are plenty of promising underclassmen who will make a critical Year 2 to Year 3 leap this summer: Equanimeous St. Brown (58 catches, 961 yards, 9 TDs), C.J. Sanders (24 catches, 293 yards, 2 TDs), Chris Finke (10 catches, 122 yards, 2 TDs) and, potentially, Alize Jones (who was ineligible in 2016 but began to take reps at wide receiver last spring). 2016 freshmen Kevin Stepherson (25 catches, 462 yards, 5 TDs) and Chase Claypool (five catches, 81 yards, but nine special teams tackles) showed plenty of promise, too.
Denbrock has also proven to be an asset in recruiting, which could be critical after the NCAA’s mandated dead period lifts in mid-January and Notre Dame works to keep its 2017 class together while adding to a group 247 Sports ranks ninth nationally.
After Notre Dame’s season-ending loss at USC, Kelly said he would search for the right blend of continuity and change on his coaching staff going forward. So far, Mike Elko has been brought in from Wake Forest to coordinate the defense and Brian Polian was brought back to coach special teams, replacing Scott Booker. Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford accepted the head coaching gig at Western Kentucky, leaving a hole there, and it’s still to be determined whether or not Elko will keep Notre Dame’s current crop of defensive assistants (though Mike Elston is expected to be retained in some capacity).
So there still could be some more turnover coming on Kelly’s coaching staff, even before an offensive coordinator is hired. But losing Denbrock would mean Notre Dame’s offseason would be far more about change than continuity.