Notebook: How Notre Dame's offense is preparing for Oklahoma State's tough defense
SOUTH BEND — Tommy Rees provided a pretty straightforward game plan for No. 5 Notre Dame’s attempt to beat No. 9 Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl.
“It starts up front,” Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator said Monday. “Protecting the quarterback, carving out a run game are two things that we have to find a way to do.”
Those tasks will certainly be easier said than done on Jan. 1 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. (1 p.m. EST on ESPN). The Cowboys (11-2) lead the FBS in sacks (4.23 per game), tackles for a loss (8.5 per game) and sit fifth in rushing defense (91.2 yards per game).
The strides the Notre Dame’s offensive line made in the last six games with freshman Joe Alt and junior Andrew Kristofic starting together at left tackle and left guard, respectively, will be best measured against such a dominant defensive front. The offense won’t have running back Kyren Williams, who will sit out the bowl game in preparation for the 2022 NFL Draft.
The Irish (11-1) still have three running backs — sophomore Chris Tyree and freshmen Logan Diggs and Audric Estime — they trust to make plays. Rees said the running back group has practiced as well as anyone since Notre Dame started bowl practices on campus Dec. 11.
“We did a lot of good on good, and those guys made a ton of plays for us,” Rees said. “You saw Chris in the form where you want him. Obviously, Logan's had a really good year as a freshman and he's continuing to build off of that. Both of them look at this — and even Audric — they all look at it as an opportunity for them to showcase themselves moving forward.
“That group’s close knit. They know they're going to share the reps, but at the end of the day, they prepared well all year. They've played well in their moments all year. We don't anticipate a huge difference in the way we prepare for the game.
“Kyren's one of the best players I've been around at Notre Dame. I'm not trying to downplay that at all, but we're fortunate that we've developed a really good room there.”
For everything that Williams did well for Notre Dame, his help in pass protection might be the hardest to replicate.
“Kyren was elite in that,” Rees said.
Rees showed a willingness to adjust his play-calling to protect a struggling offensive line by playing with pace and advising starting quarterback Jack Coan to make quick decisions and get rid of the football with urgency. By the end of the season, Rees was comfortable in allowing Coan to take more time to push the ball down the field.
Even though Oklahoma State lost defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to Ohio State prior to the Fiesta Bowl, the Cowboys may still challenge Notre Dame’s ability to stretch the field in meaningful ways. Rees gave credit to Cowboys defensive line coach Joe Bob Clements for coaching a disruptive unit.
“They get off the ball,” Rees said. “They're violent at the point of attack. They have moves and then a counter. Then they do enough with those 'backers to try to create some mismatches.”
Notre Dame’s pass catchers — from wide receivers to tight ends to running backs — will need to be prepared for Coan to get them the ball immediately.
“We have to all be on the same page,” Rees said. “Getting eyes around, filling zones. Quarterback has to know where it's coming from and know where your outlet is.”
Eyes on the future at quarterback?
When USC quarterback Kedon Slovis entered the NCAA’s transfer portal last week, Notre Dame was among the first programs to reach out to him. That’s what Slovis, a junior, told Ryan Young of TrojanSports.com on the “Trojan Talk” podcast released Sunday.
On Monday, Rees was asked about Notre Dame’s interest in Slovis.
“We feel really good about the quarterbacks that are on our roster,” Rees said.
If Rees was or still is interested in Slovis, he likely wouldn’t broadcast it in a press conference. It’s clear the Irish could use some depth at quarterback next season with Coan’s departure and junior Brendon Clark’s planned transfer to Old Dominion.
With no more additions, the Irish would enter next season with four scholarship quarterbacks: Drew Pyne, Tyler Buchner, Ron Powlus III and Steve Angeli.
Angeli, a three-star recruit from Oradell (N.J.) Bergen Catholic, signed with Notre Dame last week and will enroll in January. Powlus, a freshman, hasn’t dressed all season for the Irish. Buchner, a freshman, and Pyne, a sophomore, have both played this season in relief of Coan. Unless another quarterback enters the mix, the starting competition should be between Buchner and Pyne.
In 10 games, Buchner has rushed 46 times for 336 yards and three touchdowns. He’s also completed 21 of his 35 passes for 298 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
“A couple days ago he probably had his best practice since he’s been at Notre Dame,” Rees said of Buchner. “He's been a little bit more consistent just delivering it. He's played with the 1s, 2s, and 3s over the last two weeks. So, it's been a mixed bag of who he's out there with.
“I've been really pleased with his development. His focus this bowl prep has been really high. He probably feels some urgency knowing like, ‘Hey, the tides are about to change here a little bit.’ He's prepped that way.”
Rees didn’t tip his hand on how much Buchner will play in the Fiesta Bowl, but that will probably be dictated by the success of Notre Dame’s running game without Buchner in the game.
“We go into every game with a plan in mind,” Rees said. “That changes based on the flow of the game. There's a plan for those guys to prepare and play in certain spots. Depending on how the defense is going, we adjust accordingly.”
Pyne, who hasn’t played since the two-game stretch he was needed against Wisconsin and Cincinnati (Sept. 25 and Oct. 2), has filled the role of supportive teammate and prepared backup.
“He's been great,” Rees said. “That's who Drew is. He's prepped like he has to play. He has not wavered in that one bit.”
Recruiting seniors to return
Notre Dame’s offense in 2022 could be aided by a handful of seniors opting to return for at least one more season with the Irish.
On the offensive line, starting center Jarrett Patterson and starting right tackle Josh Lugg have contemplated returning for fifth and sixth years, respectively. With a talented depth chart across the offensive line, Notre Dame could treat their returns more as luxuries than necessities.
The situation is a bit different at wide receiver, where the Irish could potentially lose one graduate senior (Avery Davis) and three seniors (Kevin Austin Jr., Braden Lenzy and Joe Wilkins Jr.). Losing more than one of those receivers would be significant to next year’s roster, since the Irish lack any receivers in the current sophomore and junior classes.
Notre Dame has three freshman receivers currently — Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas — and signed Tobias Merriweather, a four-star recruit from Camas (Wash.) Union, to join the team next season.
How does Rees plan to recruit guys like Lenzy, who told reporters Monday he doesn’t know what he’s going to do yet?
“I'm never there to sway somebody one way or the other,” Rees said. “Our job is to help them, give them information and our opinion and try to help connect as much as we can.
“We're going to have a lot of guys back. We have a chance to be really good this year and moving forward. Those things like the selflessness and coming back and improving your level and winning something here is pretty special.
“Each guy's individualized, but those conversations are fluid and something that we're very open and transparent about.”
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.