Notre Dame's Offensive Line Attempting To Find The [Outside] Zone
One of Notre Dame’s primary topics since last December’s change of offensive coordinator from Chip Long to quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees was what different wrinkles, if any, might be incorporated.
Some insight was provided in the 33-9 Camping World Bowl win versus Iowa State while attempting to establish the run, but a little more came to the forefront in last weekend’s 27-13 victory versus Duke.
The first was a change in blocking scheme to more outside zone (also known as zone stretch). This had been run previously in head coach Brian Kelly’s scheme — and was particularly an effective staple when current All-Pro Zack Martin and current Fighting Irish graduate assistant Chris Watt were on the left side blocking for then quarterback Rees.
This concept involves the entire line moving in the direction of the play. Just like a zone defense is about covering an area instead of a particular man, the play involves more direction than hitting a designated hole. Thus, it also involves a running back making correct decisions in finding the right seams.
It wasn’t absent under Long, and it should not be forgotten that in 2017 the Irish finished 7th nationally in rushing with a 269.5 average, the highest in 21 years.
More recently, the Pin and Pull scheme had different rules for the offensive linemen.
“I would say one of the things we didn’t really do a good job in last year and in previous years was kind of trusting outside zone,” said fifth-year senior and third-year starting left tackle Liam Eichenberg. “That’s one of the things Coach Rees wants to run — and we need to run — to be an efficient offense.
“And also we’ve incorporated mid-zone, which we haven’t done in the past. … We run it completely different now. Running outside zone and having the back press it really gets the defense moving a lot more.”
According to Eichenberg, the scheme fits the current personnel better, especially with a new 1-2 punch at running back featuring sophomore Kyren Williams (112 yards rushing on 19 carries, two catches for 93 yards versus Duke) and freshman speedster Chris Tyree, whose six carries netted only 20 yards but included a 25-yard burst.
“Outside zone fits us very well,” Eichenberg said. “We’re a very athletic offensive line, and at the same time we’re doing a lot of power. We have a lot of good athletes on the offensive line. [Left guard] Aaron Banks, he’s a big boy (330 pounds), but he moves probably the best out of all of us. [Center] Jarrett Patterson, he’s a very athletic guy.”
Incorporating a more effective screen game also has been a priority. It showed on a 75-yard tunnel screen to Williams, and one for 20 yards to Jafar Armstrong that carried almost to the goal line prior to a Williams touchdown. About 50 to 100 yards were also left on the field with some missed screens, either through hurried throws or drops.
“The past couple of years haven’t been great for us [with screen],” Eichenberg said. “It’s just one of those weird things we haven’t been able to get down. This year is the year for us, and hopefully we incorporate it a lot more.”
Getting the bugs out during a first half which saw the Irish open with three straight three-and-outs, and needing a fake punt converted on the fourth to come alive, required patience and resolve — qualities that Rees possessed as a player and now as a coach.
“One of the tough things is you practice something against the scout team, and then [what] shows up in the game is completely different,” Eichenberg said. “It’s just one of those things you have to adjust to personnel, the players you’re playing against.
“…Something with [Rees] is he’s going to stick to what he wants to do. Even if it doesn’t work the first couple of times, he’s going to keep pounding it. It’s bound to work eventually. When it does work, then it opens up opportunities elsewhere because now they have to cover that, watch out for that.
“Us as an offensive line need to improve on outside zone. That’s one of the things we're focusing on this week.”
Because the Irish weren’t getting a good push early against Duke with the inside zone, it went to the outside zone, and more counter, to excel more effectively in the second half. Some good fortune also was involved, including on Williams’ 26-yard touchdown run to the left side on fourth-and-inches in the third quarter that increased the lead to 17-6.
“I wasn’t expecting the ball to bounce outside like that,” Eichenberg said. “It easily could have been holding on me, to be honest. At the same time I’m happy that he bounced it. We just have to clean up some technique stuff.
“They did a great job pressing the outside zone, kind of trusting us at specific runs.”
Minus spring practice this year, plus three straight cancelled practices August 19-21 because of a brief spike of COVID-19 on campus, finding the rhythm for the newly emphasized scheme will require more repetition and patience.
“It’s difficult to duplicate game-like speed when you haven’t had that for such a long time,” Kelly said following the victory versus Duke. “We were patient and we stuck with what we were doing … I thought we took control of the game in the second half.”
While “halftime adjustments” is always a popular term to use in such turnarounds, Kelly emphasized the better success had to be a collaborative effort, and not just on the line.
“We probably overstate it,” said Kelly of adjustment. “We had a running back that was seeing things for the first time. It’s execution at other positions as well.
“The quarterback, wide receivers and running backs all have to be executing at a high level, which wasn’t the case. We had a missed protection [including blitz pickup], we had a dropped ball, we had a misread… It’s not simply about making halftime adjustments.
“…We were a big Pin-and-Pull team last year; we featured the outside zone play as our primary blocking scheme [against Duke], and that requires patience, seeing things and aiming points.
“You need a live game situation, and that requires patience on our part. I thought Coach Rees did a great job of being patient and sticking with the running game after not having success early on.”
“As the game went on, we started to run the ball a lot better and we started to attack our targets a lot more,” Eichenberg summarized.
It’s all part of trying to get into one’s “zone.”
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