Notre Dame opened fall camp Monday at Culver Military Academy, the first official practice of the 2014 season.
As the Irish boarded buses Sunday and checked in for their one-week stay off campus, head coach Brian Kelly threw the first curveball of fall camp, announcing offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock would be sidelined for a few weeks while recovering from a medical procedure.
"Coach Denbrock had a recent surgical procedure that will force him to miss the first few weeks of preseason camp," Kelly said in a release circulated to media members on Sunday evening. "Mike is doing extremely well and everyone associated with the program looks forward to his return."
Kelly will handle Denbrock's duties in the interim, a natural fit for a head coach who will be calling offensive plays from the sideline this season.
Let's take a closer look at a few other interesting developments from the first day of Notre Dame camp.
No Denbrock is no problem...for now.
While no specifics were given on Denbrock's timeline, it's expected that Notre Dame's new offensive coordinator will be back and working with the team in plenty of time before the Irish take on Rice. As one of Kelly's most trusted lieutenants, losing the head of the offensive meeting room is far from ideal.
But while the timing isn't ideal, there might not be a better time for Denbrock to be absent. Kelly talked about how different this fall camp is than others, with quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire working from the same play calls, unlike in seasons past when the offensive staff had to work up multiple game plans depending on the quarterback.
"I'm scripting offense for the first time, really, since I've been here," Kelly said on Friday. "This is the first time that we don't have to have two scripts for two quarterbacks. They are running the same plays, and that is a huge advantage in terms of building that consistency throughout the ranks."
Down at Culver Military Academy for the week, the first few days of practice will be about acclimatizing and less about specific schemes and game-planning. That should make it easier for the Irish to get by without Denbrock, who sounded upbeat about his return to the team.
"I had surgery last week," Denbrock said in the same release. "I'm resting and feeling better every day, but I won't be able to join the team for the beginning of preseason camp. Safe to say, I'm already chomping at the bit to get back with the guys."
In addition to his responsibilities as the coordinator, Denbrock coaches the Irish wide receivers. Current running backs coach Tony Alford handled those duties from 2010-11, making him capable of helping out in Denbrock's absence. Scott Booker was an offensive intern before taking over the special teams and tight ends, and he's a viable option as well. Graduate assistant Ryan Mahaffey is set to be working with wide receivers this year as well.
When Mike Elston needed to take leave during the 2010 season, former strength coach Lorenzo Guess took over the tight ends while Denbrock coached Elston's defensive line. That could open the door for former Irish wide receiver David Grimes, now on Paul Longo's staff. Assistant director of strength and conditioning Jacob Flint was a former walk-on under Kelly at Central Michigan who earned a scholarship in his final season.
Denbrock will be missed. But for the time being, the Irish staff is well equipped to keep things on track.
While Brian Kelly isn't ready to name a starting quarterback, Everett Golson started camp as QB1.
After letting Everett Golson and Malik Zaire battle all spring, Kelly seemed content letting the quarterback battle continue into fall camp. But when the first-team offense took to the field on Monday, it was Golson taking snaps at quarterback.
That shouldn't be a surprise, even for all the talk coming from the head coach about Zaire still competing for the starting job.
As a senior and returning starter, Golson played against Alabama for the national title. Zaire has yet to play against another team.
Sophomore Mike McGlinchey exited spring practice as the team's right tackle. But he wasn't in the starting lineup on Monday.
On Friday, Kelly talked about the state of Notre Dame's offensive line. With the healthy return of veterans Nick Martin and Christian Lombard, Kelly felt confident about Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer joining the senior duo to help solidify four starting spots up front.
"With Lombard being healthy, a starter returns. Nick Martin being healthy, a starter returns," Kelly said. "Elmer, a starter returns. Stanley, a starter returns. So you're really talking about four starters returning on the offensive line. That's a good place to be. Now, we have to figure out who that fifth player is."
It looked like Mike McGlinchey was that player leaving spring practice, with the sophomore getting the first shot at the right tackle job while Elmer stayed inside at left guard. But updates from practice had McGlinchey running with the second team while senior Matt Hegarty played left guard and Elmer practiced at right tackle.
Hegarty seems like an out-of-the-blue contender for a starting spot, but maybe he shouldn't be. He spent the spring playing center in place of Martin, who was recovering from knee surgery.
That he filled in valiantly last year after Martin went down against BYU was one of the season's better stories, with Hegarty beating long odds to even be on the football field after he suffered a scary stroke and had a hole in his heart surgically repaired just a year earlier.
"You know how I feel about him, and I've made it pretty clear, Matt Hegarty has been outstanding," Kelly said on Friday.
Staying with the offensive line, one early crisis was averted when Stanley was carted off the field during Monday's practice. It turns out the junior left tackle merely needed an IV to deal with the steamy temperatures.
Time to make special teams special again.
Kelly has talked openly about the efforts made to get Notre Dame's special teams back up to snuff. With Kyle Brindza among the best specialists in the country, Scott Booker's all-important third phase needs to find answers everywhere else.
That means adding personnel to the coverage units. It also means finding replacements for George Atkinson as kickoff returner and T.J. Jones on punt returns.
There wasn't an early look at kickoff return, though Amir Carlisle filled in capably during the Pinstripe Bowl for Atkinson. Early punt return options include running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant along with fifth-year transfer Cody Riggs, who will play a key role in the secondary.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.
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