When the news came down that Everett Golson was dismissed from the 2013 Fighting Irish football team, it became apparent it would be much more difficult to reproduce the success of the 2012 Irish. Many believe a slide to the 8-4 range is all but sealed; but many predicted a similar record last year. If there's a staff out there who can continue the upward trend of the program, it's Kelly & Co.; but how can they maximize their success?
I present the role model for the 2013 Fighting Irish: The 2012 Florida Gators. Built on defense, special teams and a solid running game, the Gators overcame one of the worst passing offenses in the country to reach an 11-2 overall record. When digging into the numbers, the small differences between the 2012 Gators and Irish give a roadmap for the improvements Notre Dame will need to make to operate without Golson.
The offensive changes coming for the Irish in 2013 are what is most up in the air. With plenty of talent returning on the offensive line, solid receivers led by TJ Jones, but an unproven backfield, the offense had a tall order replicating their 2012 production, even with Golson at the reins. Now with Golson on the sidelines (in a different state), most expect Brian Kelly & Chuck Martin to rely heavily on the ground game, regardless of who is in at QB. Between Rees, Hendrix, & Zaire, the offense will see more 3 and outs, with a likely drop in passing efficiency (Due to inexperience, limitations or a combination thereof). This brings us to why Florida is such a good example for what ND could be in 2013 (S&P Ratings are per game, opp. adjusted statistics):
2012 Notre Dame Offense: Rushing S&P - 124.2 (Rank 9), Passing S&P - 133.2 (Rank 5)
2012 Florida Offense: Rushing S&P - 124.1 (Rank 10), Passing S&P - 101.2 (Rank 58)
If Notre Dame is able to maintain their current level of efficiency on the ground (feasible with current O-Line and tight ends), Florida can provide the blueprint as to how to absorb the hit they will take in passing efficiency.
Expect Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly to work in a lot of two, even three, back sets with plenty of motion and misdirection should the QB be limited in the passing game. With Hendrix or Zaire at QB, expect a healthy dose of zone read and veer option in every game plan (that sound you hear is Burger and I internet high-fiving). Any way you slice it, the staff is going to need to get creative with the running game if they're going to rely on it as heavily as Florida needed to in 2012.
Notre Dame is returning 8 of 11 starters on Defense. If there's anything we can hang our hat on as Notre Dame fans after losing our starting QB, it's the play of this unit. But to play like the 2012 Gators, they'll have to be even better in 2013 (Efficiency ratings are per drive, opp. adjusted statistics):
2012 ND Defense: First Down Efficiency - .618 (Rank 25), Adjusted Yards Allowed - .379 (Rank 23)
2012 Florida Defense: First Down Efficiency - .562 (Rank 7), Adjusted Yards Allowed - .341 (Rank 8)
The per-drive FEI stats above paint a picture of just what the Irish defense needs to improve upon in order to help out a limited offense. The simple way to put it is the defense needs to force more three and outs, reducing the yardage given up to opponents each drive, as well as forcing more turnovers, stopping drives in their tracks. Whereas the 2012 Notre Dame defense was a bend-but-don't-break work of art, the 2013 Notre Dame defense will need to step up the pressure across the board, looking to make big, disruptive plays.
Limiting opponents' yardage and forcing three and outs comes down to a few things. Most important is winning first down - putting your opponent in a tough spot in 2nd or 3rd and long goes a long way to making Bob Diaco's life easier. What are some ways to ensure 3 and out is the most likely scenario?
Sacks: Florida had 30 sacks in 2012, Notre Dame had 33 (thanks to the Mad Men-like firm of Shembo, Lewis-Moore, Nix, & Tuitt). ND should have the same impact on QB dropbacks this season.
Tackles for Loss: Florida had 88 TFLs in 2012, ND only had 69. This can be attributed to aggressiveness on the defensive end. Run blitzes, more aggressive tackling on screens, and disruptive individual efforts are all things that can increase the opportunity for TFLs, making the first down harder for the offense.
Pass Breakups: Florida had 49 PBUs in 2012, ND had only 34. This is where the bend-but-don't-break defense hurts. Florida featured a lot of man coverage last season, allowing them to play closer to receivers and get between them and the ball.
What changes could we see out of Bob Diaco this season to pick up some slack from the offensive side? More blitzes, using the athleticism on the edges with Spond, Smith, & Williams in addition to the strength of the defensive line. Tighter coverage on the outside, including more man coverage. With the luxury of such a good defensive line, man coverage will have to be held for less time than it would otherwise, and I think this could be the year Diaco takes advantage of that. Lucky for the defense, they don't have much slack to pick up. The same cannot be said for the next group.
Almost across the board, Notre Dame's special teams need to improve if they want to mimic the success of the Florida Gators:
FG%: ND 75%, FLA 82.8%
Punt Return: ND 2.19 yds/ret, FLA 13.83 yds/ret (Nat'l Avg: 4.83 yds/ret)
Kickoff Return: ND 19.6 yds/ret, FLA 23.19 yds/ret (Nat'l Avg: 21.08 yds/ret)
Touchback %: ND 36.62%, FLA 45.83%
The idea for the special teams is simple: with a less efficient offense, it becomes imperative that your special teams unit is able to pick up the slack and give the offense a shorter field and better chance to put points on the board. This is the biggest reason Florida was so successful last season - they had great return units, and great coverage units. While Notre Dame more than held their own in the coverage department, they left plenty to be desired in the return departments.
So how can Notre Dame fix the return game? Of course, fewer fair catches are always a necessity, as well as shooting for a punt block more often (why not if you're going to fair catch?). I think the biggest difference for the Irish will come with the increase in talent across the board. When your two-deep is as talented as the Irish, the coaching staff is more willing to put starters onto special teams. The last time we've seen major role players on special teams is Michael Floyd in the Sun Bowl, and some defensive starters on special teams in the BCS NCG.
Special teams is all about raw athleticism, effort, and discipline. I am sure that Kelly and Co. are able to teach the last of those three, and I think this may be the year that they have the tools at their disposal to maximize the first two. If we're going to start mistaking these 2013 Irish for the 2012 Gators, this will be the area we notice as drastically improved.
Just because the offense won't hum as well without Golson, there's no reason to assume Notre Dame won't be able to crack 10 wins again this season. The pressure will be on the Irish defense and special teams, even more than it was last season. Will they be able to pick up the slack and lead Notre Dame to another successful season, or will we see the same make-no-mistakes defense and special teams we've grown accustomed to with a more efficient offense in the past? If I'm Brian Kelly and his staff, I'm pointing to Florida as the example that should be followed. Turn up the dial on defense and special teams, and give your offense the best chance to win close games.