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  • An Offense in Transition?

    by SEE

    (The Rock Report | Notre Dame Football News) – In November of 2010, Lou Holtz and Brian Kelly had a heart to heart.  Notre Dame had just come off back to back losses to Navy and Tulsa, the team was playing in the shadow of the Declan Sullivan tragedy and some were already calling for Kelly to be fired. Only Kelly and Holtz know what was said between the two, but Holtz did offer some generalizations.  He urged Kelly to stick to his plan and noted that winning is a process (Holtz was 5-6 (.455) in his first season (1986) at ND)

    “it takes a while. You remember my first year here wasn’t very good, but the thing I think you have to look in your first year is: Are you getting better? In ’86 we were getting better.”

    Two Constants: Change and Good Defense

    But he also made two other points, Holtz emphasized that winning begins with defense,

    “I think everything starts with defense,” Holtz said. “Your offense isn’t always going to be there – the wind, the rain, competition. But defense is always the basis.”

    And while the style of offense is of endless debate, Holtz explained that adaption is necessary.  Despite his years of head coaching experience, Holtz shared that he was slow to adapt when he went to South Carolina and stubbornly stayed with a running game that wasn’t working.

    “For example, when I was at Notre Dame, I didn’t like to throw the ball,” Holtz said. “I didn’t like throwing to the tight end, because too many things could happen. It could get batted up in the air. I wanted to run the ball, because it’s not hard to take the ball and hand it to Reggie Brooks or Jerome Bettis. I can do it, you can do it, anybody can do it. Throw the football? That’s hard. You’ve got to protect, run the route. So I go to South Carolina, and we’re going to run the ball. Well, you take the ball and turn around and Jerome Bettis and Reggie Brooks aren’t there. The guy who is there doesn’t want the ball. You go 0-11. All of a sudden, we can’t win doing that.”

    And that’s how Holtz the running coach became Holtz the spread offense coach.

    “So what changes did we have to make? We had to spread ’em out. We utilized the talent we had and we spread ’em out, and we ended up 17th in the country that year and 11th the next year and beat Ohio State both years in a bowl game. So you sit back and say, ‘What changes do we have to make?'”

    Recent Spread Parrallels

    So what changes does Kelly have to make? As I noted in  “You can’t W.I.N. unless you run”, Kelly identified the need to run before last season, but didn’t adjust until Crist’s injury forced him to run more in order to protect Rees. That seemed to coincide with a more physical approach to defense, which was what Holtz said he was after when he coached at Notre Dame.

    “When you run the ball and you’re physical, it makes your defense more physical as well, although there are some people who run the spread and can play great defense.”

    Indeed, Texas made it to the national championship game running a very similar spread offense to Kelly’s, but more also fielded the country’s 8th ranked defense. If Texas Quarterback Colt McCoy didn’t go down early in that game, Texas could have won it all as they had the early momentum.

    What’s noteworthy about Texas is that Brown changed his offense to emphasize the running game in 2010 and ran the program into a quagmire.  The Austin Statesman cited that as a factor in their quick fall from the top citing

    “A switch to a running offense that the team was not built for”. Said one insider, “I could not see us running the ball after spring, and we’d spent months working on that.”

    Some on NDNation have  posited, Oklahoma’s evolution might serve as a road map for Kelly and Notre Dame.  Stoops runs a no-huddle spread offense (they actually spend less time huddling than Oregon,) but also switches to a power game.

    When Stoops took over the Sooners, he inherited an Oklahoma squad that had gone 12-22 the previous three seasons. He hired Mark Mangino (who later hired Ed Warriner as his offensive coordinator at Kansas) as his offensive coordinator to run the spread and won a national championship in 2001.  When Stoops took over the Sooners, he inherited an Oklahoma squad that had gone 12-22 the previous three seasons. He hired Mark Mangino (who later hired Ed Warriner as his offensive coordinator at Kansas) as his offensive coordinator to run the spread and won a national championship in 2001.  The Sooners ran for just 104 yards per game in Stoops’ first year while passing 64% of the time, they ran 129 yards per game and passed for 288 yards per game in 2000 and ran for 115 yards per game while passing for 242 yards per game in 2001.   Stoops said it was out of necessity.

    “We didn’t have a quarterback on campus,” said Stoops. “Along with that, I didn’t feel we were physically imposing with personnel.”

    Oklahoma moved toward a more balanced offense under Chuck Long as the offensive coordinator, but has been trending back to the pass under Kevin Wilson (now at Indiana).  The 2010 Sooners passed for 312 yards per game and ran for just 131 yards per game.

    “Some guys are just worried about time of possession and eating the clock and playing close to the vest,” said Heupel, now OU’s quarterbacks coach. “That is not coach Stoops at all.” “They can’t score fast enough for me,” said Stoops. “That’s always been my mentality… to score as often and as quickly as you can. You go up 21-0, that presses the other team, too.”

    If you’re looking for a nexus, it’s this: Kevin Wilson coached at Northwestern under Randy Walker with Jeff Genyk.  It was Genyk whom Kelly credited with helping develop his fast paced offense. In fact, Kelly cited his move to the spread for the same reasons Stoops did.

    “If you lined up in vanilla formations, it made (the opposing defense’s) job easier,” Kelly said. “I’ve always tried to push that envelope.” At Grand Valley, it was easier to recruit wideouts than running backs or large offensive linemen. “If I’d been in the SEC as a graduate assistant, I’d probably be different,” he said.

    Of course, one thing I’ve noted is that Kelly CAN recruit large offensive linemen now.

    Is Kelly Open to Change?

    One of Kelly’s basic coaching tenets is not to get tied to a system, but always be a work in progress.  In an interview about his offense in USA Today, Kelly noted that style is secondary.

    Some coaches fall so much in love with their offensive systems that they’re unable to adjust. But Kelly said he’d be perfectly happy to play with two backs, two tight ends and one flanker and pound the ball on the ground if that’s what it took to win. “I’ve always played to win games on offense, not to have nice stats and numbers,” he said. “Because I was always a head coach, not an offensive coordinator, and I had to win to keep my job.”
    All of the talk of schematics misses the point according to Chris Brown of
    This might be heresy, but schematically I don’t find Kelly that interesting. Now he’s a spread guy (which plays to my preferences), and he’s been doing it a long time (so he has a pedigree), but I think much of the talk about Kelly as an “offensive genius” is misplaced. He runs a very simple, and even at times simplistic, spread offense. That’s the bad news. The good news is that really doesn’t matter. The Irish just got done with a guy who was pretty convinced of his schematic brilliance, and likely the sooner ND can get beyond just winning the scheme battle and win some actual ones on the field, the better. And with this is the fact that Kelly is an excellent teacher, which is what really matters. And don’t get me wrong here, his scheme isn’t bad. His staff gameplans very well and they put their kids in position to succeed, which is really all that matters. You’ll see some fun stuff from quads — or with four receivers to the same side — but otherwise everything is pretty basic.

    Run, Forest, Run

    So the question is how will Kelly adapt?  The Notre Dame offense was atrocious in 2010 and continually put the defense in bad situations. Here’s Kelly’s take:

    “Last year at this time, Dayne Crist was appointed or anointed, whatever word you want to use, the heir apparent to Jimmy Clausen. It’s way too much pressure for any kid who had no experience to have on his shoulders. And then he was backed up by no one with any experience. We come into this year with two guys who’ve won football games and a quarterback who fits the system that we recruited. We don’t have Dayne Crist feeling like he has to carry the load of the entire Irish nation on his shoulders. It’s a totally different feeling when you come in and have those dynamics working for you, compared to what it was last year.”

    Kelly’s hinted at some changes the point to a more physical run oriented team.

    “Year two is about utilizing the players that we have that can help us win football games.  Our philosophy has been laid down. A way of doing things on a daily basis has been laid down. Last spring I don’t want to say it was throwing it against the wall and making it stick.  In year 2 it becomes more about players than plays and really fitting what we do in all three phases to the players we have.”
    When asked what he was most pleased with, Kelly specifically noted the line play as a key component of the late season success,
    “the consistency of the offensive line and the physical play of the defensive line down the stretch. “

    That sounds encouraging, as does recruiting 9 power players this year.  Kelly’s no stranger to potent running offenses, Chris Brown observed that his successful Grand Valley State teams had a power element

    “It was at GVSU that his version of the spread took hold, and while Kelly was an early mover to regular multiple-receiver sets and a better spread run game in the vein of Rich Rodriguez and others, he was different in that he didn’t have his quarterbacks do much reading. Instead, Kelly’s running game remained basically power football with pulling guards and tackles, all from the shotgun. His 2001 GVSU offense remains one of the most potent in college football history at any level, averaging more than 58 points per game.”
    Kelly credits former Notre Dame Assistant Tom Beck, his former head coach at Grand Valley State, for his constantly evolving philosophy.
    “A lot of my thinking on offense was to be creative, like Tom,” Kelly said. “Just his acumen on offense, he was a genius. And it helped me kind of jump start my career in thinking outside the box offensively.”
    That offense averaged 251 yards rushing per game. In fact, Kelly’s offenses those last three years at Grand Valley were very balanced and averaged 251, 204 and 215 yards rushing per game.  They also won the Division II title twice and finished second in 2001, when Kelly actually installed the option after his starting quarterback went down.  A noteworthy point as he welcomed Urban Meyer and Chip Kelly, two running spread coaches, to the Notre Dame clinic this year.
    If he chooses to move in that direction, he’ll have Ed Warriner’s experience to rely on. Warriner’s offensive line won the NCAA rushing title several times running the option during his career at the academies.  Indeed, Kelly made Warriner the run game coordinator for 2011 and Kelly’s most potent offenses were balanced and featured power running. But that was then.

    Kelly’s Offense Is All About Aggression…

    It’s hard to read the tea leaves on what Kelly’s thinking for 2011, but one thing won’t change, aggression.
    “I think we all think in terms of a defense being aggressive, you have to have that mindset that from an offensive standpoint right away, before we even talk about the first X or O or the first play call, it’s about having an aggressive mentality,” he said. “It’s not about anything else but scoring points.”
    Part of that aggression is constant pressure.  His former OC Jeff Quinn, emphasized that it’s a mindset that will lead to some “aggressive” calls on the field.
    “You also convince your team that once you cross the other team’s 45-yard line, you always are going to go for it on fourth down if it’s fourth-and-medium or -short. You build in that mentality among the players that, if we get there, coach is going to go for it and we will get an extra down.”

    So, one thing seems clear, regardless you will see is a fast paced offense similar to Oregon.

    “We run similar offenses when they’re clicking that way”, Kelly said about Oregon.

    So, we’ll see a fast paced offense, but the question in most Irish fans minds is if Kelly can change his stripes for more than a few games.
    …Likely Through the Air…

    Kelly’s run the ball effectively before with success and there are hints that change is coming, but if I had to bet, air-Kelly will likely be the way forward. Listen to Kelly talk about his offense at Cincinnati.

    “We’ve been talking about this,” said Kelly. “How do you get more snaps for the offense? Maybe the accountability needs to be on the offense. Maybe the offense needs to keep the defense off the field. We want to score quickly. If every scoring drive was two minutes or less, that’d be fine with me. But, we also have to be cognizant of the fact that playing 86-87 plays on defense is probably not the best thing. It happens on both ends…let’s be a little bit more efficient on third downs on defense, and let’s do a better job of possessing the football on the offensive side of the ball.”

    The next question was, “Do you run the football more?”

    “Heck no!” Kelly quickly retorted. “It means possess the football. If it does mean run the ball, I’m all for it. We can’t have any three and outs, we have to sustain drives. If we’re not getting off the field on third down-right now we’re at 49% opponent third down conversions-that’s too high. It’s a convergence of both (offense/defense) control the ball a little bit more-whatever that form ends up being-throwing it, running it that’s what we have to do.”

    Kelly’s mental muscle memory is rooted in the passing game and Kelly’s trend has been toward the pass.

    … Combined with a Highlight Reel (Big Chunk) Running Game

    In the end, I think we’ll see a big play running game more than a “grind it out” running game combined with  a faster and efficient passing game. What Kelly needs to make this work, in my opinion, is a dynamic runner teamed with a QB who can keep the chains moving through the air. It’s an offense that sets up nicely for a big play running back.  Cierre Wood carried the ball as much as Reggie Bush did when he won the Heisman and like Bush, isn’t asked to grind out tough yards, but run to daylight.  Lendale White carried the upfront load for the Trojans while USC  used Bush more situationally leading to his massive 8.9 yards per carry average.  You rarely saw Bush touched before he was passed the line of scrimmage.  Likewise, by using the pass to setup the run, Notre Dame backs will find themselves in situations to rip off big chunks of yardage in the running.    I’m not sure Wood has the hoped for “Wow” factor that Bush (few do) did which is why it may be until the Irish land a big play back like North Carolina’s Keith Marshall until we see this offense operate at full potential.  Reports on Woods have been promising, so a breakout year in 2011 is possible.

    Until Notre Dame can land that player (or Woods emerges,) I think the running game will be the change up to keep defenses honest and  ND will likely continue Kelly’s trend at Cincinnati of a pressure spread passing game that opens up wide running lanes. But Kelly would do well to note Holtz’s point that running the ball seems to create a tougher team and coincided with better defense in 2010, whether that was correlative or causative isn’t clear.  In Meyer’s book, he talks about the relationship between the offense and the defense and that an offensive possession that results in a punt from inside your 30 is considered a failure because it puts the defense in a bad position.  Championships are usually won on the other side of the ball.  The score in Oklahoma’s championship game?  13-2 with 82 rushing yards total for both teams.

    6 Responses to “An Offense in Transition?”

    1. Jim Kress says:

      Good article. Great points. Go Irish!

    2. Another great article. I check in regularly to supplement my scant football knowledge, and really enjoy the discussion. My big take-away from all this information is that successful coaches (like Holtz and Brown) end up adjusting their “scheme” or style of play to the kinds of players they have. Obvious, I’m sure.

      Digging deeper is recognizing the relationship between offense and defense, wherein keeping the defense off the field (possessing the ball) yields fewer points for the opponent. Also pretty obvious, though one might argue that Weis never quite grasped that concept.

      Finally there’s the human factor of developing a tough, smart team (such as Holtz fielded at Notre Dame), and how a “grittier” running playbook can develop that toughness. Interesting. From all I’ve read–and the late-season play of last year’s Irish team–it sounds like Kelly is good at developing toughness and football smarts. Chris Brown thinks so, too. Which offers a better outlook than we’ve seen over the defensive genius (Davie), the mysterious messiah (Willingham), or the wicked schemer (Weis).

      Can’t wait to see this new team.

    3. […] has a nice article on the Brian Kelly offense and the changes we’ve seen or may see in the […]

    4. The championship game was played in 2001 but the Oklahoma title (its last) was for the 2000 season.

    5. The stats are for the 2000 season, but I included the first three seasons for comparison.

      1999 – 104 YPG Rushing |76/24% Pass/Run Ratio (Yardage) |64/36% Pass/Run Ratio (Playcall)
      2000 – 129 YPG Rushing |69/31% Pass/Run Ratio (Yardage) |53/47% Pass/Run Ratio (Playcall)
      2001 – 115 YPG Rushing |68/32% Pass/Run Ratio (Yardage) |56/44% Pass/Run Ratio (Playcall)
      2010 – 131 YPG Rushing |70/30% Pass/Run Ratio (Yardage) |52/48% Pass/Run Ratio (Playcall)

      Notre Dame:
      2010 – 126 YPG Rushing |67/33% Pass/Run Ratio (Yardage) |54/46% Pass/Run Ratio (Playcall)

    6. Rocket Ismail says:

      Great Article. Probably the best I have read this year from Irish writers. I may not have agreed with everything but it was a straight up great article. Hey can anyone really believe that Lou Couldn’t find someone who wanted to run the ball at SC. LOL. Was Ty recruiting there or something????