A Decided Schematic Advantage: Why Notre Dame is Better Off Without It

If you’re a Notre Dame fan and haven’t read the annual Maple Street Press preseason magazine titled Here Come the Irish 2010, I suggest you do so.

In my opinion, it is the best publication you will read leading up to the start of Irish football next month with the home opener against Purdue.

Check your local Barnes & Noble for a copy or you can purchase one online right here.

Anyway, the reason I bring up the magazine is because of an article inside by Chris Brown who is the editor of Smart Football and a regular contributor to Rivals and the New York Times blog The Fifth Down.

Brown’s piece titled, "A Passing Primer: An In-Depth Look at Brian Kelly’s Spread Offense," is a great crash course on some of the concepts and plays we can expect the Fighting Irish to run in the coming future.

If you’re unfamiliar with the spread offense or if you’re not particularly knowledgeable about the X’s and O’s of football, then this article will give you a firm grasp of the new Notre Dame offense.

However, what caught my attention in this piece was how Brown makes some subtle (and not so subtle) distinctions between the offensive systems and coaching philosophies of Brian Kelly and Charlie Weis.

When Brian Kelly was hired shortly after the end of last season, there were many skeptics who derided the decision on the grounds that Notre Dame would simply be moving from one pass happy coach to another.

The train of thought was that we wouldn’t see much of a difference in the way the team was prepared and coached each week and this would lead to similar disappointing results on the field under Kelly.

Well, anyone who has taken the time to research Brian Kelly’s past as a college coach will surely find out that he is a lot different than Charlie Weis.

But what really are the differences between their two offensive systems?

In some ways, there will be relatively major changes.

We’ll see the quarterback operate almost exclusively out of the shotgun, there will be many more screens of numerous variations, and the zone read and option will also be utilized quite a bit by signal-caller Dayne Crist.

Still, the Irish operated out of shotgun quite frequently in recent years, used screens about as often as any pro-style offense and even the new zone blocking schemes are not terribly different than those used under Weis.

So in a way, the new offense is not a completely new and foreign system to the current players and there should be some form of comfort with a good chunk of the playbook.

Maybe the most important issue is how Brian Kelly and Charlie Weis each valued their offensive strategy and play-calling and how those values influenced their overall coaching and teaching philosophy.

And it is to this point that Chris Brown touches upon and through which the biggest differences between the two coaches comes to light.

We all know how Weis felt about play-calling and how he told Irish players that they would have a "decided schematic advantage" every time they stepped on the football field while he was coach.

In most ways, Weis was all but obsessed with his schemes and this fixation permeated throughout the entire program. After all, his only coaching experience at the highest levels of football was as an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

What else was there to rely on?

This leads me to the defining sentence from Chris Brown’s article that really struck a chord with me and speaks volumes.

While explaining Kelly’s passing offense, Brown demonstrates how the quarterback and receivers learn to adapt on the fly to what the defense is doing and adjust their routes and ball placement accordingly.

For example, in a particular four-wide set every receiver has the option of running a deep route if the defense stays close to the line of scrimmage, or each receiver can cut off that route and find an opening if the linebackers and secondary have moved too far down field.

As Brown states, "Here again we see Kelly deemphasizing the play caller in favor of the players."

That sentence hit me like a ton of bricks and seems to reveal so much in so few words.

Brown points out in his article that Kelly’s offense doesn’t need to be "guessed right" to work, because the system is set up in such a way that it should work on its own.

This is exactly why Notre Dame’s offense was so hit and miss during the past five years.

It came down to hoping that Weis would guess the right play. The entire offense wasn’t built around a system per se, but was more of a structure built to suit the fancy of Charlie Weis’ weekly chess matches with opposing defenses.

In a lot of ways, this system under Weis was incredibly self-centered and driven by ego.

How else do you explain the "decided schematic advantage" comments?

Maybe we should have known the Weis era wouldn’t have worked out solely because the coach believed his play-calling alone would bring Notre Dame back to glory.

Never mind the other issues that plagued the team on the other side of the ball and in other areas (motivation, fundamentals, etc.), the Charlie Weis era was like one big Saturday showcase attempting to vindicate the coach as a genius play-caller.

It’s sort of an irony as well, because Weis’ play-calling did favor the players on offense in the form of numerous records and personal achievements with Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, Golden Tate, Jimmy Clausen and Michael Floyd all receiving honors and etching their names in the history books.

But all of that personal success occurred without winning and was always directly correlated to the supposed amazing play-calling of the head coach.

So even though some players reached new personal heights, the team as a whole struggled to climb to such high levels of success.

With all that we know now about the past five years, it makes you wonder where the priorities were with program, starting with the head coach and trickling down to the rest of the organization.

Don’t you think Kelly’s comments about destroying the "me-first" and NFL attitudes that he found when he first arrived in South Bend were more of an indictment on the previous coach rather than the players?

That’s not to say that Charlie Weis really cared about the NFL more than winning, but there may have been some Rick Barnes ideas floating through his head.

You could definitely see how Weis may have thought that:

A. Great schemes led to a great offense

B. A great offense sent players to the NFL

C. Sending players to the NFL attracts elite recruits

D. Attracting elite recruits makes it easier to win

Winning was part of the formula, but it seemed to have been lost in the shuffle with the obsession with "decided schematic advantages" and all the other NFL-type concerns.

This is not the case with Brian Kelly.

Kelly’s offense is built more from the ground up with the players being taught correct fundamentals in route running, footwork, blocking and making quick decisions in the blink of an eye.

Instead of trying to memorize schemes in an attempt to trick or outwit an opponent like Weis’ offense, Brian Kelly focuses on the smaller issues and ingrains running the offense to perfection into every player on the roster.

The big difference with the new Irish coach is that instead of throwing fade routes to Floyd because he’s taller than a corner or fixating on a mismatch at a certain position, the players will learn to execute the offense flawlessly and get open of their own accord.

The example of the fade route is apropos, because what is a fade if nothing but a guess that your covered receiver will come down with the football?

So when Brown states that Kelly deemphasizes the play caller in favor of the player, what he means is that the responsibility for success with moving the football and scoring touchdowns begins and ends with Dayne Crist reading the front seven and keeping the ball on a zone read for example, or Duval Kamara reading the safety’s and linebackers and cutting off his route in order to get open.

Instead of crediting Weis with calling a certain play that caught the defense off guard, we’ll be seeing a lot more real-time decisions where the players will get the credit for executing and adjusting to the defense mid-play.

One could say it is more of a bottom-up system in which fundamentals are the basis and the offense works its way up to the play caller, whereas the Weis system was a top-down system that started with the play calling and the team moved on from there.

It’s all about perfecting the system for Kelly, because the system works.

The system works because of Kelly’s outstanding three-year record at Cincinnati where his offenses were among the most explosive in the nation and five different quarterbacks averaged 3,758 yards, 62.9 percent completion, and almost 34 touchdowns to only 11 interceptions per season.

This doesn’t mean that Kelly doesn’t pay attention to schemes or try to fool the opponent every now and again. But as stated above, it’s all about how the schemes fit into the overall philosophy and coaching of the program.

As Chris Brown points out, Brian Kelly is not enamored with his schemes the way Weis was, he just uses them because they work when players are taught how to run the offense efficiently and effectively.

Here are three points of difference that we will see as gathered from Brown’s article and a bit of research on Kelly’s offense.

1. Less reliance on the deep ball

Kelly likes to stretch the field vertically and will still produce as many (or more) big passing plays as Weis did, but there will be less dependence on throwing the ball 30 or 40 yards down field and more focus on quick passing and getting the ball to skilled receivers in space who can then scamper for big gains.

As Brown states, Kelly runs a ball control passing game that will be less boom or bust, more likely to move the chains and more likely to have success in the red zone.

2. More players will contribute

Last season, the Irish had a respectable six players haul in at least 20 receptions, but that number would have been reduced had Floyd, Allen and Rudolph all stayed healthy for the entire year.

Under Kelly, the ball will be spread around more evenly and players such as John Goodman, Shaq Evans, Deion Walker and Mike Ragone will all more than likely double, or even triple, their 2009 output this coming fall.

This also applies to the running game where the carries will be divided in some form between four halfbacks (Allen, Gray, Wood and Hughes) and Crist will be able to make plays with his feet on quarterback keepers and options.

Yards will also be gained through reverses to Theo Riddick and others receivers as well, while the fast-paced no-huddle offense will ensure that fresh players are rotated into action.

3. Injuries will not derail the system

This does not mean that there won’t be some decrease in productivity if a major component of the offense is injured (i.e. Dayne Crist), but rather, Kelly’s system will transition better in such cases more so than the Weis system.

For example, Weis had Notre Dame transition to a Rich Rodriguez-type spread offense before the 2007 season because Jimmy Clausen wasn’t 100 percent healthy as a freshman. This did untold damage to the entire offense and is something you will never see Brian Kelly do.

If Crist or another star player goes down with an injury, the focus on teaching and fundamentals will allow the offense to keep rolling along without significant reductions in productivity. This was evident last year when Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike missed a handful of games and his backup Zach Collaros was able to come in and keep the offense moving, scoring points and winning games.

In summary, Notre Dame fans should be excited because Brian Kelly will focus on teaching, player development and taking care of the small things, all of which were severely lacking under the previous regime.

Kelly demands that his players be prepared, ready to execute and win football games and he knows those goals will be achieved through preaching fundamentals and working hard, not because he is a genius play caller who will have all the answers on offense come Saturday afternoon.

And what’s better, Kelly’s teaching will also be focused on the defensive side of the ball, just another major boost to the program as a whole.

Notre Dame will no longer be the Texas Tech of the Midwest.

Think back to the early months of 2009 when Notre Dame hired John Tenuta as the new Irish defensive coordinator. There was no talk of focusing on fundamentals or player development, only of another coach whose blitzing schemes were supposed to give Notre Dame another major advantage against its competition.

If only college football worked that way.

Irish eyes should be smiling because Notre Dame finally has an experienced college football coach who knows how to build a winner and has been feverishly addressing the problems from the previous coaching staff.

Although some people would like to think otherwise, as Brian Kelly said in his interview with ESPN the other day, Notre Dame is not broken, there were just some things that needed to be fixed.

When asked if Notre Dame could win a national championship he replied,

"Oh yeah, it’s only a matter of time."

There are only 29 more days until the world gets its first glimpse of the new Fighting Irish football team.

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