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OPINION: Don’t Blame Gerad Parker for Notre Dame’s Offense; Blame Notre Dame for It

The embattled OC is headed to Troy after just one season coordinating the Irish

Central Michigan v Notre Dame Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Say what you will about Gerad Parker. And say what you will about Troy. But Notre Dame’s one-and-done offensive coordinator just got hired as an FBS head coach. That’s seemingly in spite of a season in which the Irish offense fell flat against virtually every defense with a pulse, and in spite of a very underwhelming track record throughout Parker’s coaching career.

So how did he get the job? Maybe Troy’s athletic director was seduced by raw statistics, since the Irish offense averaged the 8th-most points per game in the FBS. Maybe Parker turned on some of the ol’ Kentucky charm that convinced Marcus Freeman to promote him from tight ends coach last offseason. Maybe Parker is just really good at convincing people that he’s been set up to fail, since he was Purdue’s interim head coach, West Virginia’s backup offensive coordinator and Notre Dame’s (at best) third choice for OC.

Or maybe Gerad Parker isn’t as bad a football mind as everyone likes to think. So, let’s not scapegoat Parker for all the offensive issues, because this ineptitude is a systemic problem within the University of Notre Dame’s football program.

To be clear, I’m not making excuses for Parker. The production from Notre Dame’s offense against quality competition this season was unacceptable. And there’s little justification to be found in the talking points that have sprouted up since the season finale — like that Chansi Stuckey was solely responsible for the receiver room regressing, or that Parker was just calling the offense Sam Hartman wanted (and was paid six figures) to run.

But the disappointing production in 2023 also shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise, beyond the glaring problems at wide receiver and interior offensive line. Notre Dame’s offense has never been its calling card, except for when Knute Rockne popularized the forward pass. For over a century the formula to success for Notre Dame has been a blue-collar, defense-first approach (a.k.a., a Big Ten style of football). At this point, it’s become ingrained into the DNA of the program.

And to get out of that, of course Notre Dame needs to recruit better on the offensive side of the ball. And of course the Irish need to supplement that with the transfer portal, which makes a continued commitment to Name, Image, and Likeness a top priority.

But while Notre Dame’s offense is demonstrating steps in the right direction in recruiting (hello, Cam Williams and C.J. Carr) and NIL (hello, Riley Leonard), it’s yet to demonstrate any progress in arguably the most important area of football: teaching.

I’ve written it before, and I will keep beating this horse to death: Notre Dame did not have a play-calling problem under Gerad Parker, at least not a pronounced one. The problem was getting through the thick skulls of Notre Dame’s players so that the game plan could actually be executed.

Yes, it was inexplicable to only let Audric Estime run the ball three times in the second half of this year’s Clemson game. But there were first-half screen passes to Chris Tyree and Gi’Bran Payne that could have gone for touchdowns notwithstanding terrible execution by Sam Hartman and Holden Staes.

We all like to make fun of Brian Kelly for his lack of effort on the recruiting trail and his faux southern accent and his awkward attempts at jokes. But when he said that all of his players should be executed for their lack of execution, he was actually on to something.

To be sure, that doesn’t absolve Kelly from his damn dereliction of duty to teach his own damn players how to execute his own damn gameplan. But a lack of self-awareness does not equate to inaccuracy.

Calling a perfect game as an OC is a pipe dream, but there are winning offensive play calls in every game Notre Dame plays. Maybe you can argue that there should be more of them, because Freeman’s program has clearly shown a penchant for playing games in a phone booth with a razor-thin margin for error, so the players could probably do with a little grace. But the problem under Parker was the same problem under Tommy Rees and Chip Long and pretty much every other offensive coordinator to ever don a headset for the Irish: the offensive gameplan was good in concept but not good enough once the ball was kicked off.

And as for the remedy to this systemic offensive malaise, I’ll make my elevator pitch once again: form a think tank of offensive analysts from the likes of David Cutcliffe, Dan Mullen and any other innovative offensive minds who are currently sitting around with their thumb’s twiddling. Let them play “Oppenheimer” running their own gridiron Manhattan Project so that they can equip Freeman with the type of nuclear offensive that’s been lacking in South Bend for the better part of 150 years.

Is it impractical? Perhaps. And will a group of outside analysts be able to get through to a bunch of college kids who Notre Dame’s coaches apparently can’t get through to? Maybe not. But it can’t hurt to have spades of proven offensive coaching experience on staff.

If you have a better idea, then I’m all ears. Marcus Freeman better be as well.