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Notre Dame’s offense excelled under Chip Long, except when it mattered

Chip Long Tommy Rees

SOUTH BEND, IN - APRIL 22: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Quarterbacks coach Tom Rees talks with Notre Dame Fighting Irish Offensive Coordinator Chip Long action during the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Blue-Gold Spring Game on April 22, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Chip Long authored the two highest-scoring seasons of Brian Kelly’s time at Notre Dame, along with two of the four best-gaining offenses. Those are inexact measures of an offense’s effectiveness, but they are still the black-and-white results on paper.

The Irish offense produced with Long as its offensive coordinator. Broadly, this cannot be argued. Yet, he and Notre Dame parted ways Wednesday.

Time will be spent discussing philosophical differences, speculating about clashes in approach and fretting about the coaching form of nepotism. The reasoning for Long’s departure may be more fundamental than all of that: For the Irish to take the next step firmly into college football’s top tier, its offense needs to improve.

Notre Dame has gone 32-6 in the last three years, covering Long’s tenure. In the 32 wins, it averaged 38.03 points per game. In those six losses, it averaged 13.5.

Maybe this split came as the result of Long failing to learn “the other things that go along with being the leader of this offense.” Perhaps it is a piece of recruiting the proverbial six-star quarterback. It could have come from disputes over staff.

Or that could all stem from the simpler issue: When it mattered most, Long’s offense did not show up the last three years. Not against or at Georgia. Not at Miami or at Stanford. Certainly not against Clemson or at Michigan.

The Irish defense always at least held its own. When the Hurricanes routed Notre Dame in mid-November 2017, offensive turnovers led directly to 24 points; without them, the 41-8 outcome may have been in some doubt. At Michigan this past fall, the defense found its footing for a significant portion surrounding halftime, holding the Wolverines to 21 yards on 21 plays across six drives. Long’s offense filled that period by gaining 11 yards on 13 plays.

A portion of that issue obviously must be put on Kelly, as all things tied to the program do to at least some degree, but when he was calling plays, the Irish at least scored 28 points against Ohio State in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl, 36 against Stanford weeks before that and 22 in a storm at Clemson that October. They managed 27 at Florida State in 2014 and 30 at Oklahoma in 2012. The offense was not the sole reason Notre Dame fell short as it has been the last three years.

Something had to change offensively to have the best chance of not wasting what could be a generational amount of skill-position talent on the Irish offensive roster next season. That talent will be best showcased with a veteran quarterback at its helm, so Notre Dame must still hope senior quarterback Ian Book, the aforementioned proverbial six-star, opts to return to South Bend rather than finish his collegiate career elsewhere.

That leaves a change at offensive coordinator as the best chance to feature Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy, Cole Kmet and Tommy Tremble, Jafar Armstrong and Chris Tyree.

Splitting this need from the vague ideas of staff chemistry, player relations and coaching philosophy is impossible. Those intangibles could have been sourer than a feral skunk but deemed the sweet smell of success if the Irish were in their second consecutive College Football Playoff thanks to one more touchdown in Athens. Then again, they could be the underlying reasons for the stagnant struggles in pivotal moments, including much of the time between the hedges.

In a profession as passionate and evolving as college football coaching, turnover and reinvention is inevitable, if not preferable. After all, it was a total revamp of Kelly’s staff that sparked this three-year run following that 2016 debacle.

Long added to Kelly’s long-standing offense. To pull from one of Tom Rees’ first interviews as Notre Dame’s quarterbacks coach, back in 2017’s spring, before any evidence of Long’s ability had been seen in a competitive environment …

“You still see the same structure of the offense, and now coach Long comes in and adds his mix into it,” Rees said. “It’s been a great job of learning from him and seeing what he’s really applied, the finer details that he’s coached up.”

The need now is for the next Irish offensive coordinator — be it Rees, running backs coach Lance Taylor or someone from the outside — to add some of his own flavor to the system. He will have plenty of ingredients to work with between (presumably) Book, receivers Austin, Lenzy and sophomore Lawrence Keys, tight ends Kmet (if he spurns the NFL) and Tremble, a deep if not proven running backs group, and six returning offensive line starters.

In hopes of adding to that stockpile, there will now be six days of Irish worry about the current high school seniors expected to sign their National Letters of Intent on Wednesday. That concern would not be so poignant if the offensive class was not so talented, consisting of nine players of which two can claim five-star status and five more are consensus four-stars.

Those 17- and 18-year-olds, though, are more familiar with this part of college football than the fans are. They know they are unlikely to finish their careers playing for the same coaches that recruited them. Notre Dame prospects, in particular, are not sold on the staff, but on everything else the University offers. If being blunt, on some level anyone currently being recruited by the Irish realizes Kelly might not be around four years from now.

That’s part of recruiting, and the odds are all nine commits sign on the dotted line early Wednesday morning, along with their eight defensive counterparts.

Given their five-star profiles, running back Chris Tyree and receiver Jordan Johnson could play roles in Notre Dame breaking out in a high-profile game next season, which would be a first under not only the next offensive coordinator, but also under Long.

One aspect of Long’s offenses that should not be taken for granted was his ruthless effectiveness in the red zone. The Irish scored touchdowns on 71.81 percent of their red-zone possessions across the last three seasons. To give context, that three-year standard would have ranked No. 20 in the country for just this season.

Before discussing Long’s replacement, this needed to be written to discuss Long’s exit. When the conversation turns to his successor, and the debate rages around the possibility of Rees, no one should assume he will be Kelly’s “yes man.” Even back in his playing days, Rees was often seen arguing with Kelly on the sidelines.

“Tommy wasn’t a guy who was going to back down if he thought he was right,” former Notre Dame offensive lineman Mike Golic, Jr. said when Rees was hired. “Both of them could certainly have that heated conversation and then come back and understand that is just part of the working environment there.”

Yes, this domino was the first in mind when after the regular-season finale this space wrote, “... an inconsistent offense will remain confounding until flashing reliably with Lenzy and Kmet in nine months, presuming this coming month does not rob the Irish of too much of the stability so many programs envy.”

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