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How LSU Coach Brian Kelly's Offensive Style Has Adapted to the Times Part I

A look at Brian Kelly’s offenses from his 2009 Cincinnati team through the 2015 season at Notre Dame.

There’s much to digest with LSU Head Coach Brian Kelly. A coach who’s been known to use two running backs in the formation, go empty (no running back), or any place in between. That’s been his history at Notre Dame, as well as before he came to Notre Dame.

What should LSU fans expect? Here’s the first half of the information that Tigers fans need to know, starting with the 2009 season while he still coached the Bearcats.

The first thing to know is that Cincinnati played fast; very fast. That was a totally uptempo team and one that just wanted to out score its opponents. The Bearcats did not possess the same type of defensive personnel he had at Notre Dame, and certainly not what he will be afforded while being the head man for LSU. A few key notes here.

First, Cincinnati averaged 38.6 points per game. Keep in mind, that’s before every team just started throwing the football all over the place like the last few years of college football. Coach Kelly was really open minded about being a passing team.

The Bearcats would routinely go no huddle and pass the football, as well as utilize zone-read concepts to keep teams honest. The most ironic part of that team is that multiple quarterbacks played due to injuries, and it still did not matter.

The dual-threat quarterback, Zack Collaros, passed for 10 scores, while pocket passer Tony Pike threw 29 touchdowns. Seeing the Bearcats go from one type of quarterback to the other and do so seamlessly was impressive.

Collaros started four games and never completed less than 70.8%. Pike, meanwhile, threw at least two touchdown passes in every start. Just looking at the last season he was at Cincinnati and studying the quarterbacks, it’s interesting to once again be reminded of how versatile Coach Kelly’s offense truly was. Once at Notre Dame, he needed to undergo another change.

The first year for Kelly at Notre Dame was 2010. The Irish were up and down offensively as he took the reins of a team that was a true pro-style offense under former Head Coach Charlie Weis and attempted to morph it into a spread attack. The Irish averaged 26.3 points per contest, with the passing game churning out 253.1 yards per game, and throwing a total of 28 touchdowns.

The issue with Notre Dame was interceptions. Three different quarterbacks struggled with not turning the football over, and it was a definite transition year. The rushing attack helped to pick up the slack somewhat, averaging 126.6 yards per game and scoring 11 touchdowns.

2011 was fairly close to a repeat at quarterback, as sophomore Tommy Rees (now Notre Dame’s Offensive Coordinator) took over the starting job in week three and the Irish went on to average 252.6 yards passing per contest, with 21 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions.

The key here was tight end Tyler Eifert, who caught 63 passes for 803 yards and five touchdowns. With Eiftert drawing a lot of attention, Notre Dame did well in the running game.

This is the season that Coach Kelly began to adapt the offense towards the running game more. The Irish ran for over 160 yards eight different times, and running backs Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray combined for 1,893 yards and 21 touchdowns. Notre Dame averaged 29.2 points per game in 2011.

From Notre Dame’s 2012 undefeated regular season, the Irish adapted yet again. Rees played in many games, but the starter was quarterback Everett Golson. He was erratic as a redshirt freshman, which meant the Irish would turn to Rees and the rushing attack for stability and points. The Irish averaged just 25.8 points per game, but the defense was stout by allowing just 12.8 points per contest.

Eifert caught 50 passes for 685 yards and four touchdowns. He was so tough to match up with, Coach Kelly would oftentimes line him up wide like a wide receiver. It created mismatches with linebackers and safeties attempting to defend Eifert. That helped runshing attack with a two-headed monster leading the way.

Between Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, the two Irish runners added up 1,659 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Golson also chipped in 298 yards and another six rushing touchdowns.

Coach Kelly knew how to play to his team’s strengths, and that’s what he did. Defense, special teams, the running game, and timely big plays from Eiftert carried the Irish.

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Note: With Golson’s ability to run, it certainly enhanced what Notre Dame could do and it’s something Coach Kelly went back to throughout his tenure in South Bend (see Kizer below).

From the 2013 season, the Irish passing attack was very inconsistent with Golson and Rees battling back and forth. Neither could truly seize the starting position. They combined for 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

That’s a season that saw Notre Dame stay in the shotgun and run the football, but it was never a team that could really assert itself versus top defenses. In short, Notre Dame was not where it needed to be just quite yet with offensive skill talent, especially with Eiftert off to the NFL, nor top-notch offensive line talent and depth. It hurt them and Coach Kelly’s offense.

The Irish averaged 150.9 yards per game on the ground. Even so, Notre Dame managed to average 27.2 points per game.

In 2014, Notre Dame started fast but faded with a plethora of injuries on both sides of the football. The biggest takeaway was that Coach Kelly really ramped up the offensive style (when possible because of injuries) and threw the football around. Young wide receivers made a big difference, and the Irish scored 32.8 points per game.

The key for this particular season would be explosive wide receiver Will Fuller (4.32 forty) and his ability to take the top off the defense. He caught 76 passes for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns. With him in the lineup, Notre Dame absolutely went for home run shots.

The passing game moved forward and averaged 285.5 yards per game, threw 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Even with the improved passing game, the Irish still ran the football well.

Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant combined for 1,178 yards and nine touchdowns, while Golson ran for another 283 yards and eight touchdowns.

This would be the season that Notre Dame really started to have enough offensive personnel to play power football or just air it out. With Fuller out wide, it made it much easier. In 2015, the Irish had their most explosive offensive attack yet.

The balanced offense saw Notre Dame average 34.2 points per game despite starting a redshirt freshman quarterback that was originally third team during spring practice. Signal caller Deshone Kizer threw for 2,880 yards, 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

He was especially adept at throwing deep, and Fuller was once again the main weapon. Fuller grabbed 62 passes for 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns. With Notre Dame being a very talented team at receiver and quarterback, the rushing game actually improved its average all the way up to 207.9 yards per game.

Kizer was a threat running the football, and with Fuller out wide there were not many defenses talented enough to slow down Notre Dame. Further, running back CJ Procise ran for 1,029 yards and 11 scores.

He was yet another burner and one that hit big plays. Of all the teams Coach Kelly resided over, the 2015 team most resembles what LSU fans think of when they watch their Tigers.

The Irish were loaded with speed and playmakers at wide receiver and running back, and that’s why they utilized very wide receiver-heavy formations for much of the season.

Overall, the first six seasons under Coach Kelly saw a slow transition towards a more explosive offense once he had the talent on the roster. Players like Eiftert, Wood, and Fuller allowed Notre Dame’s offense to take off during certain moments and games.

With the wide receiver talent alone that LSU usually has, it’s hard not to envision the Tigers being a very explosive passing team in short order.

Next: Part II looks at power football under Coach Kelly and the ability to shift the focus of the offense during a season.