For a team that ran the gauntlet to an undefeated regular season, Notre Dame’s offense had a major flaw: The Red Zone.
In a season that was extraordinary, the Irish would’ve settled for being simply ordinary inside the opponent’s twenty yard line. Yet the Irish were one of the worst teams in the country in the scoring zone, even with jump ball threat Tyler Eifert and a powerful running game that averaged 200 yards a game in the regular season.
The Irish ranked an anemic 112th in the country in converting red zone appearances into touchdowns. Right there lodged between Middle Tennessee and Idaho, converting only 48% of their possessions. While the stout Irish defense bailed the team out, that type of conversion rate isn’t sustainable and is one of the biggest focuses the team has during training camp.
When talking to the media on Monday afternoon, Kelly discussed the focus on the red zone, and Tommy Rees‘ work in the scoring area. For all the scorn Rees has taken over his turnovers, the Irish converted 66% of red zone drives for touchdowns in ’11, good for 28th in the country. (They did rank 77th in the country on overall scoring percentage, with early season turnovers against USF and Michigan a big part of that low conversion rate.)
Asked if any segment of the team was ahead of schedule after eight practices, Kelly looked at the red zone play.
“I think our red zone play, what we’ve focused on, has been so much better,” Kelly said. “A lot of that has to do with Tommy, his experience. He’s been really good taking care of the football. He’s given us opportunities to score touchdowns, not kick field goals. I’d say that probably stands out the most.”
What’s interesting to consider is that for the first time under Kelly, Notre Dame won’t have a premiere red zone receiving weapon. As promising as freshman Corey Robinson may be, he’s not the kind of guy that All-Americans Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert were. That makes it likely the quarterback’s reads will be a little bit more complex than last year, when they seemed to be as limited as, “If Eifert is one-on-one, throw it to him.” (A strategy offensive coordinator Chuck Martin did his best to beat into Everett Golson.)
Notre Dame was once incredibly effectively with the fade route with guys like Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen throwing to targets like Jeff Samardzija, Rhema McKnight and Floyd. But it hasn’t exactly been the weapon of choice for Kelly’s team. Dayne Crist struggled with accuracy, Golson hasn’t looked all that comfortable throwing it, and Rees hasn’t Rees hasn’t been a great touch thrower, surprising considering his accuracy. That may have changed over the summer, with Kelly complimenting Rees’ fade routes to the short side of the field.
Wins almost always cover up blemishes, and last year’s offensive struggles were often erased by the end result. But with personnel that Kelly expects to improve and a few key pieces ready to find roles, moving the ball isn’t hardly as important as being effective in the scoring zone — a priority for this football team.
Last year, the turnover problem was erased through a lot of offseason work. If that’s the case with red zone struggles, expect the Irish offense to put up a lot of points.