Rees Empty

Irish offense’s no-back set coming up empty

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Through five games, Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin are doing their best to try and find an identity for the Irish offense. With five running backs battling for snaps, a wide receiving corps that’s run hot and cold, and an offensive line that struggled until last week to dictate terms in the running game, a group many had high hopes for has yet to hit its stride.

But some of that ineffectiveness certainly falls on the system and the philosophy. After dedicating themselves to offensive balance last season, the Irish attack has once again fallen into a habit of relying on the pass game to serve as the engine of the Irish offense, a difficult bedrock for a unit searching for its identity, but operating almost a la carte.

No alignment better encapsulates the Irish struggles on offense than the empty set. One of the Irish’s most heavily used formations, it’s also one of the team’s most predictable. Outside of one quarterback draw that Tommy Rees narrowly converted against Purdue, the Irish have thrown exclusively from the formation, including all 15 snaps it took from “empty” last weekend against Oklahoma.

SBNation’s Bill Connelly, one of the great Xs and Os guys breaking down college football on the internet, took a closer look at the Irish offense and wondered what exactly was going on. Mostly, he focused on the Irish coming up virtually empty when the Irish went empty.

Of course, it didn’t used to be this way. Connelly points out something that’s probably vexed Kelly and Martin the most since the start of the year. The Irish were one of the most efficient teams in the country running a no-back formation, a conclusion perhaps even more impressive considering aggressive, downfield way the Irish used the formation.

Almost no offense in the country utilized the empty backfield better, and more frequently, than Notre Dame. With Golson’s ability to elude tacklers and throw on the run, this formation became a lovely weapon, especially on passing downs.

Notre Dame tends to use the empty backfield a little different than most teams, however. Quick reads are typically the name of the game, but the Irish almost aim for pro-style principles within the most spready of spread formations. Two-thirds of Golson’s passes out of the no-back formation traveled at least nine yards downfield, and only about one-sixth were thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage. Golson would frequently either roll out (via design) or scramble (via pressure) and eventually find an open man. These long throws out of the no-back were strangely successful: 60 percent completion rate (in charted games), 18.7 yards per completion.

Using this logic, you can understand why there was a belief that Rees could be successful this way as well. There’s no questioning Rees’s acumen when it comes to understanding the game. A quarterback that can find the right answer to a defensive look, Rees spending time in a no-back formation would allow Notre Dame to get plenty of one-on-one match-ups, taking advantage of those opportunities to strike down the field.

That happened immediately against Temple, and Rees had success against Michigan and Purdue as well, even if it came a little less consistently. But against Michigan State and Oklahoma, two defenses that have above average personnel, the misses were glaring, and the no-back formation only magnified the problem.

Here’s Connelly’s takeaway from Notre Dame’s use of no-back against Oklahoma, a formation that absolutely killed the Irish offense last Saturday.

The Irish went to an empty backfield 60 percent of the time on passing downs with almost no payoff whatsoever. Rees is the polar opposite of “run threat,” so all 15 snaps from an empty backfield were passes. Oklahoma sent five pass rushers at Rees 10 of 15 times and had reasonable success: Rees was 4-for-10 for 64 yards and was picked twice, once for a touchdown. A third incompletion was broken up by a defensive back, another was tipped at the line, and another was overthrown by a pressured Rees. Unable to scramble effectively to buy time, Rees found his options limited and his accuracy wanting.

And on top of that, the five times where Notre Dame went to a no-back formation and Oklahoma didn’t blitz, Rees went 0-for-5, throwing passes well downfield (average length: 15 yards) with tiny to nonexistent windows for success.

While I haven’t broken down the tape, third-and-short passes have been a disaster for the Irish, especially when they’ve tried to roll the pocket. Those plays were almost a specialty of Golson’s because of his ability to make things happen and buy time with his legs before finding a receiver. That’s likely why Kelly and Martin turned to Andrew Hendrix, who added a battering ram to the formation.

The point of all of this isn’t to produce another article about what Tommy Rees can’t do. Because there’s an offense that Rees can orchestrate very effectively, one based around a downhill running game with playaction passes used to catch defenses cheating up. And while the usage of Hendrix gave opposing coaches something new to think about, he might as well be Rees’s inverse. Until he proves he can complete a pass downfield, he’s a glorified Wildcat runner.

Against Arizona State, Notre Dame’s offense can’t afford to be inefficient, or they’ll very likely be run off the field. As Kelly desperately searches for balance in an offense that looks close to finding it with last weekend’s rushing performance, it’s looking more and more clear that one formation should find its way off the play sheet.

Irish A-to-Z: Ashton White

Ashton White247
Tom Loy, Irish 247
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A solid spring and a nice training camp were lost in the shuffle when Ashton White was pulled over in Fulton County, Indiana on Friday evening. Along with four teammates, White’s future with the Irish football team was thrown into question, charged on suspicion of marijuana in an incident that already cost Max Redfield his place on Notre Dame’s roster.

Even with his punishment to be handled internally by his head coach, legal charges and university discipline are still being decided. And until then, those questions will overwhelm any role White could’ve had in the Irish secondary, competing for a spot in the two-deep among a talented group of cornerbacks.

 

ASHTON WHITE
5’11”, 195 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 26, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

White didn’t necessarily have the highest recruiting ranking, but the three-star prospect was an early target of the Irish staff, flipping his commitment from Virginia Tech to Notre Dame over the summer.

White had offers from Ohio State, West Virginia, Iowa and many more.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action, preserving a year of eligibility.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Hit this one on the head, though saving that year of eligibility seems fairly minor now.

While I think that Coleman and Crawford are going to play this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if White redshirted. With the depth at cornerback, White would need to do something impressive to jump in front of Devin Butler or Nick Watkins (not to mention his classmates) and you’ve got to wonder if there are snaps available to make that worth it.

That’s not to say that White isn’t competing. He earned an ear-full from Brian VanGorder when he didn’t step out of the way in a seven-on-seven passing drill after blitzing untouched at the quarterback, but he’s fully involved in one-on-ones  and mixing and matching with a large group of moving pieces.

Ultimately, saving a year now and learning could be what’s best. Especially when looking at the turnover in the secondary come 2016 and 2017.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s every reason to believe that one mistake won’t doom White’s career—especially if Brian Kelly has anything to say about it. But any forward momentum he had during camp was thrown away when he found himself square in Kelly’s crosshairs after one of the more head-scratchingly stupid off-field messes we’ve seen.

Setting aside all of that, White’s got plenty of things to appreciate. He’s a solid cover man, a competitive player, and even if he wasn’t going to get a ton of playing time, he was expected to be a key component of Scott Booker’s special teams units.

As long as Notre Dame keeps recruiting talented cornerbacks, it’s going to be tough to get on the field. But White’s part of a reloaded position group that has already turned a depth chart deficiency into a strength—even with the understanding that his murky future eliminates some of that wiggle room.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I expect White and the other three guys in the car to serve a suspension that’s give or take two games. And from there, I expect him to fight his way back into the rotation—starting outside the two-deep at cornerback but immediately in the mix on special teams game.

White plays with a brashness and confidence that you have to appreciate. If he can survive the boneheaded decision he made, I think he’ll take advantage of the second chance and become a situational contributor. But it’s certainly a black mark on his record, and one that makes you wonder about his decision-making skills.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn
Nick Watkins
Nic Weishar

 

Kelly and Irish do their best to move forward

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Available to the media for the first time since the Friday night that did its best to rock the foundation of his football program, Brian Kelly acknowledged what he was thinking and feeling as the news came in.

Kelly said the emotions came in three waves.

“My first one was disappointment. Then that disappointment kind of moved on to embarrassment—for the university,” Kelly said Wednesday evening. “And then I was mad as hell. I think those are the three stages that I went through.”

And so the Irish football program moves on, trying to get the egg out of its collective faces before they head to Austin to battle Texas in the season opener. They took their best step forward, naming four team captains yesterday—with hopes that Mike McGlinchey, Torii Hunter, James Onwualu, and Isaac Rochell could self-police a group of young players that clearly need more than what the coaches are already doing.

So while guns and drugs and bar brawls with cops feel like something out of an SEC program gone rogue, it’s a single night in August for a team that believes it’s competing for a national championship. Even with dueling quarterbacks, inexperience across the roster, and now a true freshman making his debut at free safety in front of 100,000 at Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium.

But Kelly has to move on. So a head coach seven years into his tenure in South Bend, having lived through more than a few rough moments already, has to find the silver lining in perhaps the most embarrassing incident of his career.

“They’re life lessons,” Kelly said, when asked how he addresses his young team. “It’s more than just you.

“So we talk about selfish decisions. We talk about representing more than just yourself. You represent the university, you represent a program, you represent an entire fanbase. Those are the things we talk about more than anything else. It’s just not about you.”

 

Hunter, McGlinchey, Onwualu and Rochell named Notre Dame captains

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Brian Kelly named Notre Dame’s captains for the 2016 team. Seniors Torii Hunter Jr., Mike McGlinchey, James Onwualu and Isaac Rochell will officially lead the team.

Kelly made the news public on Wednesday after practice, his first media availability since the arrest of six players in two separate incidents on Friday evening. And in his four selections, Kelly named four new team leaders after having to replace all five of the team’s captains from last season.

In Hunter, Kelly has named the team’s lone veteran receiver as a captain, expecting a breakout season in both production and leadership. The most experienced returner after three starters departed and Corey Robinson retired due to concussions, Hunter has less starts at the position than fellow captain Onwualu—now a linebacker—Kelly quipped.

McGlinchey carries the torch for the offensive line, a fourth-year senior who’ll have a chance to play his way into a first-round draft pick or return for a fifth year. After Zack and Nick Martin each wore the ‘C’ for two-straight seasons, McGlinchey will carry that leadership forward.

James Onwualu is the lone remaining starter for the Irish at linebacker, replacing both Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith as a captain. Onwualu has earned positive reviews for his play on-field as the team’s Sam linebacker, and has always stood out for his lead-from-the-front attitude.

Rochell is the rock of the defensive line, a third-year starter who replaces Sheldon Day as the group’s leader. He’ll be joined by Jarron Jones as veteran contributors in a group that also replaces key starter Romeo Okwara.

 

Devin Butler pleads not guilty to two felony charges

Devin Butler WNDU
WNDU via Twitter
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The legal process has begun for senior cornerback Devin Butler. After being charged with two felonies stemming from his arrest outside The Linebacker Lounge on Friday night, Butler was in court Wednesday afternoon to plead not guilty to the charges.

St. Joseph County prosecutors waited to decide what charges to file against Butler, ultimately deciding on Tuesday to charge him with two level six felonies for resisting law enforcement and battery of a police officer. Preliminary accounts, most stemming from the arrest report, state that Butler got into an altercation with South Bend police officer Aaron Knepper after a fight broke up outside the bar, with multiple officers detaining Butler after the deployment of a taser.

Butler was accompanied by his father and girlfriend to court, declining comment questioned by the waiting swarm of press outside the courthouse. He’ll now begin a legal fight that could also dictate not just his status as a football player but as a student at Notre Dame. Brian Kelly has suspended Butler from the football indefinitely, independent of the legal process and the University’s formal handling of the matter.

The South Bend Tribune points out that the officer involved in the case has drawn attention in the past, with three lawsuits filed against him after allegations of misconduct.

Butler is expected back in court on September 1.