Mid-Week Notes: Irish Offense

Kelly discusses Oklahoma's new 3-3-5 defense, the Irish running game (and personnel) to date, his "other" freshmen receivers, and the need for execution in short-yardage situations.

Last year's Notre Dame win over Oklahoma in Norman included key offensive contributions from skill position standouts Cierre Wood, Everett Golson, Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick, and T.J. Jones.

Gone, gone, gone, gone -- and present and accounted for.

Oklahoma returns just one defensive line, secondary, and linebacker starter from that contest, and now features a new defensive system, to boot. It was thus of interest Tuesday when Kelly noted the team's chief method of offensive transport is likely to be similar Saturday in South Bend, to that employed last October in a 30-13 road upset.

"Offensively we were able to find a way to run the ball into a very difficult box look, and eke out a couple of big plays," Kelly said of an attack that struck for a 62-yard touchdown run and a 50-yard post reception to set up the game's decisive score. "I think you're going to have to see a similar kind of effort."

Considering Tommy Rees has already hit for eight gains of 32 or more yards (Notre Dame's quarterbacks managed just 11 total last season), part one of Kelly's equation -- running into the shifting Oklahoma front -- could prove the bigger challenge of two.

"The last three weeks have been a real challenge for us, as you know, in the running game," Kelly said. "We certainly have to run the ball better. We know that. I think everybody here in this room and America knows that. We think that the circumstances are such that we're going to continue to work at it in practice, and we know we have to be better at it. 

"It's not going to be easy against Oklahoma, either. We just know we have to be better at it.  We're working on 3rd-and-short, we're working on being more efficient, executing better, and I think the things that we have to be better at are some of the things that we've talked about. We've got to be better at 3rd-and-short."

Kelly's reference was to the curious, continual shots down field in short-yardage situations last Saturday vs. the Spartans.

"We had a 4th-and-1 where we ran a rollover slot route to TJ Jones. They (MSU) fired the corner, didn't cover him, and we missed the blitz and Tommy (Rees) never saw him because the blitz was in his face. So that was a big 4th down situation if you remember. We missed a very easy blitz pickup situation there.

"The other one, we ran a boot, and we're supposed to slow release the tight end, and he's supposed to fall out late as the late check-down, and we don't slow release. Execution…So it's certainly something that we have to be better at and we have to be more efficient at."

Built for Speed

Three consecutive seasons of mediocre defensive play elicited off-season change in Norman. Oklahoma finished 64th, 55th, and 53rd in total defense over the last three years and the move to an aggressive, 3-3-5 defensive alignment is the result.

"They were a four-down team last year. If I was to guess (the reason for the switch), it's to probably handle a lot of the spread offenses in the Big 12. Still an extremely talented group of players…but it is a different scheme from last year," Kelly said.

"You're dealing with different edge pressures, where in the three-down defense (that Notre Dame often employs) you're protecting the edges, and (now) you have guys that are obviously going to be in space that are extremely athletic and coming off the edge."

Those edge pressures and myriad options mean rookie right tackle Ronnie Stanley is likely in for baptism-by-fire, Part IV, Saturday afternoon.

"He's been solid," Kelly said of Stanley. "He's a young kid, new experiences, a rugged schedule in September against three Big Ten opponents, two really aggressive defenses in Michigan and Michigan State, and then seeing something with Purdue where a lot of movement, a lot of pressures, a lot of stunting. He hasn't gotten an easy baptism into playing offensive tackle in the first month.  He could have used a couple of easy ones along the way.  But it's been a great learning experience.

"I think what I was most proud of him on Saturday is he took a pretty big hit on the interception that was called a penalty, which caused a bit of a hip pointer, and really needed to be attended to but sat out one play and came right back in and was part of our last touchdown drive on the right side where Cam (McDaniel) went in on the outside zone play untouched, and showed some real toughness getting in there. I'm proud of the way he's battled in the first month of the season."

While most fans hear edge pressures and think "pass protection" it's likely the Sooners myriad options pre-snap will test the offensive line's acumen in the running game as well. Kelly was asked Tuesday why his offensive front has been successful in protection of the quarterback, but not in the running game.

"There are so many factors to that. You know, I think they're blocking the five guys that they're supposed to block pretty good," he offered. "There are times when obviously we need to be better at it.  We have to block seven and eight, and we've got to get better at that. But they're doing a great job in pass protection. We need to do a much better job as a unit, as a whole, and that's not just the offensive line, that's everybody, coaches and tight ends included, in blocking the whole play."

Considering the Committee

Kelly raised a few eyebrows Sunday when he noted of the running back position, "We're rotating four guys right now."

The omission of a fifth, freshman Greg Bryant, was merely a reference to playing time vs. Michigan State, not a far reaching plan.

"We just got to four. I'd like to get to five," he said. "Greg certainly has a skill set that we just haven't gotten into the game yet.  But again, we're trying to get him in on special teams. He's on kickoff (coverage) right now. We're trying to get him involved in some of the other running teams (coverage and return). But we got to four, we're trying to get to five.

"It's about scripting five and trying to get five into the game more than anything else. We have him scripted into certain plays, it's just really the flow of the game and the circumstances in trying to get him in."

Asked about junior starter George Atkinson, third in rushing attempts (24) and yards (125), but first in yards-per-carry (5.0), Kelly offered, "The next step in his development for us is -- and as we know, he's got to continue to work on his ball skills (and) I thought he did a nice job on Saturday on a tough catch. He's got to run through tackles."

Catching On

Saturday's win over Michigan State did not include major contributions from early-season standout DaVaris Daniels. The junior was stymied by Spartans cornerback Darqueze Dennard to the tune of three receptions…for six yards. (Daniels drew a holding penalty, +10, and a pass interference +15, from Dennard as well.)

"I think we all know that our guys are not finished products, and the challenges that they get by playing the schedule that we do allows them to grow as players," Kelly said. "I think any time that you look at our players and you want to see them grow from the experiences that they have.  DaVaris is a very smart kid, and he watches film, and he's very competitive, and I think that what we'll be looking for, and he will be as well, is to learn from his experiences."

With Daniels blanketed on the other side, freshman Corey Robinson stepped to the fore, catching three first downs -- each a third-down conversion -- gaining 24, 13, and 17 yards, respectively, on the receptions.

But Robinson wasn't the only first-year receiver to contribute to Win #3. Fellow early enrollee James Onwualu had notable blocks that sprung teammates Daniel Smith (9 yards on first down) and Cam McDaniel (a 7-yard touchdown late in the third quarter).

"James is physically more developed than all of our freshman receivers, so he can go in there and carry a different load for our receivers," said Kelly of his niche as a blocker in space. "We throw the ball while he's in there, sometimes he's not targeted, but a lot of the times James is in a more rugged role for us because physically he is far beyond a freshman in terms of his strength."

Polar opposite Onwualu is the sub-180 pound speedster, Will Fuller. Fuller notched his first career reception Saturday, running a textbook fade route vs. press coverage for 37 yards in the first quarter.

"We knew Will had great speed, but he tracks the ball so well," Kelly said. "His catch was indicative of that, and it was an over-the-shoulder catch where he had to track the ball. He tracks it well. He's got strong hands, and obviously he's got great speed. He's got to continue to get stronger.

"I would say that both of those guys have been kids that have developed to the level that we are hopeful."

Beating the Press

Kelly spoke in his Sunday teleconference, and reiterated Tuesday the continued media emphasis on Tommy Rees' pre-snap reads.

"I think we make maybe a little too much of it," Kelly said Sunday. "Some defenses, Michigan State's in particular, really (don't) care what you're doing. They're going to run their stuff.  Some get into 'we check, you check.'  I think that's probably overplayed, too.

"I think from what we see more times than not, defenses are going to run what they run.  Tommy tries to get us in the right looks most of the time.  He doesn't get it right all the time either."

But not getting the right look wasn't the main issue in Saturday's passing game struggles.

"There weren't many mis-reads as much as there were just misses," Kelly said. "This was (about), 'Put it (the pass) on a guy.'

"It was all man-to-man, 100 percent, there was no zone, there was not one snap-- I think there was one snap of Tampa 2 coverage the whole game. Other than that it was 100 percent man-to-man coverage. 

"It was a total departure in that sense…you've just got to put it on him (the receiver)," Kelly reiterated. "Sometimes we had a touchdown where we got tugged and it didn't get called, he overthrew a guy, other times where he needed to put a level one ball. We're going to see more of it. He's just got to be more accurate in those situations."

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