Spring practice comes early this year, starting the first week in March. There are significant coaching changes on both sides of the ball. Mike Denbrock was named offensive coordinator. His span of control and effective decision making will resemble that of Corrado “Junior” Soprano. Kelly will be running the offense, with Denbrock in training to be an offensive coordinator. Matt LaFleur will have his hands full, helping Kelly with Golson, being Malik Zaire’s primary position coach, observing Deshone Kizer when he arrives in June then coaching him starting in August, and then adding Blake Barnett when he arrives in January, 2015.
The more significant coaching change is on the defense. Diaco coordinated Kelly’s final defense at Cincinnati and was helmsman of the defense here from the beginning of the Kelly era. Brian Van Gorder will have full control of the defense, and expect some changes, including opportunities for new players to get playing time. Brian may see positional responsibilities-and player abilities-differently.
The coaches will want to work on “everything” but there are six special focus areas, five of which were deficiencies, of differential glare, in 2013, and one area of ordnance on offense that was mothballed, from necessity, in 2013.
(1) PASS RUSH
Establish a terrifying pass rush. Not maintain, or enhance, but establish! The irish sack total was woeful in 2013, with a total of 20 sacks for 146 yards and a national ranking of #96 clustered right behind Temple, Louisiana Lafayette, UNLV, Washington State and other “menacing” defenses. Brian Van Gorder, welcome to St. Joe County!
Granted, the mere 23 snaps that Tuitt, Nix and Day played together was a factor, but excuses are for losers. There are several ways to generate sacks:
(a) recruit great pass rushers (don’t overrate a guy who’s a prince, but not a GREAT pass rusher)
(b) player development (remember, while Van Gorder is a stop-the-run-first-guy, he undoubtedly learned some things about pressure from Rex Ryan while Van Gorder was with the Jets.)
(c) scheme, stunts, traps, games
(d) blitz (which was abandoned after the first few games) Don’t have Tenuta flashbacks about blitzing.
There’s nothing in the rule book that requires you to blitz every down, or predictably. 2013 sack production was unacceptable.
It’s a brave new defensive world, and playing against Jameis Winston, Taylor Kelly, Kain Colter, Marquise Williams, Kevin Hogan, Danny Etling, and Cody Kessler, we cannot merely let them remain in a rocking chair, no matter how strong our cornerbacks are.
The Irish must, truly MUST, have improved safety play. To restate the obvious there was generally inadequate safety play, and four plays, oft-rehashed here, were potentially fatal in losses (the fourth did not lead to a loss, but could have)
(1) Gallon of Michigan-Gallon caught the ball on the Notre Dame 45 and then went through a Keystone Cops head-banging five ND player collision at the ND 35-40 to romp into the end zone. This put the Irish down an early 10-0 on the road. Farley and Shumate were the safeties, and it is too close to call which was more incompetent on the play. This kind of play, at least for the regular season, just did not happen in 2012.
(2) Sterling Shepard of Oklahoma-perhaps the unkindest cut of all. The Irish had spotted the visiting Sooners a quick 14 points, but battled, fiercely, back to close the gap to 27-21 early in the fourth quarter. Blake Bell, yeah him, the recent convert to tight end “rifled” the ball five yards downfield to Shepard, who was in the process of eluding Grace, but both safeties, in this case Matthias Farley, and Chris Collinsworth, were out of position and unable to close and make the tackle. Shepard had a free run of 49 more yards to the end zone. They converted the two to make the score OU 35-ND 21 and the game was basically over at that point. Again, this kind of play was not made in 2012’s regular season.
(3) Devin Street’s 63 yard touchdown for Pitt. With the Irish leading 21-14, even after Tuitt’s weird departure, the Irish were in control. Tom Savage dropped back, and hit Devin Street at the ND 42 right in front of Matthias Farley. Farley completely, entirely, unequivocally missed the tackle and Street romped the remaining 38 yards for the 21-21 tie. Again, a play that never occurred in the unbeaten ’12 regular season.
(4) With ND leading in the fourth quarter, but not yet clinched, 23-13 over BYU, the Cougars had the ball on their 48. Paul Lasike, no Eddie Lacy, broke through for 46 yards to the Irish 6. The BYU drive stalled and Jarron Jones had his big field goal block. But the game ought have been clinched, other than the safety misplay.
Why are Alabama and LSU good every year? Watch their safety play: consistent excellence. We are not without talent and athleticism. Certainly Collinsworth and Farley have experience. But Redfield, Shumate and Baratti are outstanding, not good, OUTSTANDING, athletes. Each is at least 6 feet, at least 200 pounds, and each has at least good speed for a safety. Hardy played well (his late tackle against Navy may have been a game-saver). That’s six, even without considering Turner, Tranquill or possibly Riggs. That’s enough raw material to say grace over. Van Gorder needs to get his secondary assistants to fix this area. Horrific big play yielding safety play was the most fatal error in 2013-yet the most easily fixable.
(3)DEFENDING KICKOFF RETURNS
Kickoff defense will become even more important in 2014. as the offense will need to protect the defense, mostly by scoring more frequently
and scoring more touchdowns rather than field goals. The numbers do not lie. In 2013 the Irish kicked off 75 times and punted 52 times. That 7:5 ratio will change in 2014 and tilt more in favor of kickoffs. For example, in 2013, Oregon kicked off 101 times and punted 43 times a 13:5 ratio. Texas A&M kicked off 97 times and punted only 45 times, an 11:5 ratio.
Frosh Newsome is projected as the punter, so Brindza’a touchback ratio ought improve with his heightened focus on kickoffs and placements. Kyle produced 35 touchbacks out of 75 total kickoffs. We must tighten up the kickoff return defense to make opposing offenses muster long marches against our youngish defense. We allowed 40 kickoff for 1027 yards, or 25.7, but there were nine kickoff returns of more than 30 yards, four of more than 40 yards and three of more than 50 yards. In the losses to OU, Pitt and Stanford we gave up a kickoff return of 40 yards or more, when field position was most precious. We must improve in 2014.
(4) RED ZONE RUSHING
Here are the numbers. We rushed only one time in the red zone in early season games against Michigan, Michigan State and Oklahoma. The carriers were as follows:
- Carlisle 1 carry, six yards (Michigan game)
- Atkinson 4 carries, 10 yards (last red zone carry in Navy game) TD against Temple
- Hendrix 3 carries, but two were victory formation other for 4 four yards and a TD against Air Force
- Jones 3 carries 12 yards, TDs against Pitt and Rutgers
- Folston 15 carries, 52 yards, one for loss, TDs against Navy, BYU and Rutgers
- McDaniel 28 carries for 83 yards, but 25% of the carries or seven, were for lost yardage. Three TDS, against Purdue, MSU and Navy
That is 52 carries (we’re ignoring Hendrix’ victory formation carries) for 167 yards and 10 touchdowns, but 8 lost yardage plays. Looking back, there are several things noteworthy. Eight of the red zone rushing attempts, seven by McDaniel and one by Folston were for lost yardage out of 52 total carries. This is horrific. No gain or a short gain is acceptable. Getting pushed back is not tolerable in the red zone where real estate is so precious.
Looking back, we observe that the coaching staff, or the departed Martin, were not comfortable with the red zone rushing attack early in the year, but grew more comfortable as the year, and the OL, and Folston, matured. Clearly, in 2013 life was complicated by the lack of a credible running threat from the quarterback either from a sneak, dive, a rollout, an option play, or a broken play.
In 2014 the Irish line, even without the great Martin, will be bigger, particularly if McGlinchey plays and this is now Heistand’s third year. Having Golson will force enemy defenses to account for him in the red zone. But an early season leading indicator of the progress of the irish offense will be the frequency and success of red zone rushing. 2013’s numbers will be a portent of doom. With the tougher schedule this area will have to improve or Irish fans will drool the drool of red zone regret!
(5) RUNNING BACK RECEPTIONS
Bama had 41 receptions by backs out of 244, roughly 17%.
Oregon had 83 receptions by backs out of 256, roughly 31%.
Georgia had 70 receptions by backs out of 293. roughly 24%.
Notre Dame had 20 receptions by backs out of 226, less than 10%
With extended plays and Golson’s strong arm, there will be plenty of opportunity underneath for flares, wheels and screens. Part of the 2013 problem was personnel, part scheme and part of it that receiving remained as much of a mystery as in-meal texting rules to the departed George Atkinson. An added factor is that redshirt Greg Bryant received special praise from his high school coach as being a sophisticated, polished receiver. We should zoom right past that 10% mark in 2014.
(6) EXTENDED PLAYS
There is more need for retooling here than meets the eye. It is non-quantifiable, but all 10 players, beyond just the quarterback, are involved when plays get extended. One of our lucid commentators, when discussing our sterling 2013 offensive sacks allowed ranking, mentioned that the pass protection was not complex, that the OL merely had to hold the pocket for Rees for a few seconds.
That changes in 2014, as the OL need to swivel more and be able to hunt down and destroy pass rushers in space, all without crossing the scrimmage line so that they are not ineligible receivers downfield. But we have been quietly upgrading the athleticism and foot quickness of our offensive linemen, and despite their size, plodders need no longer apply!
The receivers need to break from their initial patterns but do so in a way that’s intelligible by the quarterback. It is a function of both effort and chemistry.
The most subtle role of all is the TES and RBS. They often block on the initial play call but then often have the freedom to release downfield when APPROPRIATE. There are subtleties and nuances to being truly effective with extended plays and it will take all of Spring and pre-Fall to adjust to maximize offensive efficiency. Golson has shown that this is his highest ranking skill, to adjust when the pocket breaks down, and then move, evade the rush, keep his eyes downfield and complete the pass. He was good at this, very good, as a redshirt frosh. In September he is a senior. The Notre Dame offense will make its bones on extended plays (and that is much more apt of a description than “broken” plays). These plays are the fulcrum which the offense can use to move from good to great.
This area has explosive potential for the Irish. The idea of Brown, Fuller and Hunter running deep downfield, Folston or Bryant or Koyack or Smythe breaking late underneath in the open space created by the DBS retreating to cover our WRS, with Golson, cool as a cucumber, as the triggerman, all combine to terrorize opposing defenses. We will eat clock by extending plays rather than between plays. The defense will get tired chasing and we will then hurry even more, pushing the defense down an ever more slippery slope. (Despite Nick Saban’s craven, disgusting efforts to have a rule change!)
Done right, this should be the biggest area of offensive improvement over 2013.
New coaches, the return of Golson, and much, much more make this a very intriguing Spring. The practices will establish tone and priorities for offseason workouts by the players and establish the baseline for August practice. Don’t get caught watching the paint dry, lads!!