Finishing the Drill

Our fourth camp preview examines the team's red zone offense -- an aspect of the Notre Dame program in need of drastic improvement over the last five seasons.

Notre Dame

In lieu of garden-variety rankings of each position group, introduces "The Guts" -- an inside look at 10 aspects of the Irish paramount to the season's success. Over the next 9 days we'll examine the following:

  • Interior Rush defense (Previewed Here)
  • The Rushing Attack (Previewed Here)
  • Base/1st Down defense (Previewed Here)
  • Red Zone Offense
  • Short Yardage Offense
  • 3rd Down defense
  • The Passing Attack
  • Downfield Pass defense
  • Special Teams
  • Field Goal Unit

(If your first question is, "What about turnovers?" they'll be covered within each aspect of the game detailed above. )

For details on each category, read our introduction column, here.

Today's focus is on the team's red zone offense, an aspect of the program that has not met head coach Brian Kelly's expectations or prior standards.

Numbers of Note - Irish Red Zone Offense

The only consistent aspect of Notre Dame's red zone offense over the last three seasons, including the last two under the Kelly regime, is the number of trips made inside the 20-yard line: 50 in 2009 under former coach Charlie Weis; 46 in 2010, Kelly's first season, and 48 last fall.

Weis' '09 crew led by veteran Jimmy Clausen scored touchdowns on just 28 of its 50 trips to the red zone, failing to score on eight occasions. Kelly's '10 team hit pay dirt in only 26 of 46 trips, likewise failing to score just eight times, while last year's Irish offense converted 32 of its 48 red zone forays into touchdowns. They were help scoreless 11 times.

(Kelly's 2009 Cincinnati Bearcats scored a whopping 42 touchdowns in 58 red zone trips in 2009, 20th in the nation. Last year, Notre Dame finished 88th overall.)

A whopping 10 of Notre Dame's 29 turnovers last fall occurred in the red zone: 8 after the Irish had crossed the 20-yard line with another two interceptions tossed inside the opponents' 10-yard line en route to a potential Irish score. Quarterback Tommy Rees also fumbled vs. Stanford at the Cardinal 24-yard line with the Irish in scoring position.

The Irish also committed penalties in close vs. South Florida (holding), Michigan (Delay of Game), Purdue (illegal procedure), Stanford (Delay of Game), and Florida State (holding) that contributed to keeping the Irish not only out of the end zone, but off the scoreboard.

Below are five keys to what I believe will be a vastly improved red zone offense:

#1 -- QB Improvement Imminent?

Traditionally, consistent red zone failure or success has been determined by a team's running game. But a modern-day corollary to that basic football tenet points to the performance of the college quarterback. Notre Dame failed spectacularly in that regard last fall as nine of Notre Dame's 10 red zone-related turnovers were, at least in part, the fault of the team's quarterbacks. Fans can logically expect improvement in this aspect of Kelly's offense, whether its from Tommy Rees as a third-year signal caller or one of his quicker, dual-threat understudies.

The concern surrounding Rees under center in the red zone is the need for passing and play-calling perfection, because he's a non-threat in the running game. A similar red zone fate plagued star signal-caller Jimmy Clausen in 2008 and even 2009 (sans the costly turnover in most cases). The slow-footed Clausen was relegated to the pocket regardless of defensive scheme or blitz package, often forcing him to find a one-on-one matchup immediately after the snap. The paltry total of 51 touchdowns scored in a remarkable 94 red zone trips over two seasons the disappointing end result.

Conversely, the relative athleticism of 2005-06 leader Brady Quinn under center afforded the Irish offense the threat of a rushing score from its 11th offensive player, with Quinn scoring key rushing touchdowns often, notably vs. USC in 2005 for the go-ahead score, and to end the half on a 4-yard dive at Georgia Tech in a too-close season opener.

Rees' presence inside the 10-yard line is, at present, as disadvantage -- the equivalent of playing one weapon short on every snap over 12 games. Passing windows close more quickly, forcing a pure passer to be perfect when the field shortens. Rees could improve in this regard, but it would be a major leap forward from last fall.

Expect Kelly to feature a mobile red zone quarterback should Rees win the starting job, with sturdy and speedy Andrew Hendrix the obvious option. Should Hendrix or Everett Golson win the job outright, the offense gains an extra red zone weapon automatically.

#2 -- Load Left

Senior running back Cierre Wood has three best friends in his quest for double-digit rushing scores this fall: left tackle Zack Martin, left guard Chris Watt, and center Braxston Cave. The trio boasts 61 games of starting experience and more important, could each rank among the nation's Top 10 at their respective positions by season's end. With the right side unproven and likely far less physical, Kelly as the play-caller, and Wood as the workhorse must know where their bread is buttered. Wood showed toughness in an early-season battle last fall at Pittsburgh, churning out key short-yardage runs and subsequent conversions vs. a solid rush defense.

Whether its Wood, backup George Atkinson, or the battering ram Hendrix from the shotgun, Notre Dame will earn its red zone rushing keep behind the line's left side. A backup tight end, former linebacker and potential pile-mover Troy Niklas the apparent ideal, will likely lead the way as an in-line or motion blocker.

Might as well die with your boots on…

#3 -- Tight End Tyler…or Trio?

Tyler Eifert broke a little-known 35-year streak at the program when he scored his fifth touchdown last fall: it was the first time an Irish tight end scored more than four since the championship season of 1977 when program legend Ken MacAfee notched six scores to lead the Irish. Eifert will likely need to break MacAfee's long-standing mark for the Irish offense to reach its potential this fall, but it would help if his understudies did some of the heavy lifting in close as well.

Sophomore Ben Koyack and junior Alex Welch can both run, get out of their breaks, go up and get the football at its highest point, and take a shot while securing the catch. Now one or both of the untested targets must do so on a college football Saturday.

#4 -- Better There than Elsewhere

Some simply have the knack. Whether they're dominant players or borderline starters, some football players thrive as their team approaches pay dirt. Michael Floyd ranks as the all-time best. Before him were standouts such as Jeff Samardzija, Autry Denson, Marc Edwards, Jerome Bettis, and Anthony Johnson, and of course, program scoring leader Allen Pinkett -- players that had a nose for the end zone with little room to operate.

Aside from Eifert, there's not likely a similarly talented player on the 2012 Irish, but the emergence of at least two players with "the knack" is crucial. A runner or receiver need not dominate everywhere to be an effective red zone weapon, and a likely candidate to be a tougher cover in the red zone this fall is senior slot target Robby Toma.

Quick out of his break, blessed with excellent hands, and of course, the innate desire to go get the football, Toma provides an undervalued "low" target for Irish quarterbacks. While most point to jump balls as the chief mode of transport in close, its the much safer low throw -- inside or outside the hashes -- that prove difficult for any defense to stop, man or zone.

Irish quarterbacks have yet to prove they can throw the fade with any degree of accuracy; each, however, has either the timing (Rees) or zip (Hendrix/Golson) to find a crafty player such as Toma or junior T.J. Jones as they operate inside short zones. Look for Toma to be the quarterbacks' go-to player when the defense turns its attention to Eifert inside the 20s.

#5 -- Trolling for Toughness

When Kelly referred to his team's "DNA" following a head-shaking performance vs. USC last October, most media outlets and subsequently fans, felt he was questioning his team's physical toughness. It was much more than that.

Kelly spoke often in his first season, both prior to and during, of the need for better focus, for becoming a program that showcased "that toughness" indigenous to successful teams over the long haul. Its partly why the veteran head coach was much more pleased with his team's wins at Pittsburgh and at Wake Forest than was the media or the fan base: the Irish needed to focus, finish, and put down their foe in a hostile environment against a team playing above its usual level. Doing so was a departure from the program's recent past.

It's the type of victory long-time Irish fans remember often during the Lou Holtz years, when not all of his 100 wins were aesthetically pleasing. It's the type of victory Kelly churned out at Cincinnati in 2009 matchups vs. Oregon State, Fresno State, and Pittsburgh.

That mental toughness is necessary in close, where the ability to produce 7 instead of 3 is paramount, and the presence of a turnover should be rare rather than a weekly occurrence.

Notre Dame has plenty of physically tough football players. It always has. Focus, discipline, the innate understanding of a game's situation, and yes, the disregard for one's body, is the next step. Each will determine whether the Irish finish the drill or leave points on the field this fall.

Its Year 3 of the Kelly regime. The long-successful program architect need not win a certain number of games to placate the (educated) masses this fall, but another season that displays an obvious lack of mental toughness would be tough to take. Toughness under pressure is the hallmark of any good team, and with his program now firmly in place, you can expect to see it from a Kelly-coached squad in 2012.

Red Zone Offense Ranking on the 2012 Irish: #4 Top Stories