Notre Dame’s whirlwind offseason hasn’t reached Mike Denbrock, yet

Notre Dame’s whirlwind offseason hasn’t reached Mike Denbrock, yet

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. 

Notre Dame announces new WR, strength coaches

Notre Dame announces new WR, strength coaches

Notre Dame on Thursday announced the formal hiring of two new assistant coaches, one of which featured a somewhat surprising postscript. 

The program's new wide receivers coach will be DelVaughn Alexander, who joins the Irish from Arizona State. Alexander coached tight ends for the Sun Devils in 2016 and spent 2012-2015 as ASU's wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator.

Prior to his stint in Tempe, Washington was Wisconsin's receivers coach from 2007-2011 and also spent time at UNLV, Oregon State and San Diego State. 

"I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country,” Alexander said. “Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” coach Brian Kelly said “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

In addition to Washington, Notre Dame announced the hiring of Matt Balis as strength and conditioning coach, with Balis replacing longtime Brian Kelly lieutenant Paul Longo in that position. Longo has "taken a leave of absence" from the Irish, according to the program's press release. 

Balis has served in strength coach roles at Houston (2001-2002), Utah (2004), (Florida 2005-2006), Virginia (2007-2008), Mississippi State (2009-2013) and UConn (2014-2016). At UConn, Balis worked under former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco; while at Utah and Florida, Balis worked with current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. 

Whatever changes Balis brings to Notre Dame strength and conditioning will be necessary, as the Irish frequently ran out of gas late in games in 2016. By S&P+, Notre Dame had the second-best first quarter offense in college football last year, but ranked 90th in the fourth quarter. Similarly, Notre Dame's defense had its lowest ranking (61st) in the fourth quarter. 

Granted, some of those struggles were due to poor playcalling and gameplanning, but far too often did Notre Dame's players hit a metaphorical brick wall in the final 15 minutes. Perhaps an infusion of new energy into the weight room will help reverse that trend. 

"It's an honor and dream come true to be part of the Notre Dame football program," Balis said. "I'm humbled by this opportunity and I'll work hard everyday to give our players and program my absolute best."

"Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh," Kelly said. "He's already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn't be more excited to have him in place moving forward."

Notre Dame officially hires Clark Lea as linebackers coach

Notre Dame officially hires Clark Lea as linebackers coach

Mike Elko's first coaching staff as Notre Dame defensive coordinator is beginning to take shape, with the Irish announcing Thursday the hiring of Clark Lea as linebackers coach. 

Lea spent 2016 as Wake Forest's linebackers coach -- under Elko -- and previously held positions on coaching staffs at Bowling Green, Syracuse and UCLA. 

"Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system -- having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

In 2016, Lea coached Demon Deacons linebacker Marquel Lee, who was the only FBS player with 100 or more tackles, 20 or more tackles for a loss and 7 1/2 or more sacks last fall. Nationally, Lee ranked 62nd in tackles (105), 10th in tackles for a loss (20) and 53rd in sacks (7 1/2).

Lea also worked with former All-American linebacker Akeem Ayers at UCLA. 

The Nashville native and Vanderbilt alum (he earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees in political science) was also nominated by FootballScoop for its linebackers coach of the year award in 2012 while working with Elko at Bowling Green. 

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”