Making significant schematic or philosophical changes in coaching is an extremely hard endeavor, especially when your team is having quality win-loss success. The timing must be right to make that kind of change, and for Notre Dame, that right time is the 2021 offseason.
When you install an offense it goes beyond just plays and formations, and making dramatic changes year to year is not really doable. There is a culture involved, you recruit to that philosophy and you’ve coached your players in that system/scheme. When you have an experienced team - like Notre Dame had in 2020 - making dramatic changes is a hard pill to swallow.
That doesn’t mean Notre Dame didn’t need to make changes, or that changes aren’t needed moving forward. Notre Dame absolutely needs to adapt on offense, if not overhaul the offense.
But making that change when you return so much from an 11-2 team that is entrenched with the current philosophy, scheme and terminology, which is what we saw in 2020, is not going to happen, even though it should.
The current circumstances of the roster make this the perfect time to implement necessary changes, should the staff wisely decide to do so. Notre Dame must replace its starting quarterback, four starting offensive linemen and its top two pass catchers. The replacements in almost every instance are young and inexperienced players, and the early 2021 schedule would give the Irish a chance to get comfortable in the new offense.
Notre Dame cannot afford to simply “do what they do” on offense, because that requires more system and game experience than what returns to the roster. Despite having a three-year starter at quarterback, arguably the best offensive line in the country, a loaded tight end depth chart, a 1,000-yard rusher and a quality wide receiver unit, the offense finished this season ranked just 30th in scoring offense (33.4 PPG), right between Louisiana-Lafayette and Georgia State.
Even if the staff adds a graduate transfer or two, those players would still be brand new to the current offense. In proceeding articles I will dive into more specifics of what those changes need to be, but it is obvious that changes need to be made.
Kelly’s comments after the Alabama game were very similar to the ones he made two years ago after losing 30-3 to Clemson … his team needs more playmakers, it needs to be more explosive.
As much as Kelly has pointed to the personnel, the issue has been more about his offensive philosophy than it has been the lack of personnel. Let’s not forget the 2018 Notre Dame offense had players like Chase Claypool, Miles Boykin and Dexter Williams in the lineup. That offense finished 42nd in scoring offense, and if you just evaluate the games after Brandon Wimbush was replaced, the ranking goes up only to 34th.
In 2015, Notre Dame had arguably the nation’s best offensive line again (three future first round picks and a second round pick), and it also had Will Fuller, CJ Prosise, Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle, Josh Adams and DeShone Kizer, but that offense still ranked just 34th in scoring offense at 34.2 points per game despite ranking sixth nationally with a school record 7.0 yards per play.
That was certainly an explosive group of skill players, but the scoring numbers were almost identical to what they have been for most of the last decade. Beginning in 2014, Notre Dame has averaged 32.8, 34.2, 30.9, 34.2, 31.4, 36.8 and 33.4 points per game. There have been three different offensive coordinators during that stretch, but not much has changed.
In 2012 when the Irish were whipped by Alabama, Kelly realized his program needed to become more physical, and over the next several years that’s exactly what we saw, a far more physical program. If Brian Kelly looks in the mirror now the way he did following the 2012 season he’ll realize that the players aren’t the issue as much as the “do what we do” part is.
If Tommy Rees is as smart as Kelly thinks he is, and I do believe Kelly is right about Rees’ intellect and knack for the game of football, he and Lance Taylor and the rest of the staff could spend the next couple of months studying the nation’s best offenses, meeting with those staffs and figure out how to best adopt those explosive concepts and philosophies into who Notre Dame is.
Do that and hit another home run with the next defensive coordinator hire and this program will take the next step sooner rather than later.
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