No one can discredit the massive overhaul Brian Kelly completed following the disastrous 2016 campaign. In fact, since 2017, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are a combined 32-6 in their last 38 games. Despite the record, most Irish fans are well aware a gap still exists between the Irish and the ability to win a national championship. While several arguments could be made as to why this is, I believe the biggest issue holding Notre Dame back is their passing attack.
Taking a look at the averages of the last three national champions compared to what the Irish have produced over a similar time-frame is downright startling. Over the past three years the Notre Dame passing attack has averaged 235.7 yards per game, a 58.8 completion percentage, and 7.7 yards per pass attempt. The last three national champions have averaged 301.9 passing yards per game, a 67 completion percentage, and 8.7 yards per passing attempt. Clearly, Notre Dame is lacking when it comes to the passing attacked compared to the other teams (2019 LSU, 2018 Clemson, 2017 Alabama).
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to get away from the run game, especially with the top-tier talent we continue to reel in along the offensive line. However, in today’s game, a team must possess the ability to stretch a defense vertically. Too often over the past three years, Notre Dame has struggled when facing elite defenses because they stack the box and dare us to beat them over the top. As a fan, it is always tough to discern whether these struggles are related to bad play calling, sub-par talent at the receiver position, or lack of execution. Regardless, a trend has emerged that once the Irish run game is shut down, the offense becomes stagnant. Games such as Georgia in 2017, Miami in 2017, Clemson in 2018, highlight my point.
Although the Irish have a new offensive coordinator in Tommy Rees this season, there are still plenty of reasons for optimism about the offense. Most importantly, the Irish have senior quarterback, Ian Book returning. By all accounts, Rees and Book have an extremely close relationship. Book stated in December, “I said it out there earlier (at The Echoes), he’s the smartest coach I’ve learned from. Everything I’ve learned is from him.” This type of relationship between the offensive coordinator and quarterback will only benefit the offense as a whole. Rees knows Book’s strengths and weaknesses and should be able to formulate a game plan each week to maximize Book’s abilities. While Book does not have the strongest arm, he made throws during the second half of the 2019 season that suggest he is more than capable of pushing the ball downfield.
Despite the unknowns with Rees as an offensive coordinator, I do not think any of us can question his football acumen. During his time as quarterback at Notre Dame, Rees was able to use his extensive knowledge to overcome his physical limitations. T.J. Jones said all the way back in 2013, “Tommy knows everything there is to know about being a quarterback, being a receiver and knowing protections. Tommy’s as smart as it comes.” As a result, I believe Rees will be able to draw up route combinations and develop a flow in his play calling which provide the offense more big play opportunities.
Furthermore, Notre Dame should have the horses at the receiver position to stress defenses vertically. Last season the Irish lacked a consistent vertical threat outside of Chase Claypool. Cole Kmet and Chris Finke were the second and third leading receivers on the year with 515 yards and 456 yards, respectively. However, neither could have been mistaken for blazers that generated big play after big play. With the likes of Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin (hopefully), and Lawrence Keys III, the Irish have athletic play-makers at the wide receiver position. Lenzy possesses legit 4.4 speed, while Austin could provide another consistent deep threat. Keys appears to be an ideal slot receiver and will be able to give defenses fits by working in the second level of the defense. Tommy Tremble should also provide another reliable receiving option from the tight end position.
Coupling these reasons together should provide Irish fans with hope that the 2020 season will feature a more dynamic downfield passing attack. No one can be certain what a Rees-led offense will look like. However, the fact remains if the Irish possess legitimate national championship aspirations in 2020, they must make drastic improvements with their passing attack.