Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly announced on Thursday that junior wide receiver Braden Lenzy would not be available for games against Georgia Tech and Clemson, and possibly longer, due to a season-long hamstring injury that was re-aggravated against Pitt.
Lenzy has not been himself all season, but the Irish staff kept plugging away as if he would soon return. That kept the offense from providing much downfield impact. In fact, Notre Dame has completed just five non-red zone passes all season that traveled more than 20 yards down the field, and not one was over the top of the defense. Only three were actual vertical routes (two vs. Florida State, one vs. Pitt).
Notre Dame's lack of a vertical passing game has not kept it from winning so far, thanks in part to a great run game, a dominant defense and a very soft schedule.
To beat Clemson, North Carolina, Boston College and possibly even Wake Forest, the Irish offense must develop more of a vertical pass game, and it was must do so without its most explosive wide receiver.
So what are the options to replace Lenzy, and replace what he was supposed to bring to the pass game?
1. Tommy Tremble — Yes, Tremble is a great blocker, but his athleticism also presents the offense with some downfield/big play potential that it is not currently taking advantage of. It would be wise for the Irish staff to bring some "new school" tight end concepts to pass game, with Tremble being the focus.
Tremble in the slot or out wide would present some unique decisions for defenses. The junior tight end can not only attack up the seams, but he has proven to be capable of winning one-on-ones outside, and if he was out wide against a corner it would present some physicality/size advantages.
Not only would it give Notre Dame more opportunities to attack down the field with him, it would also create more opportunities to make counter calls with players like Michael Mayer, the backs and the other wideouts in reaction to how the defense defends Tremble. Getting Tremble out of the box and involved in the pass game would also serve to space out the defense, forcing them to expand to guard against Tremble, which would give the backs more room to work in the run game.
2. Lawrence Keys III — Keys is supposedly back to being healthy, and it is an absolute must that he become a key part of the rotation. He showed early last season with Lenzy and Michael Young were out that he can make big plays. Keys can make plays in the slot, and he showed he can make plays last season from the outside.
Getting him free in space on drags and crossers could give him big play opportunities, but he can also be used on vertical routes. Keys is also a weapon in the screen game, which obviously isn't a vertical/downfield throw, but it is a big-play opportunity situation.
3. Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts — This is the least likely scenario based on Kelly's track record and comments from today's press conference, but it honestly should be at the very top of the list.
No, Johnson and Watts won't grasp the entire playbook yet, nor should that be the bar for them being able to play. The fact that is the standard is why Notre Dame continues to keep arguably its two best healthy weapons at the position on the sidelines.
Now, should the staff make the necessary changes in philosophy that programs like Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Georgia constantly make, these two could provide a major shot in the arm. Johnson can stretch the field and win contested throws, and Watts has the speed and playmaking ability to help the offense.
I refuse to believe that two young men that were admitted as students to Notre Dame can't learn a hitch route, a slant route, a go route, a post route and a drag route. If they can't, then there is clearly a problem with the philosophy and teaching on offense that has nothing to do with the freshmen.
If we see Johnson play and actually get targeted the next two weeks, and if we see Watts worked into the rotation then I will become a believer that Notre Dame is making the necessary program changes on offense to get over the hump.
4. Running Backs Have Big Play Potential — Sophomore running back Kyren Williams is a legit weapon in the pass game, and he is starting to become more of a focal point, which helps the offense.
I'd also like to see Chris Tyree be used more in the pass game. Wheel routes from the backfield, seam routes, delay clear routes, angle routes and more screen targets for Tyree is an absolute must.
Let's be honest, even when Lenzy was on the field, there wasn't and isn't a more explosive player on the offensive roster than Tyree. Notre Dame's staff cannot wait any longer to get Tyree more involved in the pass game. Yes, Williams can make plays in the pass game, but Tyree getting the ball is the difference between a big gain and a touchdown.
5. Be More Creative — The offensive pass game has been relatively basic, lacking nuance and creativity. It has relied on routes that worked with players like Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin, but the reality is no one on the current roster has the talent and specific skillset of those two players.
Kelly has said for years that defense requires top-notch talent, but on offense you can scheme your way to big plays. Notre Dame's offensive staff needs to start doing that. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees needs to start doing more with alignments, formations and the run game to set up future big plays. That was something Chip Long thrived at, and Rees needs to show he has the play design and play calling chops to make that happen.
Run a few play-actions or sprint outs/half rolls that get the ball out quickly, but also use them to set up a throw back, a deep shot, a double move, etc. Use your backs on more downfield routes, which not only sets them up for big plays, but they can also be used to occupy defenses for other big play opportunities.
I'd like to see more creative uses of the route tree as well. Use more post-snap switches, double moves on the outside, etc.
There are schematic things Notre Dame can do to set up big plays, especially with how good the run game is, and they need to be tapped into.
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.
Follow me on Twitter: @CoachD178
Follow me on Parler: @BryanDriskell
Like and follow Irish Breakdown on Facebook