Notre Dame’s 2021 Offense Trying To Find Its Lane
The 2020 Notre Dame identity on offense was a study of elementary logic for head coach Brian Kelly and first-year coordinator Tommy Rees.
The base centered on the two strongest and easiest positions on the team to recruit: offensive line and tight end. The line returned all five starters and the most career starts in school history (114), while the tight end unit featured a usual assortment of future NFL prospects.
Thus, establishing the line of scrimmage is where the identity began and a quality that was intrinsic to the overall operation.
“There’s a toughness that comes with that,” Rees said last spring. “We’re smart, we have tough guys, and we have the best strength coach in the country. We’re strong up front.”
That is where “The Gap” closing between Notre Dame and Alabama from 2012 and 2020 was most conspicuous: Physicality and depth along both lines. The Fighting Irish held their own better in the trenches versus the Crimson Tide in 2020 than 2012.
Where the disparity still exists is at the edges, be it wide receiver or cornerback, and an overall vertical passing game.
Part 2 to Notre Dame’s 2020 blueprint on offense was for the first time in Kelly’s 11 years at Notre Dame he had a third-year starter at quarterback in Ian Book, whose forte was a controlled passing attack but not the deep ball.
The receiving corps had some speed with juniors Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin Jr. and Lawrence Keys III, but all would be slowed by injuries, thereby leaving two more tall, physical figures in fifth-year seniors Javon McKinley and Northwestern grad transfer Ben Skowronek.
It reinforced that Notre Dame’s 2020 would have to be more methodical than relying on explosiveness. Protect the ball (the 11 turnovers were the second fewest nationally among teams that played 12 games) and be physical.
“We were going to build it with a returning offensive line and a [veteran] quarterback,” said Kelly of choosing a lane on offense in 2020. “Not knowing what we had [at] wide receiver, we were going to commit ourselves to being a team that was going to exert its physicality on the offensive line.”
So what now in 2021?
Four new starters must be found along the line, and the one returning starter, center Jarrett Patterson, likely will be shifted.
There is a new quarterback, although the favorite to win the job, graduate transfer Jack Coan, was used to running the exact type of physical identity at the University of Wisconsin. While helping lead the Badgers to the 2020 Rose Bowl, Wisconsin averaged 233.1 yards rushing per game, or even more than the 211.1 figure of the Irish last year.
However, the issue remains whether Kelly or Notre Dame can ever reach the explosive and consistent scoring level of college football’s top tier. Under Kelly, the Irish generally hover in the respectable 30-to-35-point range, finishing at 33.4 last year.
Unfortunately, in today’s college football, to be at championship level it requires one to be more in the 44-48 range. In 2020 it included Alabama (48.5), Clemson (43.5), Oklahoma (43.0) and Ohio State (41.0).
LSU won the 2019 national title with a national high 48.4 average, while Alabama (47.2), Ohio State (46.9) and Clemson (43.9) were second, third and fourth in scoring.
Notre Dame’s single season school scoring record still dates all the way back to 1968 with a 37.6 average. In Notre Dame’s eight losses over the past four years it averaged 13.1 points, never tallying more than 20.
“Now we move into '21 with less certainty on the offensive line, less certainty at the quarterback position … we know that we've got to score points,” said Kelly this weekend of trying to find the identity for the 2021 offense.
“We're going to kind of find out where it is that this offense will operate most efficiently. Where we had a much better understanding [in 2020] of where we were going to go, this spring is really about trying to establish how will this offense serve itself best with the players that we have, and those that will be playing a great deal for us serve itself best in terms of scoring points.
“This is about scoring. And so, we're going to use this spring in preseason to kind of put that together.”
The recruiting strength still remains at offensive line and tight end, highlighted by sophomore All-America candidate Michael Mayer at the latter. The running back position also is among the most established on the team with junior Kyren Williams (1,125 yards rushing in 2020) and sophomore Chris Tyree, who romped for 496 yards and 6.8 yards per carry as a freshman.
Does Notre Dame remain status quo, often aligning in two- and three-tight end sets, or does it try to open up more with an unestablished receiving corps that also has had difficulty remaining on the field week after week?
Other than former quarterback recruit and now fifth-year senior Avery Davis, no wideout on the roster has snared more than 20 passes in his career. The program is still configured more toward power than sheer explosiveness.
“But if I asked him to run five wide receivers, he would have been ready for that as well,” said Kelly last year of Rees. “This is so much more about who we want to be now and moving forward, and utilizing the assets that are currently on the roster.”
The lane Notre Dame will choose on offense in 2021 is one that remains less certain than in 2020.
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