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Minnesota Football: Get to know new co-offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.

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Tracing the assistant coach’s career path to the Twin Cities

Louisiana Tech v Western Kentucky

By now, you’ve heard the news: Mike Sanford and Matt Simon are the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ new co-offensive coordinators, with Sanford coaching quarterbacks and Simon retaining his duties as wide receivers coach. Simon needs no introduction, but hopefully I can shed some light on head coach P.J. Fleck’s newest addition to the coaching staff.

Early Career

Sanford was a quarterback at Boise State from 2000-04. After graduating, he started his coaching career at UNLV, where Sanford spent two years as a graduate assistant. His next stop was a two-year stint from 2007-08 under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford as an offensive assistant with an emphasis on quarterbacks. He was hired the following year at Yale to coach fullbacks and tight ends, in addition to assuming the responsibilities of recruiting coordinator.

After one year coaching at Yale, Sanford moved on to Western Kentucky to serve as passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach under first-year head coach Willie Taggart. It was a rough season for the Hilltoppers, finish 2-10 (although that was an improvement over their 0-12 record the previous year). Second-year starting quarterback Kawaun Jakes completed 51.2% of his passes (149-of-291) for 1,680 yards with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Stanford

Sanford spent one season with the Hilltoppers before returning to Palo Alto to coach running backs for Stanford head coach David Shaw. In his first season with the Cardinal, Sanford walked into a running back room that already boasted Stepfan Taylor, a 1,000-yard rusher the previous year. Taylor spent two seasons with Sanford as his position coach, and rushed for 2,860 yards and 23 touchdowns combined. He graduated as the program’s all-time leader in career rushing yards.

Shaw promoted Sanford to quarterbacks coach in his third year with the program, and also named him recruiting coordinator. He was tasked with helping to further develop Kevin Hogan, the successor to Andrew Luck under center. Hogan took a big step forward, completing 61% of his passes (180-of-295) for 2,630 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Boise State

First-year head coach Bryan Harsin at Boise State came calling in 2014, bringing in Sanford to serve as his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He inherited a senior signal caller in Grant Hedrick, who had been thrust into the starting quarterback role the previous year after a midseason injury to Joe Southwick. Hedrick had an outstanding season under Sanford, completing 70.8% of his passes (294-of-415) for 3,696 yards with 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

With Sanford as offensive coordinator, Boise State averaged 39.7 points per game (14th nationally), 213.9 rushing yards per game (29th), and 280.4 passing yards per game (23rd). According to S&P+, the Broncos ranked 25th overall in offense, 19th in offensive success rate, 18th in explosiveness, 23rd in rushing offense, and 13th in passing offense.

Notre Dame

But Sanford was not long for Idaho. After one season with the Broncos, he departed to take the same position at Notre Dame under head coach Brian Kelly, where he would help the Fighting Irish land current starting quarterback Ian Book on the recruiting trail.

Sanford evidently did not call the plays during his tenure at Notre Dame. Evidently associate head coach Mike Denbrock was the one who handled play-calling duties, but Sanford was heavily involved in the game plan each week.

In his first year, Sanford was tasked with replacing quarterback Everett Golson, who opted to transfer after a lackluster 2014 season. It seemed he had found the heir apparent in Malik Zaire, until he suffered an ankle fracture in the second game of the season. But redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer stepped up to the plate and exceeded expectations, completing 63% of his passes (211-of-335) for 2,884 yards with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Notre Dame averaged 34.2 points per game (34th nationally), 207.6 rushing yards per game (28th), and 258.8 passing yards per game (35th) that season. According to S&P+, the Fighting Irish in 2015 ranked sixth overall in offense, seventh in offensive success rate, third in explosiveness, second in rushing offense, and 11th in passing offense.

The offense took a step back in Sanford’s second year in South Bend. The Fighting Irish needed to replace leading rusher C.J. Prosise, leading receivers Will Fuller and Chris Brown, and two NFL draft picks on the offensive line. Kizer was back under center, completing 58.7% of his passes (212-of-361) for 2,925 yards with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

That season, Notre Dame averaged 30.9 points per game (53rd nationally), 163.3 rushing yards per game (80th), and 254.3 passing yards per game (48th). The Fighting Irish ranked 18th in overall offense, 33rd in offensive success rate, 54th in explosiveness, 42nd in rushing offense, and 40th in passing offense, according to S&P+.

Western Kentucky

Sanford got the big promotion in 2017 when he was hired as head football coach at Western Kentucky, replacing Jeff Brohm, who had left to take over at Purdue. Brohm spent three seasons with the Hilltoppers, claiming two conference titles and a 30-10 overall record.

Unfortunately, Sanford was not able to sustain that success. In two seasons at Western Kentucky, he went 9-16, without a winning record and never finishing better than third in their division. Offensively, the Hilltoppers were seventh in the country in passing offense his first season (335 passing yards per game), but struggled to establish a ground game and only averaged 25.5 points per game. Sanford’s second season represented rock bottom, as Western Kentucky ranked near the bottom of the country in nearly every offensive category. A revolving door at quarterback that consisted of three different starting signal callers certainly didn’t help his cause.

Western Kentucky athletic director Todd Stewart said that firing Sanford after two seasons “was not an easy decision.” He pointed to the Hilltoppers’ winning percentage under Sanford, which was the worst two-year stretch for any Western Kentucky head coach since 1922, but also cited a “lack of energy” among the players and the fans. Ultimately, Stewart “reached a conclusion that we weren’t going to turn this around” with Sanford at the helm.

Utah State

Sanford was not unemployed for long, joining Gary Andersen at Utah State as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He inherited a tough situation, with only one returning starter on the offensive side of the ball. That returning starter happened to be quarterback and NFL draft prospect Jordan Love, who saw his completion percentage and touchdowns drop and his interceptions increase. I don’t know how much of that to attribute to having an entirely rebuilt offense, but it certainly does not inspire a lot of confidence.

Utah State averaged 29.2 points per game (63rd nationally), 152.2 rushing yards per game (73rd), and 279.1 passing yards per game (31st). The Aggies ranked 82nd in overall offense, per S&P+.

Relationship with P.J. Fleck

It does not appear that Fleck and Sanford coached together at any point in their careers, but the two are familiar with each other. When he was at Notre Dame, Sanford evidently made the trip up to Kalamazoo to visit Fleck at Western Michigan. They had previously met was during Western Michigan’s trip to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl when Sanford was coaching at Boise State.

Here is some of what he had to say about Fleck:

“When you see things like (slogans and creative videos) with Coach Fleck, that’s who he is. He’s an unbelievably energetic, creative mind that’s not too removed from the players in terms of age, so he’s not going pretend like he’s been coaching for 45 years and listens to Motown singles,” Sanford said with a laugh. “He definitely is a lot closer in age to those guys. I appreciate it. Of course, in my own way I try to coach to who I am as well.”

“(Fleck) came up and hung out with our offensive staff during their downtime. We were in there game-planning for Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl and he just hung out. We were bouncing ideas off of him and I was just really drawn to his overall energy and creativity, and he was awesome to have around,” Sanford said. “Here he is, the head coach of an up-and-coming Division I football program and developing power in the MAC conference and he just wanted to sit in and be a ball coach and hang out with the Boise State offensive staff as we were getting ready for the Fiesta Bowl, so that’s actually where our relationship began.”

The co-coordinator conundrum

I’ve seen a lot of hand-wringing over Sanford and Simon being co-coordinators.

Here is my take, which is an educated guess at best and pure conjecture at worst: Fleck needed an offensive coordinator and a quarterbacks coach. Simon fulfills the former, but not the latter. Most quarterbacks coaches in college football are also offensive coordinators, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a quality candidate willing to give up their title and take a pay cut to simply coach quarterbacks. Promoting Simon to co-offensive coordinator allows Fleck to reward and retain a deserving internal candidate who is an elite recruiter and coach at his position. Hiring Sanford as co-offensive coordinator fulfills the need for a quarterbacks coach and allows Fleck to add a former head coach and experienced offensive coordinator to his staff.

Co-coordinators is not a new concept in college football. Just look at the College Football Playoff. LSU, Clemson, and Oklahoma all have co-offensive coordinators. Ohio State had co-defensive coordinators this season. If I had to guess, I would expect Simon to have play-calling duties, with Sanford contributing to the game plan. But we’ll see what happens.