Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly showed after the 2016 season that he can make successful and needed big changes to his program. Kelly’s decision to hire Matt Balis to run the strength program and the Mike Elko/Clark Lea duo to run the defense resulted in Notre Dame developing into one of the nation’s best units on that side of the ball.
Notre Dame has become a steady program that has gone 43-8 over the last four seasons, and it was the defense that fueled two undefeated regular seasons in the last three years.
For Notre Dame to go from a really good program that can’t really compete on the big stage to a program that is capable of competing with the big boys, beating the big boys and winning a national championship Kelly needs to make the kind of big change on offense that he made on defense.
It's simple, if Kelly is content beating up on inferior opponents to pad the record he can continue to do what he's been doing the last decade. If he is serious about wanting to compete for championships, he needs to make major changes on offense.
I'm not talking about tweaks or adjustments, I'm talking an overhaul that can be broken down into two categories: philosophical and schematic. All of the changes should be geared towards one thing, developing an explosive, high-scoring offense that can go toe to toe with the nation’s top programs.
This article will focus on the philosophical changes, and that will be followed with a breakdown of the needed schematic changes.
Before we begin, one thing must be made crystal clear, being an explosive offense doesn’t mean you can’t be a physical offense, an offense built around the offensive line, an offense that utilizes tight ends and an offense that runs the football at a high rate. This is important to understand because it means Notre Dame does not need to overhaul its roster or recruiting philosophy (for the most part) to develop an elite offense.
Here are the most important philosophical changes that are needed.
1. Develop An Explosive Mindset — Notre Dame currently runs a pro-style offense that focuses on using big personnel, a strong offensive line and a ball control style that is meant to control the clock and limit scoring opportunities for the opposition. Notre Dame is the more talented team almost every time it takes the field, and this style of offense factored into why the Irish rarely lose to inferior opponents.
The problem, however, is that when you go about your business the way Notre Dame does you can’t just turn it on when you need to be a more explosive team against a better opponent. Notre Dame will have its high-scoring moments against bad teams, but as we saw this season, even when the opponents are poor on defense this style of play is not conducive to a lot of points on a consistent basis (Duke, Louisville, Georgia Tech, North Carolina), at least not compared to what the best teams do against similar opponents.
Notre Dame must change its base philosophy, taking it from a physical, ground and pound, ball control offense to one that looks to be more aggressive, faster faced and one that looks to exploit the opponent's weaknesses as much as it wants to “do what we do.”
Being aggressive doesn’t mean throwing 50-yard bombs every play; it means constantly looking for ways to create explosives, to put defenses on their heels and to find matchup advantages that allow you to exploit the opposition.
Clemson throttled Notre Dame in the 2018 playoff and in the ACC title game with downfield shots, while Alabama attempted just one pass beyond 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. While both were aggressive, and both were explosive, they went about it in a different fashion.
Everything Notre Dame does offensively, from how it recruits, to its strength and conditioning points of emphasis, to how it goes about practice every day needs to be geared towards being fast, attacking the opposition, overwhelming the defense, getting opponents on their heels and looking to put teams away early.
2. Simply The System — In an era where the best offenses are scaling back the complexity of their offenses and going with a less is more approach, Notre Dame has insisted on running an extremely complex, somewhat outdated offensive system. It is especially challenging for quarterbacks, offensive linemen and wide receivers.
Notre Dame must abandon its current complexity, which mostly exists in the pass game, and run a more college-friendly offense. If you’re someone who believes Notre Dame lacks the depth of talent at the skill positions of other programs, you can’t afford to run an offense that consistently keeps younger players on the sideline due to their inability to pick up the system.
I personally don't believe that's an issue, so for me the focus needs to be on players being able to execute with a high level of certainty and confidence, and the more simplified the system the easier that is. You sacrifice volume from a playbook standpoint, but you more than make it up for it with a greater degree of execution.
I’ll dive into specifics of how this would be effective in the scheme breakdown.
3. Mix Up Tempos — Simplifying the offense will allow Notre Dame to push the tempo, and allow it to vary the tempos to a greater degree. Right now, Notre Dame relies on the offensive coordinator getting into the perfect play and he must make more perfect calls, at least against better teams, which means a slower pace.
There are some benefits to that, but against the better opponents it can be detrimental. The slower pace allows opposing defensive coordinators to get into their ideal calls. This is especially true when teams have additional time to prepare, as they are better able to figure out Notre Dame’s tendencies.
When I talk about tempo I am not referring to the fast paced spread offenses that look to run a 100 plays. There is a happy medium between Notre Dame’s slow style and that breakneck style of offense, and the Irish offense needs to find its sweet spot and get after it.
4. Use More Personnel — There are two aspects to this point. One is that Notre Dame can and should find more ways to mix up its personnel from series to series. Two backs on series, 11 personnel another (1 back, 1 tight end, 3 receivers), 12 personnel another (1 back, 2 tight ends, 2 receivers).
The other is that Notre Dame needs to do a much, much better job of using more personnel, especially at wide receiver. Having an offensive system or a philosophy of who does or doesn’t play that keeps Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts on the sideline for an entire season, that limits Chris Tyree to just three combined touches in two games against Clemson, is a bad way to maximize the talent on the roster. This year is not unique in this regard.
Kelly seems to have this philosophy on offense that once the season starts the lineup is set, barring injury. As we learned this season, even when injuries occur it won’t automatically result in an expanded use of the depth chart. There is no building younger, talented players into the system that we see at programs like Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State, and that needs to change.
Will Fuller, Chase Claypool, Miles Boykin, Equanimeous St. Brown, Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, DaVaris Daniels, Javon McKinley, Johnson and Watts combined for 17 catches in their freshman seasons. There have been anomalies, but this is a clear pattern that must be fixed. Making changes from a complexity standpoint would certainly help, but bigger picture, Notre Dame must be more committed to maximizing its depth chart week after week.
This ties into part one of this point, which is to mix up personnel. It also ties into simplifying the offense. Finding a smaller package of plays for young players that lack the pre and post-snap complexity of the current offense will allow them to get on the field and starting using their talent to make plays. The more they play, the more comfortable they get in the offense, the more comfortable they get in the offense the more they can do, the more they do the greater impact they can have later in the season.
If Kelly is willing to make these necessary changes, and bring his offense into the modern era, we could see Notre Dame make a dramatic leap in offensive production in a very short period of time. Do that and maintain the current level of defense and the Irish can kick down the tier two door.
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