March 03, 2015 - Dave Miller
Intrigue surrounds the Notre Dame offense
Follow @Miller_Dave Brian Kelly isn't afraid to shake things up when he isn't happy with the product he is fielding. The Notre Dame head coach officially named 32-year-old Mike Sanford to be the team's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and it's a big import for the Fighting Irish staff. Sanford is considered one of the bright young minds in the college game, a future head coach sooner rather than later. But when news first circulated of the impending hire, it came as a bit of a surprise because previous offensive hires by Kelly were usually names linked to the head coach's past. Mike Denbrock, Matt LaFleur, Chuck Martin and Charley Molnar all landed jobs in South Bend because they had previous coaching experience with Kelly. Sometimes the hires worked, and sometimes they didn't. One thing, though, is certain: the Irish offense needed a boost after a turnover-laden season in 2014. And Sanford, whose father was once Notre Dame's quarterbacks coach (1997-98), could be just the right tonic to help stabilize an offense that returns a lot of intriguing pieces in the fall. In his only year as OC at Boise State under Broncos first-year head coach Bryan Harsin, Sanford directed the No. 9 scoring offense (39.7 points per game) and helped guide the team to a Fiesta Bowl victory over Arizona. It was a unit that was very balanced, as the Broncos ranked 29th in rushing and 23rd in passing nationally. Sanford landed the gig after coaching the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers in three seasons at Stanford, as he was part of three Cardinal teams that claimed BCS berths. Kelly, quite simply, found himself a winner in Sanford. A coach that reportedly was in the mix for the OC opening at Ohio State that went to Tim Beck. Of course, Kelly recently lost assistant Tony Alford to Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes, yet another assistant that left South Bend for Columbus. With Sanford in the mix, a lot is expected of an ND offense that will return nine starters (the Irish return 19 of 22 starters overall from last season). Expect running the football to be a priority. And, of course, putting the skill players in the best position to make as many explosive plays down the field as possible. The only question is exactly how much control Sanford will possess once the new season kicks off. When Kelly met with the then-Boise State OC, he was simply seeking a new QBs coach because Matt LaFleur left for a job with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. But Kelly was so impressed by his chat with Sanford that he thought it would be a good idea to expand his role beyond a position coach because the two shared similar offensive philosophies. Kelly has not yet announced who will call the offensive plays, so he could essentially have those duties as he has had in four of his five seasons at ND. A decision is expected to come after spring practice ends on April 18. However, adding Sanford is a clear sign that Kelly wants to maximize the potential of an offense that returns all five offensive linemen that started the Music City Bowl win over LSU, a pair of running backs with extensive playing time, a very deep receiving corps and two quarterbacks capable of starting at most every program across the country. Of course, those signal-callers will be at the forefront of spring and fall camp. Everett Golson recorded 37 touchdowns but also 22 turnovers last year, while lefty Malik Zaire 'wowed' at times in Nashville against the Bayou Bengals. Is a two-quarterback system workable if the Irish go that route? Kelly and the Irish have had back-to-back disappointing seasons since their surprise run to the BCS national title game against Alabama. With Sanford bringing diversity, intrigue and balance to the mix, the offense should at least be improved, increasing the program's chances of being national contenders once again. Dave Miller, the college football editor for the National Football Post, is on Twitter @Miller_Dave.