Notre Dame has had a dominant run game, fueled by arguably the nation’s best offensive line, all season. The reason Notre Dame’s offense mostly sputtered through its first four games is an incredibly inconsistent, and at times ineffective pass game.
With how good the run game has been this season, the Irish pass game doesn’t need to look like it did in 2015 when the Irish had Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle doing damage.
It just needs to be a complementary part of the offense, and one capable of making plays, taking pressure off the run game, and we’ve seen almost everything we need to see for the pass attack to be potent.
Here’s the problem, very few of the traits needed to thrive against the best teams on the schedule happened at the same time. They just haven’t been able to put it all together at the same time. Until that happens the pass game will continue to sputter.
Here’s what the pass offense needs to do to thrive, and what we’ve seen it capable of doing.
Book Is Poised In The Pocket And Will Attack Downfield — Notre Dame’s pass game is at its best when it is aggressively attacking opponents down the field. This isn’t just true of when Ian Book has been behind center, this is true going all the way back to the 202 season. We saw it then, we saw it in 2015, we saw it in 2017, we saw it in 2018. When the deep ball isn’t part of the offense the pass game sputters.
Book has been a bit schizophrenic when it comes to the deep ball. At times he looks completely unwilling to attack the opposition, and he’ll rush through his reads and fail to show the necessary poise in the pocket. When this happens he struggles, and the offense struggles.
We’ve also seen book sit back in the pocket with the cool, calm, collected demeanor of a savvy veteran. In fact, we just saw it on Saturday during the 45-3 win at Pittsburgh. When Book is poised in the pocket he’s also usually more willing to attack down the field with confidence.
Notre Dame absolutely needs this to become the norm for its veteran quarterback. If Book can show the same poise, willingness to push the ball downfield and show the same playmaking ability he made on Saturday the Irish should be really good on offense. If he can do that and be a bit more accurate, something else we’ve seen from him at times, the offense could be outstanding regardless of the opposition.
Talented Tight Ends Can Be The Focal Point — Notre Dame is absolutely loaded at tight end. Junior George Takacs - the fourth-string tight end - could start for a lot of teams on the Irish schedule. Junior Tommy Tremble and freshman Michael Mayer are dynamic football players, and they are incredibly difficult matchups for linebackers and safeties.
I’ve written about this before, but the tight ends are electric when they are a focal point of the offense. We saw it from Mayer against Pitt and we saw it from Tremble in the win over South Florida. Both are also outstanding blockers, and they absolutely can, and should, be what the pass game is built around.
The issue, however, is that far too frequently this season the tight ends were used as complementary pieces to the wideouts instead of the other way around. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has plenty more he can do with the tight ends, including moving Tremble outside more, mixing up their route concepts and making them part of the primary reads, like we saw against Pitt.
It would also benefit Rees, Book and the offense if both Tremble and Mayer were key ingredients each week.
Running Backs Are Pass Game Weapons — What I just said about the tight ends can also be said about the backs to a lesser degree. Sophomore back Kyren Williams was a receiver in high school longer than he was a running back. Williams took a screen pass 75 yards in the opener, and he hauled in three passes for 37 yards in the win over Pittsburgh. Williams is second on the offense in receiving yards and third in catches.
Williams catching the ball needs to be a key part of the offense every week, not just occasionally. That means more designed free release routes out of the backfield, more work in the screen game, using him in the slot at times, and of course, it requires him to be more consistent actually catching the ball.
We have not seen as much in the pass game from Chris Tyree, but that needs to change immediately. Making Williams and Tyree greater weapons in the pass game would force linebackers to be far more cognizant of them, and would help open up the intermediate and deep zones behind them for the tight ends and receivers.
Javon McKinley Can Win One-On-Ones, Ben Skowronek Can Be Clutch — When put in one-on-one situations, we’ve seen Javon McKinley makes plays, and he’s done it against some pretty darn good cornerbacks. The issue, however, has been his own inconsistent play (especially when it comes to getting off the line), and inconsistency in regards to keying him in the pass game.
Grad transfer Ben Skowronek should not be asked to be the focal point of the pass attack. What he should be asked to do, and what he is capable of doing in a highly effective manner, is being a strong complementary player. We saw that in the win over Pitt, and we saw that from him during the 2017 and 2018 seasons when he was at Northwestern.
Like McKinley, the issue has been consistency. Kelly has noted that Skowronek was not healthy early in the season, and the way he ran against Pitt that excuse seems legitimate. Moving forward, Skowronek needs to be more consistent, and using him to attack the middle of the field more effectively would be a key part of that.
Complementary Weapons Can Get The Job Done — Senior Avery Davis has shown more than capable of making the occasional clutch play and senior running back Jafar Armstrong has done damage in the pass game out of the backfield. Neither are go-to players, but both are capable of stepping up in the pass game when their number is called.
I’d love to see Davis get a chance to throw the football.
It would be nice if Notre Dame's staff could figure out a way to get the ball into the hands of Lawrence Keys III more frequently as a complementary player. He showed early in 2019 that if he is given the opportunity he can make plays.
RPO’s and Screen Game Is A Key Part Of The Offense — I’ve been begging for for RPOs (Run Pass Option) to be brought back into the offense, and against Pittsburgh we saw them. It would be wise for Rees to add to the RPO package, and make it a much bigger part of the offense. Not only does it give the offense an opportunity to steal easy yards and help get Book into an early rhythm, it also serves to protect the run game when defenses get too aggressive or load the box.
Notre Dame’s screen game has been mostly effective this season. In fact, a case could be made it’s been the most consistent part of the offense when used. That must continue, and upping the usage of the screen game would make a lot of sense.
WHAT IS LEFT
There are parts of the pass game we have yet to see, and if at least two of these things can be done, and if the above points can start to come together, the Irish pass game could really take off and flourish, and it would come at just the right time.
Vertical Threats Needed — Notre Dame needs to establish more of a vertical passing game. Getting junior Braden Lenzy healthy would help, but he hasn’t been healthy all season, and the odds of him just suddenly getting healthy and getting his burst back in the next couple of weeks seems unlikely.
Whether it’s the tight ends (especially Tremble), a couple of running back routes, more back shoulders to McKinley, better designed play-action throws or playing someone we haven’t seen as much of this season, Notre Dame’s downfield pass game must get better and be more of a factor.
It doesn't need to be a high volume part of the offense, but it must b
Adjust Pass Game Concepts To Fit WR Skill Sets — One issue I’ve seen this season is that there is too much emphasis being placed on pass concepts the coaches seem to like, but not as many pass concepts that fit the specific skillset of the players the staff insists on playing.
What Rees and the rest of the offensive staff must do, and do quickly, is adjust their concepts to better fit the specific skillsets of their talent.
There Are Some Talented Freshmen On The Roster — Notre Dame has three talented freshmen on the roster, and two that absolutely must see the field right now. That would be Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts. I’m not holding my breath that both will be added to the offense, but it needs to happen, and happen immediately.
When your pass game is as mediocre as Notre Dame’s has been this season, and when your freshmen are as talented as Johnson and Watts, it is imperative that a coach do whatever he must to get them into the rotation.
Do not ask them to know and run the entire route tree, or to know the complex post-snap adjustments they must make. Take what they do well and put them on the field and get them the football in a manner that fits their skillset and what they are comfortable doing.
I don’t think it will happen, but it should.
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