How Notre Dame Can Get More Explosiveness Out Of The Passing Game

During his weekly Monday press conference, head coach Brian Kelly was asked about the progress of quarterback Ian Book. Kelly talked about Book having made improvements in some areas, needing to make more improvements in others. He then finished his answer with a quote saying, “he’s got the ability to be explosive and I think that’s the next step for him.”

This last part is really what it comes down to for Ian Book and his evolution as a quarterback. And, in my opinion, that explosiveness will come with improved decision making. I see it as less of a physical problem and more of a decisiveness and an aggression problem. The opportunities for big plays are available to Book and the offense, he needs to do a better job of identifying when those opportunities present themselves. This is something to popped up quite a bit in the game against Virginia and is something we’ve seen throughout the season.

Pre-Snap Recognition

A lot of the missed opportunities come from mistakes made pre-snap or a lack of confidence in throwing the pass that will lead to a big play, although if I had to guess I’d say it’s more of the latter.

Throughout the game, Book had chances for big plays to Chase Claypool especially and one with Cole Kmet on the first possession and it’s that play I want to start with here.

It’s second and nine and Notre Dame comes out in a four-wide set with Kmet in the slot with Chase Claypool outside of him. Virginia is playing cover two defense, and Notre Dame runs Kmet up the middle, with Claypool on a streak outside of him, with Finke going up the seam in the opposite slot, and Michael Young running a quick out to the far side. The read here is Kmet up the middle, designed to split the two safeties, with Claypool and Finke occupying them right up the sideline and the field. If one of the safeties jumps Kmet, Book can throw to the receiver to that side. If they jump the routes by Claypool and Finke, Kmet will be wide open. That’s precisely what happens here.

Not only do both safeties jump the receivers, they completely turn their backs to Kmet, who is running free down the middle of the field with no one even looking at him. This is an easy read for Book to make. But, he holds the ball a tad too long and then compounds his mistake by spinning out of the pocket instead of stepping up and effectively giving up on the play. If he steps up and shuffles left, Kmet is home free for a touchdown. This throw needed to be decided pre-snap, based on the movement of the safeties.

Taking Advantage Of Chase Claypool

This first example is a positive play, a gain of 27 yards to Chris Finke on a crossing route, but you’ll note the opportunity for more is there if Ian wants it, and he doesn’t take it later in the game.

Notre Dame has 31 personnel in the game (three receivers, one tight end) and they run play-action pass. Finke in the slot runs a deep drag across the field, with Claypool the single receiver on the left running a post. (If this play looks familiar to you, this is the exact play Book hit Boykin with on the game-winning touchdown against Pitt last season.) Claypool has his man beaten on the post and Ian has time to make a perfect rhythm throw over the top for a touchdown. He opts instead to hit Finke across the field for a big gain, so not much to criticize something like that. But, touchdowns are always best in any situation, and on first and ten it’s worth taking a shot. When you score a touchdown, you’re all done playing football, and therefore no more plays are needed on that drive.

A similar situation happens later in the game, just before Notre Dame misses a 47-yard field goal. The Irish are again in 31 personnel, and they again run play-action, though a little bit more elaborate, with Claypool running a post and Finke running a deep crosser. Claypool again gets a step on his defender and more importantly gains the inside, giving Book plenty of room to lead him. The middle safety stops his feet and picks up Finke, leaving the middle of the field wide open. This time though, the underneath safety works underneath of Finke, making this throw all the more difficult to fit in. Book still opts to try Finke, can’t fit it in, and the chance for a touchdown to their best receiver goes by untried.

In the last in the series of finding Claypool, it comes in the third quarter on a third and five near midfield. They are again in 31 personnel with trips to the far side, with Finke in the slot and Claypool immediately inside of him. Virginia brings a blitz and is playing man coverage. Notre Dame slides the protection to that side, and it is picked up perfectly by Tony Jones Jr. Wide receivers Michael Young and Chris Finke run two short whip routes–they break inside, then plant the foot and head back out–with Chase Claypool running a corner route. Claypool has his man playing inside leverage, so before the ball is snapped, Claypool already has a huge advantage. This route is going to be open for a big gain.

Ian instead chooses Finke, who in fairness is open, but he runs his route short of the line to gain, and Notre Dame is forced to punt. This is one of those plays, like the one above, where Ian has a significant gain available to him yet opts to throw short.

There Is Hope

To not give the impression that Ian only ever takes the safe route, here is a play where he absolutely does not, and it pays off for him.

On this play in the second quarter, it’s second and 15 and Notre Dame is once again in 31 personnel, with three receivers to the field and Cole Kmet attached to the line at the boundary. Kmet runs what looks to be a skinny corner route with Chris Finke running a shallow crosser right in front of him. Kmet has the linebacker chasing him with a safety inside; it’d be very reasonable for Ian to see this and believe him to be covered, and Finke crossing right in front is very much uncovered. Ian opts for Kmet though, who goes over the top of two players and makes the grab for a substantial gain.

There are two reasons teams aren’t explosive. One is, they don’t have explosive players/don’t have explosive opportunities. The other is, that team isn’t capitalizing on the opportunities that present themselves. Based on what we’ve seen in the first four weeks, it is very much the latter for Notre Dame. This is obviously the most correctable of the two situations, and once Book gets more comfortable with where to go with the ball, we could see the offense take off in a big way.

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  1. I agree with what the article points out and while I have given Greg some hell for other comments he’s made, he did a really good job calling out these inefficiencies through film. Well done sir!

    I also agree with the others commenting below. We need to get our best athletes on the field no matter how young they are. Hamilton should be starting at safety, plain and simple. If Lenzy is as fast as everyone says, then he should be seeing the field too. You can at least run some jet sweeps, simple crossers, and streaks for him kind of like Fuller got when he was a freshman.

    And lastly, I think it’s time Jurkovec got some meaningful reps with the ones in a game. There was a really good article on ESPN not too long ago about Trevor Lawrence overtaking Kelly Bryant to be the starter ( I don’t see why we couldn’t do the same between Book and Jurkovec going forward unless Jurkovec is just that far behind but I honestly don’t believe that. Does anyone else think Book is a Tommy Rees that can run? And we all know what everyone thought about Tommy Rees. How could the worst athlete on the field be your QB….Book is a better athlete than Rees because he can run but the rest of the physical abilities are nearly identical. I hope Book proves us all wrong but I just don’t see us ever winning a NC with him at QB.

    1. While I agree that the best athletes should be on the field Jurkovec is not ready. He is horrible with pre snap reads, holds onto the ball to long and will get banged up to bad when he is runs all the time. Book is a good QB and is accurate which is another problem with Jurkovec. I think Jurkovec will be good at some point in time and getting him snaps in blow outs is fine, but against a good defense he will have trouble. This team is missing Dexter Williams, a back that can go 90 yds in a blink of an eye. Each year Kelly has had a great team, he has had a game changing back. Right now that back is Jafar Armstrong and he is on injured reserve. I think Ian will clean these things up eventually. After SC and Michigan, the schedule doesn’t look that great. ND should be able to dispatch the ACC foes of VT, Duke and BC. Navy is not a typical Navy team, Bowling Green is a MAC team. Stanford has not looked good this year. If they play to their potential they should go 11-1. It’s a shame that the Georgia game had one bad Quarter or they would be in the playoffs again.

      1. Your basis of Jurkovec not being ready is on a spring game and one series with all second team on the field?

        I disagree.

  2. Excellent video confirmation in making a case for your argument. Book either doesn’t have the arm, or doesn’t trust his arm for length or accuracy. Result is, he’ll take the shorter option in which he is more confident.

    The obvious call would be ‘starting’ Jurkovec this weekend vs a lesser opponent. Jurkovec has the arm, witness his first throw when he came in as a replacement for Book, but maybe what he needs is for staff especially BK to trust and encourage him. A start would do just that.

    I have a hunch that Kelly is not BS’g when he says, ” this could be a special bunch “. I’m thinking, fielding a new and confident QB with starts against BG and USC, could accelerate BK’s hunch.

  3. Greg , a very thorough article of Books performance versus Virginia and “plays left on the field” by the starting QB. I think Book needs to get better. He’ll probably start versus Bowling Green –to clean up flaws/issues. Even if Book looks off versus Bowling Green — Irish should put up enough points by half time –to give Jerkovec lot of playing time — perhaps starting the second half. This has to happen — in case Book get’s injured. Now , If Book digresses/doesn’t improve — best to have Jerkovec with some live action under his belt. USC and Michigan , long time rivals are very dangerous — I don’t care what their records are so far in 2019. Bowling Green is not a true test if Book looks good and improves his stats. It’s the USC/Michigan games up coming that will define Book–to lead Irish to 11-1. If Book has problems versus USC/Michigan — might be time to insert Jerkovec for a few series– a spark perhaps. That’s why it is essential to have Jerkovec get quality time versus Bowling Green. If Book comes out flat against USC/Michigan —throwing Jerkovec out there without any meaningful game time—well , you get where I’m going here.

    1. Jurkovec–is the correct spelling. Just to add , is Book having problems in the pocket —cause of his 6’0” or 6’1” height ? Is his vision of not seeing open receivers a problem against a D-line that averages 6’4″ to 6’6″ ? Hense the happy feet and urge to leave pocket . Would this explain his passes are mostly east/west to Claypool to the sidelines ? An occasional north/south to Kmet works , but Kmet is a huge target to see downfield. Just a thought , I’m throwing out there–as to why Book is so ansy on leaving the pocket.

      1. Southside, maybe he should watch some game film of Drew Brees and understand how to work from within the pocket. It’s hard for a QB to feel comfortable by stepping up in the pocket, because you feel the rush is coming at you. Especially when the blitz up the middle. I wonder if they are blitzing up the middle more to make him feel “antsy”.

      2. Jack , “antsy”, a word I will never use again. Ha — hope Ron doesn’t put me on his “Archives List.” Good idea about Book watching game film of Drew Brees

  4. At this point it may be wise to take decision making out of the equation to get Book to learn to trust his receivers in single coverage. During the Weis years, they often had predetermined deep 50/50 balls whenever an elite receiver had man coverage. I know Quinn and Clausen would just throw up what looked like a punt for Samardzija, Floyd, or even Tate (who lacked the size the others had) to go up over the defender and bring down. I don’t know if this is a pre snap read that if the receiver is in man coverage but it didn’t appear to be play calls and definitely not a play the qb had to decide where to go with the ball. This tweak could add explosiveness to the offense, which opens up the run game and underneath passing. It also would help Book learn to trust his receivers so when he is scanning he may be more likely to let it rip knowing his big guys will come down with the ball. Practicing this tweak would also increase Claypools ability to make plays like the final offensive play vs Georgia next time he finds himself in that position. I believe Kmet, Tremble, and possibly Mckinley if he can earn playing time would all be candidates to force toss ups in single coverage

    1. 100% yes Isaiah. When you have a 6’5″ Claypool going against 6’0 and less corners in man, check to a bomb and 50/50 ball every time. My guess is 70% or more of the time either Claypool comes down with it or he gets interfered with which is basically what we have been seeing when he does get the ball thrown his way like that which has been rare.

  5. Small thing here, but 31 personnel is 3 backs 1 TE. The 3 WR sets with a TE is 11 Personnel. Great breakdown and hope to
    see Book flourish this weekend and make these reads against a much lesser opponent to give him the confidence he needs.

  6. Technicality here but 31 personnel is 3 backs, 1 WR. 3 backs, 1 WR is considered 11 personnel. This is a fantastic breakdown and hopefully we see Book excel this weekend! Go Irish

  7. Here’s another option as well…Sit Chris Finke for a more athletically talented player like a Branden Lenzy who’s speed alone can stretch opposing defenses. Notre Dame HAS to get our most talented players on the field and get the ball into their hands.

    1. I totally agree.Keys and Lenzy have to play a lot more over Finke. Also Young needs to be real involved in the passing game. Tremble too.Watch Alabama Ohio State Clemson Oklahoma LSU Georgia they throw and play a lot of running backs and receivers.Yes I know Notredame doesn’t have the speed and playmakers these teams have but I believe their skilled guys can be very productive if Kelly will play them and Book can get them the ball.

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