With the Notre Dame Fighting Irish heading into the meat of their spring schedule, Brian Kelly made his coordinators available to the local media on Wednesday. For Brian VanGorder, that meant another opportunity for media members to cobble together their best guesses as to what the new Irish defense will look like.
On the offensive side of the ball, there isn't quite as much mystery. Kelly will go back to calling plays. And while the Irish staff brought in new blood with the addition of quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur, the Irish head coach turned to his most trusted assistant to coordinate the offense.
In his two terms at Notre Dame, Mike Denbrock has coached just about every position on the offense. He's worked with offensive linemen and tight ends. He's coached wide receivers and coordinated the passing game. Now he's in charge of running an offense that will finally be able to open up a playbook that spent the first four seasons of the Kelly era limited by personnel.
#NotreDame QB Malik Zaire: "I'm competing with myself to get better every day and competing with myself to be the best QB in the country."— Matt Fortuna (@Matt_Fortuna) March 21, 2014
The timing couldn't be better for the offensive expansion. As the Irish prepare for one of the most difficult schedules in the country, there will be a significant weight on the shoulders of the offense as the Irish will likely need to win a few shootouts in 2014.
That's where Everett Golson comes in.
The rising senior's return to campus immediately allows the playbook to expand as Kelly and Denbrock embrace their spread roots. After cobbling together an identity based on ill-fitting personnel (Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix), both Golson and redshirt freshman Malik Zaire have the dual-threat ability that will allow the offense to properly take shape.
"Having the versatility we do at the quarterback position opens up a whole assortment of nuances and subtleties to some of the schemes that we were already running," Denbrock said, per Andrew Owens of BlueandGold.com, after practice on Wednesday.
That will be most evident in the running game, now likely to be predominantly zone read based. With Tommy Rees at the helm, not a defensive coordinator in the country expected the quarterback to pull the football and run with it. That allowed defenses to dictate terms as the Irish offense tried to take advantage of matchups, a cat-and-mouse game that forced Notre Dame to slow down and play situational football.
On paper, not much will change. But with Golson or Zaire behind center, the math gets different for opponents, and defenses need to account for a running quarterback.
"Putting defenses in a position that if they do want to put an extra defender in the box you can account for him with the quarterback running the football," Denbrock continued. "The blocking for the offensive line is very similar to some plays that we ran a year ago, although you add into it a read off of the extra defender in the box by the quarterback and give it or keep it and those types of things.
"Just the opportunity to get the quarterbacks with their athletic ability out in space and the defense a little bit more than we had are really the things that we’re kind of exploring and looking at and continue to tweak."
Turning Golson into the team's primary ball-carrier has never been the design. But a little bit goes a long way.
During the 2012 season, Kelly didn't turn to Golson as a running option until his feet were firmly beneath him. But while his 94 rushing attempts produced a modest 3.2 yards per carry, his six touchdown runs led the team. With a knowledge base that far exceeds the one he played with in 2012, expect the quarterback to be a strategic weapon to help optimize both the running and passing game.
"We'll run him to make sure that the defense knows he's a threat," Kelly said last week after practice. "We're not going to run him to gain three yards. We're going to run to tactically give us an opportunity to make big plays. We feel like we're going to use him to set up big plays."
Big plays are what this offense desperately needs as it moves into year five of the Kelly era.
The pieces are there to produce them. Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant and Cam McDaniel are all capable in the backfield. When DaVaris Daniels returns, he'll anchor a receiving corps which is able to take the top off a defense. And the offensive line might be the least talked about position group of the spring...just the way Harry Hiestand likes it.
But it all starts with the quarterback. And Everett Golson's return makes an offensive explosion possible.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.