Analysis: Tight End U rep flexes its functionality under Notre Dame OC Tommy Rees
SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees was among those who tweeted out an overhead photo this past weekend of the Irish goal-line offense about to score Friday on North Carolina.
Some might say the tight, four-tight end set from No. 2 Notre Dame’s 31-17 road win was a snapshot of ND football’s offensive DNA. Tight End U at its most invincible.
As nostalgic as that notion is, the beauty and functionality of who the 28-year-old Rees is becoming as a play-calling prodigy is the ability for the Notre Dame offense to be multiple.
Multiple in personnel groups, in formations, in tempo, in philosophy, in call sequence.
The prevailing perception of Rees, from the outside looking in, has evolved from a first-year coordinator who might need training wheels to reach his full potential to someone who regularly taxes opposing defensive coordinators. Even elite ones.
While knitting perfectly philosophically with his own, Clark Lea.
That combination has the Irish (9-0, 8-0 ACC) within a win Saturday on Senior Day over Syracuse (1-9, 1-8 ACC) at Notre Dame Stadium of clinching both a share of its first and only ACC title as well as a berth in the Dec. 19 ACC Championship Game in Charlotte, N.C.
A recent case in point of the Rees-Lea synchronicity was in the North Carolina game. At certain points in the second half, it made sense not to be predictable and try to sit on the ball. Notre Dame, after all, didn’t have a two-score advantage until 80 seconds left in the game.
At other times, it was more beneficial for Notre Dame’s offense late in the game to bully its way down the field, eat up clock and keep the nation’s then No. 4 offense on the sidelines than it was to be explosive and try to push the Irish final point total into the 40s.
The net result was a season-low 298 total yards for a Tar Heel offense that had been averaging 563.4, and a season-low 57 offensive plays. North Carolina ran only 25 in the second half, lost the second-half possession battle 18:26 to 11:34 and netted just 75 yards while going scoreless after halftime.
“It’s the constant communication of Tommy Rees knowing when to be aggressive,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “And then the same thing with Clark. Clark knew when to be aggressive and when to dial it up. We’re fortunate to have two really good coordinators that work well together.”
Multiple tight ends sets are a big part of Rees’ contributions to the formula, though usually using two or three. He has five from which to choose, and all five have at least one catch this season.
Heading into the North Carolina game, Notre Dame had thrown four tight ends together on the field “only” 11 times, and most of those had junior Tommy Tremble lined up as a de facto fullback. The others in that formation are typically freshman Michael Mayer, senior Brock Wright and junior George Takacs.
Rees’ strategic and philosophical shifts haven’t produced universally better offensive numbers in 2020, but better where Kelly wanted to see them the most. The Irish are 16th in rushing offense nationally, up from 45th last season. They’re up 62 spots and 14% in offensive line power success rate (76% from 62 %). That’s converting third down or four down with two yards or less to go into a first down or TD.
Notre Dame is up from 65th to 12th nationally in overall third-down conversion rate, 95th to 11th in time of possession, and 43rd to 24th in total offense. All three of those national rankings are Kelly Era bests.
As far as tight end receptions, freshman Mayer, with 25 for 301 yards and two TDs, is five catches and 40 yards away from leaping over Kyle Rudolph and becoming the most prolific freshman tight end since at least ND’s 1988 national championship season.
That includes redshirt freshmen and true freshmen.
Among the latter, beyond Mayer and Rudolph only Alizé Mack (13) and Derek Brown (12) had more than eight receptions in their first year of game action.
Collectively, Notre Dame’s tight ends’ total of 47 catches for 506 yards and two TDs through nine games would put the Irish group on track for 68 catches in a 13-game season, which Notre Dame would at minimum play if it can avoid any COVID-19 funny business.
That would be the high-water mark of the 2000s. Just four seasons ago ND only got 12 catches for 159 yards from its tight ends in a 4-8 season. The existing high is 66 tight end receptions in 2011.
There’s more help on the way. Freshman Kevin Bauman, limited to 30 snaps so far, has impressed in practice. The Irish are expected to sign Cane Berrong from Georgia and Mitchell Evans from Ohio on Dec. 16, and have a verbal commitment from in the 2022 class from Georgia tight end Jack Nickel.
When Rees was a Notre Dame quarterback (2010-13) and out and away from campus, you’d usually find him hanging with two future first-round NFL Draft choices, left tackle Zack Martin and tight end Tyler Eifert.
All-American Eifert was a big reason for the overall surge in tight end production during Rees’ quarterbacking days, which makes one wonder whether that might have played into Rees’ playbook makeup.
“My conversations with Tommy relative to this (tight end) position was one where we wanted to make sure that in the present and in the future that we were taking advantage of our roster,” Kelly said Monday. “Our roster, as you know as it’s currently configured, was deep with the tight end position.
“So there was a relationship there with Tyler Eifert, one where he was very comfortable in throwing to him. We did run a lot of two tight ends when (Rees) was the quarterback. All those things helped.
“But if I asked him to run five wide receivers, he would have been ready for that as well. This is so much more about who we want to be now and moving forward, and utilizing the assets that are currently on the roster.”
Remembering Zac Plantz
What differentiated Tommy Rees’ tweet from many of the others using the picture of the four-tight set was his subtle message to Notre Dame assistant director of football operations Tyler Plantz, who lost his brother Zac in a fatal automobile accident on Thursday.
Tyler, brother Logan and father Ron all played football for the Irish.
“To lose somebody that’s part of your football family that close to the (North Carolina) game was something that we needed to talk about and address,” Brian Kelly said. “After the game we were able to do that and pray for the family in a very, very difficult time.”
Zac, 27, was a 2015 Notre Dame graduate who played on the Irish rugby team. He was in the midst of fundraising for “medical research, groundbreaking tests and trials, life-changing men’s health programs and innovative treatments.”
On Plantz’s fundraising website, his amended stated goal was to raise $2,000. As of late Monday afternoon the donations were soaring toward $70,000.