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Notre Dame Football

Marcus Freeman discusses new OC Mike Denbrock, prepping for Oregon State through chaos

December 28, 2023

Quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli will call plays in Friday’s Sun Bowl, but Notre Dame’s new offensive coordinator, Mike Denbrock, couldn’t resist the opportunity to be around the team in El Paso, Texas. 

On Thursday, Coach Marcus Freeman told the media that Denbrock recently flew to the United States border city to be with the team as they prepare to face No. 21 Oregon State. 

“To get him here and a part of our program is exciting. He was here yesterday,” Freeman said. “ (He) flew in yesterday and spent some time with the coaching staff, met with the players and flew out today. To have him back in South Bend as our offensive coordinator leading our offense is exciting for the future of our offense.”

It’s hard to believe that Denbrock is returning to Notre Dame for his third stint in South Bend. 

Not only did he leave his long-time friend and boss, Brian Kelly, but less than two weeks days ago, Gerad Parker was still Notre Dame's offensive coordinator and tight ends coach. 

“I’m really pleased with how quickly it worked out,” Freeman said. “Honestly, I want to give credit to our administration to Jack (Swarbrick) and the commitment they’ve made to make sure we can hire the best possible candidates to come into this program.

Of course, it helped that Freeman and Denbrock know each other well from their time together at Cincinnati from 2017-2020. 

“Me and Mike go back over the years together at Cincinnati,” Freeman said. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes, the great offensive coordinator he is.”

Denbrock and Freeman served as the Bearcats’ offensive and defensive coordinators during that time. 

Freeman recalls the competitive battles against one another. 

“When you talk about spring and fall camp, it’s offense vs. defense, there’s a couple of glances across the field that you can non-verbal get a message across to somebody,” Freeman said. “I know we had a couple of those, but to go in the locker room, he’s a team guy. That’s what I respect about Mike Denbrock.

“He’s a competitive person, and he finds a way to get his best players involved in what it’s going to take to have success. It wasn’t ‘Here is my system, let’s recruit to it.’ Who are the best players, and how do we get them the ball? How do we find ways to fit their skill set?”

Needless to say, Denbrock can’t wait to get started at Notre Dame once again.

”He loves this place. He loves it,” Freeman said. “You hear the way Mike and his wife Dianne and his son Chance, I don’t know how much Chance remembers about South Bend, but you hear the way they talk about the community, the people, and then you hear the way people talk about them. I told him, ‘You’ve had a huge impact in your time at Notre Dame because of the way people talk about you when you were there.’ 

“He can’t wait to get moved back to South Bend and get his family here, too.”

Bowl Prep Through Chaos

Denbrock will wait until the new year to get started officially, but new receivers coach Mike Brown was able to hit the ground running. 

“He hasn’t tip-toed into this,” Freeman said. “The first day we announced he was hired, he went and grabbed them. He dove right into that group, which is important because trust is earned. He dove right in to earn the trust of those guys. A big part of that is on the field with them, coaching them from the minute they stepped on the field. That’s what you respect. 

“He wasn’t worried about anyone's feelings. He wants to make this group better. I’ve seen a belief.”

That’s been necessary as the Irish also lack a tight ends coach as the team prepares for the Sun Bowl. 

Overall, it was a hectic month, with more than 20 players departing via the transfer portal or to enter the 2024 NFL Draft.

That’s forced the coaching staff to prepare several players to start for the first and last times in their Notre Dame careers.

“If you’re a first-time starter like Charles Jagusah, our left tackle, go show you can be the future left tackle of this program,” Freeman said. “That’s why you’re going to be out there. We have a strong belief in him. You also think about JD Bertrand, Javontae Jean-Baptiste, DJ Brown (and) Michael Vinson. I could go on and on about the guys who chose to make this their last game.

“They didn’t have to play in this game. They chose to make this their last game. They have an opportunity right in front of them that I want them to grasp.” 

Early departures have also made it more challenging to prepare for Oregon State, which has also had a handful of players opt-out or transfer. 

As a result, the coaching staff has had to evaluate Beaver quarterback Ben Gulbranson based on film from the 2022 season. 

“You watch film, you prepare, I think you have 8-9 games of film from when he did start,” Freeman said. “The thing I respect about him is he’s a winner. There’s no substitution for that. He’s shown to be a winner. He has that competitive spirit we all desire to make sure our program has.

“We’re going to do what we do. This isn’t about tricking your opponent. It’s about having a great game plan and giving your guys a chance to play fast, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

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