SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Mike Sanford will drop into a lineman’s three-point stance, split out wide like a receiver and even break into a backpedal like a defensive back during quarterback drills at Notre Dame.
The new Fighting Irish offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach brings a different kind of energy to coach Brian Kelly’s staff, along with new ideas.
Since taking over the Fighting Irish six seasons ago, Kelly has leaned on longtime and trusted assistants to execute his vision for the offense. Hiring Sanford was a step out of Kelly’s comfort zone, but he insists the change has less to do with Kelly and more to do to with what is now available to him at Notre Dame.
“I think what it signals more than anything else is that at Notre Dame we have the resources now to bring in the very best,” Kelly told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “And if we don’t do that, then shame on us.”
At 33 years old, Sanford is a rising coaching star who had plenty of options when Kelly came calling after last season, looking for a new quarterbacks coach. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was among those who courted Sanford after he spent one season as offensive coordinator at Boise State. Before that, Sanford had spent most of his 10-year career working under Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw at Stanford. His father, Mike Sanford, was also a longtime college coach.
The Notre Dame mystique helped lure the younger Sanford to South Bend.
“Just being able to coach at what I consider the purest college football program in America that still values the academics and the university experience, but you’re also playing with the expectations of winning championships,” he said during Notre Dame media day. “Just that combination and the kind of young men you have a chance to coach is unique to this place.”
Kelly said his priority was to hire the best quarterback coach he could find.
“And then along the way, as I spent more time with (Sanford), it was pretty clear in my mind that I had found more than just a quarterback coach,” Kelly said.
So he made Sanford offensive coordinator, too.
“Mike Sanford brings in a whole different set of ideas to the room,” Kelly said. “So when I walk into that room, I don’t have all the ideas. It felt like for the last four or five years, that I had to provide all the energy in that room. And now Mike provides a great deal of the ideas, the energy and along with (receivers coach) Mike Denbrock now, Mike can take that and now we’ve got something brewing pretty good.”
Sanford said he was not concerned about not having full ownership of the offense. Not only does Kelly have a say — usually the final say — but so does Denbrock, who was offensive coordinator last season.
Kelly said Tuesday play-calling duties have not been decided, but he expects all three will have input.
“Here’s the thing: I’ve been fortunate enough to call plays,” Sanford said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be around what I would consider some of the best play-callers in the country. I feel very confident in my abilities to do that. I’m in a continual process of learning, and I hope I’m like that until the day that I stop coaching. But the play-calling piece of it, we’re going to figure that out as a staff and it’s going to be what puts our players in the best position to be successful.”
Kelly has his most talented team yet at Notre Dame. He said it is faster, more athletic and deeper than even the 2012 team that played for the BCS national title. Whether the Irish can make a run at the playoff will depend greatly on how Sanford is able to develop first-year starting quarterback Malik Zaire.
Kelly also takes a hands-on approach with his quarterbacks, but he will now entrust Sanford with his team’s most pivotal player.
“Coach Kelly was very comfortable with Mike’s teaching methods, his fundamental development and the things he was going to do with the quarterbacks,” Denbrock said. “Even when he can’t be in the meeting room, he knows what the dialogue is like and what’s being said.”
Zaire gave an encouraging preview of his talents in a bowl victory against LSU in December. Now it is up to Sanford to take the rugged runner and make him a more refined passer.
“His ability to keep us focused on one task at a time and kind of build on it from there has greatly improved our quarterback group as a whole,” Zaire said.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at http://www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP