Notre Dame’s search for explosive plays begins near the line of scrimmage, not 55 yards downfield

Notre Dame quarterbacks
Notre Dame Athletics
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The popular idea is 55 yards downfield. Tommy Rees’ hope for Notre Dame’s passing game might be 53.3 yards the other direction.

The Irish offensive coordinator had a successful first season in the role, Notre Dame averaging 33.4 points and 448.5 yards per game, but when it mattered most, the differences between the Irish and the country’s best were clear. For the most part, those differences could be boiled down to two synonyms: speed and explosiveness.

As Rees looks to fix that deficiency, he is not consumed with downfield threats.

“The biggest farce going is that to create explosive (plays), every throw has to be 55 yards,” he said Thursday. “You can watch whoever you want, a lot of those explosive plays come in creating opportunities for your best players to have space and to be in a one-on-one opportunity. If we can create space using the width of the field to create opportunity, if we can also then attack vertically with the speed we have, that’s what leads to explosives.”

A football field is 53.3 yards wide, with the hash marks 13.3 yards apart. Thus, on most snaps, the ball is snapped with 33.3 yards to one side and only 20 yards to the other. There is space to work with on that wider side, if a quarterback can get the ball to the far sideline and if he has a receiver with the speed and agility to make moves in space out there.

In Wisconsin graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan, Rees feels he has that arm strength.

“I’ll say it, he came in, there were some unknowns there,” Rees said. “The first time we had the opportunity to throw together, I was extremely impressed. Here’s a guy that can drive the ball to the width of the field, can stretch the field vertically, has accuracy to go along with it.”

 

And in Notre Dame’s senior receivers, Rees feels he has that speed. It is  more accurate to refer to the quartet as seniors rather than as veterans, just given the relative lack of experience they have thanks to a myriad of injuries, a suspension and the worthwhile receivers in years past that kept them on the sideline. In 2020 in particular, injuries and coronavirus protocols limited Kevin Austin (broken foot), Braden Lenzy (nagging hamstring) and Lawrence Keys. Of the rising seniors, only Joe Wilkins appeared in more than eight games, not uncoincidentally leading them with seven catches for 63 yards and a touchdown last year.

Those injuries forced the Irish to lean even more on towering options in Javon McKinley and Bennett Skowronek, and that worked well for a ball-control offense focused on its running game and an offensive line featuring up to four All-Americans. But now that offensive line is replacing four starters with the fifth (senior center-turned-TBD Jarrett Patterson) currently sidelined by a foot injury, meaning the running game may depend on the passing game to keep defenses honest in 2021, and that will require speed and explosiveness on display.

“The one thing I will say about our receiver group is we have speed there,” Rees said. “We have a bunch of guys that can stretch the field, a bunch of guys that can run, so when we can pair some of those packages together to get the ball down the field and then to create space the width of the field to get them into open field and one-on-one opportunities.”

Rees specifically praised Keys, adding Lenzy has come on in recent practices, Wilkins has been “pretty steady throughout spring” and fifth-year Avery Davis remains “dependable” and “extremely steady.” The youngsters remain a step behind, though that is to be expected to some degree.

“(Sophomore) Jordan Johnson missed a couple practices, that’s going to slow his development down,” Rees said. “(Early-enrolled freshman) Lorenzo Styles has certainly done some good things, but just like any (high school) senior, there’s a new speed, there’s new expectations, there’s a level of detail that goes into playing at this level that those guys just need to learn.”

Thus, the focus turns to the upperclassmen, though Austin remains sidelined recovering from his twice-broken foot. Well, the upperclassmen and the returning proven skill players that elevated the 2020 offense. When asked how junior running back Kyren Williams or sophomore tight end Michael Mayer could possibly improve on their respective breakout seasons, Rees again brought up the concept of space.

Breaking Williams out wide, given his “innate ability in the pass game,” not only allows Notre Dame to get sophomore running back Chris Tyree and/or senior running back C’Bo Flemister into the game, but it also gives Williams more space to work with.

Finding any way for Mayer to be in a one-on-one matchup creates a similar mismatch, even if that means lining him up along the sideline against a cornerback rather than attached at the line.

These are not ground-breaking offensive ideas. Rees used to routinely find tight end Tyler Eifert for first down fades along the sideline back at the start of head coach Brian Kelly’s tenure. Part of the allure of moving receivers like Theo Riddick and CJ Prosise into the backfield was to simply move them around all 53.3 yards to worry defenses. Alabama thrashed both Notre Dame and Ohio State in the College Football Playoff by getting the ball to Heisman-winning receiver DeVonta Smith near the line of scrimmage, but also near the sideline.

Smith just made those look like downfield passes.

In 2020, the Irish neither had that speed on the field nor focused its offense on it. That worked for the most part, hence those 33.4 points per game and a Playoff berth. In 2021, Rees intends to use the whole field, specifically, all 53.3 yards of its width.

ON Drew Pyne
Rees echoed the party line that Notre Dame still has a quarterback competition in practices. Coan is splitting first-team reps with sophomore Drew Pyne.

“From the moment he stepped in here last year to now, (Drew) has been an absolute burst of energy for the group,” Rees said. “He sets the tone in terms of the way he is vocal, brings energy not only to the quarterback group but to the rest of the offense. They joy to play this game is evident every time you watch Drew.

“He’s a steady player. He understands the most important thing to do as a quarterback is to put the offense in godo plays and to move the ball, and that’s his strength right now. That’s something we’re going to continue to build on. It feels like he’s a veteran, but he’s only been here a year.”

ON Tyler Buchner
Rees voluntarily acknowledged the general want to hear about early-enrolled freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner. His praise was backhanded, though that is more a matter of the circumstances of the pandemic than a reflection of Buchner.

“He had not played football in over a year; that rust is starting to wear off pretty nicely here,” Rees said. “His raw talent and ability has shown up, his ability to make quick decisions has shown up. The ball comes out of his hand as quickly as anybody we have.”

Buchner also has that one trait Rees’ developing offense looks for, the same one he lauded Coan for having.

“He’s able to drive the ball to different areas of the field, which allows us to stretch it not only vertically, but also the width. The added bonus there is he’s an elite athlete. There have been some opportunities to get him out in space, and that’s really been exciting to watch.”