Analysis: How the 2020 season should impact the blueprint for Notre Dame’s offense

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Every offensive coordinator in the country should have been impressed by Steve Sarkisian’s performance in the national championship game.

In his final game plan as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, Sarkisian put together a masterpiece for Alabama’s 52-24 victory over Ohio State on Monday.

Anyone who watched a minute of the Crimson Tide in 2020 knew that DeVonta Smith was a focal point of the Alabama offense, yet the only thing Ohio State could do to stop him was an accidental injury to his hand in the third quarter. Smith’s 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns all came in the first half.

Smith’s dominance speaks first to his talent. He became the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since Michigan’s Desmond Howard in 1991, because Smith made plays at will. But Sarkisian, who was named the next head coach at Texas, found ways to put Smith in advantageous positions no matter how many defenders knew he needed to be stopped.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees should have seen something in Sarkisian’s creative play calling that they can apply to Notre Dame’s offense. The Irish might not have a talent at wide receiver like Smith, but they can find ways to put their playmakers in positions to make explosive plays.

That’s been the blueprint to winning the College Football Playoff in each of the last three seasons. Alabama (2020), LSU (2019) and Clemson (2018) finished their title runs among the top 12 in the FBS in passing plays of 20-plus yards.

Alabama did it this past season with Smith accounting for 30 of its 72 receptions 20-plus yards. Smith totaled 10 more of those catches than any other player in the FBS.

LSU exploited defenses in 2019 with Ja’Marr Chase leading the country with 34 catches of 20-plus yards. Clemson used the duo of Justyn Ross (17) and Tee Higgins (16) to finish tied for 11th with 60 catches at least 20 yards in its 2018 championship run.

The explosive passing plays don’t have to come from one player, but the elite teams in college football have ridden those big plays to success. Alabama, who only trailed Florida in total completions of 20-plus yards by three plays, averaged 5.5 per game throughout the 2020 season. Notre Dame registered the fewest per game of the four College Football teams with 3.3. Clemson averaged 5.6 per game and Ohio State finished with four per game.

The Irish fared much better in 2019 with 4.6 receptions of 20-plus yards per game thanks to wide receiver Chase Claypool, who accounted for 23 of Notre Dame’s 60 total and finished among the top five in the country.

Notre Dame didn’t have a healthy wide receiver on its 2020 roster capable of filling Claypool’s shoes. Javon McKinley did his best in finally playing closer to his four-star recruiting ranking while catching passes from quarterback Ian Book. His 12 receptions of 20-plus yards put him in a tie for 36th nationally. Ben Skowronek tallied eight, which tied him with several others at No. 88.

A handful of offenses had multiple players with as many 20-plus yard receptions as McKinley’s Notre Dame high including Alabama, Florida, BYU, Memphis and UCF. Even Clemson’s offense, which lacked the NFL potential of Higgins and Ross, finished with three players having at least 12 such catches: wide receiver Cornell Powell (15), wide receiver Amari Rodgers (13) and running back Travis Etienne (12).

That’s right. Clemson’s star running back had as many receptions of at least 20 yards as Notre Dame’s leading receiver.

Notre Dame’s offense will have a chance for a total overhaul of the passing game in 2021 with Book, McKinley and Skowronek all gone. The breakthrough stars of Kyren Williams and Michael Mayer return at running back and tight end, respectively, but the rest of the skill players will need to do more.

Can wide receivers Kevin Austin Jr. and Braden Lenzy stay healthy and reach their potential? Are wide receivers Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts ready to make an impact after watching as freshmen? Will Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan bring a different dynamic to the passing game at quarterback? Can freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner’s talent translate immediately?

The Irish passing game has plenty of questions to answer next season. A return trip to the College Football Playoff might be too much to ask of Notre Dame in 2021, but a more explosive passing game should be a reasonable demand.

Lessons learned

Following his first season calling plays in his young coaching career, Rees established a number of things that worked and others that didn’t for Notre Dame’s offense in 2020. Those lessons can inform how he approaches the 2021 season.

• The most efficient offensive set for Notre Dame’s starting unit in 2020 was 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends). That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise given the success of Mayer and Tommy Tremble at tight end.

As well-rounded tight ends, Mayer and Tremble allowed for Notre Dame’s offense to be balanced with both of them on the field. Tight end Brock Wright was also in the mix, but he was used primarily as a blocker.

Notre Dame’s first-team offense averaged 7.1 yards per play with 169 designed runs (56%) and 131 dropbacks using 12 personnel. The offense gained 6.6 yards per play on designed runs and 7.6 yards per play on dropbacks. That included 73-of-112 passing for 928 yards and four touchdowns with one interception and 19 quarterback runs, six of which were sacks, for 70 yards and three touchdowns.

The Irish still used 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end) for 91 more plays than 12 personnel, but 57 of those plays came in the second halves of the lopsided losses to Clemson and Alabama to end the season.

Will 12 personnel be as prominent in the offense next season with Tremble and Wright off to the NFL? If senior-to-be George Takacs or sophomore-to-be Kevin Bauman can emerge as reliable options, Rees may want to continue leaning on the tight end position.

The development of Notre Dame’s wide receivers will likely play a significant factor as well. That could result in even more 11 personnel. But if that’s the case, the Irish may want to have more balance. The Irish opted for dropbacks on 69 percent with 11 personnel on the field and averaged 6.5 yards per play on combined passes and runs.

• The Irish can afford to add more screens to their game plans. This past season, screen passes accounted for nearly 10 yards per attempt. Book finished 28-of-34 for 305 yards on screens.

A reliable screen game may be more difficult to develop with a less experienced offensive line, but Williams and fellow running back Chris Tyree are both capable receivers and can be very productive after the catch. Book’s longest pass of the season actually came on a 75-yard screen to Williams in the season opener against Duke. Notre Dame’s longest pass play in the College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Alabama was a 27-yard screen to Tyree.

Screen blocking may not come natural to all young offensive linemen, but becoming proficient in it can make their lives easier in pass protection by keeping the defense guessing. It would be wise for Rees and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn to make sure that becomes a viable part of Notre Dame’s offense next season.

If Notre Dame’s receivers are more explosive next season, screens on the outside could provide easy yardage too.

• Notre Dame’s pistol formation needs more gunpowder. The Irish mixed in a pistol formation — when a running back lines up behind the quarterback taking a shotgun snap — for only 41 plays with their starting offense this past season.

The formation was predictable — 37 designed runs and four dropbacks — and not very productive. The Irish rushed for 142 yards and completed one of their four pass attempts for 14 yards out of the pistol for an average of just 3.8 yards per play.

Notre Dame’s starting offense was pretty predictable when Book lined up under center too. Roughly 81 percent of the 155 play calls from under center were designed runs. Yet it worked fairly well with 676 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.

But with so much rushing success from under center, the Irish should be able to cash in on play-action passes more often. Book completed 17 of his 27 passes from under center for 264 yards and one touchdown.

Notre Dame’s reliance on the various snap alignments may be dictated by which quarterback wins the starting job. Coan should be comfortable playing under center from his Wisconsin days. Buchner, Brendon Clark and Drew Pyne worked primarily out of the shotgun in high school.

Extra points

• How good was Notre Dame left tackle Liam Eichenberg in 2020? The Outland Trophy finalist and consensus All-American allowed only 13 pressures in 12 games throughout the season. That was 10 fewer pressures than right tackle Robert Hainsey conceded in 2020.

Eichenberg’s dominance could also be measured in the running game with some help from fellow consensus All-American Aaron Banks at left guard. Designed runs to the outside of Notre Dame’s left tackle spot averaged 7.9 yards per carry. Runs to the left at all averaged roughly one yard per carry more than runs to the right.

That’s a testament to both Eichenberg and Banks and not just because Banks filled in for Eichenberg briefly when he bruised his eye against Florida State. The two work together well and regularly won one-on-one blocks in the zone blocking schemes deployed by the Irish.

Notre Dame averaged 5.6 yards per carry on all designed runs with its starting offense.

• Book completed only five passes that were caught more than 30 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He only attempted 18 throws at that depth as the Irish weren’t able to establish consistency with the deep ball.

But how important was it when Book and his receivers did connect deep? Four of those completions that were caught beyond 30 yards of the line of scrimmage came in Notre Dame’s two most important victories over Clemson and North Carolina in November.

McKinley accounted for three of those receptions with two for 96 yards against North Carolina and one for 45 yards against Clemson. Wide receiver Avery Davis hauled in a 53-yard reception against Clemson that set up his game-tying touchdown catch.

Skowronek caught Book’s first deep ball of 31-plus yards last season against Pittsburgh. He caught the pass 38 yards downfield for a 73-yard touchdown.

• Senior defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa announced Friday night that he would return to Notre Dame next season.

Tagovailoa-Amosa still has two years of eligibility remaining because of the NCAA’s COVID-19 eligibility exemption and a redshirt season in 2018, in which he played just two games due to a foot injury.

The 6-foot-3, 282-pound defensive tackle from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, started nine games for the Irish last season and tallied 17 tackles, six tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks. Notre Dame returns both of its starting interior defensive linemen next season with nose guard Kurt Hinish also returning for his fifth and final season.

Notre Dame’s deep passing game was too reliant on wide receiver Javon McKinley in 2020. McKinley caught 12 passes of 20-plus yards lastseason after Chase Claypool finished among the country’s best with 23 such receptions in 2019.
Freshman tight end Michael Mayer, top, was a big reason why Notre Dame’s offense could rely on formations utilizing two tight ends in 2020.