2021 Notre Dame Themes: Coordinated Efforts
Both second-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman will confront a different set of challenges in 2021.
Last year in his debut as the 28-year-old coordinator rookie, Rees had the luxury of a three-year starting quarterback in Ian Book and the most veteran offensive line returning in school history (114 career starts prior to 2020). Their experience, acumen, the physicality of the line and the ad-lib skills of Book were able to compensate for the lack of practice time and other concerns in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, four of the five starters need to be replaced up front, and it’s conceivable that two-year starting center Jarrett Patterson could be stationed in a new role.
Meanwhile, graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan was brought in from Wisconsin to help bridge the 2021 gap between Book and the otherwise extremely green position group that includes junior Brendon Clark (37 career mop-up snaps, and whose knee problem possibly leaves him in some limbo this spring) and sophomore Drew Pyne (25 career snaps).
Freshman Tyler Buchner arrives this semester with high accolades, but did not have a senior year of high school football because the pandemic cancelled fall sports in California. Classmate, Notre Dame legacy and local product Ron Powlus III was secured as a long-term insurance policy at the position.
Coan provides plenty of experience with 18 starts, but he is now in a new system with new teammates.
“Contrary to popular belief, we were spoiled here for the last five years with Ian Book” emphasized Rees in a Feb. 3 meeting with the media.
The physical identity established by Rees with the 2020 offense is likely to remain, but a little more creativity might need to be sprinkled in by probably not being able to “lay it on the line” — namely the offensive line — as the Irish did throughout last year, with help also from the ferocious isolation blocker/tight end Tommy Tremble, who turned pro after his junior campaign.
It was not too long ago that another first-year offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, Chip Long in 2017, began with a similar identity. He had indicated the only way he comfortably laid his head against his pillow at night was the solace of knowing he had a veteran offensive line that could be physical and dominant while attempting to bounce back from the horrid 4-8 campaign the previous year at Notre Dame
Indeed, while defeating four teams that finished in the top 25, the 2017 Fighting Irish turned it around (10-3, No. 12 finish) with the offensive line the centerpiece and led by top-10 NFL picks Quenton Nelson (a three-time first-team All-Pro his first three seasons) and Mike McGlinchey. They spearheaded an attack that finished No. 7 nationally in rushing with 269.5 yards per game, easily the highest figure at Notre Dame since 1996, the final year of the Lou Holtz regime.
Above all, Notre Dame’s offense is the side of the ball that is generally unable to hold up its end of the deal in marquee matchups, including 10 points versus Clemson in the ACC Championship and 14 versus Alabama in the College Football Playoff, the last touchdown coming with 56 seconds remaining in the game. In the eight losses the past four years, the Irish have tallied an average of 13.1 points, and never more than 20.
Moreover, the offense overall in the 11-year Brian Kelly era has been in the 30-to-34-point scoring range, most recently 33.4 this past season. Nothing to sneer at, but not one that will compete for premier status.
The glaring disparity remains versus the top-tier programs that are generally in the 44- to-48-point range through the years. This year it included Alabama (48.5), Clemson (43.5), Oklahoma (43.0) and Ohio State (41.0). What we repeatedly ask ourselves prior to such matchups is, “Can Notre Dame hang with these teams offensively while putting up at least 30 points?”
The answer proves to be no the lion's share of time. The school single-season scoring record still goes back to 1968 (37.6 points per game). Can this pattern change?
On the other side of the ball, Freeman will be the 19th defensive coordinator at Notre Dame in the past 41 years. If he thrives, chances are his stay will be about two years, maybe three, before he too moves on to a head coaching gig, a la predecessor Clark Lea.
Freeman arrives with much more fanfare than Lea did, and he is establishing a rock-star reputation and presence already on the recruiting trail for the Fighting Irish. Next year at this time, expect him to be feted by Rivals as one of the nation’s top 25 recruiters the way third-year offensive line coach Jeff Quinn was this season while inking five prospects to add to his position group, including a couple who could vie for action in the two deep this fall: five-star Blake Fisher and top-100 Rocco Spindler.
However, let’s also not ignore that in the last three seasons under Lea Notre Dame finished in the top 15 nationally in scoring defense three consecutive years for the first time since 1969-71.
It won’t be simple — and even unlikely — to duplicate such a feat while replacing five starters on that side of the ball, most notably unanimous All-American rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
Freeman made his bones at the University of Cincinnati the past three years while helping the Bearcats to a 31-6 ledger, notably 9-1 this past year while the defense placed No. 2 (behind Brigham Young) in the Fremeau Efficiency Index system. Especially encouraging is he is not coming in with an attitude of having all the answers, or a “my way or highway” disposition.
“You have to be a crazy person to come in and say we’re going to change what you’ve done to have success to be in the College Football Playoff two of the past three years,” Freeman said. “…I have a chance to coach some of the best players in the country because of how Notre Dame has recruited in the last few years. My job is don’t confuse them.”
Finding that ideal medium of maintaining the sustained success while having the confidence to still implement his own personality and ideals will be the tightrope to walk.
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