Adjustments Are Needed For The Notre Dame Offense Moving Forward
Notre Dame put up good numbers against Duke, but the Irish fell far short of what the unit should have done. There were plenty of positives, and the comment “It’s just the first game” is a legitimate one. In college football there are no scrimmages to work out the kinks, so those often have to be done in the opener.
The Irish were sloppy at times, but they also showed there is talent on the roster, talent that is capable of producing at a much higher level once the unit gets on the same page.
Improving execution is needed, as it is for just about every team after one game, but there are adjustments that need to be made from a schematic, game plan and play-calling standpoint as well.
RUN GAME ADJUSTMENTS
Brian Kelly hinted after the game that Notre Dame made a schematic change, giving some the impression that his offense was running new schemes. That’s not an accurate representation of what his team did on Saturday.
In fact, if you look at the run calls against Duke on Saturday and compare them to the run calls against Duke in 2018 you’ll find that Notre Dame had four run snaps where it called a play that we didn’t see against the Blue Devils in 2019. They ran a jet sweep, a quarterback draw, a buck sweep fake and a quick toss play. All four plays, however, have been used in the past, some frequently.
Kelly talked about the difference between pin-and-pull concepts and the zone concepts we saw so much of against Duke. He was correct, Notre Dame did not run any traditional pin-and-pull schemes, but we did see the counter used on two occasions, and used effectively. That is a gap scheme that has pullers coming from the backside.
Notre Dame was much more reliant on the zone concepts, with Tommy Rees calling an outside zone (either traditional or a stretch look) 16 times, and the inside zone was called 12 times. Against Duke in 2019, then offensive coordinator Chip Long called the outside zone/stretch just four times and the inside zone just five times.
The biggest difference wasn’t what Notre Dame ran in 2020 that we didn’t see in the past. What was different was what we didn’t see on Saturday, and that was the Power Read concepts that resulted in quarterback Ian Book rushing for over 100 yards against the Blue Devils last season, and the gap schemes that Long liked to run.
If anything, limiting the variety of schemes should have made the execution by the line even better, but that's a different story for a different day.
Eliminating some of the variety that Long employed is perfectly fine. If Notre Dame wants to carry less offense and focus on getting really, really good at a smaller number of concepts I will say, “Bravo.” It’s wise to have concepts you can hang your hat on, and it was obvious Notre Dame was focusing on establishing the zone concepts, which will become the “go-to” calls later in the season.
In upcoming weeks, however, they will need to come up with a few wrinkles to keep defenses from keying on the first steps of the linemen. Going back to the Power Read concepts would be an easy adjustment to make this happen. It’s not really different from the counter concept Notre Dame ran twice for 25 yards against Duke. What I like about complementing the Power Read with the zone is it messes with the eye discipline of the defense relatively to how they must defend the zones.
Here’s an example:
This kind of wrinkle, which is even more effective when you have an athlete like Book at quarterback, could help the zone concepts a great deal.
MIX UP THE LOOKS AND TEMPO
In theory, there is nothing wrong with what Notre Dame did with its run game against Duke from a run schemes standpoint. You can have a dominant ground attack that focuses on a smaller number of concepts. In fact, there’s a strong case to make that it’s ideal in the college game.
The issue, however, is that Notre Dame didn’t utilize some of the other aspects needed to counter, or protect, a less diverse ground attack. Not using tempo and not being diverse with the formational looks with their run concepts is doubly problematic. Notre Dame was able to eventually get the job done against Duke because its talent level is so much greater, but that won’t always be the case.
If Notre Dame is going to be more narrowly focused with its run concepts it must be willing to push the tempo to a greater degree. A zone scheme is easier to defend if the opposition has all the time it needs to get lined up, make its calls and when defenders can get their eyes on their read keys. The slower the tempo, the less chance there is that a good opponent makes a mistake, which requires an even greater level of precision and execution by the offense.
If often get asked why other great teams have pass plays where receivers are wide open, or run plays that are wide open, and Notre Dame doesn't have as many. Well, tempo is part of it.
This can be negated by an offense that uses a variety of motions and shifts that are designed to gain leverage advantages, numbers advantages and help throw off the count or keys of the defense. If Notre Dame is going to focus on a smaller number of concepts there needs to be much more variety from a tempo and pre-snap alignment/movement standpoint.
BRING BACK THE RPOs
I saw very few RPO (Run Pass Option) looks from Notre Dame, and on the few snaps where it looked like it could have been used it wasn’t given a second thought by the quarterback. This could have been a read issue, but it looked to be more of a design issue.
Notre Dame seemed to prefer to use its wide receivers to block overhang defenders and linebackers instead of using RPOs to attack them, which puts them in a greater bind.
The Irish didn’t put receivers on the field for much of the game that really scare teams from a RPO standpoint, but they did try to go with better blockers. If you’re going to not run RPOs it makes sense to go with bigger wideouts.
The issue, however, is that the bigger receivers on the Irish offense aren’t like Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin in that they can present one-on-one mismatches in the pass game, which threatens a team that crowds the box. Players like Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek aren’t going to intimidate a good defense, or force it to back out of the box.
Notre Dame needs to make better use of RPOs, and make sure it’s putting players on the field that can do damage with those looks. Doing that will make the offense more explosive and take some pressure off the offensive line.
That means more snaps and opportunities for players like Lawrence Keys III, Braden Lenzy, Joe Wilkins Jr. (outside, not in the boundary), Xavier Watts and Jordan Johnson.
Occasionally using a two-man combination of running backs Kyren Williams, Chris Tyree, Jafar Armstrong and Kendall Abdur-Rahman would also be effective with these looks.
TAKE MORE SHOTS
Rees has to know who Book is by now, and I’m sure he does. That means he knows that Book is rarely going to throw the ball down the field unless the play call has a shot as part of the primary read. Against Duke, for example, Book had just one non-red zone throw that traveled more than 20 yards down the field. Notre Dame never did anything with the pass game that forced Duke to back off from keying the run.
Rees needs to be more aggressive attacking down the field with the pass game. Moving McKinley to the boundary should help by giving the offense a greater threat of back shoulders into the boundary than it had on Saturday, which also goes well with RPOs. Getting Lenzy back into the lineup should help as well, but with Lenzy’s inability to stay on the field they need options and concepts that attack vertically when he’s not on the field.
I expect to see Rees be more aggressive in the upcoming games, using his tight ends (Tommy Tremble, Michael Mayer) and faster players (Lenzy, Keys) to attack vertically with greater frequency.
Building some big play shots off the zone looks will need to happen, and I’m confident Rees will have those as part of his game plan as we get deeper into the season.
BE MORE PHYSICAL
At the end of the day, all those coaching adjustments are great, and they’ll work against most of Notre Dame's opponents, but they won’t ultimately be why Notre Dame beats a team like Clemson, Georgia or Alabama. The offensive line must be more physical at the point of attack for that to happen. I liked what I saw from the tackles, but on the inside there was still way too much catching at the point of attack, and there wasn’t nearly enough getting to the second level.
If you are going to run the inside zone you absolutely must have interior blockers that are physical, and you must teach them to step with power and look to get a vertical push. We did not see that from Notre Dame against Duke, and it’s something that we rarely saw in 2019.
That must change, and change in a hurry.
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