This is Part 3 of a four-part series looking into the Notre Dame running game. In Part 1 we looked at the situational stats of the Irish ground game under Brian Kelly and in Part 2 we made some comparisons and tried to add some context to the rushing attacks of the BCS National Champions. Today in Part 3 we pick an offense that may best help Notre Dame win a title of their own.
When Brian Kelly arrived in South Bend 4 years he was mostly labeled as a pass-happy play-caller and an offensive genius of some degree. The truth is neither were particularly accurate labels.
In fact, Kelly has very much been a chameleon throughout his career. He's been a coach more focused on development, teaching, and preparation more so than being a tactical genius with a X's & O's solution for everything thrown his way. In this way, Kelly is nearly the polar opposite of his predecessor Charlie Weis but the misconception has persisted that Kelly is basically Weis-but-from-the-spread-offense.
Chris Brown from Smart Football wrote about this back in 2009 during Kelly's 12-0 run with Cincinnati but many didn't listen. Brown also had this to say about Kelly when he was initially hired by Notre Dame:
This might be heresy, but schematically I don't find Kelly that interesting. Now he's a spread guy (which plays to my preferences), and he's been doing it a long time (so he has a pedigree), but I think much of the talk about Kelly as an "offensive genius" is misplaced. He runs a very simple, and even at times simplistic, spread offense. That's the bad news. And don't get me wrong here, his scheme isn't bad. His staff gameplans very well and they put their kids in position to succeed, which is really all that matters. You'll see some fun stuff from quads - or with four receivers to the same side - but otherwise everything is pretty basic.
Back to Kelly as the chameleon. He's utilized a run-heavy power football offense from shotgun for a decade while at Grand Valley State, opened things up and got more balanced during both his 3 years at Central Michigan and first 2 seasons at Cincinnati, and then went as pass-happy (56.7%) to date in his final year with the Bearcats. While at Notre Dame Kelly leaned towards the pass his first two years, went run-heavy in the third, and was quite balanced in a fourth season.
Further, over the past 4 years in South Bend Kelly has all but ditched the hurry up offense, made a significant move to more two tight end sets, eliminated the spread offense's crucial slot receiver position for long stretches of time, toned down his 'vertical stem' passing game, all the while producing the most rushing yards in a single season at Notre Dame over the past 17 years.
How many other coaches in today's game have made so many alterations and remodels to their offense without making a wholesale change to another scheme?
Yet, Kelly has been labeled as someone who is too stubborn to change his offense even when he's been a poster child for altering his attack. In fact, if anything could be said about this it's that he hasn't stuck to or developed a consistent enough system from year to year since leaving GVSU.
If it's scheme versus working to your player's strengths Kelly has always erred much more toward the latter category, and by doing so, he's been able to coach up and develop many players over the years. At the same time, having to constantly make tweaks to your offense--and finding limitations in the development at the quarterback position--has led to bouts of inconsistency and frustration for Kelly while at Notre Dame, but it's never been about him cramming HIS OFFENSE down the throat of the program results or player talent be damned.
Brian Kelly FEI Offense National Ranks, 2007-13
If there has been a consistency through the years it's that when Kelly has a mobile quarterback his teams are going to run the ball a lot more. He adapts to the talent on hand, people! He did it at GVSU, CMU, and in 2012 with Golson. He even switched Cincinnati in 2009 from running the ball under Tony Pike just 39% of the time all the way up to 53.3% during the mobile Zach Collaros' 4 starts.
For those who believe Kelly is simply a "pass-happy guy" or that 2012 was an aberration you might want to re-think that position and look at the big picture. With Golson returning and mobile athletes in Zaire, Kizer, and Barnett in the pipeline the near quarter century history of Kelly strongly suggests there will be a lot of running in the future for Notre Dame.
The real question is if Brian Kelly's offense and running game is capable of reaching elite or near-elite levels, not making that judgement based solely on whether his team runs the ball 52% of the time instead of 62%.
The Irish offense has sputtered from time to time but they've done a lot of things really well with the limited Tommy Rees playing in roughly 33 of the 52 Kelly-era games. The Irish offense has improved the Yards-Per-Play totals in each season (with kneel downs removed): 5.63, 6.02, and 6.12, to 6.22 in 2013. It clearly hasn't been a perfect upward trajectory as these numbers suggest but there's been enough progress to warrant optimism for the future.
Being able to average 6.0 YPP over a 4-year span against the Irish schedule--and 6.12 over the last 3 seasons--without an experienced quarterback who fits the offense is no small feat. We certainly don't need to throw a triumph for a 4-year average of 27.1 points per game but let's not act like Kelly's offense is that far away from being very successful.
While poring over stats and production from the best teams over the past 15+ years and branching out beyond the confines of just the run game I've created a few benchmarks that I think need to be met for Notre Dame to have an offense that can be considered worthy of winning a national championship. Not every single one needs to be met, mind you, but championship-worthy offenses almost always check the majority of these boxes.
A) 6.4 Yards Per Play
This mark will put your offense comfortably in the top 20 nationally for most seasons and anything above this would be sensational given Notre Dame's annual strong schedule. For reference, 9 out of the 16 BCS title teams have been above this mark but so have 8 out of the last 10 champions.
If you're not above this mark--like 2009 Alabama for example--you'd better have a truly elite defense. The last three teams to win a title with an offense under 6.4 YPP featured 29 defenders drafted into the NFL, including 8 first round draft picks and 16 players taken within the first 70 picks.
Two Holtz teams reached this mark (1991, 6.6 YPP & 1992, 6.4 YPP) while the 1993 and 1996 offenses just fell short. In recent times the 2009 offense fell short by a percentage point (6.39) and the next closest was 2005 coming in at 6.06 yards per play with Kelly's team's knocking on the door as well.
B) 2,800 Rushing Yards
This is slightly above the average of the BCS winners but that's mostly due to the early champions' low output. In keeping with the theme, teams are getting more productive on offense, and that includes running the ball, as the last 7 national champions have rushed for at least 2,800 yards.
2,800 is also just under the 11-year average of the Lou Holtz era as well, for what it's worth. The reigning national champion Florida State Seminoles--not known as a run-heavy team--totaled 2,844 this past season.
C) 300+ Yards Rushing from the QB
The champions from 1998-2012 averaged 325 rushing yards from their quarterbacks, granted Vince Young and Cam Newton boost that average quite a bit. Jameis Winston was a little below this mark with 219 yards in 2013, although FSU gave up a crazy high amount of sacks (33) for a title team and the Heisman winner actually ran for over 400 yards on his own with sacks taken out.
The average from Lou Holtz's tenure was 303 yards and during Notre Dame's best season in 20 years Everett Golson ran for 298 yards. 300 feels like a proper base level of competence.
D) 58% Rush Plays
You can win with a split lower than this (see 2013 FSU), but a great team is going to be very productive on the ground, open up big leads, and run the ball late to secure comfortable victories. For Notre Dame in the modern college game I think this is right around the sweet spot for a great offense that cruises in the fourth quarter.
E) 35 Points Per Game
The average for Notre Dame's last 4 national champions has been just below 35 points per game. Several champions in recent years have been well beyond this mark. I have to think 35 PPG is an absolute minimum for a program like Notre Dame to beat the best in the country.
So which offensive system best fits Notre Dame?
I believe the best fit for Notre Dame is something similar to Urban Meyer's spread-to-run system--aka the power spread--although with a little less running from the QB. Meyer's two most recent star quarterbacks in Braxton Miller and Tim Tebow have averaged 200 carries per season and that's about 50-70 too many carries for what I'd like to see at Notre Dame. There's making a quarterback a big part of your offense and grinding the QB down, I'm much more for the former.
The Ohio State website Eleven Warriors has devoted a lot of time to Meyer's offense and has this to say:
The [Meyer] spread's entire premise, then, is by making the quarterback a run threat, an offense gains an arithmetic advantage without devoting an entire offense to option football. Note that my discussion had nothing to do with spreading out receivers. That is simply an add-on advantage where, because the quarterback can run the football, an offense can remove people from the box and still have an effective run game.
Here's a simplified definition of Meyer's spread (emphasis mine): power football from shotgun, predicated on the ability to run inside, by balancing numbers through the optioning of defenders and the use of a running quarterback.
Now let's look at the plays from Meyer's base run game:
Power works great in short yardage situations, especially with a lead blocker. We've seen Notre Dame occasionally use a tight end in motion as a lead blocker but it's never been a major component of the Kelly offense at Notre Dame.
QB COUNTER TREY
Here's where Meyer gets great variation out of Power. Notice how there are 7 defenders in the box? This play shows how a spread offense runs a pro-style I-formation type of play without having to send a fullback onto the field. Put another way, Ohio State sends 4 receivers to spread the field out and still gets to run the ball with a lead blocker like it's 1976.
At the snap, a bubble screen by the field side receiver sucks the outsider linebacker out of the box. For Notre Dame in 2013 this is a hand-off to the running back and we're hoping the ball carrier makes a guy miss at the line of scrimmage as 5 linemen try to block 6 defenders. You can see the boundary linebacker scrape across the line a little bit and in place to make a tackle.
For Ohio State, the plan is much simpler not because they are tougher than Notre Dame, not because Urban Meyer is a genius play-caller, and not because the Buckeye offensive linemen are a bunch of All-Americans. Instead, this play is a huge success because of the quarterback's ability to run and flexibility to turn the running back into a lead blocker. That boundary side linebacker looking to make a big 4th down tackle on George Atkinson against Notre Dame here is instead eaten up by a block as Miller glides for a touchdown.
Yet another run built off of Power that thrives off confusing the defense with a quarterback read. Meyer's offenses have always hummed the best when they are able to establish an inside run game to open up the edges for big plays.
Here you can see the middle linebacker come up to fill the gap as he reads Power because Ohio State pulls a guard right at him. Notice this linebacker right at the mesh point between the quarterback and running back? You can almost hear him curse as he knows he's horribly out of position after being tricked by the option. He tries to turn away from the pulling guard but runs into his own man as the receiver blocks down. Another easy 15 yards for the offense.
And of course if the defense widens too far and flows to the running back the quarterback can always run up the middle. Notice how the strong-side and middle linebackers flow to the running back?
Also watch as Ohio State leaves the strong-side defensive end unblocked. Instead, the tackle moves to the second level and blocks the weak-side linebacker to open up room for another big quarterback run.
INSIDE ZONE READ
Kelly's offense has this in the playbook but hasn't been able to exploit the QB running aspect except for a few instances with Everett Golson. This is the bread and butter of Meyer's offense.
The end doesn't crash and the ball is given to the running back through a big lane.
Here the end crashed just a bit too much and Miller gets the easiest 10 yards you'll ever see.
There's more to Urban's run game (outside zone, speed option, jet sweep, all the flashy stuff that folks remember from Percy Harvin) but these are the core basics of his run game that anchor his offense and that I think are best suited for Notre Dame.
I can't stress enough how important it is to have a running quarterback and use option plays in a spread offense. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that if Kelly doesn't plan on making the quarterback a more focal point in the run game--while utilizing more option within the offense and making 3 wide receiver sets the base scheme--then there's a definite cap on the potential for this program. Relying on quarterback draws and scrambling ability almost exclusively isn't going to cut it against Notre Dame's schedule.
Urban Meyer has been one of the most successful coaches in college history and his system relies on a quarterback to run. It's not an added bonus. It's not a case of a QB extending plays with his feet as Kelly is so fond of mentioning. A running quarterback is a central tenet to the Meyer offense. Without it, Meyer's system breaks down just like it did in 2010 when John Brantley didn't turn out to be much of a runner and the Gator offense nose dived to 5.17 yards per play, 2,170 rushing yards, 4.3 per rush, with Florida going 8-5 and Urban fleeing town.
This famous Bettis run from the 1992 Sugar Bowl doesn't happen because the Irish are dominating up front. For goodness sake, three Notre Dame linemen end up on the ground and even (gasp!) cut block! Instead, Florida foolishly fires defenders off the edge to try and contain the option while leaving no one up the middle. The Holtz offense isn't the same as Meyer's but both thrived off of option, confusion, and a mobile QB.
The option and a running quarterback is in the DNA of Notre Dame football.
We've talked about Notre Dame's problems in the run game throughout this series and Meyer's system has been one that excels in the areas of weakness present within the current Irish offense.
Over the last 6 years of Meyer's coaching career he's had the top red zone touchdown percentage in the country twice and had his team finish second and sixth nationally in two other years. His 2009 team with Tebow did finish 93rd nationally at 50.0% but they also entered the red zone 68 times (4th best) and still scored 22 rushing touchdowns. Obviously some of these stats are about talent level (and schedule strength for Ohio State) but there the numbers stand.
Is it realistic to expect Brian Kelly to make a complete change to the Meyer spread? No, it is not.
But, as mentioned Kelly has changed enough over the years and proven he's willing to alter things within just 4 years at Notre Dame that it wouldn't be completely shocking to see him adopt more of a Meyer-type of identity. After all, when Urban was at Utah in 2003 back across the country in the state of Michigan Brian Kelly was running a power offense with pulling linemen while racking up 3,238 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns on the ground. Kelly's system never had much if any option on part of his quarterback back then but the now deceased Cullen Finnerty still ran the ball 165 times for 822 yards and 9 touchdowns in '03.
There will always be injury concerns, but I think a coach at Notre Dame has to roll the dice with that amount of running by the quarterback. That stat line by Finnerty is perfect. It's right in the sweet spot of allowing the quarterback to be a major playmaker on the ground without exposing him to the amount of hits of a first string tailback.
One of the things about Meyer's spread is that the passing game is basically treated as a constraint play. Brian Kelly might have embraced running the ball a lot in the past--and he may a lot more in the future--but I doubt he's embracing that identity. We are sure to see much more running at Notre Dame in the future but 65% rushing probably isn't in the cards with Kelly. Nevertheless, Kelly can still make tweaks to his philosophy that address the issues in the run game discussed in this series even if he's not copying Urban Meyer completely.
When the time comes to move on to a different coach I'd be looking for a system like Meyer's as the perfect fit in South Bend.