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Notre Dame Offense 101

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Aug. 4, 2012; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly watches practice at the LaBar Practice Complex. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE
Aug. 4, 2012; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly watches practice at the LaBar Practice Complex. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE

[Note: The following is Chapter 7 of the OFD 2012 Digital Preseason Magazine. We're posting this for two reasons: as a preview of the magazine to entice you to buy it and because the magazine was published without pictures, making this chapter very confusing. So if you haven't bought the magazine yet, get to it. If you have bought it, enjoy this article as it was meant to be published.]

Football is an interesting sport. There are 22 players on the field at a time and they all start running in different directions when the ball is snapped. There’s a lot of moving and hitting and running and tackling. When all of that is over, the team on offense moved the ball forward, went backwards, or didn’t go anywhere. But the reason behind all of that movement is sometimes lost on us spectators. Football incorporates schemes and philosophies in a way other sports don’t. Knowing how a play works and why the coach called it is important to truly understand the game.

So here’s a primer on the foundational plays of Brian Kelly’s offense. Hopefully this will make the chaos on the field make a little more sense.

So let’s get started.

I hear Brian Kelly runs a spread offense. What does that mean?

The term "spread offense" has become very broad over the last five to ten years. Originally, the spread offense was exactly what it sounds like – it was an offense that literally spread the field. While traditionally teams lined up with the quarterback under center with multiple tight ends and fullbacks, the spread offense put the quarterback in the shotgun with three, four, or even five receivers. Gone were the fullbacks and the big blocking tight ends; in their places were slot receivers and running backs.

The spread offense began as a way for smaller schools to compete with the big boys of college football. By spreading the field with multiple receivers, the offense forces the defense to stretch itself out. Those big linebackers now need to drop into coverage instead of blowing up plays in the backfield. By playing exclusively in the shotgun, the defense needs to go farther to get to the quarterback. One of the most important aspects of the spread offense was incorporating the quarterback into the run game with option plays, draws, and the ubiquitous zone read. The defense suddenly needed to account for the quarterback on every play. Spread offenses also usually ran at a hurry-up pace and didn’t huddle between plays. Defenses could no longer sub in and out players between plays and often had difficulty getting lined up, creating another advantage for the offense.

Of course the spread offense has evolved over the years. "Spread" is now used to describe offenses as diverse as the run-first offenses of Chip Kelly and Rich Rodriquez to the pass-first offenses of Mike Leach and Dana Holgorsen. Simply put, any offense that operates out of the shotgun with three or four receiver sets is typically referred to as "spread."

So that means Notre Dame runs a spread offense, right?

This is where things get tricky. Brian Kelly ran a no-huddle, pass-first spread offense at Cincinnati prior to taking the head coaching job at Notre Dame. When he arrived in South Bend, his first task was to teach his style of offense to players used to playing in Charlie Weis's pro-style offense. And sure enough, the Irish looked a lot like Cincinnati (in style, not in points) through the first half of the 2010 season.

But then October 30th happened and quarterback Dayne Crist went down with a knee injury against Tulsa. In his place stepped true freshman Tommy Rees. With such an inexperienced player at quarterback, Brian Kelly began to change his offense. The pace slowed way down and the running game became a bigger part of the offense with less pressure put on the quarterback. Multiple tight end sets started to pop up and Rees even started taking snaps under center. This trend continued into the 2011 season.

Today, the Notre Dame offense resembles more of a spread/pro-style hybrid. The quarterback still operates out of the shotgun most of time, there are still four and five receiver sets, and the quarterback is still expected to run the ball, but the quarterback also takes snaps under center occasionally and tight ends are sometimes used as fullbacks.

Why doesn't Kelly just stick with his spread offense? Why all the changes?

Kelly has always been known as a coach who likes to adapt to his personnel. For example, in 2009 Cincinnati's starting quarterback, Tony Pike, missed a few games with an injury. Pike was a great passer but not much of a runner, so Cincinnati threw the ball a lot. But his backup, Zach Collaros, was more of a runner than a thrower, so Kelly played to his strengths and didn't ask him to win games with his arm.

When Kelly arrived in South Bend in 2010, he had a former 5-star quarterback in Dayne Crist, a star wide receiver in Michael Floyd, a future second-round NFL draft pick in Kyle Rudolph, and an offensive line that underperformed greatly for Charlie Weis. Kelly's system seemed tailor-made for the Notre Dame's roster.

But in reality, the spread is an underdog strategy. It was originally designed for teams that faced a talent disadvantage on a week-to-week basis. Notre Dame can recruit beefy offensive linemen, hulking tight ends, and tall wide receivers. You don't need to use David's strategy when you can recruit Goliath's players. Thus we are seeing Kelly fit his offense to his personnel and add in pro-style elements so the Irish can over-power teams when the situation is right.

That isn't to say the spread is bad. Its main focus is getting your best athletes the ball in space, something I think everyone can agree is a good thing. But when you can line up and push the other team around, that's also a good thing. Putting those things together just makes sense.

So how does Kelly's offense work?

Let's start with the running game. The most important thing to know is that the Irish are primarily a zone blocking team.

Zone blocking? What's that?

Zone blocking means that each lineman is not assigned a specific defender to block. In a man blocking scheme, each lineman has someone who they are responsible for, no matter where they line up. If the right tackle needs to block an outside linebacker on a run to the outside, that tackle needs to get between that linebacker and the sideline and drive him back, even if he's lined up outside of him, making it a difficult block.

In a zone blocking scheme, each lineman follows a few simple rules. If there's a defender in front of him - the lineman is "covered" - then he blocks him. If there's not, he chips with the guy next to him and then goes up to the second level and looks for a linebacker or safety to block. The goal of the blockers is to simply get leverage and start pushing that guy out of the way. On zone runs, the running back doesn't have a set gap he's trying to run through; he's supposed to just read his blocks and run through any holes that open up.

What are the different types of zone runs?

There are two major zone runs: the inside zone and the outside zone. Both plays are very similar but with a few small differences.

In its simplest form, here's what an outside zone looks like:


As you would expect, on an outside zone, the play is designed to go to the outside. The offensive line's first step is laterally in the direction of the play. Once they take that lateral step, then they start blocking whoever is in front of them. You can often pick out an outside zone play easily because the offensive line starts to flow towards the sideline. The running back's original aiming point is outside the playside tackle's outside hip (known as the "C" gap), but he just looks for an opening and runs through it.

Here's the inside zone:


On this run, the offensive line does not move one way or the other; they just block whoever is in front of them. The running back aims for the gap between the playside guard and tackle (the "B" gap), but again just looks for a hole to run through. Many teams will start games by establishing the outside zone, and, once the defense starts to flow to the outside, they'll call the inside zone. If the defense over-pursues to the outside, cutback lanes will open up on the inside zone.

How about some examples?

Let's start with the outside zone.


The Irish are lined up with two tight ends and Tommy Rees under center with Cierre Wood in the backfield. The outside zone is run to the offense's right.

Let's zoom in and look at how the line blocks.


Both tight ends and both guards have a defender a step to their right, so they are all covered. The left tackle and center will move up to block the linebackers that are in front of them. The right tackle, with no one directly in front of him, will double team the defensive end with the right guard.


This looks like a jumbled mess of bodies, but it's Wood's responsibility to find a seam to run through. It looks like one might be opening up inside of Tyler Eifert, the tight end.


But Eifert isn't able to hold the block and Wood has to stretch the play outside. By then, the safety has come down and Wood only picks up a yard or two.

Now let's look at the inside zone.


This time, the Irish are lined up in the shotgun.

Let's look at the blocking again.


Every player is covered except the left guard and the tight end. The guard will immediately move up to block a linebacker, while the tight end will double team the defensive end with the left tackle before attempting to block the other linebacker.


The play is designed to go to the offense's right, but the defense flows to the sideline and a big cutback lane opens up for Wood.


Eifert takes care of the linebacker and Wood is six yards downfield before anyone touches him.

What kinds of teams use zone blocking?

Because the goal of zone blocking isn't to drive defenders into the ground - although that's perfectly acceptable - but rather to block them any way possible and to let the running back decide where to go, zone blocking was a natural choice for those early underdog spread teams. However, zone blocking is a sound concept and is taught at all levels.

In the college game, spread pioneers Chip Kelly of Oregon and Rich Rodriguez of Arizona are known for their zone blocking concepts. Zone blocking also shows up in pro-style offenses as well. Iowa is a traditional I-formation team, but they primarily employ zone blocking, while even power-rushing teams like Wisconsin and Michigan State get a lot of use out of the inside and outside zone. In the NFL, Mike Shanahan and the Denver Broncos used a zone blocking scheme to run all over defenses and turn unknown running backs into Pro Bowlers in the ‘90s. Today, every NFL team has the inside and outside zone in the playbook, so if you ever turn on a game on Sundays, you'll be guaranteed to see them at some point.

What about this zone read I've been hearing about?

One of the problems offensive coordinators have to deal with is the defensive counterpart for the quarterback. When the quarterback hands the ball off, the offense essentially has nine blockers against eleven defenders. The zone read helps to solve that problem by making the quarterback a threat to run the ball. By making the quarterback accountable in the running game, the defense has to commit a defender to stopping him. The quarterback therefore "blocks" a defender, and the numbers even up a bit.

As the name suggests, the zone read is a zone run. It is usually run as a variation of the outside zone. Here's what the play looks like:


The offensive line leaves the backside defensive end unblocked. He is the "read" on the play. If he crashes on the running back, the quarterback will pull the ball and run it to the space he just vacated. If the defensive end stays back to cut off the quarterback, the quarterback will hand the ball off and the play is just a typical outside zone run. By making the defensive end stay back to account for the quarterback, the end is "blocked."

Here's an example.


This play is from the first drive of the first game of the Brain Kelly Era. Dayne Crist is in the shotgun with Armando Allen in the backfield. The circled player is read on the zone read.


The defensive end is unblocked and charges upfield towards Allen. This is an easy read for Crist; he needs to pull the ball and run it to the outside.


Unfortunately, Crist makes the wrong read and hands the ball off. Allen is dropped for a loss. If Crist had kept the ball, he would have picked up a lot of yards.

Let's talk about the passing game now.

It's difficult to categorize Brian Kelly's passing game, but there are a number of concepts he uses fairly often.

The first is the shallow cross. There are a number of ways to run this play, but here's how Kelly typically does it:


The shallow cross - sometimes called a "drive" route - and square-in routes occupy the shallow defenders in the middle of the field which may leave the outside receiver on the comeback with an open field.

The wheel route and post route are "alerts." If they're open, the quarterback will throw them, but if not then the QB continues with his regular read.

There is no correct way to read this play; some coaches teach their quarterbacks to start with the shallow cross and then work deep, while others tell their quarterbacks to read deep first and then work their way down to the shallow cross. I believe Kelly falls in the second group.

The goal of the play is simple: get a playmaker the ball in space. The post and wheel should occupy the deep defenders, while the comeback and square-in take care of the intermediate defenders. The receiver on the shallow cross is usually matched up on a slower linebacker. His job is to simply outrun the defense and then turn upfield.

Here's the play in action:


The Irish have Andrew Hendrix in at quarterback in this play. There is another wide receiver to Hendrix's right, but he is cut off by the camera.

Robby Toma works his way across the field on the shallow cross while Tyler Eifert runs the square-in. The cornerback plays Michael Floyd close, so he abandons the comeback and runs deep. Cierre Wood does not run a wheel route; he stays back to block instead.


Hendrix has Toma and Eifert running open across the field with two linebackers caught in between them. Hendrix goes to Eifert, but throws it too soon and almost has it picked off by the linebacker in the middle of the field. If he had waited for Eifert to clear that linebacker, it would have been an easy pass and a big gain.

The next concept is the triangle read. The idea here is to create either a horizontal stretch or a vertical stretch regardless of what defense is called. There are many ways to create a triangle read, but here's how Brian Kelly likes to do it:


This play combines a go route and an out route to one side with a square-in on the backside, creating the triangle read.

The go/out combination stretches a cornerback or safety who has to decide whether to cover the deep route or stay underneath. The square-in/out combination stretches a flat defender who has to decide whether to widen to cover the out route or stay back and cover the square-in. It's up to the quarterback to recognize which combination will create a mismatch and look that way.

Here's an example:


The alignment of the linebackers and safety take away any kind of stretch created by the square-in and out route. However, there is a linebacker covering the slot receiver with a safety hovering between the slot and outside receivers. He will need to choose which receiver to cover and which to leave in single coverage. One of the receivers should get open.


This is actually a play-action pass. The circled linebacker bites on the run fake, and the safety needs to come down to cover the slot receiver. TJ Jones, running the go route, is one-on-one with the cornerback.


Jones gets a step and Rees throws a perfect pass to him for the touchdown.

Well, that seems simple.

That was a basic introduction to how Notre Dame goes about moving the ball. Of course, there are many variations and complementary plays that go with I just showed, but the basics are all you need to understand what is happening on the field.

Now that you're practically an expert, be sure to drop some knowledge on your friends and impress them with your understanding of Notre Dame's offense this season!