Noie: A deeper dive into playbook awaits Notre Dame's offense

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

{child_flags:featured}A DEEPER DIVE

{child_byline}By Tom Noie

South Bend Tribune{/child_byline}

Orchestrating it all last fall on sidelines from South Bend to south Florida, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long often wanted to go deep.

Not necessarily down the football field, but into his playbook and the collection of sets and plays and options. It all was there, but not always utilized.

A bulk of Long’s playbook remained untouched in 2017. There were certain sections that if playbooks still were issued — almost all of it these days is on video, save for someone leaving it buried beneath who knows what in a locker — the same set of pages would be dog-eared after being used week after week.

Other sections that stayed crisp and clean and untouched for myriad reasons last season got a workout in the spring. In the first two weeks of fall camp. Even when the game plan went in 10 days out from Saturday’s season opener against No. 14 Michigan at Notre Dame Stadium. Much of Long’s offense still will look the same as in year one for him at ND — starting with what he refers to as running to win — but a lot of it will look new. Different.

Effective? Remains to be seen.

“We can dig deeper, dive deeper, much deeper than what we were able to do last year,” quarterback Brandon Wimbush said. “I’m excited about that, just to give us other options. Expand and make the defense cover the entire field.”

For example? For one, getting Wimbush out of the pocket and getting him to throw more accurately on the move.

“I really didn’t succeed too much doing that last year,” he said. “That’s been a huge part of the game that we missed.”

The biggest advantage Long has at his coordinator fingertips is the collection of talent from which to tap. Last year, he was pretty limited, particularly late in the year when injuries and ineffectiveness mounted.

At quarterback, the starter (Wimbush) had issues completing routine passes (screens). The backup (Ian Book) had the passing part down but wasn’t the fleetest afoot when it was improvise time.

Their strengths are different. So are their weaknesses. It’s not as simple as plugging in one or the other and just go play. Former tailback Josh Adams was more of a straight-line guy than someone who could take to the outside, take it upfield and take it home. Or even catch a swing pass and run up big chunks of yards. By late November, he was tapped out.

The tight ends? Talented, but a whole lot of untapped potential. Wide receiver Chase Claypool needed his maturity to catch up to his athletic ability. Fellow wide receiver Miles Boykin was more a mystery before becoming a late-game magician in the Citrus Bowl game.

All of it left Long limited in what he could do. Wanted to do. Needed to do, when the same set of calls ran their collective course.

In terms of learning a new language, Notre Dame needed every one of its 15 spring practices in 2017 to learn its As, Bs and Cs. It took weeks. Months. Even into the regular season, it was more about understanding than executing.

“Just so we could get good at something,” Long said. “Just keep it as simple as possible and then build throughout the year.”

This spring, this preseason, install took all of five days as Long expanded the playbook. For Wimbush, whom he knows has a better grasp of what he can and can’t do, what he does and doesn’t like, in terms of sets and formations and rhythm. For Book, who’s so solid a No. 2 that he’s really 1A.

He’s a guy that Long and head coach Brian Kelly and the rest of the Irish offense know they can win with if needed. Expect Book to get some snaps Saturday. For more playmakers across the board, be it Boykin or Claypool or the tight ends. For running back Tony Jones and his red dreads. For wide receiver-turned-running back Jafar Armstrong and quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis. Those guys offer different dimensions out of the backfield. They’re weapons that Long didn’t have last season.

How many new wrinkles might the offense offer? Too many to count.

“It’s not even close,” Long said. “We’re way more ahead of it than any time last year. It’s been good to see our guys handle it and keep getting better.”

Focal points

For No. 12 Notre Dame, it starts offensively with No. 7. Wimbush seemingly did enough to earn the starting job. He wasn’t special in the spring or spectacular in the summer. In the four August practices open to the media, he was just kind of OK.

Maybe it was different when the doors were closed. He apparently has been good enough in the areas that Long and Kelly and the rest of the Irish need him to be. Wimbush showed Long that he’s ready to read and react instead of being so darn analytical. Cautious. Careful.

“He’s so much more comfortable in the offense,” Long said. “He’s not thinking as much. He’s more diagnosing defenses, canceling things out in his progression.

“Our communication together is so totally different.”

Different year. Different options. Different communication, but same philosophy. At least on paper. Yeah, the quarterback’s apparently better (we really won’t know until Saturday night) and the playmaker options on the perimeter run could go deeper, but the way the Irish want to succeed won’t change. In theory.

“We’re going to run the ball,” Long said. “Our identity’s never going to change. We’re going to be a physical offense. It’s always going to start with the run.”

Like every offensive coordinator in the country, Long looks to achieve that buzzword of balance. Pass and run. Run and pass. He wants to be multi-dimensional in both areas. What does balance mean? Long believes this offense should hit for at least 250 yards passing and 200 yards rushing every game out. Do that, and the Irish will have maxed it out.

A year ago, Notre Dame’s game averages finished 269.5 rushing, 178.9 passing.

“It’s always a dynamic trying to find what our guys can do and do well,” Long said.

Notre Dame will have to do it well at a high level to start. Just as the Irish want to be challenged from the jump at the start of the season, so does Long. Easing into the year with an opener that you should win without too much stress doesn’t really do it for Long.

That was the case last season, when Notre Dame rolled over Temple in a 49-16 snoozer. All we learned that day was how nice the new video board was at the south end of the stadium. Everything else had to wait until the following week — at home, at night — against eventual national runner-up Georgia.

This time around, first time out, Notre Dame gets tested against a dominant defense. It returns 10 starters off last year’s squad that finished third in the nation in total defense and allowed opponents an average of 18.8 points per game.

Michigan? At home? At night? To start 2018? Yes, please.

“It’s awesome,” Long said. “I always enjoy starting off with a big first game. You find out where you are early and then you can build off it the rest of the year.

“It’s going to be a tremendous test. It’s exciting to see a bunch of our new guys get out there and turn it loose.”

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No. 12 NOTRE DAME (0-0) vs. No. 14 MICHIGAN (0-0)

Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT

Where: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1)

Line: Michigan by 1½

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After a visit to Tucson (Ariz.) Salpointe Catholic on Tuesday, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly (right) and offensive coordinator Chip Long (left) offered 2020 running back Bijan Robinson.

No. 12 NOTRE DAME (0-0) vs. No. 14 MICHIGAN (0-0)

Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT

Where: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1)

Line: Michigan by 1½