Brian Kelly talked to the media yesterday after the first day of spring football for 2020 about a variety of topics, but one of the few times an otherwise jovial Kelly got a little fired up was when he was asked about the Notre Dame offensive line needing to improve. Kelly defended the unit’s 2019 performance and
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘better offensive line play.’ Compared to what?” Kelly fired back when asked if the new offensive coaching staff could lead to improved play from the offensive line.
Then Kelly defended his unit’s performance from a year ago. “I don’t know that we were that bad last year. We scored a lot of points. There seems to be this narrative out there that we weren’t good at running the football. We were a pretty good offense last year.”
Kelly was visibly annoyed at the notion that Notre Dame had trouble running the football last year. “We keep parsing last year,” he said. “Our job is to win football games. We’re going to continue to work on that focus of everybody needs to improve in every facet. It’s not just the offensive line. It’s going to be tight end play, running backs, quarterbacks.”
Instead of focusing on the offensive line, Kelly directed his attention to the entire offense – players and coaches – himself included. “There is this kind of pervasive feeling that the offensive line has to get better. I got to get better. The wide receivers have got to get better. Everybody has to get better across the board.”
Obviously, Kelly wants to move on from 2019. “So I think we can get off that train of the offensive line has to get better. Everybody has to get better.”
The problem for Kelly is that he can’t change the past and can’t go back in time and change the results for 2019. Notre Dame did struggle to run the football when they needed to. In Notre Dame’s two losses to Georgia and Michigan, they ran for 47 and 46, respectively. In the close call to Virginia Tech, they only totaled 106 yards. They didn’t have a single rush longer than 13 yards in any of those three contests.
So there isn’t just a “narrative” that Notre Dame wasn’t good at running the football in 2019. The stats tell us that they weren’t very good at running the football against good defenses. Any offense can wrack up yards against New Mexico and Bowling Green.
Teams that are good at running the football don’t need to manufacture rushing yards with jet sweeps and end arounds. They use them to supplement strong running games.
With the talent Notre Dame has coming back in 2020 along the offensive line, there is no reason they shouldn’t improve running the football – even with some questions at running back. All five starting linemen from a year ago return, although Aaron Banks will miss the spring recovering from a foot fracture. The good news on the injury front is that Robert Hainsey and Tommy Kraemer will both be able to participate in spring ball after ending the 2019 season on the injured list.
If there is a narrative that is floating around right now regarding the offensive line, it’s for the reason behind their struggles. There’s a notion that the struggles can be, at least in part, attributed to the lack of chemistry on the coaching staff that led to Chip Long‘s dismissal at the end of the regular season. With Lance Taylor now tasked with being the running game coordinator and Tommy Rees promoted to offensive coordinator, there is hope that the improved chemistry with the staff will translate to better results.
Let’s not forget, though, that Notre Dame’s offense was pretty damn good running the ball in 2017 in Chip Long’s first year at Notre Dame. So removing him from the equation isn’t going to improve Notre Dame’s run game overnight – even if his relationship with the rest of the staff did deteriorate over time.
One certain thing, however, is that Notre Dame has to be able to run the ball better in big games in 2020 if they want to get back to the College Football Playoffs. Wisconsin and Clemson specifically will be huge tests for the Irish rushing attack. Whether Brian Kelly wants to acknowledge it publically or not, if Notre Dame doesn’t improve on the rushing attacks we saw against Michigan and Georgia last fall, those two games could end with similar results.