Notebook: Notre Dame will use preseason camp to find offensive identity
SOUTH BEND — The question of Notre Dame’s offensive identity can’t be answered yet.
How can it be after the Irish lost their starting quarterback, starting running back and most productive wide receiver from last season? Just two practices into preseason camp, the identity is a work in progress.
“The whole idea of camp is to find the identity of the offense and where the offense is going to be,” sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner said Saturday following practice. “So honestly, I don't know what the team identity is right now because that's the whole goal of camp.
“Each day we try to find what we're good at and how everyone fits in as a piece of the puzzle of our team. It's all about building our offense. It starts now.”
Buchner doesn’t even know if he’s going to be the starting quarterback for the Irish yet, even if those in the press box believe that’s the most likely outcome. Though the season opener at Ohio State was exactly four weeks away from Saturday, Notre Dame can’t fast-forward through the discovery process.
That doesn’t mean offensive coordinator Tommy Rees doesn’t have ideas regardless of who wins the quarterback competition between Buchner and junior Drew Pyne. Rees constantly seeks new ideas for offensive schemes and answers to defensive schemes.
Last year, Rees said, he watched every snap of every NFL team. This year, Rees has been more focused on other college teams.
“Defense, we focused on a couple that were very specific,” Rees said. “Offenses, there were probably six or eight that you dive into and probably six or eight more NFL teams that you try to do a study on and find what fits you and find what doesn't.
“It's fun. I don't know, maybe not for everyone, but there are worse things to be doing with your time.”
The quest for knowledge on Notre Dame’s coaching staff included hosting a handful of coaching staffs from other college programs to compare notes. Rees declined to reveal which teams.
“There are always trends year in and year out defensively that we’ll spend a good deal of time on in the offseason to understand,” Rees said. “Because usually it's a two-year buffer period. You see something one year, the second year, that's when everything's going to start happening. We saw that with 3-5-3, 3-3-5 defense over the last couple of years. That will evolve.”
What Rees chooses to implement this season as Notre Dame discovers its identity will be built around what best suits the personnel who emerge as the most productive and most reliable. At least that’s the plan.
WATCH HIGHLIGHTS FROM NOTRE DAME'S SATURDAY PRACTICE BELOW
What if that personnel includes Buchner, who ran for more yards (336 on 46 carries) than he threw for (298 on 21-of-35) last season, as the starting quarterback?
“That’s still to be determined,” Rees said. “We know some of the things he can do, because he showed it last year. But we want to continue to uncover some things, where we can go. With all the quarterbacks.
"We’re two practices in. We haven’t taken one snap in the middle of the field yet. It's all been inside the 15-yard line.
“So we still have a ton of growing, a ton of learning, a ton of opportunities to find out who we’re going to be and what we’re going to be. And I’m excited to kind of unravel those pieces as camp continues on.”
Red zone comes first
As it did in the spring, Notre Dame started August camp with the bulk of its work being done in the red zone. It was an idea credited to defensive coordinator Al Golden, who brought it with him from the NFL.
The concept doesn’t just emphasize the most important area of the field, it reduces the amount of running players have to do. There are no long runs or long routes in the red zone.
Rees enjoys the challenges it presents his quarterbacks right off the bat.
“Our defense does a great job,” Rees said. “They make it extremely hard with their package down there for certain things. I'm not going to go into too much detail.
“We have to understand, do we have a look where we can attack or do we have a look where we got to make the right decision? And down there that's critical. That's kind of the stress, and that's why I like being down there early in camp because it's really a challenge on the quarterback.
"We're welcome to that and we want to continue to be good down there.”
Buchner shared that Notre Dame’s offense was operating with a very limited number of plays during red-zone work in practice No. 1, which made it an even greater challenge. But he’s learning what needs to be done to maximize the scoring chances.
“It's all about making your decisions very quickly,” Buchner said. “There's less time, so you have to get your feet going faster, eliminate certain reads quicker, find the open guy and get him the ball.”
Notre Dame finished last season ranked No. 32 in red-zone offense (88%) with 44 scores (33 touchdowns and 11 field goals) on 50 red-zone trips.
Sophomore wide receiver Jayden Thomas, who was working with the first-team offense for much of Friday’s practice, was sidelined for Saturday’s practice. Rees did not want to get into specifics about a potential injury for Thomas, but he described the decision to sit him as being precautious.
“JT’s done a great job,” Rees said. “He has to continue to be dependable and be available. He's made big strides in terms of his development and his commitment to what we're doing. I'm excited about the things he possesses.”
Thomas has a fan in Buchner, who’s also his roommate.
“He’s done a really good job, worked super hard,” Buchner said. “You can see it on the field. He was really good last year, too. Now he’s getting his opportunity and I think it’s going to show on the field.”
Early returns on Merriweather
Tobias Merriweather, Notre Dame’s lone freshman wide receiver, will be given an opportunity to earn playing time. The former four-star recruit from West Camas (Wash.) Union has the size (6-foot-4, 198 pounds) and skill set to make an impact despite only arriving in June.
“His talent – you see him — this kid’s got a chance,” Rees said. “It goes way deeper than that. He’s got an unbelievable work ethic. He got himself ready in two months to start repping in camp, which is a testament to his work ethic and a testament to a couple of guys on our staff who have helped get him ready.
“Obviously, (wide receivers) coach (Chansi) Stuckey’s done a tremendous job with him. But he’s a kid that’s hungry for it. Like he’s going to do more. That’s kind of innately who he is. He’s going to want more and learn and ask questions and then prepare the right way.
“As a young player, you have to have that to have a chance to play right away. I think he possesses that, and we’ll find some consistency as time goes on.”
• Buchner provided a scouting report on the other offensive skill players in the freshman class: tight ends Eli Raridon and Holden Staes and running back Gi’Bran Payne.
“When we're talking about the skill guys, both the tight ends, Eli and Holden, have been really good. They run great routes, really good hands, great build,’ Buchner said. “They're going to be really good.
“Gi’Bran’s got a lot of reps these past two days. He's done a really good job as well. He fits right in.”
• How locked in has Buchner been to the tasks at hand at Notre Dame? He hasn’t left South Bend for any significant time since the end of spring break in mid-March.
So he was a little taken aback when asked where he went this offseason.
“You’re talking about this summer?” Buchner said. “The one week we had? Actually, it was like six days. I stayed here. I threw a couple times with some wideouts who were here. My girlfriend came up and stayed for a couple days for her birthday.”
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