Notre Dame football notebook: Finagling the fit of the offense

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Barely 20 minutes into Chip Kelly’s hyperventilative NFL debut Monday night, Twitter was a-titter with bold predictions of an imminent coaching raid on the college ranks.

And the implication, by association, was that likely would include another Kelly, Notre Dame’s Brian, whose head probably would have exploded Tuesday if he had been asked about it.

Not that getting queried about whether the Purdue series constituted an actual rivalry (yes, it really did happen) didn’t coax Kelly toward that brink.

And Purdue (1-1), Kelly repeatedly reiterated Tuesday, is all that’s on the fourth-year Irish head coach’s mind as No. 21 Notre Dame (1-1) tries to extend its streak over the Boilermakers to six games Saturday night (8 p.m., ABC) in the 85th rendition, at West Lafayette, Ind.

But Chip Kelly’s debut with the Philadelphia Eagles, which featured a runaway first half in what turned out to be a narrow 33-27 victory over Washington, raises a few interesting points as it pertains to ND’s Kelly.

First, it’s more likely that the NFL will adjust to Chip Kelly and force a countermove by the former Oregon coach than it is that he’ll go unchecked in imposing culture shock on new victims each week.

That should slow the Brian Kelly-to-(fill in the blank) rumors a little bit, not to mention that he did just rework his contract with ND this offseason after flirting with said Eagles himself in January.

Second, Chip Kelly’s coupling with Michael Vick underscores how important fit is for a quarterback in an offensive system and vice versa.

Not that either Kelly can’t adapt to someone less prototypical. But Michigan’s game plan vs. the Irish Saturday night in its 41-30 victory and Irish senior quarterback Tommy Rees’ execution against it exposed some of the challenges that must be met.

First, one more pertinent example of fit: Former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.

It was easy to see Saturday night why the Wolverine coaching staff was so comfortable with Devin Gardner moving from wide receiver back to quarterback late last season when an elbow injury pushed Robinson out of his No. 1 QB status.

Gardner fits Michigan’s current offense much better than Robinson, the latter of whose passing prowess has been repeatedly denigrated.

Here’s perhaps an eye-opening reality: Robinson’s career pass-efficiency rating of 138.6 is more than four points higher than Rees’ (134.3). Maybe that will shift this year, as Rees enters the Purdue game with a 152.6 mark through two games in 2013, good for 43rd place nationally.

The Nos. 2 (Michigan State), 12 (Oklahoma), 8 (Arizona State) and 17 (USC) pass defenses nationally, though, come up for Rees in the next four games after Purdue (No. 69).

As for Robinson, in a system that played to his strengths — former Wolverine coach Rich Rodriguez’s — the prolific runner (4,495 career rushing yards) actually finished 20th nationally in passing efficiency (149.58), in 2010 as a sophomore — one spot behind Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick.

Among those Robinson finished ahead of that season were Oklahoma’s Landry Jones (24th), West Virginia’s Geno Smith (27th), 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III of Baylor (27th), USC’s Matt Barkley (31st), Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill (41st), Washington State’s Jeff Tuel (50th), Russell Wilson of N.C. State before he transferred to Wisconsin (62nd), Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert (66th), Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib (72nd) and Washington’s Jake Locker (73rd).

In his two seasons under current Michigan coach Brady Hoke and a starkly different offense, Robinson dipped to 39th in passing efficiency nationally as a junior and bottomed out at 70th in his injury-marred senior season in 2012.

So how does Rees version 2.0 fit at Notre Dame?

Well, after Kelly initially committing to playing at a faster tempo this season when he had Everett Golson in line to be the starting quarterback, then re-upping that thought when Golson’s season-long suspension pushed Rees back to the top of the depth chart, ND’s offense does not look like Brian Kelly and Chip Kelly swap notes.

And they do.

“I think with the personnel that we have and the quarterback that we have, we are not a team that really can run a lot of the read option,” Kelly said Tuesday. “A lot of the stuff that's meant for real fast tempo, you need a quarterback that is going to be a run threat as well. Tommy is not a run threat. Where he's going to make up for it is getting us in the right plays.

“So our tempo is get to the line of scrimmage, give us enough time to get into the right plays. So tempo can be interpreted in different fashions. (Ours now is) let's give him enough time on the clock where we can get into some good checks”

A lot of those checks Saturday, as well as the called plays, were converting from runs to passes.

The Irish were balanced in the first quarter — eight runs and nine pass attempts — but over the next three quarters were 11-44 in favor of pass plays for a 19-53 split. Some of that was ND playing catch-up on the scoreboard, but a bigger part of that, Kelly said, was how Michigan chose to align its defense.

Essentially, Wolverine defensive coordinator Greg Mattison was making running the ball as a staple — both in the red zone and outside of it — unpalatable, as he dared the Irish to win the game with Rees’ arm.

“You know, balance is this panacea that everyone looks for,” Kelly said, “but you need to win football games. And whatever it takes to win football games, we'd better be good at it.”

Golson’s running ability made it more difficult for teams to force that issue last season. During the regular season, even when the Irish faced stacked fronts, the fewest rushes by ND in a game pre-Alabama/national title game was 30. And they surpassed 40 rushes in seven games.

Kelly, though, is confident that if teams copycat Michigan’s strategy and load up against the Irish run, it will be to their peril.

“I have absolutely no question in my mind that if you want to play us that way, with Tommy Rees, you will pay for it,” he said.

Squibs

-- Purdue’s defensive coordinator, Greg Hudson, played linebacker for coach Lou Holtz at Notre Dame in the late ‘80s and served as a grad assistant coach under Holtz in 1993. He also played catcher on the Irish baseball team.

Hudson spent the past three seasons as linebackers coach at Florida State before joining new Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell.

-- Former Notre Dame quarterback Gunner Kiel’s clear path to become the University of Cincinnati’s starting quarterback in 2014, might have gotten a little more obstructed over the weekend.

Incumbent starter Munchie Legaux suffered a severe knee injury last Saturday against Illinois that ends the 6-foot-5, 200-pound senior’s season. However, Legaux hadn’t redshirted earlier in his career, so if he can recover from the injury, he could apply for a medical redshirt season.

And that would put him in direct competition for the starting spot next season with Kiel — a situation Kiel hoped to avoid when he was choosing a new school.

The former five-star prospect from Columbus, Ind., elected to transfer out of ND in March and did so in May after finishing up his freshman year. He is sitting out this season at UC to satisfy NCAA transfer rules.

-- Who will eventually end up as Notre Dame’s go-to running back?

Currently USC transfer Amir Carlisle leads in carries (19), net yards (132) and average-per carry (6.9), though Kelly was non-committal on Tuesday.

If it went strictly by Twitter following, the depth chart would look at follows: 1. Freshman Greg Bryant, (8,019) 2. Junior George Atkinson III (5,653) , 3. Carlisle (5,536), 4. Junior Cam McDaniel (3,696) and 5. Freshman Tarean Folston (2,796).

-- Purdue No. 1 quarterback Rob Henry’s season-opening start Aug. 31 against Cincinnati followed his most recent start — Nov. 27, 2010 vs., Indiana — by 1,008 days.

That’s the second-longest span by any active FBS quarterback between starts. The national leader in that category is Pitt’s Tom Savage, who went 1,066 days between his Sept. 2 debut for the Panthers against Florida State and his previous start Oct. 2, 2010 when he started for his old school, Rutgers, against Tulane.

Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees (11) looks to throw a pass in the third quarter of Saturday's game with Michigan in Ann Arbor.