Most seasons there is excitement about the Notre Dame offense. This time of year optimism bounds freely as we imagine the upcoming year, yes this one coming up, will be THE YEAR the Irish finally arrive as a dominant offense.
Well, 2015 probably has the best case to be made since 2006 to be the year with such high expectations. There's certainly a lot to like:
- A fifth-year senior quarterback who, when on his game, is one of the most dynamic players in the country--plus an emerging young backup with a powerful arm and tremendous running ability.
- A promising offensive line, led by one of next spring's top NFL Draft picks, a senior captain, and a few physically gifted players with professional potential.
- A well-rounded returning starter at running back, backed up by the most highly recruited ND tailback in a number of years, helped out by perhaps the offense's most athletic player.
- Every single receiver returns from last year, including a player who put up All-American numbers. Plus, one of the best receiver classes in the country adds depth even if it isn't needed.
The only area where there isn't immediate salivation is at tight end, a position Notre Dame seemingly never struggles to develop. Plus, the depth and talent is just fine and the nation's number one player at the position is ready to make an impact as a freshman.
...But where are the potential problems?
I'm not exactly predicting huge problems, but if there are going to be issues that bubble up and create an offense that doesn't meet expectations I'd zero in on these 3 areas:
1) Offensive Line is Too Hyped
Am I the only one who has been reading headlines and stories over the past couple months and thinking we might be overvaluing the offensive line a little bit? Words like "powerful", "dominant", and "elite" are being used so casually as if this line has proven it on the field.
Let's just pretend the offensive line disappoints for a moment. How could they?
LT Ronnie Stanley- Yeah, not much reason beyond an injury. A disappointing season would be a huge shocker.
LG Quenton Nelson/Alex Bars- Brand new starter(s). Plenty of reasons to worry.
C Nick Martin- A little undersized. Injured a lot last year. He's been good in the past, but great?
RG Steve Elmer- An up down career so far. Hasn't met expectations yet.
RT Mike McGlinchey- Only 1 career start and not much experience otherwise.
There's always value placed on a line having played together for a long time. That cohesion is invaluable. Yet, this line has not started a single game together.
Additionally, while the Notre Dame offensive line has had periods of dominant pass blocking in recent years (8 sacks allowed on 429 pass attempts in 2013 remains the gold standard) the same cannot be said for run blocking. There's going to need to be a significant increase in run blocking play this season--with consistency we've never seen under Kelly--for this line to reach the potential many are laying at its feet.
Sure, the 2012 season was great when they averaged 233 yards per game over the last 8 regular season contests. That remains the best rushing season stretching back 15+ years. Even still, with that 2012 rushing offense there was a pathetic effort against Purdue, being kept in check against Michigan, goal line issues against Pitt, and a complete dismantling by Alabama.
It's possible that the 2015 offense is flat out better running the ball but they're also unlikely to have a 2012-type defense backing them up, too. To put it plainly, I'm not sure enough people realize how difficult it can be for a team to turn on the switch and be a great running team all season long when it hasn't been in the players and programs' DNA.
Does using more option read, h-backs lead blocking, and leaning on the offensive line sound like a great plan and will it lead to improvement? Yeah, I think so. But it's not a miracle cure-all and foolproof plan without an elite offensive line.
Now, the Irish were ranked 25th nationally in S&P rushing last year according to Football Outsiders but just about every other offense worth their salt in the power conferences was above Notre Dame in this statistic. What's more, it takes a lot more production to move up in this ranking. Setting aside advanced statistics for the moment, the Irish would need to average about 80 to 90 more rushing yards per game, or 1 more yard per carry, or even 10 to 12 more rushing touchdowns on the season to enter the realm of conversation as one of the best rushing attacks in the country.
That's where the bar is set if you want to continue discussing Notre Dame's offense line as dominant and elite in terms of a running game.
Speaking of that run game...
2) Offensive Staff Cohesion
I like the hire of Mike Sanford. I really do. And while it would be reckless to throw around the word 'dysfunctional' with the offensive staff I'm not sure the set up has seamless written all over it--especially in year one of the new set up.
This wasn't going to be a situation like TCU last year where Gary Patterson hired both Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie as co-offensive coordinators and told them, "We need a better, more explosive offense. Here are the keys."
Patterson is a defensive coach and Brian Kelly is not, so I don't expect BK to suddenly relinquish power. I don't care if Kelly ultimately keeps control or gives it up, either way can work. But what we've got right now is just...odd.
Sanford is unquestionably considered one of the brightest minds in the country. That he was lured away from his alma mater where he was OC to be the quarterbacks coach and OC-in-training shows a lot of patience on his end. He's an upgrade at his coaching position, no doubt.
The situation with Mike Denbrock leaves me scratching my head a little bit. He drops the OC tag (but picks up the associate head coach title) but still has a ton of OC duties. It seems like there's talking out of both sides of our mouths here, too. If we want to portray Denbrock as the ultimate team player well he's just being a good soldier and paving the way for Sanford, but at the same time, he's also in line for some head coaching gigs soon.
Now we have 3 coaches with varying degrees of major responsibility within an offense that, over a 5-year sample size, has struggled with sharpness, delay of games, finding a groove, and committing to an identity.
Essentially this issue boils down to two things:
A) What has changed with Kelly's responsibilities within the offense?
B) Can this trio make it work with 3 brains working on the offense?
According to Kelly, he'll be calling plays, Denbrock is 'running the entire offense', and Sanford is supposed to be learning the system and being the guy who 'turns the room upside down.'
This feels pretty complicated, especially when the consensus among the media is that the Irish are going to be running the ball more and utilizing more power spread concepts, especially when Zaire plays. I'd feel a lot more confidence in that change coming to fruition (to say nothing of its effectiveness) if there was a new complete boss owning the offense and not this weird Triumvirate.
We're going to be seeing a slightly different offense that has never been utilized consistently with a complicated offensive coaching tree of leadership. Isn't that scary? Can anyone see themselves thinking in the fall, "Yeah, I probably should have seen this coming" if some of the negative ND offense circa 2010-14 calling cards pop up and things don't go so amazing?
3) Quarterback Controversy
We're at the point where both Golson and Zaire have to play. This is the reality now. The odds of either of them playing the vast majority of minutes and performing so well that the other barely plays are small.
However, the odds that a quarterback controversy doesn't develop are even smaller. Remember, even if one QB plays really well there's always a case to be made that the other guy could be doing better.
It's been shocking how little an impending controversy has been discussed in the media this spring.
Sure, the juggling act in the LSU game worked out well and there's legitimate joy to have two good quarterbacks. But all it takes is one play, and the controversy can envelop the entire season.
What if Zaire's helmet never pops off on the game-winning drive in the bowl game, he stays on the field, and there was a turnover in a loss? What if Golson had thrown a pick at the end?
Of course, any level of controversy will be tied to Notre Dame's record. The Irish may lose once, twice, maybe three times or more in 2015. Does anyone believe the handling of the quarterbacks won't be at the forefront of those possible losses?
The old adage says if you have two quarterbacks you have none and this off-season has seen a lot in the media trying to brush this quasi-truth aside. Zaire himself was asked about sharing time this spring and said:
"It's not the ideal situation. At the end of the day, there's only one Captain Jack Sparrow of the offense."
I'm not saying this can't work, just that deep down everyone should be fully aware this is a powder keg situation. A lot of people have tried to paint Golson as someone who loses confidence easily and Zaire as someone who is burning to become the starter with unflappable confidence. Well, shuffling quarterbacks can break Golson's confidence and if Zaire's not playing enough that could lead to its own set of problems for someone who wears his heart on his sleeve.
I've found that a vast majority of the public has embraced the situation largely from two separate camps.
One group likes the talent of both players, likes the depth and ability to make it difficult to gameplan against, saw the success during the LSU game, and can reflexively point to Tebow/Leak in 2006 as why this can work. The other group is full of the fans who will criticize play-calling all day every day, and let's be completely honest, are salivating at the opportunity to pounce all over Brian Kelly for mismanaging the quarterbacks and the offense in general.
Playing both quarterbacks works just fine for both camps.
Further, the offense was harrumphing their way down the damn field to open the spring game with 11 of 12 plays being runs (technically one was a Golson slip on a bootleg) and it resulted in a touchdown. Yet, there were audible shouts for Zaire to play. Can Golson get to even 2 turnovers on the season before the home crowd starts booing and pleading for Zaire? What about even 1 turnover? What about a couple series ending in punts?
For now, there's a lot to like about Zaire. But what about if he's substituted in the red zone and turns the ball over? How long before complaints start that it's not fair Zaire has to be brought in cold all the time and isn't getting a full shot? Same goes for if Zaire comes in for a struggling Golson, plays well, but Golson gets to go back in as the regular guy.
There are literally dozens of scenarios which can lead to incessant complaining. And I haven't even brought up schemes and playing to each quarterbacks strengths.
I think this offense can be very good. I think they should be very good. But I've laid out 3 big issues that could cause fractures and lead to expectations not being met.