Getting up to speed only part of Chip Long's vision for the Notre Dame offense
SOUTH BEND — The promise of accelerated tempo on offense sometimes gets lost in the reality of what a particular roster can handle.
Case in point, Brian Kelly arrives at Notre Dame in December of 2009 with a reputation for uptempo style of football at previous coaching stop Cincinnati and the affirmation that he wanted to continue that in his new surroundings as the Irish head coach.
His first spring practice in South Bend, though, Kelly discovers he has three quasi-square pegs at quarterback, none of whom possess any starting experience: Dayne Crist coming off a torn ACL, early enrolled freshman Tommy Rees, and a walk-on son of Irish legend Joe Montana, Nate. The latter eventually transferred to — no joke — Montana, and then to West Virginia Wesleyan.
Notre Dame in the fall of 2010 promptly goes on to average 63.5 offensive plays a game, which still stands as the second-lowest of Kelly’s 13 seasons coaching on the FBS level. It’s also more than seven plays fewer per game than Charlie Weis’ huddle-up/pro-style, 2009 ND team averaged in his final season as head coach/offensive coordinator.
Fast forward to Chip Long — literally. At least he hopes.
The 33-year-old is the new face of the Notre Dame offense, a second-year offensive coordinator in his first season collaborating with Kelly. The eighth-year Irish head coach characterizes the relationship as more of a stewardship, where Long is concerned, rather than an actual partnership, as Kelly divorces himself from his old offense-centric ways.
Long will call the plays, Kelly insists. Long will also put his stamp on the framework of the existing Kelly offense with Kelly’s blessing.
And the former Division II All-America tight end/wide receiver hybrid during his playing days at North Alabama hasn’t been shy with the latter through ND’s first four of 15 spring practice sessions.
“Probably about 50-50,” Long said Friday in characterizing whether the Irish offensive players are experiencing an install of a new scheme.
“I’ve tried to keep the same general lingo that they know, where they can get lined up. But the details and what we want to do on that is quite a bit different.
“Kind of just streamlined it for them, and they know at least where to line up from in the past. For what they do, we’ve really detailed it up and helped them out so they can play a little bit faster.”
Ah, there it is. Tempo.
Speed of play is one of three main objectives Long says he wants to have achieved by the time spring wraps up with the annual Blue-Gold Game, April 22 at Notre Dame Stadium. The other two are developing an offense that cuts down on turnovers and one that plays with a pronounced physicality.
“You talk about it. You hit every day and get used to it,” Long said matter-of-factly of the physicality objective. “You start embracing it. And that’s just the kind of offense we want to be.
“If we’re not going to be physical, I’m not going to be sleeping much at night and probably won’t be around here very long.”
In his one season at Memphis, in 2016, Long’s offense actually turned the ball over more often than the 2016 Irish did, and appeared more finesse than physical because of the offensive line he inherited. Long did deliver tempo to a degree, but certainly not to an extreme.
The Tigers’ 74.2 offensive players per game were about 2.5 above the FBS national average, yet more than any Kelly-coached team since 2005 at Central Michigan (78.2).
Texas Tech (86.8) led the FBS in 2016 in plays per game. Baylor (85.2) was tops among teams not involved in an overtime game. Georgia Tech and Illinois (both at 59.3) were at the other end of the spectrum.
National champion Clemson was among the national leaders at 81.3, but a key to its overall success was that the Tigers managed to do so without exposing their defense to an inordinate amount of plays (67.2).
Can Kelly, Long and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko replicate that formula at Notre Dame in 2017?
Memphis’ defense was on the field for 78.8 plays per game in 2016, significantly more than any of ND’s defenses in the Kelly Era. ND’s best defense statistically under Kelly, the 2012 group that played for the national title, averaged only 63.8 defensive plays a game.
So how is that jumble of numbers and theory translating onto the practice field this spring?
The wide receiver corps, minus only current minor-league outfielder Torii Hunter Jr. and impending transfer Corey Holmes, has been the most pleasant surprise for Long.
“Because they were such a young group,” he said. “But I think (receivers) coach (DelVaughn) Alexander has done a tremendous job in four days with them.”
Long and Alexander teach in concepts that translate from one wide receiver position to another, so that players aren’t necessarily locked into a singular role.
The left side of the offensive line, grad senior tackle Mike McGlinchey and senior guard Quenton Nelson, have looked this spring like the future first-round draft choices they’re projected to be, per Long.
“The way they come to work every day, there’s great leadership right there,” he said. “The other guys see it, and they don’t want to let them down. So we kind of have that going for us right now.”
And the right side — specifically the two redshirt freshmen battling for the open right tackle spot, Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg — received instruction Friday in practice from former Irish standout tackle and current Dallas Cowboys All-Pro guard Zack Martin, according to Long.
Long said the tight end group is the deepest and most versatile he ever has had. His coaching stops prior to Memphis include Arizona State, Illinois, Arkansas and Louisville.
He also had high praise for the running backs, led by Josh Adams, and junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, the presumptive starter Sept. 2 in the season opener against Temple.
“He’s a willing learner,” Long said of Wimbush, who redshirted in 2016. “He’s very coachable. He does a great job of applying what we go over in the meeting room, cleaning up his mistakes from the first day and uses his athleticism to help him out.
“He’s done a good job of his leadership, trying to take control.”
Overall, Long said the talent level on offense has met or exceeded in person what he had seen on film during the winter.
“They’re attacking each and every day,” he said. “That’s what’s been so fun and so refreshing, being around them. They can retain a whole lot and they work extremely hard. So it’s been good.”