Football Notebook: ND offense might be already up to speed

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A 16-day pushback to start spring practice won't likely be enough time for Brian Kelly to deliver a finished template to his Notre Dame offense, now with new coordinator Mike Sanford’s fingerprints on it.

Evolution and experimentation will likely trump installation of the scheme, providing an intriguing backdrop for the Everett Golson-Malik Zaire quarterback tug-of-war over who controls the joystick on the field.

Off the field, it’s being conceptualized and sold as a collaboration of control, with newly promoted associate head coach Mike Denbrock and sixth-year head coach Kelly mixing ideas with Sanford and play-calling the big to-be-determined piece.

The 15-practice spring session kicks off March 18, shortly after the ND players return from spring break, and ends with an invitation-only Blue-Gold Game, April 18 at the LaBar Practice Complex.

A given in the emerging looks figures to be more shifts/motion and wider array of formations. The mystery may involve tempo.

It seems to be a rite of spring that Kelly either openly yearns to speed up the Irish offense to what are perceived to be the standards set at his last coaching stop, Cincinnati, or is peppered with questions about why he is reluctant to do so.

Unless Sanford wants to and is able to convince him otherwise, Kelly has settled on a happy medium.

“Tempo, to me, is really about keeping the defense uncomfortable,” Kelly said. “And so I think if you change it up — it's never one speed all the time — I think that's probably the most important thing.

“You can move it fast when you need to go fast. And if you need to slow it down, you can do that as well. So tempo, to me, would be probably that you can dictate the pace of the game. I think that's the most important thing.”

Oregon’s performance in its two national championship runs in the past five years would seem to support that.

Those convinced both in 2010 and this past season that the turbo-charged Ducks were the next wave of championship football saw the flip side of uptempo football when they were on the cusp of a title. In the 42-20 loss to Ohio State, the Oregon defense surrendered 538 yards and 84 offensive plays.

The numbers were uncannily similar in the title loss to Auburn in 2010 (519 yards and 85 plays).

Boise last season, in its only season with Sanford as the Broncos’ coordinator, did push the pace, but not to Oregon proportions. Boise was the nation’s No. 9 scoring offense (39.7 ppg), but faced more of the nation’s worst 26 defenses (5) than those finishing in the top 50 in total defense (4).

The Irish, in contrast, faced four of the nation’s top 10 defenses and went 3-1 against them. ND finished 38th nationally in scoring offense (32.8), the best showing of the Kelly Era at ND.

The 72.8 offensive plays per game ND averaged last season, was not only a Kelly Era high, but more plays per game than he ever averaged at Cincinnati, more than the 2014 national average (72.0) by a smidge, and in the neighborhood of both 2014 national champ Ohio State (73.3) and runner-up Oregon (74.5).

Boise, under Sanford, came in a 74.7 offensive plays per game.

Only eight teams in the 125-team FBS cracked the 80-play-per-game mark, and among them only Baylor (87.5) was ever in the national playoff picture. Four of those eight teams had losing records — three lost at least nine games.

The rest of the top eight behind Baylor: Washington State 84.5, West Virginia 84.4, Colorado 83.0, East Carolina 81.8, Arizona 81.4, Cal 81.3 and Idaho 80.1.

The two teams tied with the fewest offensive plays in 2014 each have ND ties. New Mexico, coached by former ND head coach Bob Davie, and UConn, coached by former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, both averaged 61.3 offensive plays.

Efficiency at any speed is what trumps number of plays and/or tempo. And that starts with refining the quarterback position.

The buoying news for Zaire, a sophomore with one career start and only a game and a half of meaningful snaps, is that five of the past six national titles have been won by a team with a first-year starter at QB.

True to his roots

It may surprise some on the outside looking in that two of new ND running backs coach Autry Denson’s most powerful coaching influences have been Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and recent Buckeye staff addition Tony Alford.

Even more surprising, perhaps, is that they still are.

Denson replaced Alford on the ND staff with his on-the-field responsibilities and in recruiting talent-rich Florida for the Irish. Alford reportedly will have a Florida recruiting presence for Meyer, moving forward.

“Tony and I are really cool,” said Denson, who will also recruit Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi and perhaps share Georgia. “We’ve always been cool, don’t have an issue, and I still talk to Tony.

“It’s not that it’s changed. It’s what it’s always been. I rely on him for stuff. Likewise, he would call on me for stuff. When you have a relationship, positions don’t change that when it’s genuine.

“We’ve always talked. We’ve always kept in contact. Just what we were talking about has changed, but the interactions are the same.”

The connection to Meyer has its genesis in Denson’s playing days. Three of Meyer’s five seasons as a Notre Dame offensive assistant coach overlapped Denson’s final three seasons as a running back at ND.

“When I got into coaching, coach Meyer was the first person I called for advice, going to Bethune-Cookman,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to have people around me who have been able to experience some things that can help me along the way.”

Easier said ...

For those quick to douse a player’s disappointment over an assistant coach leaving with the axiom, “You pick a school, not a coach,” may address the pragmatic side of a transient profession but not the reality of a player-coach bond.

That can be especially true when it comes to the assistant that recruited the player, and even more so when the player is a long way from home.

A case in point, more than 25 years after Lou Holtz assistant Jay Hayes helped lure eventual All-America offensive lineman Aaron Taylor out of California, the two still talk regularly.

Hayes is currently the defensive line coach for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals.

“We had a lot in common,” Taylor recalled. “Beyond being my point guy in recruiting, he was like my Yoda once I got to Notre Dame, when the bullets were flying fast and (offensive line coach) Joe Moore was ripping me.

“He was the guy who built that relationship and recruiting is based primarily on the relationships that you build with kids. And the relationships you have with parents is important. You’ve got to crack the parent code, because they’re turning their children over to your care.”

Perhaps the most influential person in Taylor eventually landing at ND wasn’t Hayes or even Holtz, but a player whose five-star promise was crushed early in his playing career by injury — linebacker John Foley.

Today Foley is living the academic upside he sold Taylor, a big name in the financial world and a partner in the Chicago firm Barrington Research.

His football career ended after 27 minutes and eight seconds of cameos, all during his sophomore year, 1987, three years before Taylor arrived on campus.

He had overcome the stigma of being snagged by the controversial NCAA legislation Proposition 48, now obsolete. But at the time, it forced Foley and quarterback Tony Rice to give up a year of eligibility and be banned from practices and games as a freshman.

“I spoke with him several times,” Taylor said of Foley. “He was the guy who kept telling me, ‘This will be the best decision of your life.’ He was the passion guy, who kind of sold me and made me interested about what was so unique about this place.

“It reminds me of how I talk about Notre Dame now. It was transparent. There was no hidden agenda, no sweet-talking, none of that. It was authentic.”


Notre Dame associated head coach Mike Denbrock, right, and head coach Brian Kelly, left, will be collaborating with new coordinator Mike Sanford on an offensive template  this spring. (SBT File Photo )