20 Thoughts: Irish Offense

Wonder what the offense will look like Saturday in Dublin? How about at mid-season? Who'll emerge from a crowded backfield, from an unproven but promising group of receivers, and who can't the Irish afford to lose up front? We have a few ideas, plus more questions and answers, inside...

1 -- 2011's pet play included the pairing of Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd on the same side, a tactic that commanded three defenders and afforded Floyd a massive lead blocker in space on the oft-used bubble screen immediately off the snap. What will be the 2012 equivalent? Who will pair with Eifert to command an extra defender or in this case, be able to consistently beat solo coverage when Eifert draws double? Candidates abound, but one constant will remain: Eifert will be split wide and slotted to give the Irish running game and quick passing game a 6'6" 251-pound blocker in space.

2 -- True freshman Davonte' Neal will become a fan favorite by mid-October. The 5'9" slot receiver might have the quickest feet on the team, but more important, has the hard-nosed attitude necessary to succeed on dangerous (to a receiver's health) tunnel screens, a play used in college football since Notre Dame's Rocket Ismail made it popular in the late 80s. The Irish offense was ineffective with tunnel screens last year, run often to T.J. Jones for minimal gain. The ND defense obliterated the play by opponents, largely because of Manti Te'o's instincts and prowess vs. the screen pass.

It will be a crucial weapon for Brian Kelly's offense this fall, and Neal, plus quality blocking in space, will be the reason for its success.

3 -- The most valuable backup on the 2012 Irish offense? Its not QB2, RB2, WR4, or the No. 2 tight end…it's redshirt-freshman offensive lineman Nick Martin, who challenged for the starting right guard role in the spring and will now back up the position, plus right tackle with Tate Nichols hobbled, and potentially left tackle to preserve a season of eligibility for true freshman Ronnie Stanley, the technical No. 2 LT on the depth chart. The Irish can't afford to lose potential All-America Zack Martin as a starter, but its the younger Martin brother, Nick, that will serve as a key utility man up front.

4 -- He won't lead the team in rushing attempts, yards, or touchdowns. He won't lead the squad in receptions, receiving yards, or touchdown receptions, but senior hybrid Theo Riddick could threaten classmate Cierre Wood for most touches from scrimmage this fall. Look for a combined 150-200 from Riddick, a wide gap that illustrates how much we don't know about the 2012 'O in comparison to season's past.

5 -- Players with 10 TD potential include Eifert, Riddick, and Wood. Players with 5 TD potential are numerous, but the key is that at least two others produce that reality, as the offense needs another weapon to produce numbers, not pre-season theory. Irish fans will be surprised by the season's results if either Neal or redshirt-freshman DaVaris Daniels can produce five scores and consistent yardage this fall.

6 -- Either T.J. Jones or John Goodman must be markedly better than in season's past. The guess here is Jones will be, as he'll return to his dedicated north-south style after the catch he flashed often as a true freshman in 2010. Can Goodman become enough of a mid-range threat to put his 4.45 40-yard dash speed into play?

7 -- A theory: quarterback Tommy Rees' statistically impressive, but too often sporadic accuracy is hurt by his lack of mobility. Rees had no margin for error last year, both in his pre-snap reads or release of the football. Better feet would have afforded the junior a chance to start for four seasons at the University, a reality that's unlikely entering September 2012.

8 -- Related to the point above, the Irish offense will enjoy more big plays in the passing game because of its quarterbacks' feet, not stronger arms. Everett Golson's ability to extend plays will cause defenses to scramble, opening up mid-range passing lanes for targets to catch the ball in space and attempt to beat one defender rather than the phalanx that usually greeted Floyd et al last fall.

Quick-footed triggermen still ruled the college game last season, from the top tier (Robert Griffin, Andrew Luck), next-in-line (Russell Wilson, Tyler Wilson), and the indomitable Denard Robinson), and others of quality for 2012 in Washington's Keith Price and BYU's Riley Nelson.

And remember, the unlikely-to-run Matt Barkley of USC riddled Notre Dame's free pass rushers with head fakes and pocket escapes last October.

9 -- 2012 shapes up as the first season of the Kelly era in which more than four receivers are game day regulars. It could likewise be the first that includes six pass catchers that hit double digits (not including tight ends and running backs). But that still leaves out one potential contributor, junior Daniel Smith, who's appears to be at a crossroads season with no career catches and two seasons of eligibility burned on special teams. (Freshman prodigy and potential deep threat, Chris Brown will forge his way onto the field.) It's thus likely we'll know all we need to know about Smith by the time the Week Five bye rolls around.

10 -- Not counting injury to the position's starter, the most receptions logged by a backup tight end for the Irish over the last 10 seasons is 14 in 2003. That season was the exception, as an extremely poor passing game saw 18 receptions from starter Anthony Fasano, 14 from backup Jared Clark, and another 13 from FB/HB/TE Josh Schmidt. The offense suffered with useless check downs to tight ends a focal point a disjointed west coast attack.

Most seasons see fewer than 10 receptions from the position's backups (Eifert had one catch in six games with Kyle Rudolph healthy; John Carlson had just six behind starter Anthony Fasano in '05), but 2012 could be the exception. Can Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas combine for 15-20 grabs? Can they combine for 2-3 scores? Key to the playing time for both is in-line blocking, but clutch receptions in the red zone would take full advantage of the position's deep talent pool this fall.

Note: Look for Part II, and 10 more thoughts, Sunday morning.


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