Cohesion a mustNotre Dame's sack-free October offense was the result of myriad factors. A pair of dedicated running backs that take pride in pass protection and a quarterback who excels at getting the ball out of his hands, and into those of a perimeter playmaker are two key parts of the equation.
But it starts up front with a quintet of experienced blockers along scrimmage. Three of the team's five offensive linemen have combined to start 21 games together at their designated positions, a fourth, Taylor Dever, has started 18 of them. The unit's only new starter, left guard Chris Watt, has joined that quartet for all eight starts this season and was a key backup with the group, appearing in all 13 games last fall.
According to head coach Brian Kelly, it takes at least that long for a unit to reach peak performance.
"That takes time, and they've got to be in the lineup," Kelly said. "If you've got guys in and out of the lineup, that's going to hold it back. I think the core of it is in place and (OL coach) Ed Warinner is now in his second year with those guys. That room's in pretty good shape in terms of nomenclature, in terms of all the things they're doing."
Part of the process was re-training to fit his spread attack.
"Within the spread, its stance, some of them have to get used to being in a two-point stance," Kelly offered. "A lot of them were in a three-point stance (previously). So early on, it was just getting them comfortable in their stance. Secondly, it was gaining communication continuity through the five of them. What he's saying (one lineman next to another, down the line), that means something... All of those things take time."
Quarterback Tommy Rees has been sacked just eight times in 12.5 career games as the lead signal-caller. Prior to his ascension to the starting role last November, Dayne Crist was dropped 16 times in his first eight starts. Though struggles up front – and notably, from the team's running backs – played a role in the high number of sacks suffered by Crist, Rees' ability to set protections at the line should not be understated.
"From a protection standpoint, it's getting into the right runs; moving the pocket is going to change the protections," Kelly said. "We'd like to move Tommy's launch point a lot more. But the core of it is getting in the right protections. We put it on the quarterback, so that's a communication that has to happen with the offensive line.
"So it's not (a situation in which) ‘more is better'; it's getting really good at the couple that we have."
Rees said trust is key as well.
"I think it's a matter of playing with one another and getting comfortable with one another; knowing when a defensive end is coming up field to have confidence that your offensive tackle is going to ride him out and you can step up and make (throws)," Rees said of his role. "A lot of it is making sure you're in the right protection to start; making sure you're sliding the right way. If (the QB) can put the line in position to succeed, they have a lot of talent up front and they'll do a good job."
Kelly added of Rees, "He's really good at it."
AccountabilitySaturday's pre-game Irish huddle included a repeated phrase that's become the team's new mantra, "Count on me."
Kelly introduced the change at a Tuesday practice following the team's loss to USC.
"I felt like my job is to have the pulse of our team and I felt like ‘count on me' meant accountability, responsibility, getting my job done, taking care of my business," Kelly said. That's why I wanted that to resonate."
The phrase means something different to individual players.
"All of us need to be out there and do our assignments. At the end of the day, you can't be questioning one of your teammates or questioning a coach, you need to rely on each other and rally together to win games," said Rees of the three-word slogan.
"Everybody sees different things in their game that they can improve on, and improving on things can help the team win," said linebacker Manti Te'o, the hands-down MVP of Saturday's 42-point blowout of the Midshipmen. "The things that coach Kelly told us about, that saying has really kind of opened our eyes with everybody and trying to be accountable."
Kelly added, "The players are going to take it the way they need to take it. The reason why I instituted it was accountability, responsibility."
For breakout senior star Jonas Gray, "Count on me" includes the quality of leadership.
"It means we're all in this together. You want to be able to look at the person next to you and know you were able to count on him during the game and he was able to count on you as well," Gray said. "Me personally, it's being a leader, a senior guys can look up to. Making sure more and more guys watch film, making sure the locker room is taken care of, just the small things that coach Kelly has been harping on all year, things we need to take more consideration to.
"After awhile you take those things for granted, and it has to come from the players, it can't come from anyone else. During this grind time of the season," Gray continued, "we have to make sure we pay attention to small things. That's the difference between winning and losing teams.
Seniors, Junior, Sophomore, FreshmanKelly offered a few updates on roster issues, including the insertion of sophomore Daniel Smith last week after seven games on the sidelines. Smith also first played in Week Seven last season in the same role: a starter on the team's kick coverage unit.
But as he re-assimilates to the field, don't expect the South Bend product to make a scrimmage impact over the final month.
"I mean, at this point, he wouldn't see any time unless it was late in the game like you saw against Navy. He'll just be in the depth for us right now in terms of taking some of the load off of Mike (Floyd) and Goody (John Goodman)," said Kelly of Smith, adding that the spring could offer a second chance for Smith to earn a rotation role. "Hope so. Yeah, I hope so," Kelly offered.
Also rejoining the fray vs. Navy in good health, likely for the first time since the opener, was senior Sean Cwynar, of whom defensive coordinator Bob Diaco noted this week is in a daily battle to keep his weight up as an already undersized nose guard (6'4" 285).
"He's eating a lot of calories. We have a fuel stop here within our program that carries a lot of those complex carbohydrates to keep the weight on," Kelly said. "He's a hard-working kid. He's in the business school (accelerated MBA program as Cwynar has already graduated as a true senior). He's doing great things. We have to know if (players are) holding weight, and he's one that we have to work hard on."
Said Diaco of Cwynar, "When you look at him…he's probably, in 10 years, going to weigh 75 pounds less than he does (now). His frame, he's just a regular Joe, like 10 of us standing here. He's just fighting with every fiber he has to eat and consume probably 8,000 calories a day and weight train.
"Put one hand behind his back and that becomes a major issue. Now he has two hands and he's doing a nice job."
Kelly added of Cwynar, now free of a wrap that rendered him a one-handed player for the first half of the season, "Naturally, he's going to be better. (He has) the ability to get two hands on and disengage (a blocker)…He didn't turn into Warren Sapp, but I'll tell you what, that's a good player for us that now is healthy."
Kelly said senior defensive end Ethan Johnson would be a game-time decision. Johnson has missed the better part of four games with an ankle injury.
"It's in his hands. Ethan takes care of himself. He knows his body; he knows what he can do. He's ready to go. We'll just have to see how it shows up on Saturday."
Linebacker Manti Te'o also battled an ankle injury in recent weeks. It was revealed Tuesday by his defensive coordinator that Te'o was unable to practice fully, sometimes under heavy limitations, over the last month.
He's full-go now.
"We made sure that we got him to Saturday," Kelly said of recent practice plans with Te'o, who reportedly hurt his ankle in practice prior to the Air Force contest. "The most important thing is to get our guys to Saturday and we did what we could do. Manti not getting as many reps certainly is better than somebody else getting all the reps. Those are the decisions. But he's getting healthier and he's playing better because of it."
Also getting plenty of reps is freshman quarterback Everett Golson – and against the first-team defense, to boot.
"He takes some reps, but his primary responsibility is to help our defense," said Kelly in reference to Golson's scout team status.
While "demo" work may appear an indignity to outsiders, consider that Golson likely earns more total practice snaps – though not running Notre Dame's offense – than either backup Dayne Crist or Andrew Hendrix.
My guess: the freshman dual-threat is a lock for the team's year-end Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year Award, one instituted last season by Kelly and the staff.