Nov. 20, 2014

It’s 25 degrees and the snow is starting to fly outside two days before the University of Notre Dame plays host to Northwestern in its first home game in 35 days.

Meanwhile, inside the second-floor offensive meeting room in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex (home of the Irish football program), the coffee is hot, the cans of Diet Coke are on the ready, the country music is humming and play-call ideas are being exchanged on a fast and furious basis.

7:30 a.m. — First-year quarterback coach Matt LaFleur and graduate assistant coach Tyler McDermott stare intently at their laptop computers, and a few minutes later offensive coordinator and receiver coach Mike Denbrock walks in and grabs a seat at the head of the table.

There are a half-dozen laptops powered up around the table, and there’s a large flat-screen monitor on the south wall opposite where Denbrock sits.

On the side wall is a massive white board with sliding partitions, all of them listing the dozens of moving pieces comprising the Irish offense.

The terminology involves seemingly wild combinations of colors, directions and other terms that mean nothing to an interested observer but everything to the Notre Dame players and coaches. It’s the lifeblood of the Irish offense and it’s spelled out in somewhat cold-blooded fashion in a long series of posts on the board.

The individual plays are listed in small, barely-legible magic-marker letters. Asterisks in red or green indicate plays that have been run in practice on Tuesday or Wednesday.

7:54 a.m. – LaFleur supplies the wireless portable speaker, the tunes emanate from his iPhone–and it’s U2’s “Beautiful Day” now forming part of the background noise in the room. The coaches are busy fine-tuning the football playlist–adding some, changing some, erasing others.

“We want to run the best things we think will work,” says McDermott.

“There may be two or three ways to run a play, but what’s the best way?”

“There may be a millions ways,” says LaFleur.

Some of the plays have been on the list since the start of fall camp, some have been added this week. As the coaches tweak, they compare their thoughts against video cut-ups of Northwestern’s defense.

7:58 a.m. – McDermott’s weather intelligence suggests one to two inches of lake-effect snow are on their way. “Sounds like fun,” he says.

Graduate assistant Ryan Mahaffey and tight end coach Scott Booker join the crowd.

Denbrock wanders back into the room with a homemade breakfast item that comes from the strength and conditioning staff.

“I don’t know what this is, but I feel disrespectful if I don’t eat one,” he says. “Pure sugar.”

A few minutes later, LaFleur is at the board with an eraser.

“We’ve got to keep that guy as far away from the safety as we can,” he offers.

Denbrock and Mahaffey debate whether certain plays have been practiced against the prep teams.

Says Denbrock, “Is Harry (offensive line coach Hiestand) here? I got a couple of questions.”

Now Denbrock is at the board, eliminating the asterisks. “I want a clean slate. If we haven’t run it, it isn’t making the game plan,” he says, perusing the 90 or more options on the board.

He leaves for a few minutes to consult down the hall in Hiestand’s office. While Hiestand spends Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays grinding out offensive details with the other offensive assistants, most of his Thursdays are involve specific grading of Wednesday practice video of his offensive linemen, as well as other tweaks to the running game relative to down and distance and goal-line packages

Once Denbrock returns, the group turns its attention to third-down options. There are lists for third and one yard to go, third and 2-3, third and 4-6, third and 7-10 and third and 11 yards-plus.

Denbrock snacks on trail mix, with one foot on the table, and he can’t miss the snow outside the window.

“Do we have heating coils under the field? What are we going to do if it’s like this on Saturday?”

The discussion turns to stick and shake routes, and constant adjustments are made on the board as the morning goes by.

“What do you think of this?” asks Denbrock.

8:23 a.m. – Denbrock calls up some Northwestern defensive plays on video, looking to see how the Wildcats deal with a particular offensive look.

Associate athletics director Chad Klunder sticks his head into the room and inquires about the travel roster for the weekend. He and Denbrock discuss several freshmen who aren’t playing but will be added to the Friday night downtown South Bend hotel list for the experience of a game weekend.

The weather remains a question.

Queries Klunder, “Is it better to be outside and simulate the conditions or be inside where it’s warmer and you can concentrate?”

Says Denbrock: “You can’t practice being cold. You’re either cold or you’re not.”

8:30 a.m. – Denbrock goes back to the board and draws up a play.

“Where are the corners?” asks LaFleur.

“There’s no reason not to motion X into the boundary,” offers Denbrock.

“In the pistol or no?” asks LaFleur.

8:35 a.m. – Running back coach Tony Alford enters the room and the discussion with a question on blocking schemes.

After an exchange with Denbrock, he takes a seat between LaFleur and McDermott at the table in front of a laptop.

Denbrock uses his finger to wipe out a play on the white board.

“We haven’t repped this all week, so we’re not running it,” he says.

Slowly but surely the Irish coaches script the offensive game plan. They create tip sheets for their position areas to be distributed at the team hotel Friday night as an all-encompassing final review of the week.

9 a.m. – Denbrock and Alford continue their discussion at the white board. “OK we’re good there,” says Denbrock.

9:07 a.m. – Denbrock stares at the board with a frown, flips through a legal pad with pages loaded with notes and finally draws a play with a pencil.

9:23 a.m. – Trainer Rob Hunt stops by with a quick health update on the Notre Dame offensive roster. Everyone of note is good to go for practice.

9:30 a.m. – “Let’s take the motion out of here. You know what I mean? Do we have red-zone percentages?” asks Denbrock.

“It’s mostly man coverage,” responds LaFleur.

Irish terminology considers the red zone from the 20-yard line to the goal line, the white zone from the 10-yard line to the six–and the blue zone from the five-yard line to the goal line.

Tuesdays and Wednesdays are mainly for repping first and second downs. Thursday provides an emphasis on third-down options and short-yardage plays.

9:34 a.m. – Booker returns and hooks up his laptop. Denbrock sings along with a soft country tune and uses his left-handed writing style to add a play to the board off his manila sheets. It’s quiet in the room for several minutes.

On the screen is the Michigan offense last Saturday on the Northwestern three-yard line.

9:47 a.m. – The coaches watch Wisconsin throw an interception in the end zone against Northwestern earlier this season.

9:55 a.m. – Now it’s Wildcat goal-line defense on the screen against Nebraska. Denbrock steps to the board and makes an addition to the blue zone list.

Says LaFleur, “There’s one last play to make a decision on in the white zone.”

Says Denbrock, “I feel better. That’s a workable plan. We’ve got more than we can practice.”

10:10 a.m. – The snow has subsided, but the ground remains covered. McDermott calls up a specific video sequence on the left hash. Mahaffey and Booker are back at their laptops, while Denbrock begins calling out the practice script for the day.

They begin with practice periods 8-10 (each period represents a five-minute segment) and Denbrock calls out plays in an authoritative tone, while eyeballing all the options on the board. McDermott keystrokes in the choices for all to see on the video screen. The chart shows yard line, down and distance, play call and defense.

The calls come quickly and the sheet fills up in a matter of minutes.

10:15 a.m. – LaFleur comes into the room with a handful of copies of the oversized game day play scripts containing the latest listing of every potential offensive play. It’s the first draft of a handful of those sheets before the final version becomes official.

“Give me . . . . , ” barks Denbrock, and another play hits the practice script. By 10:25 there are 22 plays listed on the Excel file.

10:32 a.m. – Now it’s on to periods 11-13 and the graduate assistants fill in the defensive calls.

“Run the first play again against a different defense and then we’ll get it on film both ways,” says Denbrock.

It’s a dizzying display of detail that sounds like gibberish unless you really know football.

10:41 a.m. – Head coach Brian Kelly comes into the room and takes a seat, and he and Denbrock debate run and pass play calls in the blue zone. Kelly does X’s and O’s on the back board and Denbrock makes notes on his legal pad.

10:55 a.m. – Alford returns, gazes outside and says sarcastically, “Looks like Fort Lauderdale out there.”

11 a.m. – Kelly sits at the head of the table in the main conference room for the weekly 48-hour meeting. All the coaches and football administrative staff members are present, representing every area connected with the program–from media relations, to strength and conditioning, to dieticians.

The meeting lasts 20 minutes as Kelly goes through the schedule for the weekend and asks for specifics on certain areas. Director of player personnel Dave Peloquin goes over the recruiting plan that’s detailed on a handout.

Kelly says, “We’ll see if we can get the snow off the field (the Irish normally practice in Notre Dame Stadium on Thursdays) and then we’ll play it by ear.”

Kelly kids equipment manager Ryan Grooms about Wednesday’s footwear options that weren’t perfectly designed for the cold weather. Grooms promises a new and better selection for today’s practice.

Director of player development Duke Preston outlines December community service possibilities, and football recruiting creative lead Luke Pitcher provides an update on social media collateral for recruiting.

The meeting ends with comments from graduate assistant coach (and former Irish defensive back) Kyle McCarthy, who is back in the office after surgery the previous week in Indianapolis. McCarthy says his doctors have told him he is cancer-free. That concludes the wide-ranging program review on an uptick.

11:23 a.m. – The offensive coaches are back in the staff room, with a few grabbing some lunch from the break room (Mexican is today’s option).

McDermott and Mahaffey are busy throwing in defensive calls for periods 8-10. They finish with 27 first-and-10 calls. Then it’s on to periods 11-13–with nine plays each for first and 10, second and 10 and third and 10. Next are periods 14-17, all third downs.

It’s been quiet for a while, but by 12:10 p.m., the music has returned (a little Donna Summer “Stamp Your Feet” on Michael Jackson Radio, followed by an Alicia Keys number).

By 12:30 p.m. the game call sheet is virtually finished, with about 40 runs, 60 passes and another selection specifically for a variety of third-down options.

The coaches work individually on their own tip sheets and some practice video cut-ups for their positions meetings.

12:55 p.m. – Denbrock and LaFleur go through a last review of the call sheet. In the background plays “Rock With You” by Michael Jackson, the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and finally “We Are the Champions.”

1:30 p.m. -Kelly reappears in a winter coat and Under Armour’s version of snow boots. He has just returned from the stadium and an inspection of the field.

“What do we got? Can we score?” he asks.

1:45 p.m. – The entire offensive group checks details on the call list one final time.

1:50 p.m. – Practice plans are distributed to all in the room.

2:05 p.m. – More flurries.

2:10 p.m. – Booker leaves to run his special teams meeting at 2:20 in the Gug Auditorium.

2:45 p.m. – Seven Irish wide receivers gather in the pass-catchers’ meeting room with Denbrock for an hour-long video review. The session begins with Denbrock asking the players to turn in the assignment made the day before–identify 10 things they saw in film study about the Northwestern defense.

Denbrock’s voice booms as they run through video of Wednesday’s practice. He handles the clicker and quizzes the players on the nuances of techniques on individual plays. At one point he goes to the screen to demonstrate.

“Everybody on the same page? Yes? No? Maybe? Good stuff there. I like it,” Denbrock offers.

“Questions? Questions? Questions?”

They are done at 3:45 p.m.

“I’m not sure where practice is, but it doesn’t make any difference,” says Denbrock.

The players file out and Alford stops in to confirm a schematic detail with Denbrock.

4:05 p.m. – The Irish head down the street to Notre Dame Stadium in 27-degree conditions. There’s a smattering of snow on the field, but practice will go on. A Bobcat vehicle takes some of the snow off the red-zone area, but the battle with the white stuff eventually becomes a losing one.

5 p.m. — The squad heads back to the indoor Loftus Center. By 5:15 Denbrock has doffed his winter gear and exchanged it for a baseball cap and shorts.

With special teams work concluded, the Loftus portion begins with ones versus ones in a two-minute sequence with Kelly calling plays.

5:23 p.m.- The offense takes over the east end and runs plays from inside the five-yard line. Mahaffey and McDermott run the look teams, while the other offensive assistants call out tips to their players.

5:27 p.m. – The offense and defense flip the field and the offense runs plays from the 40-yard-line going in. The drill is fast-paced as the Irish move quickly from one play to the next.

5:35 p.m. – Says Denbrock, “I like it, I like it.”

5:46 p.m. – Everett Golson overthrows Amir Carlisle and Denbrock calls out, “Run through the catch, run through the catch.” There’s more from Denbrock: “Left hash, third and nine, third and nine. Make a play, let’s go.”

Golson connects with Will Fuller and Denbrock smiles: “Love it, love it, love it.”

6 p.m. – “Speed 7 (Fuller), speed 7, speed 7. You gotta whip your shoulders,” says Denbrock.

By 6:15 p.m. the Irish have concluded 17 practice periods (five minutes each) and Kelly offers the squad the logistical details the players need until they meet again on Friday.

Denbrock meets briefly with his wide receivers: “Good job keeping focus moving outside to inside. Be on top of your business. This group has to make plays, be dynamic, no matter what the weather.”

With that the Irish are done for the day. Kelly heads to a quick media briefing and then his Thursday night radio show at O’Rourke’s–and the rest of the coaching staff heads home. Thursday night is family night for the assistants, and their Friday agendas don’t require them in the office until mid-morning. Most of the prep work for the week is done. In 48 hours the Irish will know if it’s been enough.

On Saturday, Kelly, Denbrock and their offense produce 40 points, 498 net yards and four turnovers–yet Northwestern prevails in overtime. And then the process begins all over again.

— by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director