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Mike Sanford hire could signal big things for Notre Dame

3/2/2015

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Mike Sanford is a 32-year-old rising star in the coaching business. In his lone year as offensive coordinator at Boise State, he helped the Broncos claim the No. 9 scoring offense and a Fiesta Bowl win.

At Stanford, Sanford coached quarterbacks, running backs and receivers, with each of his three Cardinal seasons ending in a BCS bowl. At Yale, he coached fullbacks and tight ends, while also serving as recruiting coordinator. His father, also Mike, is currently the head coach at Indiana State, and once served as Notre Dame's quarterbacks coach, back in 1997 and '98.

The younger Sanford's daughter is named Peyton, because of course she is.

Brian Kelly has, by any measure, landed Notre Dame a cookie-cutter image of an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in Sanford. That alone should make this an intriguing enough hire for the Irish. Contrast Sanford's background with that of Kelly's previous offensive hirings, however, and the possibilities sure are tantalizing for a 2015 Irish squad that returns nine starters on that side of the ball.

From Mike Denbrock, Matt LaFleur, Chuck Martin and Charley Molnar at Notre Dame, to Jeff Quinn at Cincinnati, Central Michigan and Grand Valley State, all of Kelly's offensive aides have had one thing in common: Experience working for him. That has proven beneficial, as was the case with a 2009 Cincinnati squad that ranked fourth in scoring (38.6 ppg) or a 2012 Irish unit that knew how to manage a first-time starting QB (Everett Golson). It has also, directly or indirectly, hampered the Irish offense from truly taking off five years into the Kelly regime, as evidenced by the turnover-filled campaigns of talented 2011 and 2014 teams.

Now comes Sanford, a man entering relatively foreign territory for an offensive mind of his status, bringing validation to an operation with all of the tools necessary to break out this fall.

"I've been around some spread offenses. In fact, my dad coming off the coordinator job that he had at the University of Utah with Urban Meyer, that at the time was revolutionary football: triple-option offense from the shotgun hadn't been done a ton back in the early 2000s," Sanford said Monday, talking about his first job, at UNLV in 2005. "So I had a chance to GA in that offense, and then ended up going from there to Stanford. And the biggest thing that I found is obviously championship football, a lot of times it comes down to who runs the football the best, and then who makes the explosive plays down the field in the throwing game."

Sanford was reportedly courted by Meyer at Ohio State, among others. The fact Kelly was able to land an up-and-comer that the defending national champion could not is no small feat from a perception standpoint -- not to mention the fact that he did this after Meyer had already landed a third assistant from Notre Dame in the last four years, Tony Alford.

Sanford's reason Monday for picking the Irish was rather philosophical, one befitting a coach on the path to running his own program in the near future:

"One thing that was really unique about really my background as a coach in the last 10 years of doing this, and then this opportunity, is that I think every head coach that I've worked for was either in their first or second year as a head coach at that particular school or really at that level. So you're talking about some new head coaches. Between my dad who was a first-time head coach at UNLV, Jim Harbaugh had come from the University of San Diego but was really at the Pac-12 level certainly his first year, and then Willie Taggart, Tom Williams at Yale. So I've had a chance to be part of the beginnings of someone's figuring out (of) their philosophies, which was a great experience for me.

"But now I have a chance to work for a guy that's a 25-plus year head coach, and to learn from somebody who's been through all the highs and lows of being a head coach. One thing I respect tremendously about Coach Kelly is he's done it from Div. II level, and he's had success all the way, and I've always respected the heck out of that. A lot of people come into this profession and they've lived a very charmed life, and they're thrust right into an opportunity like this at a young age, but he was a guy that scratched and clawed and worked his way up as a longtime head coach, and I think that experience -- I'm always in the pursuit of learning more and growing more, both as a coach and as a man, as a person, and this provided a tremendous opportunity with Coach Kelly and his experience, for me to pick his brain and to really just sit back and observe the way he runs this football team."

How much control Sanford will have remains unclear, as play-calling duties have yet to be assigned. This is, after all, Kelly's program, and he has called the plays in four of five years so far at Notre Dame. Still, for a unit whose most impressive performance was the one freshest in everyone's minds -- a 51-run, 26-pass attack in a bowl win over LSU -- the addition of Sanford could signal a more diverse attack.

Which, in the short-term, could mean a simpler attack.

All five offensive line starters from the bowl win are back. Two of the Irish's top three running backs are, too. And, of course, there is the plethora of young receivers and perhaps two experienced quarterbacks.

This should give Notre Dame options, with neither the run nor pass game having to feel too much pressure. In his lone year at Boise State, Sanford oversaw a unit that was as consistently strong as any at balancing things offensively: The Broncos ranked 29th in rushing, 23rd in passing. They improved in both categories from a year before, despite a new coaching staff.

"We didn't want somebody to be equal," Kelly said of hiring Sanford. "We wanted somebody that was going to turn that room upside down, that was that good. We weren't going to settle for somebody that was on the same plane. We wanted somebody that was going to challenge us on a day‑to‑day basis. Mike does that. "

The pieces Notre Dame has returning provide plenty of promise for a potential Playoff run this fall. Scooping up a coveted outsider could go a long way toward the Irish getting in.