Chip Long was exaggerating to make a point, but he did not need to. Notre Dame’s offense lacked explosion last season, managing just six plays of 50 yards-plus and only five more exceeding 40. In 2017, the Irish broke off 50-yard chunks on a weekly basis, 16 in total, with four additional breaking 40.
That difference stood out during 2018, though perhaps not to the extent the offensive coordinator’s glibness indicated Thursday.
“We had two plays over 50 yards last year and went to the College Football Playoff. That’s very rare,” Long said. “The year before, we averaged that a series.
“We need to take the explosiveness of 2017 with the efficiency of 2018, how we were on third downs and just our ability to move the ball and the grit we had, but we need to be an explosive offense. I don’t think last year we really scared anybody.”
The half dozen plays of that length in 2018 split evenly between the ground game and the air, the former all courtesy of now NFL-bound Dexter Williams, the latter all catch-and-dashes more credited to their respective receivers’ legs than to quarterback Ian Book’s arm.
With Williams gone and no proven gamebreakers at running back, Book’s arm becomes the focus for finding that lost explosion. To some degree, his lack of deep balls in 2018 was intentional. Whether or not his arm could handle those attempts — and numerous inaccurate throws indicated it could not — Book’s inexperience made those inherent risks less likely to reap reward and thus less desirable. Long intends for that to change this spring.
“A big thing I challenged him this spring was, challenge to challenge, test the offense,” Long said. “Make throws you probably wouldn’t have made, because I would have been mad putting the ball in jeopardy. We had to do what we had to do to win games last year.”
This echoes Book’s hopes for the spring. If a mistake is to be made, make it now, learn from it, gain a better understanding of his limits.
“I want to test myself,” Book said a week ago. “I want to make those even harder throws into the smaller windows. That’s what it takes to be an elite offense and an elite quarterback, something that I’m really focusing on every day. I’m not going to go too crazy where I start creating bad habits or anything like that, but I want to push the offense, push the guys, especially receivers. Be able to show them I can make some of those throws.”
Book threw just seven interceptions in his first season as starter, one every 45 pass attempts, a number and rate likely to increase with this more aggressive approach. If and when that shows itself this spring, it should not be cause for immediate concern. A few interceptions following spring break are not the same as an inaccurate August afternoon in Notre Dame Stadium.
Book has shown the restraint to stay within himself and Long’s attack. In the weeks immediately following his rise to the starter’s role, it was more vital to rely on Williams, the Irish defense and his own accuracy. Learning the bounds of that accuracy now makes sense.
“You’re going to throw interceptions, it’s going to happen,” Book said. “… I’ll be able to understand where I’m at, the throws I can’t make.”
He can make a screen pass to Michael Young (at Wake Forest for 66 yards). He can throw a crossing route to Chris Finke (at Virginia Tech for 56 yards, though underthrown). He can complete a swing pass to Tony Jones to clinch a spot in the Playoff (at USC for 51 yards). But can he hit rising senior Chase Claypool down the sideline? Or a sophomore speedster on a post route? Or even a Hail Mary attempt at the end of the first half in the season finale, long enough that a completion actually reaches the end zone?
“Obviously he’s not being careless with the ball,” Long said. “We don’t want him to do that, but I don’t care to see a checkdown. I want to see him try to throw the whole shot, keep working out 50/50 balls with our guys and give them a chance to make plays.”
Book could not do it last season. Be that because of timing, form or strength, it was undeniably the case. Changing that could bring Notre Dame back to the explosive nature seen in 2017. Doing so via the air would nonetheless make quite a different approach, though. During that 10-3 run, the Irish managed only four passes of more than 50 yards, including Book’s 55-yard touchdown to Miles Boykin to beat LSU in the Citrus Bowl, the added one needed to surpass 2018’s inexplosive offense. The running game, led by brief Heisman-hopeful Josh Adams, tallied 12 50-plus yard gains.
There is reason to believe Book’s understanding of Long’s offense could yield the dynamic the coordinator hopes for. Despite the lack of big plays inflating offensive stats, Notre Dame still converted 83-of-193 third-downs last season, a nearly-identical rate as 2017’s of 84-of-192.
Combine that efficiency with a handful more aerial chunk plays, and Book might push the Irish to their ideal hybrid of the last two seasons.