(The Rock Report) – Every team has its own personality; last year’s Irish squad was the scrapper. Stout as any unit in the country on defense, the offense, directed by Chuck Martin, focused on supporting the defense. When in doubt, the Irish traded opportunity for field position and low turnovers. That will likely change in 2013.
The 2013 Irish offense will score more points according to Kelly and there’s good reason to think that will be true. Most importantly, Martin will be calling the plays and players have said the Irish are focusing on becoming more aggressive. What does that mean?
In the context of Kelly’s past, the spread has been about pressure. His offenses focused on spreading the field to create openings for big plays. His Bearcat offenses were able exploit those openings by running at a high tempo, which negated substitutions and led to mismatches and often defensive breakdowns. By the end of games, many defenses just wore out chasing his teams around. Martin has said all along, he favors offensive aggression, he just didn’t think it was smart last year.
With a mostly veteran offensive line, a quarterback who’s been in the system for three years and a plethora of talented wide-outs and running backs, I expect the Irish to become more of a pressure spread team in 2013. Last year’s small victory margins left little room for error and Kelly wants output.
‘We did not score enough points…we were not effective enough in the red zone. Those two things are pretty clear. And we did not throw the ball effectively enough on first- and second-down situations…. A bigger piece falls on the offense this year than it does the defense.’’
Multiple players have remarked that Rees’s arm strength and running ability have improved (I tried to cover Rees’s situation in Tommy Boy. ) As noted before, Rees doesn’t have to make a giant improvement from 2011 for the Irish to contend for a title in 2013. He just has to be able to get 5-10 yards running when necessary, be a credible read option threat, make better reads and when all else fails, throw the ball away. Too often he would take a sack or throw an interception in 2011.
Helping Rees’s maturity is the fact that he will have dangerous options all around the field as opposed to always looking to target a star wide receiver. TJ Jones has been underrated much of his career (and overshadowed.) Kelly called him a legitimate 1st round NFL draft possibility. That may be hyperbole, but what isn’t is the fact that TJ is, and has been, an excellent college wide receiver. DaVaris Daniels is finally starting to play with consistency and purpose and has a world of potential. Everyone knows about Chris Brown’s speed, but few know that CJ Prosise (converted safety) has exceptional speed and body control to mate with his 220 pound frame. Add in Corey “I’ll be a star sooner rather than later” Robinson and new play-makers like Will Fuller and the Irish may have a better all around receiving unit than at any time since Kelly arrived.
The fact that the Irish cross-train their running backs in the slot, makes this situation even more tantalizing. Amir Carlisle, George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel give Notre Dame three running backs who can exploit space from either position. The guy I didn’t expect to be connected to the slot position is Will Mahone, who has apparently looked very good as a receiver. My guess is that Kelly and Martin see a lot of big play potential in Carlisle, Atkinson, etc. Adding to that, Notre Dame has two freshman stud running backs in Bryant and Folston. Folston, a game=breaker with a little Barry Sanders in him, really came into camp in great shape. If not for a few injuries, he might be in the mix.
Tight End is solid with Niklas, Koyack and Welch, but Kelly hasn’t seized the opportunity to bestow praise on Niklas in press conferences, which can be telling. Koyack, more of a wide receiver type tight end, is up to 260 and could be a factor in the rotation.
The good news bad news on the offense line is that 4 of 5 spots appear locked down. The Martin Brothers at center and LT, Watt at LG, Lombard at RG and ___________ at RT. Ronnie Stanley is the leading candidate there, but he was Tuitt’s arm candy in practice last week and may not be ready for prime time
Overall, I expect the offense to be more pressure focused with an Urban Meyer-esqe “ugly, but will put up points approach.” We’ll likely spread the field, mix in some pistol (run, Tommy run) power run to the Martin-Watt side of the field and play a little more downfield. That should open up creases for the talent on offense.
I expect the offense to average over 30 points per game this season (up from 25) with the possibility to generate a lot more.
Since the offense will likely be more pressure focused this year, the defense could suffer statistically even if it’s better.
The key is Notre Dame’s defensive line which could feature two first round picks in Tuitt and Nix and a potential third first round pick in Sheldon Day. Together that unit is as good as any in the country. Behind them, it’s shaky. Kona Schwenke is the lone BCS level player. It’s going to be up to Jarron (looks like Tarzan plays like Jane) Jones and Isaac Rochelle to make up for depth on the defensive line. Jones has to start playing like a junior now if the Irish are going to have the depth to make it through the season. The loss of Tony Springmann really hurts the depth of this unit an we’ll likely see Stockton (who can move for a big guy) and Utupo forced to play a lot this year.
The outside linebacking corps is so deep that even the loss of Danny Spond, who played excellent last year, may not hurt the Irish much. Phenom Jaylon Smith and Ben Councell will take over backed by the cross-trained Romeo Okwara. Smith covers better than most corners and will give the Irish a lot of options in passing situations. John Turner has also been cross-trained here. The Irish will miss Spond, but Councell and Smith are both players with NFL potential.
At the other spot, Prince Shembo has come to camp ready to make up for his Alabama debacle. He’s backed up by five-star junior Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara. The Irish could hardly look better at that position.
Inside the Irish have three for two. Dan Fox and Carlo Carlo Calabrese will likely start with Jarrett Grace rotating in. The staff has been very quiet on Kendall Moore which is rarely a good sign.
The defensive backfield is set in stone at the corner positions with Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell at corner and the underrated Matthias Farley at safety. Farley had a heck of a year last year and has come back in fantastic shape. The fourth safety spot took a hit with the loss of Nicky Baratti. Baratti has excellent athleticism and size and will be missed. Elijah Schumate will start out with Collinsworth and Hardy battling for time.
What to Expect?
Overall, the defense, if the line stays healthy, could be better than last year but still have worse statistics. I expect the Irish identity to change this year and for Martin to attack more on offense, requiring the defense to defend shorter fields at times and possibly be on the field longer.
The strategic bet by the staff is likely that the gain in the offense (it could hardly get much worse) will offset the impact on the defense. In short, bet the over this year. The Irish will score more points in 2013. Whether the Irish will contend for a title again will likely come down to small, but important improvements by Tommy Rees and the staff intelligently setting in place a plan for his success.
The optimist in me sees 11-1, the pessimist, 9-3 (if Rees stays healthy).