Notre Dame offense seeing steady improvement in camp

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Progress can be tough to gauge until the bright lights come on.

But there was a confident smile on Mike Sanford’s face during Tuesday’s Media Day that suggested the Notre Dame football team’s offense should be in pretty good shape by Sept. 5.

The first-year Irish offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach wasn’t subjected to a QB (Everett Golson) who was responsible for 22 turnovers all by himself last season. He has only seen film of an attack that rolled up 5,784 total yards (2,073 rushing, 3,711 passing), while averaging almost 33 points a game.

He has only heard stories about an offense that, the second half of last season, failed when asked to compensate for a defense that suffered a collapse, thanks to injuries and general talent issues.

“Our identity, as it pertains to our personnel (has been the most significant area of growth),” said Sanford, referring to Malik Zaire emerging as the starting quarterback and No. 2 running back Greg Bryant leaving the team. “Knowing what we can have with the game on the line…

“There’s been a little shift of our identity from going into spring (practice) until now because of personnel situations. It definitely changed the way we’re going to go about attacking defenses, whatever that may be. It could be, we’re going to throw the ball 97 times a game. I don’t know…”

Air Zaire? Don’t bet on it. The Irish offensive line is built for dominating a defense on the ground. But, in terms of his offense improving in one particular area, head coach Brian Kelly didn’t hesitate.

“There's no gray area,” Kelly said. “It's real clear as to what's expected. We're a movement key, progression read offense, and at times last year we were not clear sometimes on our movement key and our progression reads. We are 100 percent on our movement key progressions (in practice). (Sanford) is a stickler for that, and I've always been a stickler for that.

“That's central to having a great communication base with your quarterbacks. If they don't see it through the same lens that you do, there is miscommunication, and that's been cleared up where it's easy communication now with the quarterbacks as to: How did you get across the board on your reads if you didn't start with the right movement key? Mike's done a great job there.”

In layman’s terms, movement-key, progression-read isn’t as difficult a concept to understand as it sounds.

“That just means I’m supposed to be where I’m supposed to be at the right time,” said receiver Chris Brown. “(Zaire is looking) across the board. Once he comes back to you, you’ve gotta be where you’re supposed to be or it’s not going to work.”

“We have a lot more to shape up before the season begins,” Zaire said. “That starts with the progressions and the timings. A lot of what we do has to do with timing. It’s not so much throwing to a man, it’s throwing to a window. We’ve gotta get that timed up with the chemistry between (the quarterbacks) and the receivers, and also having the right protections so we can get the play off.”

OK, maybe the concept is simple, but the execution can be a challenge. Especially since Kelly, Sanford and Mike Denbrock, associate head coach/wide receivers, plan to amp up the tempo at which it will be played.

“We’re able to line up and play at a lot of different speeds,” Denbrock said. “Last year, and the years prior, we played at one speed. It hasn’t been a situation where we had the ability to go at ‘warp’ speed, as fast as we want to go all the time. We didn’t really huddle, but it was somewhere in between.

“Now, we literally have four or five different tempos, depending on whether we want to step on the gas or slow the game down. It’s an effort to control, or dictate, the game.”

Denbrock still sounded frustrated about the problems that confounded the Irish last year.

“We played pretty solid offense last year, barring the mishandling of the football, which I thought was ridiculous,” he said. “If you look at the way we played and the ways we were able to move the football on a consistent basis, it’s a positive thing.”

“We have an offense that has to click on all cylinders,” Zaire said. “That’s why we involve all 11 guys every play. Those are things we have to shape up.

“I’m developing each and every day. The more reps we take, the better we get. Every rep (in practice) has a purpose. I’m just learning more and more about the game. I’ve been in more game-like situations. Every day I’m learning something new.

“Coach Sanford is a guy who has been more specific with us than anyone in the past. We’re finding out how we’re going to get better every day; what our goals are every day. That really helps because it’s not so broad. It’s more of a step-by-step as a unit that has helped us get better.”

That’s why Sanford can smile so easily.

Notre Dame coach Mike Sanford talks to the quarterbacks during practice at Culver Academies, Friday, August 7, 2015 in Culver. SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ