Evolving Notre Dame offense has room to grow

Analysis

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – The offense Mike Denbrock/Brian Kelly will roll out in 2½ weeks for the Blue-Gold Game spring football finale won’t likely just be vanilla. It will also be half-baked.

The good news is that it’s largely by design, a confluence of several factors. There’s a tsunami of new plays, philosophical updates to fit Notre Dame’s multi-dimensional quarterbacks and evolving opposing defenses, and having to deal with the attacking principles and all of the exotics of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s schematic makeover.

“It’s great teaching and it’s a great opportunity for the young guys in particular to gain some valuable experience,” Denbrock, the recently elevated offensive coordinator, said of the VanGorder factor Wednesday after practice No. 6 of 15 this spring.

“So when they see this stuff in the fall it’s, ‘Sheesh, I’ve seen that in practice a thousand times. I know what it is. I recognize that.’ And it helps our younger guys grow up a lot faster.”

There’s plenty of room for growth given that not one player on the offense started more than five games at his current position in 2013. That stat will change in August, when injured starting offensive linemen Nick Martin and Christian Lombard are scheduled to be back, and deposed wide receiver DaVaris Daniels presumably will have his academic house in order.

Then again, that’s only three.

“I really like the attention to detail that the guys are trying to go about,” Denbrock said amid the upheaval. “We’re nowhere near where we’re going to be or where we’re going, but their caring, their work ethic, their willingness … all those things are in place for us to continue to improve offensively.

“As it comes together and guys are doing things correctly the way they’re coached to do, this offense has an opportunity to be incredibly explosive and be the type of offense that can put points on the board.”

The Irish ranked an largely unexplosive 74th in scoring (27.2 points per game) among the 123 FBS schools in 2013, with Kelly in an uncustomary CEO stance that the fifth-year Irish head coach has since scrapped along with most of his old plays.

Denbrock estimates roughly 80 percent of the new offense has been installed, but very little of that has had the chance to be honed.

With the halfway point of spring (in name only – the Irish haven’t been outside yet) in view later this week, here are some key developments that are buoying the optimism of Denbrock and the more-offensively immersed Kelly:

•The new trump card

The recurring theme in 2013 when the offense bogged down was that Kelly and then-offensive coordinator Chuck Martin didn’t have a strong answer when opposing defenses loaded the box and overplayed the run.

Last year’s starting quarterback, Tommy Rees, was able to mitigate it some of the time with his guile, but his lack of both foot speed and elite arm strength made the eight-man box a popular, and more successful than not, tactic.

“Having the versatility we do at the quarterback position opens up a whole assortment of nuances and subtleties to some of the schemes that we were already running in a lot of situations,” Denbrock said. “Putting defenses in a position that if they do want to put an extra defender in the box, you can account for him with the quarterback running the football, for instance.”

In terms of the top two options at quarterback, Denbrock said ascending sophomore Malik Zaire is “10,000 miles down the road further than he was at this time last year.

“Last year, he’s more of a guy who’s athletic, who’s working his butt off to play quarterback. Now he’s got that, but he’s also got some knowledge with it ... he’s got a chance to be a quarterback as well as that great athlete.”

Denbrock also sees significant improvement in Everett Golson, the 2012 starter and still the likely choice to be at the joystick of the new offensive scheme when the Irish open the 2014 season against Rice on Aug. 30.

“I think he’s got a much better grasp overall of the scheme and what’s been implemented,” he said. “There are a number of carry-over things that were here when he was our quarterback in 2012. He’s really advance in those areas in particular, but I think also with just defensive recognition.

“I love his communication skills. I think they’re better than they were in 2012 as far as communicating with the receivers and offensive line and everybody. We put a lot on the quarterback’s plate, and he’s doing a much better job.”

•The next wave catches on

A benevolent twist to DaVaris Daniels’ absence from spring practice is that there are more practice reps for the new wave of young receivers and reps that can take without being in the shadow of ND’s leading returning receiver.

In that light, Denbrock said junior-to-be Chris Brown has become the most consistent presence among them. Sophomore-to-be Corey Robinson and converted running back Amir Carlisle have opened some eyes, as has sophomore-to-be Torii Hunter Jr., who missed all of last season with a broken leg that healed much slower than anticipated.

“Torii Hunter Jr. shows flashes of incredible explosiveness,” Denbrock said, “(but) he’s just green as the grass -- well, he’s not green as the grass around here this time of year, but he’s just young.”

Perhaps the most intriguing piece in the receiver puzzle is early-enrolled freshman Justin Brent, who in practice looks the part physically -- at a chiseled 6-foot-2, 204 pounds -- but looks overmatched mentally at this point.

“I think it’s reps, reps, reps, like it is with a lot of our young guys,” Denbrock said. “He’s seeing things from our defensive scheme in particular that at Speedway High School the challenges didn’t present him nearly as much.

“You line up in a one-on-one drill, and you’re playing against KeiVarae Russell, and KeiVarae is as big and strong as you are and he’s slapping you around a little bit and he’s teaching you how to compete. I just think that his learning is just on a greater scale than anybody else’s right now.

“But what you have in him is a guy who can physically hold up and, No. 2, his willingness to work hard at it and his ability to learn the game is very strong. I think once he gets his feet on the ground and gets settled a little bit, I see him making a strong leap pretty quickly.”

•More high ceilings

That Kelly and Denbrock don’t dismiss youth in their player development model opens the door for players like running back Greg Bryant, offensive lineman Steve Elmer, wide receiver William Fuller and tight end Durham Smythe – all sophomores-to-be – to become significant factors in the Irish offense eventually in 2014, if not in the near future.

The most fascinating example of potential meeting opportunity might be right tackle-in-training Mike McGlinchey, a 6-8, 300-pounder who redshirted last season but never fermented during the process.

That’s showing up now as he consistently receives first-team reps and plays through some inconsistencies.

“When he grows up and when the light comes on and he gets it, he’s going to be an incredible football player,” Denbrock said, “from the standpoint that I think the physical gifts he possesses as far as his athletic ability.

“Obviously, his size is hard to miss. But with that, he’s got some football intelligence that can be cultivated and can grow, I think, rather quickly. That puts us in the position to get him on the field right away. We’ve kind of thrown him to the wolves here in the spring and let him kind of fight through it, and he’s done a real nice job so far.”

•Back in the running?

Notre Dame’s No. 80 ranking in rushing offense in 2013 was perplexing, given the commitment to the run, a standout offensive line to run behind and some pretty good raw talent.

Now with mixed bag of a reshuffled offensive line, three fewer pieces on the depth chart, quarterbacks who fit the offense and a supposedly upgraded playbooks, the expectation is for a significant statistical upgrade from that position.

Bryant has surged into the mix. Sophomore Tarean Folston, who finished last season as the starter, looks like his game has evolved, and 2013 leading rusher Cam McDaniel has expanded this game.

It’s not just the running game that appears to be benefiting, but the passing game too. In 2013, not one Irish running back had more than seven catches on the season. The last time Notre Dame didn’t have a running back record at least 20 receptions in a season occurred during former head coach Tyrone Willingham’s final season, in 2004. That year freshman Darius Walker had 10.

“I think there are things that all three of them do well,” Denbrock said. “I don’t look at them and see major weaknesses in their game. I love the versatility of those three guys, in particular, because we don’t have to be – if you will – predictable about who’s in the game and what type of scheme we’re playing, I think we could branch out and do a number of different things with those guys.”

Notre Dame quarterbacks Everett Golson (5), back left, and Malik Zaire (8) go through simultaneous passing drills Saturday during spring football practice at Loftus Sports Center. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)