Over the next week Irish Breakdown is going to dive into a number of crucial changes that Notre Dame must make on offense. They are changes that will determine whether or not Notre Dame starts playing offense at a level that gives it a chance to truly compete for championships.
If head coach Brian Kelly isn’t willing to really shake things up at Notre Dame, and not just make small, superficial changes, the offense will continue to hold the program back.
The changes must be big in scope, but what is not required is a complete overhaul on offense. There are some areas on offense that Notre Dame is already doing that absolutely can and should be a part of an elite, championship caliber offense.
So before we begin talking about the changes that need to be made, let’s focus on what doesn’t need to change. Below are aspects of the offense that are already established and should be foundational areas that the changes are built on top of.
1. The offensive line should remain the heart of the program — With the exception of Clemson, who’s had smart, well-coached but unspectacular lines under Dabo Swinney, the majority of the elite offensive teams in the country have outstanding line play. Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma have consistently put strong lines on the field, and LSU had a strong line in 2019.
Notre Dame already has the kind of line that should allow it to have an elite offense. In fact, if you break down film of the 2020 offense you’ll find that the line thrived in spite of the system, often opening up room to run against overloaded boxes and defenses geared almost exclusively to not letting the line dominate.
In three of the last six seasons the Irish have had arguably the nation’s best offensive line, and in seasons like 2016, 2018 and 2019 when the line wasn’t elite it was still at least good.
Notre Dame recruited offensive linemen at an elite level under former coach Harry Hiestand and it seems to be at least strong thus far under Jeff Quinn. It would be foolish for a Notre Dame to coach to not make having an elite offensive line a focal point of the program year after year. Even in down years where there is more inexperience - like we’ll see in 2021 - the lines should still be at least strong.
2. Running the ball can and should be the backbone of an elite offense — To build on point one, there is nothing that says you can’t be a high-powered, explosive, tempo offense and not be built around a dominant ground attack. In fact, if you look at many of the top offenses in recent seasons they are quite good at running the football, even those known as strong passing teams.
If you look at the last four seasons, only Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Notre Dame have earned multiple trips to the College Football Playoff. Here’s how those teams compare from a points per game and rushing standpoint:
Notre Dame stacks up quite well from a rushing yards per game standpoint, and although the Irish rank last in yards per rush it’s not significantly below either Ohio State or Alabama. Yet Notre Dame is over a touchdown less per game than every team in this list, and more than 10 points per game lower than Alabama and Oklahoma.
The big difference between the programs is the pass offense.
As you can see, where Notre Dame woefully lags behind is the pass game, but we’ll get to that in other articles that will come up over the next week.
This is meant to focus on the positive, and the positive is that Notre Dame has clearly had the run game and offensive line in most seasons to be competitive on the big stage. Notre Dame’s rushing attempts per game is either slightly above or below the other four top offenses, so it’s not like the ball control offense allows them to rely more heavily on the run game compared to other top tops.
As I’ll show in future breakdowns, a more explosive, efficient and effective pass attack actually makes life even easier on the run game.
3. Tight end focus can remain in play — Notre Dame recruits the tight end position as well as any team in the country, if not better. That is a position Notre Dame always can and always should recruit at a very high level. It would be foolish not to make that position a focal point of the offense.
When talking about building an elite offense, there is nothing philosophically or schematically that prevents an offense from being explosive while using a heavy dose of the tight end, or multiple tight ends. That includes an offense that likes to throw the football.
In 2017, for example, Oklahoma scored 45.1 points and rushed for 217.8 yards per game (5.6 YPC). It also passed for 361.8 yards per game. Oklahoma’s tight ends accounted for 72 catches for 1,120 yards and 11 touchdowns. Those are numbers Notre Dame’s tight ends would love to achieve, and numbers they are certainly capable of achieving.
An up-tempo offense that takes better advantage of the pass game, if done correctly, could make the tight end position an even bigger part of the Irish offense, make it even more dangerous and in turn make it even easier for Notre Dame to recruit any tight end it wants.
4. Be physical — Kelly liked to talk about how important it was for his team to be physical, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Notre Dame should always be about playing physical football. There is nothing about being physical that demands going slow or playing ball control, and there’s nothing about being explosive or pushing the tempo or running RPOs (Run Pass Option) that negates physicality or limits its effectiveness.
5. Schedule conducive to scoring a lot — Notre Dame has scheduled a bit softer than it had in previous years, and it is certainly far less challenging than what it was during the Lou Holtz seasons.
From 1988 to 1993, a span of six seasons, Notre Dame faced 27 regular season opponents that finished the season ranked (out of 68 games). During that stretch the Irish faced 14 regular season opponents that finished ranked in the Top 10. Notre Dame went 19-7-1 against ranked opponents and 9-4-1 against Top 10 teams.
From 2015 to 2020, a span of six seasons, Notre Dame faced 20 regular season opponents that finished ranked in the Top 25 (out of 70 games). Of those ranked opponents, only six finished ranked in the Top 10. Notre Dame went 10-10 against ranked opponents (10-7 outside of the 2016 season) and the Irish went 1-5 against Top 10 opponents.
Put another way, 39.7% of Notre Dame's regular season opponents from 1988-93 finished the season ranked in the Top 25 and 20.6% finished ranked in the Top 10. Those numbers fall to 28.6% and 8.6% from 2015-20.
More specifically to this discussion, the Irish have not faced many quality scoring defenses. In fact, only Clemson has faced fewer Top 25 scoring defenses in the last four seasons. Even Oklahoma has faced more Top 25 scoring defenses than Notre Dame. Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma all fared significantly better in those games than did the Irish.
It is important to point this data out because Notre Dame cannot say its points are kept down because it plays a tougher schedule. There isn’t a single data point that shows this to be true, especially when you include postseason games, which the data above includes. Notre Dame’s schedule has been, and in 2021 will be light on top defenses, which means there is every opportunity to put points on the board at a level comparable to the nation’s top programs.
Kelly absolutely must make dramatic changes this offseason, or the program will become stagnant and ultimately start falling further behind the top programs. The good news is that there are strong foundational aspects that should make it much easier to make the changes and see immediate results.
To comment below be sure to sign up for a FREE Disqus account, which you can get HERE.
Become a premium Irish Breakdown member, which grants you access to all of our premium content, our premium message board and gets you a FREE subscription to Sports Illustrated! Click on the link below for more
Be sure to stay locked into Irish Breakdown all the time!
Join the Irish Breakdown community!
Subscribe to the Irish Breakdown podcast on iTunes.
Subscribe to the Irish Breakdown YouTube channel.
Follow me on Twitter: @CoachD178
Like and follow Irish Breakdown on Facebook