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Thinking About Notre Dame's Offense: Where Are We and Where Are We Going?

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I'm frustrated with the Notre Dame offense.

Maybe I shouldn't be, but after watching the team struggle to score points on Saturday against Pittsburgh, a bunch of questions came bubbling to the surface.

I really like the offensive line right now, and the running backs have been performing at a very high level as well. If you would have told me these two positions would be playing this great shortly after Brian Kelly was hired, I would have jumped through the roof.

Yet, outside of these two units there remain a lot of questions on offense in the second year of the Kelly era.

This is me trying to sort through it all.

Come with me on this journey through frustration, angst, and hope.

Have we progressed at all with the spread system?

This was the first question I started thinking about watching the game versus Pitt on Saturday.

I was sitting there thinking, "Do we even run a spread offense?"

Now, I know that technically Notre Dame is in fact running a spread offense, but if a spread offense is a car, we're rolling on three wheels, with a cracked windshield, and desperately in need of an oil change.

We also have a tail light out.

This isn't even about Rees' lack of running ability or even his physical limitations per se---but just think about what this offense looked like in the early stages of last year. I think you could argue there's been some decent improvement with some fundamentals, specifically with the running game, but there's hardly been the improvement that a second year jump usually brings.

Moreover, the playbook seems to have become even smaller than last year and even from late last season when Rees took over after Crist's knee injury. Isn't that a problem?

Okay, with Rees there is no quarterback running, and the ability to stretch the field vertically is severely limited. Those issues are bad enough, but where is the jet sweep? Why don't we ever move a playmaker like Theo Riddick around, try to confuse the defense, and get the ball in his hands in different ways?

I'm sitting there on Saturday watching Pitt---a team that is making a much harsher transition to the spread than we had to last year---and Notre Dame looks like the team in the first year of a new system. Pittsburgh was using all sorts of motion and deception to try and move the ball against the Irish, and it wasn't long into the game before the Panthers put two running backs in the backfield with QB Tino Sunseri, making it just a little more difficult for the Irish defense to key in on running back Ray Graham.

Why don't we do something like that?

It's been four full games, a complete third of a season, and I can't think of one new play, or even one that has made me say, "Oh, that was different."

I'm just lamenting because this offense is brutally vanilla right now and you would think with Rees' limitations that Kelly and the coaching staff would be doing more to make his life easier. Instead, we run the same handful of running plays out of the shotgun, mixed in with a limited passing game.

So, how much of a spread team is Notre Dame really? And if and/or when someone like Hendrix or Golson becomes the starter in South Bend, what kind of transition are we going to be looking at?

I can't imagine it will be particularly smooth. It still seems like we're in the first month or two of a new system right now (quarterback-wise), almost two full years after Brian Kelly took over at Notre Dame.

Did anyone think this would be the case when he was hired?

If Hendrix or Golson take over next season, is it going to be like starting over again because Kelly isn't installing his full playbook right now?

Are we making it easy for teams to defend us?

I know opposing defensive coordinators will gush about Michael Floyd, a big, strong line, and playmakers like Wood and Riddick---but aren't they secretly happy with how vanilla our "spread" really is?

This is what bothers me most about the offense.

Look at what Pitt did this past Saturday: they came out with a junk defense that they'd never used before this season, they took Floyd out of the game, and were able to stand up to Notre Dame's offensive line with a decent amount of pressure and penetration.

The result was that Rees and the offense looked completely lost.

After the game Kelly told the media of the fact that Pitt was running a weird junk defense and that they had to simplify matters in the second half to counter it. But before the game started Kelly mentioned that Pitt ran complicated schemes and that things would already be simplified for Rees.

What is going on out there? Things already seemed incredibly simple in the first half, how much simpler can this offense get? We already refuse to incorporate plays X, Y, and Z, etc. with Rees---at some point doesn't it reach a tipping point?

Does that tipping point come with two more losses this season?

If we continue using such a simple gameplan, what are the advantages of keeping Rees in as quarterback? And assuming Rees becomes more comfortable as this year moves on, how much more can Notre Dame add to the playbook?

Where is the offense headed the rest of the year?

Here's something else to think about that really makes you scratch your head with this offense.

Are we a fast-paced offense or not?

Before the season started I commented that it would be nice to be able to jump into a hyper-speed offense and also slow things down if the situation and score necessitated doing so.

Now, we seem stuck in some crazy no-man's land.

We don't huddle, but it's taking forever for the plays to come in and for the team to get to the line of scrimmage.

We're nowhere near the fast-paced offense that Kelly is known for and the team often looks confused about what their supposed to do---usually never set and ready to snap the ball with more than 10 seconds left on the play clock.

Again, we look like a team that is in the first month of a new system.

Is there some disconnect between Kelly and Charlie Molnar upstairs in the booth? I hate to sound like Marvin Gaye, but what is going on?

So, to quickly summarize so far: Notre Dame is running a half-assed spread offense, at a half-assed tempo, all while having a quarterback who doesn't fit the system. Worse yet, there are very few, if any, wrinkles designed to open up the offense and move the ball more effectively.

So where does this leave us for the rest of the season and the immediate future?

When we're talking about this year, it's becoming painfully obvious that Hendrix and Golson are not going to see any significant minutes, barring major injuries of course. So, we're left with Rees and Crist.

It's also pretty obvious that Kelly favors Rees at this point, and as Whiskey pointed out, mental toughness is likely playing a large role in that decision. But is there anything deeper going on behind the scenes?

I think Kelly sees Rees as the more accurate passer with a quicker delivery and believes that this will help the team win now at the QB position. A lack of mobility and a propensity to turn the ball over are clearly a concern, but I am sure Kelly believes there is a higher ceiling with Rees in his ability to shake off bad moments and continue moving the offense.

He's also banking on Rees cutting down on the turnovers as he becomes more experienced. God willing, he will.

It's funny because many of us assumed that the ceiling is higher with Crist, but it may not be so in the eyes of Kelly.

I truly believe that Kelly thinks he can mold Rees into a top-notch passer, and that Rees is a more pure and natural passer than Crist. Add Rees' calm demeanor and his tendency to NOT get rattled, and these positives trump any of his other negatives.

Kelly's thinking, "I have to get Tommy comfortable throwing the ball in any situation, and this offense needs him to be effective to open up the run game, move the offense, and put points on the board."

This season so far has proven to me that Rees will never be a game-manager. The quarterback in Kelly's system is going to be the focal point of the offense regardless of who is back there.

I would argue that it might be smarter to gravitate towards a more college-type spread system like schools such as Oregon and TCU run, because I believe it would make Rees' life easier to have opponents focusing on a lot of other running plays. Instead, what we're seeing right now is a very pro-style spread offense not that much different than what the New England Patriots use.

But we don't have Tom Brady, do we?

What's the long-term plan for the offense?

I'm not really sure how much Kelly is thinking about the long-term aspect of the offense because he is concentrated on winning games in the here and now, but it's very interesting to think about.

I've talked a little bit about why Kelly prefers Rees at this moment, but what does the future hold for Hendrix and Golson? Are we ever going to see Crist back as a starter too?

There are a lot of tough questions involved here, and very few answers.

One of the other main reasons why I'd like to see more jet sweeps, two-backs flanking the quarterback, and even some QB keepers from time to time, is not only because I think this can help the Irish win right now, but because it would appear that this is the offense of the future with Hendrix or Golson.

Maybe Kelly is planning on a much more pass-oriented offense than we all believe, but it seems pretty likely that we're headed toward a more Oregon-type of offense. Why create two different systems now? Why have that divide there?

Some may say Rees can't run that kind of offense and that defenses will shut it down. I agree, but only to a point.

I think we can incorporate a lot more of those Oregon-type principles that don't necessarily center around the quarterback going out and making plays with his feet.

The problem I have right now is that I just don't think the offense, as it is set up right now, is that hard to stop. We saw what happened to the offense against Pitt when Michael Floyd isn't involved. We're 8 to 9 games away from that being a cold hard reality forever.

Obviously the offense isn't terrible, and there is plenty of talent available that has made it look very good at times, but I also think we're wasting a lot of that talent too.

Let's go back to the running game for a minute.

It has looked really good this year, and a lot of that has a lot to do with the great job the line has done in blocking and finally getting a superstar in the making like Cierre Wood in the backfield. As a backup running back, Jonas Gray has been great too.

But the running game could be better.

It could be better because the spread offense is built heavily around deception with the QB option, and without that deception teams have adjusted and been able to slow the Irish running game down as the game goes on. Some teams like Oklahoma can get away with running the ball effectively without much of that deception because they have a Heisman candidate in Landry Jones at quarterback, but we don't have Landry Jones.

As a result, Notre Dame has rushed for 15 yards in the fourth quarter this year.

15 yards in a full game's worth of fourth quarters.

Opponents don't respect our play action because there's very little threat of going deep down the field. And by the time the fourth quarter rolls around, the linebackers are hitting gaps and the defensive end is crashing down on Cierre Wood because there's no threat of Rees taking off around the edge.

At the snap of the ball opposing defenses only have to worry about 3 or 4 options, instead of 5 or 6, and this makes Notre Dame less explosive on offense. It's as though the Irish go into every game with handcuffs on.

What could things be like with a running QB?

I think about this often, as I know many other Irish fans do.

When I think about this quarterback situation and how Kelly has handled it, I think of two main points:

1.) Using a change of pace quarterback was likely never an option this year.

2.) I'm not sure Kelly had any inclination to play anyone but Crist or Rees in 2011.

The first point seems obvious after Kelly's teleconference on Sunday in which he said another quarterback could come in when the team has a big lead. That means we're doubtful to see any Tebow packages and certainly no one coming to take over for Rees for a full series or two.

On the second point, I think a little bit of coach psychology inevitably comes into play.

As much as some of us want to believe it, there is no way in hell that Kelly is going to start a third quarterback this year without major injuries occurring.

I don't want to sound too conspiratorial, because I do believe Kelly when he says that Hendrix (and obviously Golson) aren't ready to play yet. But at the same time, Kelly would be inviting a ton of criticism if he were to introduce a third quarterback into this quasi-competition.

Understandably, a three-way QB controversy sounds like a disaster and could be an enormous distraction for the team, and from a coach's standpoint you can understand that this has to be prevented no matter what the costs.

The result is that Tommy Rees is the unquestioned starter. I believe it will now take a mountain of poor play from Tommy for that to change any time soon.

But oh, the mobile quarterbacks.

The mobile quarterbacks sit and wait.

I know many people will point out that this offense can be successful without a mobile quarterback or one that doesn't run very often. Like Oklahoma, there are plenty of examples out there that you can cite to make that case.

But still, we're not doing ourselves any favors are we? I mean, you CAN win in college football without much of a passing game too (Hi LSU!), but it does make things harder. You're playing with one hand tied behind your back---some teams can get away with it, and some don't.

I'm not exactly elated that Tommy Rees is the Irish quarterback right now, but I'm a lot more comfortable with the decision today than I would have been a month ago. It is clear that he's the guy right now and I'm rooting for him to improve---and he does has to improve quite a bit.

Nevertheless, that doesn't stop me from imagining what this offense could look like right now with someone like Hendrix at quarterback.

The passing numbers and production from the quarterback position are down across the board from last year, and worse still, the turnovers are way up. Rees has a very average 133.6 QB rating and 7 touchdowns so far this season---is it too far fetched to think that Hendrix can't produce something along those lines? And how much easier would Hendrix' job be as a passer if his running opened up the offense?

Here's another thing---would Notre Dame even have to throw the ball that much with Hendrix and a run-based spread offense?

Do you think Brian Kelly is ever going to run an offense where the QB runs 15 times and only throws 20 times in a non-blowout game?

Is it a pipe dream to think that could happen?

Back to reality

For now and what seems like the foreseeable future, this is Tommy Rees' team. Daydreams of agile and rocket arm quarterbacks aside, this is the reality.

Not all hope is lost because Rees had one crappy game and has the same stats as last year. He is still young and has time to grow and improve. We've seen some bad play from Rees, but we've also seen some really clutch play and some bright spots that might point to a successful future.

However, there are still a lot of questions regarding the quarterback position, especially in the long term.

For the rest of this season it would be nice if the offense could become a little more multi-dimensional, take some pressure off of Rees, and slowly move towards one that utilizes more of the playbook.

I doubt we'll ever see Gray and Wood in the backfield at the same time, but it has the potential to be a beastly combination. Why not try Riddick with Gray?

Riddick on some form of jet sweeps, even if as a decoy most of the time, should be happening once in a while.

And we have this guy, Michael Floyd---you might have heard of him. Would it hurt to get the ball in his hands on a reverse?

There's a lot more this offense can be doing out of the spread that doesn't mean overloading Rees with more responsibility or forcing him to use athleticism that isn't really there.

Can this offense get it together?