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‘More’ collaboration remains focus of Notre Dame’s offense, not a specific play caller

Tommy Rees Ian Book Notre Dame

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 24: Notre Dame quarterbacks coach, Tommy Rees, watches Notre Dame (12) Ian Book (QB) warm up during a college football game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the USC Trojans on November 24, 2018, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Notre Dame either hasn’t decided upon its offensive play caller for Saturday’s Camping World Bowl or Irish head coach Brian Kelly has no interest in revealing who that will be before the first offensive series shortly after 12 ET, if even then. Kelly does, however, understand why he has been and will be asked about that duty during every media availability between firing offensive coordinator Chip Long and his final pregame press conference on Friday.

“I think we’re going to keep it as a national secret and let you guys try to guess and talk about it,” Kelly said Saturday. “Don’t you need stuff for the newspaper and the internet chats and stuff like that? Have you done a poll yet?”

Let’s skip the poll, as name recognition alone would likely give quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees a healthy lead on running backs coach Lance Taylor. Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn and Kelly are also a part of forming the offensive game plan to face Iowa State (7-5), with Kelly setting the tone.

“I’m leading it, and I’m giving them a clear direction in terms of where we want to go, and then let them go,” Kelly said. “They’ve done exactly what I was looking for over the last couple of days. It’s not going to be the Wing T out there, but I think you’ll clearly see some of the things that we want to accomplish in terms of the consistency of the running game, and in the passing game, too.”

Just as he did when announcing Long’s firing, Kelly acknowledged Notre Dame’s offense hasn’t struggled much this year, though its running game was unreliable at best in the second half of the year. Hearing Kelly use “collaboration” or “collaborating” a total of six times Saturday, it seems the biggest differences in the offense during this bowl preparation are in the process rather than in what will be seen Saturday.

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

“We’re not talking about reinventing the wheel here,” Kelly said. “[This is] much more about the staff collaborating on how we want to achieve at the end of the day our offense coming together as one. …

“For the untrained eye, you’re not going to see a whole lot of difference, but for those that really study our offense, you’ll see some improvements that will help us from the start of the game to the end of the game and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Given the running game struggles since the Irish idle week — averaging 4.43 yards per carry and 166.3 yards per game across the last six games of the season — Kelly was largely discussing the ground attack, but that cannot be wholly removed from the passing game, hence the need for both Rees and Taylor to be so heavily involved.

“A lot more conversations, a lot more meetings, a lot more of everybody seeing through the same lens as to what we want to accomplish,” Kelly said. “Not only in the passing game, but in the running game. … We ran the ball at times effectively and at other times we weren’t effective. We want to be moving forward much more effective. That requires complete collaboration and everybody on the same page. That’s what I’m looking to accomplish here over these next few days.”

To some degree, Kelly describing Notre Dame as needing “more of everybody seeing through the same lens” says as much about Long’s departure as anything else said in the last two weeks. Needing “more” of that now obviously means there was, well, less of it before.

Read into that as one will. It was not the only such thought offered by Kelly.

“I think more than anything else, it’s clearly everybody feeling comfortable with everybody being on the same page.”

When Kelly said, “We ran the ball at times effectively and at other times we weren’t effective,” he was not wrong, even in the sub-par subset of the last six games. That middling average of 166.3 yards per game would have ranked No. 62 in the country across the entire season, between Boise State and Florida Atlantic, compared to the genuine Irish rank of No. 46 (176.8 rushing yards per game).

During that closing six-game stretch, Notre Dame still ran for 288 yards at Duke, 252 against Boston College and 190 at Stanford. It must be acknowledged, they ranked Nos. 88, 89 and 58 in rushing yards per game allowed, respectively.

At times, the Irish were effective, though generally, those times came against the likely suspects.

If this December has seemed truncated, at least in college football terms, that’s because it has been, a side effect of the calendar slipping an extra week into the season. Last year, Notre Dame had 35 days between its regular-season finale and the Dec. 28 Playoff semifinal; this year the Irish have 28 days between the win at Stanford and the Dec. 28 Camping World Bowl.

The shortened calendar comes at the expense of bowl practices, hardly a problem for only Notre Dame. Not counting a walkthrough today before flying to Orlando, the Irish will have 10 full practices this bowl period, navigating around recovery, exams and recruiting.

“This has been different, there’s no doubt,” Kelly said. ‘It definitely taxes them from an emotional standpoint, but I think their mental focus has been really, good, it hasn’t been sloppy.”

Notre Dame kept practices a bit lighter until the weekend, dialing up physicality from Friday onward, per Kelly.

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