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  • Will Kelly’s Spread Offense Work at Notre Dame?

    by SEE

    (The Rock Report) – There has been a “lively” debate over whether a pass-first spread offense can work at Notre Dame, but one thing that became clear during the debate is that very few people knew much more than the term “spread” and that Kelly passes a lot. I’ve long held to the Holtz theory that the lines dictate the outcome of the game and I’m certainly biased toward the running game and controlling the line of scrimmage. While I like the Kelly hire, his offense is my biggest concern about his ability to be successful at Notre Dame. But I also know that football is constantly evolving and that three of the last four teams in the BCS Championship game ran a version of the spread.

    So I asked Chris Brown of Smart Football to help explain Kelly’s offense and how it compares to other successful spread offenses such as Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Oregon and Georgia Tech. Chris writes football analysis, strategy, and, at times, philosophy for his own website as well as Yahoo!/Rivals and The New York Times’ The Fifth Down.

    Here’s Chris’s take:

    Can you explain Kelly’s offense to us?

    Kelly’s offense is a traditional spread, developed in the late 90s and early 2000s, with some additional focus on the run game. Unlike, say a Rich Rodriguez or Mike Leach, he didn’t have specialized players to push his offense too far in either direction. With Crist it’ll probably be similar to what he did with Tony Pike.

    The Run Game: The run game is interesting but, without a big running QB, fairly straightforward. A lot of zone and “dart”– an iso play where the backside tackle pulls and acts like a fullback would as lead blocker.


    The Pass Game: For passing game the precepts have a lot in common with the run and shoot: the receivers release vertically or do a “switch release”–ie criss-cross–and then release vertically. The basic theory is to threaten the defense vertically and to make all the pass plays look the same, at least from the start.

    This is designed to combat the “pattern reading” coverages made so popular by coaches like Alabama‘s Nick Saban — it’s impossible to “pattern read” if all the routes begin the same way.

    The first option is to hit the fade or seam routes, but, if they can’t get open on their initial moves, the receivers then have freedom to settle or curl/hook back to the QB in the open areas. On these routes,

    Kelly also uses a wider variety spread of formations than most spread teams do. One common example is his use of quads (four receivers to side).

    The goal is to isolate a guy like Floyd one-on-one on the backside, and either throw it to him against single coverage or, if the defense rotates defenders to his side, work a good pass combination against fewer defenders (because they have rotated to Floyd backside) to the four receiver side.

    One thing Kelly uses a lot — though I like this aspect of his passing game the least, in execution if not also in theory — are his sprint out passes.

    For example, the Oklahoma and Texas pass games are fairly different than Kelly’s, especially Texas’s which uses limited formations and focuses almost exclusively on underneath routes.

    Kelly instead focuses on routes that at least begin by attacking vertically, even if the eventual throw isn’t always an over the top one.

    Compare this to Weis’ pass game which focused on trying to constrict the defense with runs and screens to set up the big bomb to the outside or deep post to the middle; Weis always wanted to throw over the top of you. This is one reason why Weis’s offense, despite several years of a lot of success, could be so inconsistent: there was a big learning curve, its reliance on big plays required great talent with great experience (Quinn/ Samardzija and Clausen/Tate/Floyd); and the big plays resulted in a high variance rate for the offense — if they weren’t being hit the offense could stagnate for long periods of time. Kelly, by contrast, focuses on spreading you out to find the open and consistent passing and running lanes, with the goal being to consistently chew up 5-15 yard gains.


    How does Kelly’s running game in the spread compare to Texas ’s and Oklahoma‘s?

    Well they all use the exact same plays: inside zone, outside zone, counter (backside guard and tackle pull, one traps one leads), and power (backside guard or tackle pulls and leads). See my article, Defending the Zone Read.

    The only real difference is Oklahoma will use a Fullback (somewhat) more, and Texas uses a tight end a lot. Otherwise they’re the same running plays every NFL and college team runs.


    Does the relative lack of a fullback or tight end affect Kelly’s run game?

    Well, Kelly (typically) isn’t trying to overpower defenses, but rather his run game relies on on space and angles, which is also something Texas and OU do.

    Is the question whether Kelly’s run game will be “tough enough.” There are a lot of answers to this question. One, I feel like the idea that you have to line up with fullbacks and tight-ends to run the ball and be “tough” is overrated. The best rushing team in the NCAA last year (other than Nevada) was Georgia Tech, whose flexbone offense focuses on space and angles as well. On the other hand, no, Kelly’s is not going to be a “smash mouth” offense. It’s fine if you want to be smash mouth, but it seems like a square peg in a round hole to want Kelly to be that way; he was hired because he’s won everywhere he’s been running his style of spread offense. I don’t think he needs to change because he’s at Notre Dame and not Cincinnati; players are players.

    A couple comments on what kind of success I expect his run game to have. First, will he run it 45 times a game? No. Will he have some big rushing games? Yes. I fully expect his team to average more yards per carry and per game than Weis’s teams. Indeed, Kelly’s Cincinnati team — even if you exclude Zach Calloros, the mobile quarterback who filled in for an injured Tony Pike — had more than 300 more yards rushing than Notre Dame and averaged more than a full yard per carry more.

    But how do you do that without all those big guys blocking? Remember, a running back who gets 120 yards on 20 carries simply plays in a better offense than one that gets 130 on 35 carries. Everything in the game breaks down to math and physics. How many defenders are where, and where can they get to. When Mr. Smashmouth himself Lou Holtz went to South Carolina and went 1-11, he let his son Skip Holtz install a spread and they went 8-5 and beat Ohio State in a bowl game.

    An even better example of not getting confused by whether a team is powerful if it is spread is to think of Florida. Florida is the biggest “power running” team in the country. Yes they line up in the shotgun and use the spread, but it’s all power runs, veer option, and straight ahead plays. They expect their line to overpower yours.

    But again, is this the only way to run the ball? Back in the day when Holtz had multiple all-americans at the offensive line, he could just run the ball over anyone he wanted. You didn’t need to be a strategic genius to figure out if my guy is four inches taller, weighs 50 pounds more and bench presses 200 pounds more then I can run the ball pretty well. But in modern college football it’s hard for one team to stockpile so much talent that scheme is irrelevant. It’s no shock that the recent National Champions have been Florida and Alabama, two teams with (a) lots of talent, and (b) very precise, very disciplined and very smart coaches.

    Indeed, you can run the ball effectively in lots of different ways. Contrast Florida‘s rushing offense with two of the other best in the land last year, Oregon and Georgia Tech, whose offenses both relied heavily on leverage, angles, and getting numbers to the point of attack.

    I hear Notre Dame fans about wanting a “power team,” but would they want Jim Tressel’s offense (especially without Terrelle Pryor or Troy Smith)? A lot of fullbacks and tight-ends and “power runs” without a ton of success.

    Everything requires a balance.

    All I mean is that people should keep an open mind: spread doesn’t always mean finesse; “balance” is not just running and passing the same amount, it requires a bit more of “game theory” and the bottom line is that Kelly has won everywhere he’s been, and I would not get wrapped up in the idea that a team like Texas or Oklahoma — which succeeds largely because it has so much more talent than its opponents — has a better scheme than what Kelly does. Schemes are adaptable to players, and they often percolate up from smaller schools where there is room to experiment.

    That said, no one can predict how successful he’ll be, and I’m not saying I think his offense is perfect. It’s quite basic, which is a good thing in that he’ll be able to teach it quickly but there isn’t a ton of variation within it. And I would like to see Kelly incorporate
    an H-back or tight end/fullback type who aligns where a tight end would but off the line of scrimmage. Alabama and Florida, to use just two examples, used those types of players to great effect the last couple of years, and they fit well within the spread construct for both run plays and pass protection.

    In the end, Kelly believes in his offense, has won everywhere he’s been, and I would be surprised if it didn’t work at Notre Dame. He’s a spread offense pass first guy, and that’s who was hired. Did Saban stop coaching his defense when he was hired? Did Urban Meyer junk his O? Both have adapted over time (which Weis did not), but he was hired to do what he knows how to do.

    Can Kelly’s offense work as well against talented teams, like USC, as it has against the less talented teams Cincinnati has played?

    The biggest question to ask for a pass first spread when they face a talented team like USC is, “By spreading out and isolating receivers, are they generating match-ups they can’t win?” Stated another way, “If I go five wide and the defense has five good cover men who can all guard them, have I done myself any favors?”

    For example think about a frequent ND opponent, Purdue. Joe Tiller and Drew Brees had a lot of success against some of those Bob Davie teams, but as teams recruited better skill players and used better schemes against the spread Purdue became easier to defend. Purdue changed their offense later under Tiller. I’m not saying Kelly runs the Joe Tiller offense, but just using Purdue as an example.

    The concern with this approach is that if you play teams with top talent that you won’t win any of the one-on-one match-ups. Teams have to decide whether they have a better chance of winning one of many one-on-one match-ups or if they can recruit the right players to win the big battle at the line of scrimmage? Kelly’s chooses to use formations and match-ups to spring one guy and he’s won a lot of games as have many top spread teams.

    Now think about the converse. If you do have stud players who can win the one-on-one match-ups, then spreading out the defense can work amazingly well. How many teams can guard them effectively? The answer is not many and this is why the schools who can recruit a lot of talent like Florida, OU and Texas adopted the spread; they have so much talent the balance of match-ups favor them. That’s why I think the spread is now more of an “amplifier” of talent than it is an equalizer offense (as it was in the early 2000s).

    The idea of “controlling the LOS” assumes that you have the players to basically out-physical a defense. Again, think of Holtz at South Carolina. He didn’t have SEC quality linemen so suddenly his run you over offense (which had begun to stagnate at Notre Dame too) no longer was relevant. The point is not to aspire to South Carolina levels, but instead to realize that merely “controlling the line of scrimmage” is not an end of itself, and in any event there is more than one way to go about it.

    Indeed, while recruiting is a huge part of being a successful coach, you really can’t rely on simply outrecruiting your opponents every year and then just running them over. Stanford had a boss at running back this year, but we’ll see how it works in the future when he’s gone. It’s more important to have a structure in place; when you can do that, you employ the power concepts, but otherwise you focus on putting your kids in position to win, not prove a point about anyone’s toughness. And again, using a few super talented teams is not a good example because, by definition, they can overpower their opponents.

    As mentioned above, Kelly doesn’t really care about what phase is moving the ball; it’s just about moving it. On a yards per play/game theory basis, passing is more efficient than running, though running is by no means obsolete. They complement each other, but it isn’t about just running as much as you pass or for as many yards. It’s about keeping the defense off balance and making them uncomfortable.

    What’s the bottom line?

    Will Kelly’s offense will work? Structurally and schematically it’s fine. He’s not an offensive genius, but (a) who really is? and (b) didn’t you guys just go through that “decided schematic advantage” business with Charlie Weis? (Beware of coaches claiming genius.) He knows his offense, and by that I mean more than he schemes well; he knows how to coach his offense, down to the little fundamentals of receiver releases versus press coverage, quarterback reads and ball faking, line technique, and the like. Kelly also gameplans well even if the offense itself is pretty straightforward other than being a true four or five wide spread. And, ultimately it will be about playmakers making plays. He should give them opportunities to do that.

    In the end, I can basically guarantee that the run game will improve from Kelly and, also, that there won’t be as much reliance on a few big bomb plays or the receiver needing to make an acrobatic catch. Whether that results in a better offense — and more importantly team — remains to be seen.


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    37 Responses to “Will Kelly’s Spread Offense Work at Notre Dame?”

    1. Newsflash: Passing offenses don't work in the Midwest.

    2. @12:33 hahaha is Cincinnati not in the midwest? lol

    3. It would be a newsflash to me to learn that Cincinnati has relocated out of the midwest.

    4. Let me qualify. Passing offenses have not worked in the Big 10 or at Notre Dame.

      Cincinnati is in the Midwest, but the Big Least is not a real football conference.

    5. Very interesting article. One thing I will take issue with is Chris Brown's comment that Holtz' offense was starting to fade at the end of his tenure at ND. I don't think the numbers support that. ND scored 407 points in 11 games in 1996. The offense did bog down in a few games (Vanderbilt, Ohio St., Air Force) but I suspect that was more personnel related (and a bit of stagnation on the program's part) than it was scheme related. Scheme is what Chris Brown does though so I'm not surprised that he overrates it a bit.

    6. Anonymous says:

      lol what a self-serving argument.. Texas has won a national championship with this offense.

    7. Anonymous says:

      Relocate Cincy one mile south and they're in Kentucky.

    8. Anonymous says:

      Yeah… didn't work too well for Knute, did it?

    9. NDfanatAF says:

      Wait, has he won everywhere he's coached?

      Ha, besides that three-peat, I really enjoyed this break down. Very informative and rational. Hopefully all the soppoku-committing, hold-me-I'm-Irish types will relax and wait for the season. Thanks.

    10. Anonymous says:

      Did Mike Brey's perimeter offense work at ND?

      When ND faces teams with strong inside games, with strong trenches, ND is going to lose.

    11. The Bammer says:

      Great read. I think your point about Weis relying on the big play is dead on. His teams were usually in every game but they also never usually able to take out teams when given the chance because of the reliance on the big play.

      I see this style playing out very well for ND. As far as the comments on midwest football are concerned, I am not sure what the thinking is on that. ND plays a hybrid conference schedule Big Ten/Big East/Pac 10 mix. They are 3 vastly different styles in each so it is not midwest/Big Ten only style of opponents.

    12. Anonymous says:

      12.33, it sounds like you're really saying Michigan and Ohio State don't run pass first offenses and, therefore, it must not work.

    13. Anonymous says:

      Kelly has apparently offered a scholarship to Cincinnati St. X Quarterback Luke Massa, 6'4, 180.
      I'm a St. X alum and follow the program closely, but I haven't seen Massa play. The team played well under his leadership, winning the incredibly tough GCL before falling to Kyle Rudolph's Elder Panthers in the playoffs. The offer is likely an effort to get Matt James, another X kid, although Kelly did offer Massa a scholarship to attend UC before he bolted to South Bend.

    14. Anonymous says:

      P.S. Massa and James intend to make official visits to ND January 30th. According to his coach, Massa is expected to make his decision after his visit.

      http://cincinnati.com/blogs/preps/2010/01/21/notre-dame-offers-massa/

    15. Anonymous says:

      Passing offenses don't work in the Midwest? The last time a Big Ten team won the Rose Bowl prior to this year? 2000

    16. Anonymous says:

      The Indianapolis Colts play in the Midwest. They run a passing offense with some success.

    17. Anonymous says:

      I don't buy the "Weis' offense couldn't cut it argument" or "Weis' offense became predictable".

      Neither of those statements are accurate. Weis' problem in 2009 was a youthful defense that struggled.

      I think both Weis and Kelly have very good/functional offenses.

      However, neither will win if the defense or special teams sucks.

    18. Weis had the best wide receiving corps, the best quarterback and one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country and wasn't within the top 35 offenses in the country.

      His offense, obviously, couldn't "cut it." And as Chris points out, it was because of inconsistency caused by complexity.

      By contrast, Kelly's offense is incredibly simplistic, but he focuses on execution over scheme (where Weis focused on scheme over execution.)

      Kelly had to play four different quarterbacks in 2008 and won. He had to play two different quarterbacks in 2009 and his offense increased in production with the back-up quarterback (who had a much higher efficiency rating than Clausen.)

      Weis's over-complicated offense, without a tested quarterback, completely floundered in 2007 and 2008.

      Even in 2009, with the top recruits in the country, his offense was still was just above average.

      All great college coaches focus on execution over scheme.

      Weis was clueless as to the cause of his failure, when the cause was obvious. His overly complicated offense and lack of ability to execute made it impossible for him to have sustained success.

      He'll do well back in the NFL.

    19. The key to running the spread is for the QB to identify the tendency of the defensive end. Look at FSU ND from 93…Holtz would never have run the end around to Jarrell if he hadn't identified the tendency for the FSU defensive end to abandon their responsibility. The discipline(or lack therof) of opponents' defensive ends to maintain their position in the first quarter dictates the effectiveness of an end around. Derrick Brooks lacked this discipline. Holtz capitalized on that. Crist needs to ID opposing DEs tendencies early in games. His ability to do this will determine the effectiveness of the spread.

    20. Here we are still in the month of January and we are debating the pros and cons of Brian Kelly's offense.

      How do you know what he will do? He might just make some changes from what he has done in the past.

      The bottom line is that Kelly has been successful in three college programs. Drop the debate about their level of play and/or conference affiliations. He has been a success!

      The Rock is already trying to find fault with the hiring of Kelly. Is that a surprise?

      By the way, spare me the debate on whether Cincinnati is in the midwest or wherever. I live in the midwest (not Ohio), but Ohio is generally identified as being midwest.

    21. What exactly makes a "passing offense not work in the midwest?" The weather?

      Whether Cincinnati is "located" in the midwest, south, tropics, or north pole…

      last I checked the game against Pittsburgh was cold and snowy, and they scored 45 points and threw for over 300 yards against a good Pitt defense

    22. Anonymous says:

      Any offense should work. The important concept in football today is deception. This is important in both the Pros and in college. Kelly's play calling is excellent, the opposing defense never knows what is coming. Weis' play calling was for the most part very predictable. Both offenses and defenses lose "heart" when their team's offense is predictable. Kelly's defense is on the field a lot but usually after a fast score which gives the defesnse a "lift" and something to work harder for.

    23. Anonymous says:

      I'm optimistic about Kelley's offense but we need to remember that Cincy laid an egg against Va. Tech in 2009 bowl game and in 2010 Sugar Bowl against Florida. The spread offense struggled mightily against both foes and only tallied 170 yards against Florida.

      Perhaps with better athletes tha ND has and can attract this won't be a problem but I just hope that's not a sign of things to come when ND faces teams with good defensive personnel.

    24. Passing offenses don't work at Notre Dame?

      You ever heard of John Huarte throwing touchdown passes to Jack Snow and the Irish coming within 3 EXREMELY questionable "holding" calls (on the SC goal line) of winning the National Championship Ara's first year at ND?

      What about Tom Clements and Robin Weber teaming up (i.e. a pass from Clements in the ND end zone to Weber far down field) to ice the 1973 Sugar Bowl game (and the National Championship) for the Irish against Alabama?

      There are HUNDREDS of other examples but your thesis that passing offenses don't work at Notre Dame is incorrect.

    25. The Bammer says:

      The Bammer says:
      Hats off to Kelly for keeping the class together! He is no Mama Luke!! he is a lou "the big fancy cheese" holtz in the making. I see a championship in 3 years under Kelly. Mr Crist meer Mr Montana. Yeah Baby!!!!
      Crist is Bammer-licous. or bam-tastic if you ask me!!!!

    26. Look what we want at ND is a team that can run the football when it needs to. That was one fundamental part of the offense that was missing during the Weis era. It's great throwing the ball around but that does not win games. Look at the Ntl Championship game. On the last drive when Alabama needed to run the football they did because that was their identity all year long. I'm not saying don't pass the ball but please establish some sort of power running game that you can go to in the clutch.

    27. Anonymous says:

      I don't care about the offense. Unless we fix the damn defense we will lose 8 or 9 games next year!

    28. Robert watson says:

      DEFENSE DEFENSE!!!!!!! To all of you pseudo-analytics out there… defense wins championships. the irishs' offense was in the to 10 this year in several offensive categories. with at least an average "D", we would have possibly gone undefeated and weis would still be hear. the problem is……technique…poor tackling, poor angles , and blown assignments. With great recruiting, and poor performances, all signs pointed to technique.

    29. Robert – Completely agree. In no way is this column arguing that offense will determine success or failure for the team, rather it's addressing the issue whether a team can win at a high level with this style of offense.

      Defense wins championships.

    30. Irish Sting says:

      Give me defense or otherwise we face defeat. Offense is the glamour end of the game. It gets the most cheers, but defense is the game winner.

      Kelly will do just fine at Notre Dame, he has the passion and the technique. He also will adjust as the game progresses.

    31. Anonymous says:

      "Give me defense or otherwise we face defeat."

      Brian Kelly's 2009 Bearcats went undefeated this season when he was head coach with a decidedly mediocre D, and I don't think it's nearly as important as most that the Irish D suddenly become a force.

      The scoreboard will look like a pinball scoreboard under Kelly. Recall that the Bearcats were down 31-10 to Pitt and came back because the D made adjustments at the half, and forced the Panthers into several 3-and-outs in the second half that allowed the Bearcats to come back even though they gave up two additional TDs in the second half.

      Kelly's kids believe they can come back irrespective of the deficit and the Bearcats' D seemed to feed off the Bearcats' explosive offense.

      One thing the Bearcats had that would also help take the pressure off the Irish D is an explosive kick/punt returner in the mold of the Rocket Ismail and Mardy Gilyard. Gilyard ignited the Bearcats comeback against Pitt by running back a TD for a score right before the end of the first half and had a couple of nice punt returns in the second half to set up scores.

    32. Irish Sting says:

      Cincinnati had it's Rocket in Mardy, will Notre Dame ever get another Rocket? Speed goes a long way in getting a NC. We read in the past that they got a speedster but I have yet to see anyone out run the defense. Who in the present recruiting class is the next Rocket?

    33. "Who in the present recruiting class is the next Rocket?"

      It might help in answering this question if ndnation.com would add 40 times on its recruiting page, but look, the next Rocket can't be discerned simply by that metric. Mardy Gilyard is a threat to take it to the house on returns because he is completely fearless, has an uncanny knack for making people miss, particularly with his first move, and has incredible acceleration when he gets to the next level.

      Great scouts can identify these traits in players and my guess is that there may be players on the team right now riding the pine who have the potential to be the guy.

    34. Who was the first college team to win the national championship with more passing yardage than running yardage? ND in 1966

    35. I was just wondering… The author said that Brian Kelly's spread will be similar to what he ran with Tony Pike. From what I saw last year Tony Pike barely ran the ball himself and Dayne Crist showed he had great mobility in the game he played against purdue. Do you think Dayne Crist will be allowed to run.

    36. kelly will be fine notre dame lost because weiss was not a motivator also he couldnt adjust as the game progressed one thing i hope is we get a good kicker one of these years we need to put the ball in the endzone not on the 15 yard line kicking off this gives the other team great advantage

    37. kelly will be fine weiss lost because he couldnt motivate players or adjust kelly can GO IRISH CANT WAIT TIL KICK OFF TIME

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