Skip to main content

The 15 most important assistant coaching hires of 2022 -- No. 9: Mike Denbrock, LSU

LSU's offense has two modes: chronic underachievement or total domination. Which one will it be for the new regime?

Who: Mike Denbrock, LSU

Title: Offensive coordinator/tight ends coach

Previous stop: Cincinnati offensive coordinator (2017-21)

Why he's important: For the biggest hire he'll ever make, Brian Kelly threw it back to the beginning. Kelly and Mike Denbrock were roommates when they were GAs together at Grand Valley State, way back in 1987. When Kelly completed his 5-year climb from GA to head coach, Denbrock left his FCS job to return to GVSU, where he and Kelly installed a spread passing attack that was revolutionary at the time in Division II. Grand Valley State led the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in passing yards and points over the four seasons from 1992-95.

In 1996, Kelly moved Denbrock from offensive coordinator to defensive coordinator. “Mike was a heck of a defensive coordinator for a very short period of time,” Kelly told The Advocate in March. 

Denbrock left for the bright lights of the Arena Football League in 1999, then moved to Stanford in 2001. He bounced around Division I until 2010, when Kelly landed the Notre Dame job. Denbrock had spent 2002-04 in South Bend with Tyrone Willingham, and so he was a natural choice to coach the tight ends when Kelly landed the job in 2010. He was there when Notre Dame reached the BCS National Championship in 2012, and he was there when Notre Dame hit rock bottom in 2016. 

Here's what Kelly said of Denbrock in 2014, when he promoted him to offensive coordinator in 2014.

"He brings a great deal of experience as a football coach, he's a great developer of football players at all positions, he's coached virtually all the positions for me, a great understanding of the offense that we want to run, and certainly has my trust in putting together the offense on a day‑to‑day basis for us."

That was before Denbrock developed one of the most balanced attacks in college football. 

Denbrock took the Cincinnati offensive coordinator job in 2017, where he helped build that program from the wreck Alabama's junior US Senator left behind (seriously, Cincy went 1-7 in AAC play in 2016) into the first College Football Playoff glass ceiling buster. Led by Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati was one of five schools to finish among the top 20 nationally in scoring, passing efficiency, and yards per carry. 

Now, these former Allendale, Mich., roommates are working together to resurrect an SEC power. 

PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS: No. 15 Tim DeRutyer (Texas Tech); No. 14 Rob Sale (Florida); No. 13 Joe Gillespie (TCU); No. 12: Brennan Marion (Texas); No. 11: Derek Mason (Oklahoma State); No. 10: Eric Kiesau (Auburn).

"To say we're gonna run my offense would be very arrogant considering the talent we have in this room," offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said. "We're gonna run an offense that's LSU's offense and we're in the process as a staff we get the verbiage the way we want it and getting those details ironed out."

LSU's offense will likely be a work in progress this fall. Starting quarterback Max Johnson transferred to Texas A&M; ironically, his final pass as a Tiger was a 28-yarder to Jaray Jenkins to beat A&M last November. The battle to replace him will be waged between ninth-year senior Myles Brennan, who sat for two years behind Joe Burrow and then has battled injuries ever since; redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier, who played well in limited action last season; Arizona State transfer Jaydon Daniels; and true freshman Walker Howard. 

"Who is comfortable in the role of being quarterback at LSU? It's not the easiest job in the world," Denbrock said over the summer. "To be the guy who feels comfortable in the spotlight, to be the guy everybody's leaning on to make that play, to make the check that needs to be made, I think that's a big piece of it.... We're really best off when the quarterback is controlling the keys to the Ferrari."

Denbrock differs from his peers in that he wants a physical offensive line that can power an offense that stresses the defense vertically and horizontally. (That was a joke.) The good news for whoever wins the quarterback derby is that LSU returns its top five pass-catchers from last season; the bad news is that none of those five topped 508 yards last season, although big things are expected from junior Kayshon Boutte, who will don the fabled No. 7 jersey this fall.

The leading returning rusher is junior Josh Williams, who posted all of 108 yards last season, although the Tigers do retain senior John Emery, Jr., who missed all of 2021, and added Penn State transfer Noah Cain. 

Up front, LSU returns only one starter from last season, though all eight players listed behind them on the 2-deep return.

A lack of continuity isn't a bad thing, though, because LSU simply wasn't very good on offense last year. The Tigers finished last in the SEC West in scoring offense and yards per play last season. In two years, LSU's yards per play dropped by 31.6 percent and its scoring output was cut nearly in half, from 48.4 points per game to 26.5.

It's unfair to compare a group of mere mortals to the 2019 LSU offense. No LSU attack will ever have that collection of talent again; heck, no team, period, may ever touch that group. 

But Denbrock doesn't have to turn future LSU offenses into the 2019 group for this new staff to succeed. Simply getting the most out of the talent on hand will be enough which, 2019 excluded, hasn't happened in Baton Rouge since... any of us starting paying attention to LSU football. 

The last three LSU head coaches won national titles, and none of them arrived in Baton Rouge with the bona fides of Kelly and Denbrock. If Les Miles and Ed Orgeron can climb the mountaintop, what's stopping a 2-time Division II national champion and the winningest coach in Notre Dame history? So long as Denbrock gets the most out of his talent, the Tigers' streak could run to four straight.