Tight end emphasis costs Notre Dame tempo, a sacrifice worth the personnel focus

Michael Mayer Pittsburgh
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Brian Kelly did not intend for Notre Dame to be among the nation’s leaders in time of possession this season. The Irish head coach simply wanted to utilize the best personnel among available skill players.

As a result, tight ends Michael Mayer and Tommy Tremble, and running back Kyren Williams have combined for 33 catches, as many as all of Notre Dame’s receivers combined; and No. 4 Notre Dame (5-0, 4-0 ACC) ranks behind only Oklahoma in time of possession among teams to have played more than one game, a difference of 24 seconds per game separating the Irish from the Sooners.

The catches were by design, the ball control merely a symptom.

“This is strictly about personnel and making sure that you are playing the kind of football that is geared toward the strengths of your offense,” Kelly said Monday. “We said from day one that this should be centered around the offensive line and the tight ends, which is the strength.”

Pointing out a strength can also illustrate a weakness, and Notre Dame has long-known its receivers would need time to grow this season. That time has been repeatedly interrupted by injuries (hamstring issues for both graduate transfer Ben Skowronek and Braden Lenzy; a broken foot for Kevin Austin, a concussion for Lawrence Keys) and coronavirus protocols (at the least affecting Keys, but also the entire roster in that more than a week of practice was canceled). In no way does that help develop timing with fifth-year quarterback Ian Book, thus underscoring the strength of the tight ends.

“Ian feels really confident that he knows where [Mayer and Tremble] are going to be,” Kelly said. “That has been singularly one of the areas that we built that rapport and we built that confidence level. You can start to see that playing itself out.”

Leaning on tight ends — also including senior Brock Wright and junior George Takacs — slows the Irish offense not because they are slower than the receivers, but because Notre Dame utilizes more personnel groups. A side effect of an up-tempo offense is reduced substitutions. Any swapping of players mandates the defense have a chance to do so, as well, and slowing the tempo. Moving from two tight ends to three receivers and back again two plays later halts any hurry-up intentions.

In past years, the Irish had about two dozen tempo plays, a number now reduced “considerably.”

“We’re really going to be focusing a lot more on multiple formations and when you get into multiple formations in motion, it’s hard to play fast, quite frankly,” Kelly said. “In playing fast, you have to be in a much more static alignment, lining up and playing fast. …

“Consequently, you’re not going to be in as many of those hurry-up situations or tempo situations.”

Of course, a dominant running game plays into the statistical jump, as well. In 2019, Notre Dame averaged just less than 29 minutes per game with the ball. It also averaged 179 rushing yards per game. The current average of 34 minutes per game pairs with 231.8 rushing yards per game, and success running the ball does not stop the clock, as the Irish have enjoyed in each of their last two games, draining the final eight minutes off the clock in each with plodding, rushing drives.

“A balanced offense is that you are equally good at running it as you are throwing it, and then you support it by player over play,” Kelly said. “This year it’s about the players that are dictating the offense, not the particular play. That’s why we look the way we look.”

Ben Skowronek Pittsburgh
Graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek’s two deep touchdowns set the tone for Notre Dame’s 45-3 win at Pittsburgh, as well as shifted the narrative around the Irish passing game moving forward. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

Kelly would just as soon return to an up-tempo approach if the available personnel called for it.

“If I had four wide receivers — if I had Will Fuller, and I had Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin and TJ Jones,” Kelly mused, before realizing he was forgetting Michael Floyd, “we might be in four wide receivers and throwing.”

Given Austin’s absence for the rest of the season, the closest thing to Claypool, Boykin and Floyd on Notre Dame’s roster is Northwestern graduate transfer Ben Skowronek, fresh off a two-touchdown performance in the 45-3 victory at Pittsburgh.

Skowronek spent much of the summer working with Book, trying to develop chemistry with expediency despite a pandemic, before a hamstring injury interrupted his preseason as it did again in the first half of the season opener.

“We felt like that was where we were going to get that connection,” Kelly said. “… At the end of the day, it’s our job to build this continuity through repetition in practice and you can’t do it unless those guys are out on the field. They’re out on the field. Ben is practicing at full-go. We expect and we hope that we continue to build that relationship with those two guys.”

Skowronek’s four catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns falls short of Mayer’s stat line — 12 receptions for 153 yards and two scores — and Tremble’s reliability, but what he showed against the Panthers is what Notre Dame sought this offseason, knowing it was returning so few pass-catching contributors that Tremble was the most-proven.

“We were looking for veteran presence, somebody that played at a high level and competed at a high level,” Kelly said. “If somebody fit the profile we were looking for, we were in the market for that. … Ian needed somebody that played a lot of football, and Ben fit that profile.”

Junior receiver Braden Lenzy will presumably not be joining Skowronek in any respect this weekend, though if it were up to him, perhaps he would. The hamstring injury he re-aggravated late against Pittsburgh will sideline Lenzy this week.

“It’s a lingering hamstring that we need to get him right,” Kelly said. “He is a speed player. He’s a guy that’s best when he’s able to go at 100 percent. He’s been a warrior. He’s been tough and gritty.”

Until Lenzy returns to 100 percent, though, Kelly is reluctant to return him to the field.

The same was said of Keys coming off a concussion a week ago. He played a bit early in Heinz Field before seeing more time late in the blowout, an unexpected step forward.

“We didn’t want to get him into too much action,” Kelly said. “It ended up being that he got quite a few reps because we pulled a lot of those guys out, and good for Lawrence. He felt a whole lot better, and he was excited that he got a chance to play and now we’ll get him back into the routine.”

Junior cornerback Tariq Bracy has been cleared to return from an illness, non-coronavirus-related.

Adding Keys back into the mix the same day as Lenzy was reinjured keeps the Irish receiver depth chart from the brink of catastrophe, but Notre Dame still lost two of its top receivers in the span of two days.

Heading to Georgia Tech (3:30 ET; ABC), the Irish have Skowronek, Keys, fifth-year Javon McKinley, senior Avery Davis and junior Joe Wilkins available of receivers who have catches this season. If just one were to get hurt this weekend, there would suddenly be no depth whatsoever, aside from the aforementioned tight ends.

Freshmen Xavier Watts and Jordan Johnson are the clear candidates to move into the rotation, with Watts likely to get the first chance given he made the travel roster to Pittsburgh, while Johnson reportedly did not.