Notre Dame

How Notre Dame’s offense has evolved and stayed productive in 2016

How Notre Dame’s offense has evolved and stayed productive in 2016

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — From a pure production standpoint, Notre Dame is averaging about five and a half points per game more in 2016 (39.8) than it did in 2015 (34.2), when it fielded the first offensive lineman picked in the last NFL Draft (Ronnie Stanley), an early leader for NFL Rookie of the Year (Will Fuller) and a 1,000-yard running back (C.J. Prosise), among many others. 

While Notre Dame’s defense has struggled to replace last year’s front-line players, the Irish offense has successfully re-loaded. It’s better in certain areas than it was in 2015 and worse in others, but on the whole, it remains one of the better groups in college football. So how has that been the case?

The first, and most important, piece to Notre Dame’s offensive evolution has come from DeShone Kizer. We’re about a month out from that season-opener against Texas, and it grows even more inconceivable by the week how this team’s quarterback competition played out through the first 35 or so minutes of that Sunday night in Austin. Malik Zaire is a good quarterback who deserves a shot to play, but unfortunately for him, he’s stuck behind a guy who could be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. 

Kizer is averaging 10.4 yards per attempt (up from 8.6 YPA) while completing the same percentage of passes he did last year (62.9). He’s averaging one interception per 37.8 throws, as opposed to one pick per 33.4 attempts in 2015. And he already has six rushing touchdowns through five games after totaling 10 in 12 games last year. 

Kizer’s strides have paid off in the red zone, where Notre Dame is converting trips inside the 20 into touchdowns 73.9 percent of the time, up about 15 percent from 2015. No longer are whiffs on seven-point gimmes happening with a head-scratching frequency.

“Last year, being a little inexperienced, I was down there thinking that the red zone was some foreign object to me and I was just trying to fit in tight throws and do a little too much,” Kizer said. “Now I'm just trying to keep it basic, continue to run the same plays that we're running from the other 20 that's getting us down there. And when things aren't there, not forcing it and taking what they give me. If I need to extend the play, I'm going to use my feet to extend the play and hopefully make something happen.”

That red zone improvement had to happen without Fuller and Prosise, both of whom were threats to score from anywhere on the field in 2015. Those two players combined for 17 touchdowns of 20 or more yards last year, frequently bailing out an Irish offense that was prone to getting bogged down and making mistakes with a short field. 

“There's tremendous confidence when we go into the red zone,” wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. said. “I think that's one of the reasons why we're so successful because we have practiced it so many times over the course of the year since last season. So I think that's why we're pretty confident when we get in the red zone that we can execute and score.”

The red zone is a prime area of improvement that’s led to that uptick in points scored. But Notre Dame hasn’t run the ball as effectively as it did in 2015, with the team’s average yards per carry down more than a yard from 5.63 to 4.39. Notre Dame only has seven carries of 20 or more yards this year after averaging about two of those per game last fall. 

Part of the issue there is opposing teams putting an extra player or players in the box to try to mute Notre Dame’s ground game. But Notre Dame’s offensive line only has a middling opportunity rate (the percentage of carries on which the offensive line “does its job” by generating at least five yards) of 40.8 percent, which ranks 53rd in FBS. 2015’s group led by Stanley and Nick Martin — a second-round pick of the Houston Texans — ranked fourth in FBS with a 45.4 percent opportunity rate and ranked second in adjusted line yards. 

“There's certain things that teams just aren't letting us do,” left tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “And we have to find other avenues to score points, and we've done a pretty good job with that. But teams know that we're going to try to run the ball, and they tend to put a lot of people in the box, and it's a matter of when those looks come that we really like, it's about executing our job to the best of our ability.”

Kizer has largely covered for a sluggish ground game, though, by deftly picking apart opposing defenses and finding guys like Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson for explosive gains. And that’s why Kelly wasn’t too concerned with Notre Dame’s ground game lagging behind its air attack so far. 

“We're averaging 500 yards a game and 40 points a game,” Kelly said. “… It’s a give and take, you know, for our offense based upon how teams are playing us. If I was to stand here in front of you at the start of the season and say, hey, we're going into the fifth game and averaging 40 points a game I probably would take it and 500 yards in offense.”

Having an elite quarterback over whom NFL scouts drool certainly is important, but having a consistent, established coaching staff and culture helps as well. This is Year 2 of the Kelly-Mike Sanford-Mike Denbrock coaching triumvirate, and it's Kelly and Denbrock’s seventh year working together in South Bend. The wheels are properly greased on offense — which is partly why Kelly can spend so much time with the defense now — which allows for a consistent message from coaches to players and veterans to greenhorns. 

“Once that system’s in place, the older players are more knowledgeable, they gain respect, and the younger players see that and trust them and just go from there,” tight end Durham Smythe said. 

Of course, this offensive evolution hasn’t resulted in the kind of win total Notre Dame had last year (unless the Irish win out, which seems unlikely). But the Irish offense ranked seventh in S&P+ last year and is 13th in 2016; its defense has gone from 35th in 2015 to 84th in 2016. 

As it relates to this weekend’s game at North Carolina State — complete with a forecast calling for a little under four inches of rain from Hurricane Matthew — Notre Dame’s offense should be able to put up points against a Wolfpack defense ranked 62nd in S&P+. If this defense can improve to the point where it’s not a complete disaster, Notre Dame shouldn’t have a problem reaching a bowl game. 

Because, despite losing Fuller, Prosise, Stanley, Martin, Chris Brown, Alize Jones, etc. — you get the picture — Notre Dame’s offense has held up its end of the bargain. 

“The game plans aren't too much different from last year, the mindset on offense isn't too much different,” Kizer said. “But we've just been put in a couple of situations where we're required to throw the ball down the field and we're making big plays. It's all about just executing. We have the opportunity to score every time we step on the field, and we know it. And so far we've done a good job of being pretty successful when we do step on the field.”

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.

I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.