To some, it’s a feeling of liberation. To others, it’s an increase in camaraderie as more players get involved.
For the offensive linemen, it’s being more physical and aggressive. For the quarterbacks, it’s a more thorough understanding of the big picture. For the receivers and running backs, it’s the unexpected diversity.
Why will the 2012 Notre Dame offense be improved over last year’s team that scored 44 points over the final three games combined? The players offer a list of reasons that vary from position-to-position and from one’s own experiences.
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Center Braxston Cave and left tackle Zack Martin have a combined 48 starts between them. After taking instruction from Ed Warinner the past two seasons, the line now follows the beat of Harry Hiestand, a veteran offensive line coach on the college and pro levels who has put in a more aggressive, zone-oriented blocking scheme.
“One of the biggest things is the tempo of our offense,” Cave said. “The new scheme of blocking with Coach Hiestand has really changed our running game, and that’s improved. There are all kinds of little things that go into it.
“Overall, I can’t sit here and tell you that we’re that much better than we were last year because we haven’t done anything yet. But there are signs that point in that direction.”
Martin, like most offensive linemen, is tuned in to what he and his four running mates are doing. But he can’t help but see peripherally the rest of the offense and their movements. It includes some dirty work.
“We’re a lot more physical, and not just up front,” Martin said. “Up front everyone has to be physical and I think we are. But you’re seeing our receivers running and throwing their bodies in for a block. Our running backs and tight ends are helping out in pass protection. I just think our whole offense is more physical.”
When one of your star skill position players gets in the act, you know it’s a total-unit commitment.
“We were watching film the other day and we were running an option,” Martin said. “Cam (McDaniel) was in the backfield and Cierre (Wood) was split out to the slot. We paused it on film because Cierre is running downfield and throwing his head on a safety for a huge block. It just shows how people are taking different roles, different responsibilities. Cierre’s not going to run the ball every play, but he’s out there busting his butt, trying to block for someone else.”
For the quarterbacks, clarity of the system has helped. Andrew Hendrix benefited from five games of playing experience in ‘11. But he admits that he didn’t have a firm grasp of what the Irish were trying to do offensively last year the way he does this fall.
“I’d say just the knowledge the quarterbacks have,” said Hendrix of the difference between last year’s offense and this year’s. “Speaking for myself, personally, I wouldn’t have been able to run the offense as well last year as I do this year. I just get it a lot better. I can’t say I knew the last offense that well.
“But it just seems like it’s a different culture on our team, just a lot of leadership right now that makes the offense run. It’s definitely this group of guys that will make this offense go.”
Hendrix feels he has more buttons he can push.
“We have some guys that can absolutely move and jump in the red zone,” Hendrix said. “We have as many weapons as we need. That’s why the quarterback position is so important because we need to be able to manage our offense, get them the ball and let them win games for us.”
For sophomore Everett Golson, who has yet to step on the field in game competition, it started with the placement of Chuck Martin on the offensive side of the football.
“Just clarity of what we have to do,” Golson said. “Coach Martin came over and started us from square one. He started us off with that foundation, and everything is built off of that. Simple stuff at first, but he’s trying to progress into other things.
“I can remember in the film room focusing on one concept, and we probably went over that for like three days straight, just to (understand) every defense every which way. So I just think clarity, actually knowing what we’re doing.”
The depth at the skill positions encourages Golson.
“That’s key to having a great team,” Golson said. “You not only have 11 good players, but you have to have that depth. That’s what we have at the running back position and we’re trying to get that at the receiver positions.”
The most broad-based perspective comes from running back Theo Riddick, who spent the last two seasons lined up at the Z receiver position. Riddick will be the most versatile of the offensive skill position players, capable of lining up just about anywhere pre-snap.
“You get the most dynamic players on our roster more in the open field,” said Riddick of the 2012 offense. “We’ve got dynamic QBs, and I think we all have more confidence in each other and our playbook. We have a lot more weapons, but I would say the weapons that we do have are more dynamic.
“It isn’t like we can just run the ball. We can all catch the ball, we can all block. So it isn’t like losing something by putting another person out there. Any player in our offense can take it to the house at any given moment.”
Fifth-year wide receiver John Goodman was asked to be an impartial observer. If he were standing on the sidelines the last two weeks, how would he evaluate what the Notre Dame offense has to offer in 2012?
“As an observer of the offense, I would say from day one to now, this team is going somewhere,” Goodman said. “They are coming together as an offense and they’re going to be very potent. Big plays. They’ve got players all over the field. They’ve got a great line, and quarterbacks that are learning and not just staying the same. They’re getting better every single day.”
Goodman says the days of force-feeding Michael Floyd, or any one player, are gone, although Tyler Eifert remains a fail-safe option.
“You’ve got guys all over the field that can do whatever,” Goodman said. “You don’t just have to go to Mike every time or Tyler every time, although we probably could go to Tyler every time and still be successful.
“We’re going to spread the ball all over the field and we’ve got guys that can make plays. Even if you’re not starting, you’ve got guys on the sidelines that are ready to come in and make plays. We’ve got so many playmakers on the team right now that the sky’s the limit.”
Goodman has seen the morale of the offense improve as well due to the effort to get so many players involved.
“You hate to think of injuries, but it’s a long season,” Goodman said. “Things go right for some people and things go wrong for some people, and we’ve got guys that can step up and make plays and we’ve got guys who can go out and do their job, whether they get the ball or not.
“We’re not a selfish offense at all. I love blocking for Cierre and those guys, and when it comes my time and they throw me the ball, I’m going to do what I can with it. But we all go out and do it all for each other rather than just for ourselves.”
Big talk, but the potential for some big-time weapons, too.