Four Adjustments For Notre Dame Football In 2021

With the end of the 2020 college football season comes a look toward 2021. Everyone is dropping their “way too early” top 25 rankings (which kind of implies it’s right on time) so let’s jump in head first with how the Irish can adjust to the season before.

They’ve already answered a couple of questions in bringing in grad transfer quarterback Jack Coan and hired highly sought after Marcus Freeman to coach the defense. Those were the two biggest question marks heading into 2021 and the answers were as good as they could have plausibly been.

The rest of the off season will bring answers to the following: how does the offensive line shake out? What does the wide receiver room/rotation look like? Who is emerging at cornerback? How those things adjudicate themselves will ultimately tell the tale for the Irish next season.

With that in mind, here are four ways Notre Dame needs to adjust offensively and defensively to make 2021 a successful year.

Reduce The Workload Of Kyren Williams

Kyren Williams was a breakout star for Notre Dame in 2020 as a runner, receiver, and pass blocker. In his 12 game season, he finished with the second highest all-purpose yards of the Kelly era (1,438), finishing only behind Josh Adams in 2017 (1,531). In many ways, he was the engine behind Notre Dame’s offense; despite his diminutive size he was able to run with power inside, break big plays, and dazzle us with his open field ability. That being said, Notre Dame is going to have to lessen his workload in 2021 to get the best out of him late in the season.

Williams registered 246 offensive touches in 2020, an average of about 21 per game, a number that would have been even larger had he not hurt his shoulder in the first half against Boston College. The next closest skill player was Chris Tyree with 81 touches on offense (about seven per game), with 17 coming against Boston College when Williams missed a good portion of action. 21 to seven at running back is too much of a disparity. Williams size is what it is, and bulking him up is only going to hamper his game. None of this takes into account the countless number of hits Williams accrued as the teams best pass blocker as well.

Notre Dame needs to find a way to make the running back position a true rotation to a.) keep its best players fresh b.) get the most out of the position. They’ve got Williams, they’ve got their prize recruit Tyree, C’Bo Flemister has registered over 110 touches over his career, plus two freshmen coming in. Find two, or three, who can share the load over the course of a game. It’s best for everyone involved.

Bring Back The RPO Game

My biggest takeaway from this playoff season was Notre Dame needs to bring their RPO offense back into the fold. Alabama crushed us with short passes throughout, with 15 of their 25 completions came from between 0-5 yards with the LOS with over 100 yards on three completions coming from RPO concepts (two slants and a swing pass).

Notre Dame was very adept at this in 2018 with Ian Book, but mostly abandoned it in 2019 with Chip Long calling plays and again in 2020 with Tommy Rees. Given the strengths of Jack Coan‘s game–quick release, good decision maker, accurate short–adding this to the offensive feels like a no-brainer. It also compliments the running game by discouraging run blitzes, because a vacating linebacker only opens up lanes for the passing game. Taking advantage of the strengths on offense include bringing back the thing that killed you the year before.

Make Better Use Of Kyle Hamilton

Hamilton led the team with 63 tackles, this is despite missing what amounts to two full games with his ankle injury, plus another half with a targeting ejection. In truth, this was more like an 80+ tackle season from our free safety, and he was on pace to lead the team in tackles by double digits. It also marks the first time a defensive back has led the defense in tackles during the Kelly era.

Some of this has to do with Hamilton being a fantastic player. But it’s also a sign that he was asked to cover for deficiencies in the linebacking corps. The three players who earned considerable time at Buck this season–Marist Liufau, Shayne Simon, and Jack Kiser–combined for 56 tackles in 2020. Hamilton totaled 4.5 tackles for loss in what amounts to nine and a half games while the trio at Buck tallied 5.5. You get the idea.

Part of getting the most out of Hamilton includes fixing the Buck position so he doesn’t have to be a cover for short comings. This is a lot of what we saw with Jaylon Smith in 2015, not something Notre Dame wants to be associated with as that is seen as a waste of his talents. I imagine Marcus Freeman spends a lot of his time thinking and scheming for ways to turn Hamilton into the game wrecker he can clearly be. He’s going to be a first team All-American–he made some first teams this season–and will be a major part of why 2021 Notre Dame can make a return to the playoffs. They need to turn him into a star.

Find The Formula At Corner

Notre Dame is short on experience but long on numbers and ability in the secondary. TaRiq Bracy and Clarence Lewis have both played big minutes in high level games. Beyond them there is athleticism and length that simply has to be tapped into. Cam Hart and Ramon Henderson have length and speed. Caleb Offord, Ryan Barnes, Philip Riley, and Chance Tucker include length, toughness, and speed. There are raw materials that Notre Dame can tap into. They’ve got their new coordinator and his buddy Mike Mickens coaching the corners. There are four players in here that can do the job at a level befitting of a playoff caliber unit. My big prediction on this January 12th afternoon is the corner group blows up in 2021.

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  1. 78 degrees in San Luis Obispo today. Great day to work on lowering my current index of 5.3 to my target index of +3. Got a ways to go but trending in the right direction. My Plan B is solid.

    1. Indeed. San Diego county lovely as always and easy to work on your game.
      +3 is aggressive. Good luck.
      Plan B preparation is key 365 days per year.

  2. One big adjustment we need to make on offense is taking shots downfield more often. If there is one on one coverage, allow for more audibles to take shots deep, especially if it is with one of our bigger receivers. It is very difficult for corners to cover deep with the nature of turning and running with a receiver and then while on a full run, trying to look back for the ball to break it up. Even the elite DBs struggle to do this one on one. The receiver has the majority of the advantages playing the ball in the air and adjusting to it. How many times do you see a ball underthrown and a receiver come back to it only to be interfered with and a 15 yard penalty? It seems to happen all the time. The percentages of the deep ball being a positive play whether its a catch or a DPI is much higher than people really think. And not only that, but in a one on one, the chances of it being picked off are very low making it a safe throw. Whether it was Book being limited or Rees not taking advantage of this, we certainly did not do it enough this year and made our offense less explosive. Hitting a couple of these a game opens up a LOT more you can do when the defense adjusts to it, that’s for sure.

    To give some perspective…Chase Claypool against NFL DBs (elite) drew 8 DPIs for 185 yards through 12 games. It might be more but this is all I could find in researching. I knew it was a bunch though because I followed him all season. It’s tough to cover big physical receivers downfield.

      1. Your post made me curious.
        Surprised the data was that low, it’s even lower in the NFL.

  3. The more you learn about Marcus Freeman the better the hire becomes. What an outstanding player, coach and human being.
    Not just an All Big Ten player, but an academic All Big Ten and finalist for the Wuerffel Trophy.
    Terrific hearing his philosophy on preparing a defensive scheme and his approach to player development.
    Kudos to BK on the hire. High fives all around!

      1. david… Rhonda, er…I like to call him Elfin since he identifies with Will Ferrell’s depiction of a joke of a news anchor, I thought, why not update Rhonda’s image to Will’s later role as Elf. Either way, still a person seeking acceptance.

        Anyway, it seems like the Elf is now double posting which displays a double neediness. It’s weird, he/she/it posts then attempts to convince us it wasn’t him/she/it. Like I said, weird.

        On a more important subject, its crazy but I’m liking the two moves. Lea might be a defensive genius, but his backfield SUCKED all season. Let’s face it, our DL and LB’s carried the season. We all saw it, if they couldn’t hurry the passer, inevitably the DB’s killed us. Let’s usher in a new fresh perspective, DC and QB.

        How about those corners? All season, allow the catch then attempt to jar the ball loose. Um, can you say…’first down’? How I’d love to see our CB’s keep a hand on a receiver while turning to look for a ball in the air. Was it one or two of them who opted to file for the draft? No great loss, believe me. I’m guessing BK sat with each of them and said, ‘either transfer or opt for the draft, cause you suck, and wont be playing on my field next year’.

      2. SFR: For teams with receiver speed and a QB with an arm, Kelly’s teams have been especially ripe for the picking.

        Safeties and corners are an even more arrogant, mouthy lot than typical NFL-destined talents….that’s not necessarily a slag, its just a common trait anyone can see in those who play that position.

        The really, really good ones aren’t ever going to play for a place that doesn’t even put their name on their jersey. They go where their muscles and tendons will be warm, places where they now award some gaudy homemade trinket on the sidelines during the game, where they get their names AND faces on TV, and can act out pretty much however they like. And it does raise the entertainment bar on a given Saturday night….FWIW.

        Like that or not, those teams do end up with some key talents needed to make a run. While Kelly manages his little branch of the ND corporation.

  4. Lots of high-fives ’round here when news broke that ND was able to replace its best coach with a pretty employable guy from Cincy.
    Meanwhile, the Saban Rehab Center has scrounged up some hopeless case to fill the hole left after Sarkisian went to ….umm, where was that?

    1. …but watching ND do its impression as the Washington Generals of big-time college football is just super fine.
      Rhonda needs new burn book writers.

  5. So pre-season rankings are out….which are useful for basically one thing: appeasing the offended.
    Oklahoma and Georgia…both big-time programs that were determined to be statistically more deserving to be in the playoff than ND was…..both appear in the top 10, at #2 and #3, no less. “Sorry!! Hope y’all can now enjoy euphoric team pre-season events, and sell lots of shirts this summer!!”
    And Iowa State and Cincinnati get their “too-little-too-late” symbolic crumbs too, clocking in at #6 and #7.

    And look at that. ND at #11, despite ALL the post-season changes. Hunh.
    Hell, Alabama got dinged almost as much, and, uhhh, they’re effing ALABAMA!

    ND didn’t get in the top 10 (which might raise eyebrows and audible snickers), but solidly within the list of 25, which keeps ND fans happy and cash registers ringing. What a farce.

  6. Send Tommy to visit with some offensive gurus in the college or pros, for some schooling. I donot want to wait ten years till he gets more experience.

    1. I thought Rees did a good job.
      ND actually ran the football. Often using someone other than the QB. Stunning.
      And having Ian Book as your QB is hardly a ton of passing game potential to work with….stick’um on receivers’ shins was one sensible option.
      And here’s a term I suggest the offensive staff look up this off-season: screen pass.

  7. Kelly must use more misdirection on the o side of the ball motion , swing passes slants. Spread the offense out wide and counter.
    Defense can’t win with 4 man front and no pressure or showing pressure and backing off.

  8. I agree with your four points above, but I think the most glaring missing piece, and biggest difference between Notre Dame and the likes of Bama, Clemson, OSU, etc., is big plays from skill players. Having a power running game is nice to have, but it’s not going to win you a national championship in this era. They need to get the ball in the open field to fast/elusive players who can make plays. And not just one attempt at a jet sweep and give up on the player the rest of the game. The screen game this year was somewhere between non-existent and abysmal. Tyree was not used properly. Keys and Brenzy were barely used at all. Freshmen talent sat the bench. Hopefully Coach Rees was taking notes from Steve Sarkesian during the NC game, because some of Bama’s play calls to get Smith the ball were really impressive (particularly thinking the motion into the backfield and then change of direction for a swing pass that went for a touchdown). And side note, special teams, particularly the return game, have been pathetic under Kelly. Get the ball into the hands of playmakers and let them do what they do best. If ND doesn’t focus on and showcase skill players, then they will never recruit those guys at the level of Bama, Clemson, and OSU.

  9. There is no doubt Kelly in his 11 years at Notredame has done a very good job. Are there other coaches out there who would come to Notredame and put them on an Alabama, Clemson Ohio State, level. Maybe maybe not. The thing I m concerned in the next few years with him is how is he going to make Notredames offense great. The defense and special teams are pretty much there to win a national championship. The offense not even close. Notredame 34 points a game Alabama 49. You cant win big games playoffs regular season scoring 3, 8 ,10, 14, 17 points a game. This is not 1960′ s football. Is the problem recruiting, coaching, scheme game plans, in game adjustments play calling or any combination of those things.

    1. Exhibit A of why ND will never, ever win another championship.
      Back in the day, would this EVER have been thought, let alone aid out loud, by any ND fan at the end of ANOTHER year of not even being in a real conversation of a championship?

      “There is no doubt Kelly in his 11 years at Notredame has done a very good job.”
      Translation: Even if they don’t admit it to themselves, ND fans implicitly accept permanent mediocrity as better than the only alternative of recent memory: being worse.

      Fire Brian Kelly and hire a guy you think can get ND onto the next level. This ‘cash the checks’ strategy is just prostitution.

      1. I agree David. I dont know how old you are but you are spot on on people being happy just getting to a playoff and then losing. I’m 64 and grew up watching Ara, Lou,DanDevine when their teams won 4 national championship and several other close calls. When Nottedame could recruit and play and beat anyone. Heck I said last year Swarbrick should have told Kelly.You win a national championship in 2020 or 2021 you get a contract extension.You don’t win it all Notredame is letting you go

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