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Notre Dame Football

Film Don't Lie | Denbrock and the QB Run Game

January 5, 2024

When it was announced that Mike Denbrock was returning to Notre Dame as their offensive coordinator, it was difficult for people to not think about next season despite the Sun Bowl not being played yet.

Coming off of two years of calling the offense at LSU, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about this addition to Marcus Freeman’s staff. There’s the familiarity that makes sense with both of them working together at Cincinnati. There’s the affection for Notre Dame’s program, which Denbrock clearly has after being an assistant under two previous head coaches.

No one wants to downplay any of that or the fact that Denbrock has proven to be a good recruiter/evaluator of talent and a very good position coach. But if we’re being honest, Denbrock wouldn’t have generated the same level of excitement for his return if he hadn’t just had two very successful seasons calling plays at LSU.

They finished 10th and 1st in OF+ (the combined FEI and SP+ rankings) in the last two seasons. 1st in OF+ is one thing, but the fact that LSU was top of the board in several categories is an accomplishment that isn’t very common. They were 1st in EPA (expected points added per rush), 1st in EPA per dropback, 1st in number of explosive passing plays (20+ yards), and 1st in yards per play.

It’s so ridiculous to see that and it makes it almost strange to see that they finished 2nd in 3rd down conversion percentage, 2nd in points per drive, and 9th in red zone touchdown percentage.

There’s a reason Brian Kelly cleaned house with his defensive coaching staff earlier this week. They had a championship-level offense and could have been a College Football Playoff team with even an above average group on the other side of the ball.

I’m sure that many don’t want to give Denbrock too much credit because of the talent he was working with, but if a coach puts out a product like that on the field with Jayden Daniels at quarterback and Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr. at receiver, then he’s clearly done a great job of helping those players succeed.

Denbrock also did a fine job of helping Notre Dame’s 2015 offense shine (7th in OF+) and the same could be said for Cincinnati’s offense in 2021 (17th). He can coach and what those results prove is that he can adapt to the talent he is working with as well as the changing landscape on offense since he was last at Notre Dame.

The Irish don’t have Daniels, Nabers, and Thomas next season. They are built a lot differently than LSU, so it would be unrealistic to expect the same kind of offense and the same kind of results for Denbrock at Notre Dame (at least initially).

What the Irish will have is a true running threat at the quarterback position. Former Duke quarterback Riley Leonard finished the 2022 season with the 10th best running grade for quarterbacks with a minimum of 50 rushing attempts on his way to 776 yards on the ground (sack yardage is not included). He only had 28 rushing attempts in 2023 due to injuries, but he would have finished 3rd in PFF’s rushing grades for quarterbacks behind only Daniels and Alabama’s Jalen Milroe.

I think we’ll see Denbrock lean into Leonard’s skill set as a runner this season and there are plenty of examples of him doing that with his quarterbacks at Notre Dame, Cincinnati, and LSU. Let’s start with some of what he did with Daniels at LSU.

Anyone who watched him knows he is an elite scrambler, but he gained plenty of yards on designed runs as well. This fake speed option that turns into QB Power is a nifty little call.

Everyone seems to love QB Draw and Notre Dame ran it well this season with both Sam Hartman and Steve Angeli. Denbrock loves him some QB Draw as well, but making it QB Power out of empty adds a nice little wrinkle to it.

I don’t expect to see a ton of zone read for Notre Dame, but it is something that can be sprinkled in from time to time. Using it intermittently isn’t a bad thing, though. That can allow for teams to focus more on the backs and that opens up opportunities like this on designed keeps.

Those designed runs are one piece of it. The compliment to that is the RPO game where it’s a true triple option scenario.

This was a bread and butter play for LSU and Cincinnati for Denbrock. It’s an RPO with the tight end coming across as the option to throw if the give isn’t there to the back. If the tight end is covered, the quarterback has the option to keep.

Here’s how it looked against Florida State when a blitzer took the option to run away from Daniels. It’s a blitz and the linebacker has to cover the tight end man to man, but can’t get there in time. It’s something we could see a lot of with Mitchell Evans or Eli Raridon next season.

This is how it looks when the tight end is covered and the QB keeps.

Here’s the exact same play at Cincinnati with the tight end not covered.

And here’s how it looks when teams get too worried about the tight end and the threat of the quarterback run. This hit for a house call against Georgia.

When teams see that RPO enough, they are worried about playing assignment football to shut that down. That’s when Denbrock can hit them with a designed keep with the tight end acting as a lead blocker rather than a receiving option.

I think we’ll see these on Saturdays this fall with Denbrock calling plays. I also could see Denbrock dipping back into some old school things he ran at Notre Dame because of the personnel he’ll be working with.

With their tight ends, the Irish can and will play heavier than LSU and Cincinnati. There will be in more 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) than what he ran at LSU. There can be this kind of QB Power with the tight end added in.

I think we could also see some QB Counter just like this one where DeShone Kizer scored against Temple.

I’ll have more on some things we can expect to see from Denbrock at Notre Dame, but no matter who the coordinator was going to be, the quarterback run game was going to be a part of the offense for the Irish next season. It’s been a part of what Denbrock did previously at his stops along the way and he’ll bring that with him to help accentuate the running ability of Leonard this season.

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