Brian Kelly has long-sought a literal version of offensive balance, but it took 45 games into Notre Dame’s current resurgence for the Irish to finally find it.
“When I talk about balance from an offensive structure, I’ve always talked about the ability to be equally effective throwing it as running it,” Kelly said in mid-October, echoing a want through the last few years. “Right now, we’re so much better running it than throwing it. I want the ability for teams to respect our ability to throw it.”
Opposing defenses had not needed to into November, partly because the Irish did not demand it of them. Through the first six games this season, Notre Dame (10-0, 9-0 ACC) ran on 60.8 percent of its plays. This alone was a distinct taste of first-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ changes.
In Rees’ first seven games as Irish play-caller, Notre Dame ran on 59.8 percent of its plays, compared to 50.6 percent in Ian Book 24 starts with Chip Long calling plays in 2018 and 2019. For this conversation, a running play is any rushing attempt, not including sacks. That admittedly includes some scrambles as rushes, but 1) sometimes those are more designed than realized and 2) as long as the metric is consistent, the point should hold up. It may not be the most analytically-advanced assessment, but that is intentional so as to be readily accessible. Kelly has wanted both offensive aspects to be functional, and if one is not functional, it obviously will not be called as often.
The 2020 rushing influx was certainly not due solely to Rees’ influence. Long did not have the luxury of a more mature Tommy Tremble as a run-blocking menace at tight end, 2019 was center Jarrett Patterson’s first not only as a starter, but at center in any capacity, and the Irish running backs were not as ready for a lion’s share of the work a year ago, particularly breakout sophomore Kyren Williams.
“My conversations with Tommy, relative to this position, was one where we wanted to make sure that in the present and in the future that we were taking advantage of our roster,” Kelly said before Notre Dame’s regular-season finale. “… This is so much more about who we want to be now and moving forward and utilizing the assets that are currently on the roster.”
By the time the Irish were readying for Syracuse, those assets had somewhat changed, anyway. Notre Dame still has a bounty of tight ends to deploy in various roles, and the running backs show little sign of wearing down (an underrated perk of the gifted idle week), but it has also found a No. 1 receiver in fifth-year Javon McKinley and Book has undeniably raised his game a level of late.
When Kelly said in October, “We know where we need to get better moving forward, and that is attacking defenses down the field in our passing game. We’re not there yet,” it was the work of McKinley and Book he was referring to. As it crystalized, Rees’ play-calling shifted with it.
In three of the last four games, the Irish offense has rushed the ball between 48.1 and 49.35 percent of the time. In other words, the offense found a 50/50 mix. (The exception: 63.5 percent rushing at Boston College, when Notre Dame averaged 5.9 yards per rush and saw little reason to extend the game against the Eagles.)
This stretch marks just the third time in the last four seasons, all successful 10-plus win years, that the Irish have found at least a 45/55 split, either way, in three of four games. Even when Long was essentially calling 50/50 splits through entire seasons, the game plan would yo-yo from 67 percent rushing one week to 46 percent the next, from 23 percent at Georgia to 53 percent a week later against Virginia.
The first occurrence came at the end of the 2017 season, a four times-in-five games stretch that featured losses at Miami (49.21 percent rush) and Stanford (52.05 percent rush). Notre Dame may have felt it had a balanced attack then, but it was not an effective one.
The second finished last season, three consecutive games with just a bit more rushing than passing, and extended to this year’s opener, thus including two games with Rees calling plays.
But after that 50/50 opener, the Irish focused nearly entirely on the run. It took until Notre Dame faced then-No. 1 Clemson, but it found Kelly’s wanted approach. That season-long average of 60.8 percent rushing plays has become 52.5 percent the last month, and fittingly Book’s last four games have exceeded his first six:
Last four: 8 touchdown passes, 1,157 yards and 8.51 yards per attempt.
First six: 7 touchdown passes, 1,225 yards and 8.17 yards per attempt.
When there is discussion of the Irish having broken from previous trends when they faced the Tigers, it is these shifts being referenced. They have carried forward. They are what elevated Notre Dame to the actual title conversation, not simply the nominal one.
Again, this shift has as much to do with maturing personnel as it does with Rees’ promotion to offensive coordinator, but the young coach undoubtedly deserves credit for both player development and play calling. Kelly has long seen it coming.
“I knew that he was going to be destined for a great career, and whatever that path was going to be, it was going to be starting at Notre Dame,” Kelly said Monday. “I was going to make sure, in some fashion, I was going to get him back to Notre Dame because I just saw him grow so much, even in his time here (playing) at Notre Dame.”
Kelly pointed out Rees has resisted the natural temptation to show rather than teach, an inclination particularly poignant with someone so shortly removed from his playing career.
“I knew I had a really good teacher and somebody that was going to use different forms to communicate it, whether it be through whiteboard, whether it was through video, whether it was through walkthrough, he used all of those mediums at his disposal to teach the position,” Kelly said. “Once I saw that, I was pretty confident that we were going to have a coach that was destined for a great, great career.”
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