Notre Dame’s Offense Working On 2021 Identity
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic that struck the world in March 2020, there was only one spring practice held at Notre Dame.
In reality, not much more was needed for the offense to know who and what it would be during the football season.
The 2020 Notre Dame unit featured the most veteran line in school history with all five starters (plus a sixth regular) and 114 career starts returning, a bevy of tight ends and the first third-year starting quarterback in head coach Brian Kelly’s 11 seasons.
Meanwhile, the wide receiver corps would have to be revamped after the graduation of second-round selection Chase Claypool and Chris Finke, who combined for 206 receptions their last two seasons. Plus, in August and September, the outside speed was negated with injuries to Kevin Austin Jr. — classified as the next top pro receiver for the Irish — and Braden Lenzy. The two would combine for eight catches.
Under first-year coordinator Tommy Rees, the decision was elementary as they come: lean on the line’s physicality, align mostly with 12 (two tight ends) and 13 (three tight ends) formations, be methodical and consistent with the physical ground attack, protect the football with a relatively conservative passing attack, and rely on crafty quarterback Ian Book’s improvisation skills.
The results en route to a second College Football Playoff bid in three years spoke to that physical, ground-oriented approach:
• The 211.1 rushing yards per game was the second-highest in the Kelly era, behind the 269.5 mark in 2017. Greatly aiding the efforts was the emergence of sophomore Kyren Williams (1,125 rushing yards) and freshman Chris Tyree (496) at running back, and the ad-lib attributes of Book (485).
• While trying to cobble together a receiving corps much of the first half of the season, Book’s pass efficiency dropped from 17th nationally in 2018 (the highest by anyone under Kelly) to 24th in 2019 and 33rd in 2020 (43rd as a team).
The good news was the 2020 group joined 2015 as the only ones in the Kelly era to average more than 200 yards both rushing and passing.
The bad news was that among the other CFP teams, Alabama’s Mac Jones was No. 1 with a ridiculous 203.1 efficiency rating, Ohio State’s Justin Fields No. 10 and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence No. 12 — and all likely first-round picks.
• Notre Dame averaged 33.4 points per game. That means a glaring disparity exists with the tier-one programs, or others that regularly qualify for the College Football Playoff. They are generally in the 42-48 range. In 2020 it included Alabama (48.5), Clemson (43.5), Ohio State (41.0), with Oklahoma at 43.0.
In their eight defeats since 2017, the Irish averaged 13.1 points, and never tallied more than 20. Can they also someday reach the 40-point mark — and at least average 24 to 30 versus top-five teams?
The single-season school record remains 37.6 — set 52 years ago by Ara Parseghian’s 1968 outfit.
So minus four offensive line starters, a premier blocking tight end, a new quarterback at the throttle and only one receiver who caught more than seven passes last year (fifth-year senior Avery Davis), what will be the 2021 identity on offense?
"I'm not really sure,” Kelly replied following the first of three practices held this past week. “I think we're capable of doing a number of different things on offense and I think our personnel will dictate that.
“We know we’re capable of running four or five wides and playing in a no-back set. I kind of know how to throw the ball 55 or 60 times a game if we need to, but we also know how to run direct snap and play physical football, downhill football.”
The problem with chucking it 55 or 60 times a game is until a dramatic 11th-hour 21-20 comeback win versus Virginia Tech in 2019, where Book had to throw it 53 times, Notre Dame, per our research, was 0-10 in contests where it had to pass it at least 50 times.
Other than his first season at Notre Dame in 2010, every offense in Kelly’s 11 years averaged at least 412 yards, although that is more about efficiency than merely numbers. The highest output under him was the 466.4 by the 10-3 outfit in 2015, and last year it was 448.5.
More positives include that Notre Dame committed only 11 turnovers each of the past two years. It ranked fifth nationally in that category in 2019, and the only team that played 12 games in 2020 and had fewer turnovers than Notre Dame was Brigham Young with nine.
With a veteran line, a shifty quarterback and the physicality of Williams, Notre Dame’s 49.1 percent third-down conversion rate was eighth best in the country last year and a huge improvement from the 40.2 percent the year prior.
Can Notre Dame rely more on some vertical hits downfield this year with possibly a more explosive receiving corps? Can two-back alignments be utilized to take advantage of both Williams’ and Tyree’s skill set? Will the line find continuity early, or will it take some time the way it did at receiver last year?
“It's really going to be about the way this offense sets up and the personnel that we feel gives us the best chance of being successful on offense and playing complete football — offense, defense and special teams,” Kelly summarized. “I think it's yet to be determined.
“We know that we are going to use this spring to kind of get an identity offensively and then we'll build on that going into preseason camp and then into the fall.”
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