Eye in the Sky: Offense

Our film review of Notre Dame's offense vs. USC Saturday includes an examination of the recent exploits of Troy Niklas, T.J. Jones, Chris Watt, and DaVaris Daniels, the Irish red zone offense, as well as the efforts of Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, Cam McDaniel and his running back co-horts, and a sampling of other Irish from the offensive side of scrimmage.

No. 1 and No. 2

Pre-season expectations that junior DaVaris Daniels would join senior go-to target T.J. Jones to form a 1-2 every-Saturday punch on the perimeter have proven premature. Though Daniels has had his moments, notably taking over a Week Three win at Purdue early in the final period, his weekly contributions have been inconsistent to date.

In his stead has stepped Troy Niklas, the junior serving of late as Tommy Rees' reliable second option in the passing game.

Niklas got the Irish on the board with a third-down touchdown grab from the 7-yard line in which he proved too much man for USC linebacker Hayes Pullard, first subtly shoving the 6'1" 230-pounder, then using his own 6'7" frame and a fine throw by Rees to the outside, to secure the smash-route score.

Niklas added a 30-yard wheel route reception two drives later as well as a crucial 9-yard curl inside, the first catch on a 6-snap, 91-yard drive to end the half that provided the Irish a 14-10 halftime (and final) advantage.

The junior target added a 13-yard grab just before Rees was lost for the remainder of the evening due to injury.

A much-improved in-line blocker, Niklas might have cost his offense a first down during backup Andrew Hendrix's third series, no-showing on a perimeter block that limited Cam McDaniel to five yards rather than what could have been a large gain. It appeared a concentration lapse by the future All-American candidate -- Niklas was one of many that seemed shell-shocked by the inept offense that took the field with Rees sidelined.

I had Rees as my in-game MVP but Niklas was also a candidate -- so too, of course, was the aforementioned Jones.

Targeted a team-high seven times, Jones drew a pass interference penalty, and recorded first down gains of 26, 8, and 11 yards, the latter a leaping grab of a 50/50 fade route thrown by Rees to end the half. Jones won "a street fight" as noted by game announcer Mike Mayock to catch the ball despite hand-to-hand combat between him and cornerback Kevon Seymour.

The reception occurred two snaps after Jones left the game after getting the wind knocked out of him on a diving attempt on the Irish sidelines.

"He's on the ground diving and making catches," said Kelly of Jones' daily approach. "He's on the ground more in practice than any of our young freshmen because he's competing all the time. These are the marks of great players. Every great player that I've had practices that way. That wasn't the case with him (early in his career), and he has developed that over his time here at Notre Dame."

From my vantage point, he's developed into the team's leading MVP candidate through seven games.

Indispensable -- Redefined

Each May I begin my season preview series (101 days prior to training camp) with the annual "Indispensable" series -- a ranking of the players Notre Dame can least afford to lose. Atop that list this season was junior quarterback Everett Golson. They lost him.

Not on the pre-season list (because he was a backup) was Tommy Rees.

Fast forward to the present and its Rees that sits as the clear-cut leader in this mythical category, due respect to Louis Nix and TJ Jones aside.

The Irish offense with Rees in the first half and opening series of the second produced 290 yards and two touchdowns on 41 snaps. Without him over the next five series? 19 snaps, 23 yards.

(Most important was the series not included in either QB's total, one that consisted only of two kneel downs by Hendrix -- the Irish won thanks to their rejuvenate defense.)

Rees was sharp, hitting on 14 of 21 for 166 yards and two scores without a pick in just over a half of play. Of his seven misses, only one was troubling, a designed roll right in which he missed a ridiculously open C.J. Prosise by 10 yards high and outside.

The senior from Lake Forest, Illinois has greatly improved his ability to throw while sliding left (a definite learned skill) but movement to the right still plagues him. He hit Niklas on designed boot right for a score vs. Michigan in Week Two but failed twice rolling right Saturday night, once on the Prosise throw, then later when hurried, hit, and called for intentional grounding just prior to his second half exit -- both times veteran Trojans defensive end Morgan Breslin stayed home to influence the play.

Rees remains an accurate, smart passer, but high-level accuracy remains an issue. He hit Jones for a back shoulder completion on the second snap of the game, 26 yards the end result. Had he thrown to the front shoulder and on time (and he had ample time in the pocket), Jones would have scored on an easy 73-yard catch and run, as the senior easily shed Trojans cornerback Anthony Brown at the line of scrimmage and there was no safety within shouting distance.

Notre Dame's drive ended at the USC 1-yard line several snaps later.

Rees remains good enough to beat most -- missed opportunities continue to plague him vs. quality defenses, and two of those (plus bowl) remain on the 2013 slate.

The Ill-Prepared Hendrix Experience

I'm with game announcer Mike Mayock -- Hendrix doesn't have the entire playbook at his disposal. Nor, judging from what we saw Saturday night, should he.

I can't imagine Hendrix would look like that again. In fact, if he started vs. both Air Force and Navy, I think Notre Dame would score a combined 60-70 points. But if it were Pittsburgh, Brigham Young, or Stanford this week, and Rees couldn't answer the bell, Notre Dame would have no chance of staying close.

After Saturday night's performance, it's incumbent upon Kelly that Hendrix play multiple series -- not just situationally -- vs. both the Falcons and Midshipmen. Neither team is equipped to stay with the Irish, but if Rees were to go down thereafter, Notre Dame's BCS Bowl hopes would go with him.

If Hendrix can't be prepared to beat a middling team such as Pittsburgh over the next two weeks (in emergent relief), he has no business holding the No. 2 spot ahead of Malik Zaire, a player for which Kelly and the offensive staff are desperately trying to preserve a fifth year of eligibility.

Hendrix, as Kelly noted at his Tuesday press conference, is better than he showed vs. the Trojans. I'm in full agreement with that notion, but he Saturday night among least effective triggermen the program has displayed in my 30-plus seasons watching Notre Dame in competitive action. (1998 USC game starter Eric Chappell will never be surpassed to that end.)

Two years ago, Hendrix played an uneven three quarters vs. Stanford, a true Top 10 team, in Palo Alto. He was scattered, often smothered, and harried throughout. But he competed well, and completed 11 of 24 passes with one meaningful touchdown, one garbage-time TD gift, and one game-killing interception.

Since, he's not progressed. That's on Kelly.

Saturday night though was on Hendrix, who bounced passes to open receivers on one-route reads and missed wide open 6'7" 270-pound Troy Niklas for anywhere between a 40-yard gain and an 83-yard score late in the contest. Instead, Hendrix dropped the ball -- a microcosm of his evening in one ugly pass attempt.

Hendrix needs to play to gain a modicum of confidence vs. both the Falcons and Midshipmen. If he doesn't, it should be Zaire in emergent relief thereafter, as a BCS berth remains the team's stated goal.

4th and 1 Shotgun

- On 3rd and Goal from the USC 2-yard line, center Nick Martin failed to secure middle linebacker Lamar Dawson in space and running back McDaniel was thus denied a walk-in score.

The missed block became relevant one snap later when the always ill-advised shotgun snap on fourth-and-goal from one foot away was predictable destroyed by the Trojans, this time courtesy run-blitzing safety Su'u Cravens.

The offense's inherent advantage of having the football placed inside the one-yard line is lost when it goes shotgun. Cravens came unblocked off the edge on an overload run blitz to bury McDaniel three yards away from where the ball was snapped. Losing three from a foot away is ridiculous.

Said Kelly Tuesday of the shotgun tactic in close: "Keeping goal line defenses off the field is one of the reasons, trying to keep your personnel on the field. Lessens the chance of (the defense) putting another defensive lineman on the field. I think most of it is you want to run your plays when you get down there, because you feel like you want to-- you don't want to get into that scoring zone and then have a new batch of plays when you get in there. You want to kind of run what you run."

The first part to me makes plenty of sense. The second, does not. Why not have an inside the 2-yard line goal line package for your offense? The ball is placed there on end zone penalties and invariably lands at the 2-yard line or closer during most contests.

Notre Dame's red zone offense has been middling to poor for 46 games and counting. This season it's been among the nation's worst:

2010: 26 TD in 38 trips (49th nationally)
2011: 32 TD in 48 trips (88th nationally)
2012: 29 TD in 48 trips (70th nationally)
2013: 12 TD in 22 trips (107th nationally)

Offensive Observations

Notes from Saturday night's contest:

-- Rees has always thrown a nice corner route. His 23-yard strike to Daniels between a squatting zone corner and the high safety on Saturday night's first drive the most recent example…

-- Aside from being a touch late getting to the second level on a tunnel screen thrown to TJ Jones, 5th-year left guard Chris Watt played exceptionally well. The words I used in my film notes regarding his blocking included, dominated, obliterated, "takes out," picks up easily, and "provides a passing window." Is Watt Notre Dame's top performer on the OL this season through seven games? I'll ask Brian Kelly Thursday night.

-- McDaniel's 24-yard rush on Notre Dame's second and final scoring drive came courtesy a Ronnie Stanley block (seal inside) with help from motion receiver TJ Jones (outside seal vs. linebacker Devon Kennard). His career-best 36-yard scamper? After a key block at the point of attack by center Nick Martin, was all McDaniel thereafter, his ankle-breaking shake of USC freshman safety Su'u Cravens the best move by a Notre Dame running back this season. Cravens was Scout.com's No. 1 ranked safety for 2013 with offers from USC, Notre Dame, Alabama -- and after the latter, does it matter who else?

-- Cravens got revenge late, causing and recovering an unconscionable fourth quarter fumble by the Irish junior that could have cost Notre Dame it's lead -- and thus, considering the offense, the game -- with just over six minutes to play. Thats' the second time this season an Irish running back has been bailed out by his defense following a possession-game fumble late in the fourth quarter (Amir Carlisle at Purdue).

-- Carlisle has fallen out of favor, it appears, and he didn't help himself with a concentration drop inside the 10-yard line Saturday night. Wasting limited chances, he's played himself into a definitive No. 3 role. With two seasons of eligibility remaining hereafter, he has plenty of time, but I expected more from the junior this fall…

-- Tarean Folston did not play. George Atkinson received just eight carries. I think both need to be reintegrated over the next two weeks to make them viable threats vs. Pittsburgh, Brigham Young, and Stanford…

-- Nick Martin has been flagged for two snap infractions and a hold (vs. USC) over the last three contests…

-- Freshman wide receiver Will Fuller was again part of the early game plan, targeted twice and also running for five yards on a jet sweep. Classmate Corey Robinson played sparingly and was not targeted for the first time since the season opener...

-- In fairness to Hendrix, offensive coordinator Chuck Martin and Kelly did him no favors: a first (and even second) pass attempt on a designed roll with one target deep downfield (APB for Chris Brown) might have loosened him up a bit rather than asking him to execute in the short passing game. It's never been his strength. Then again, calamity nearly occurred the one time Hendrix ran a play-action pass…

-- Hendrix's miss of an open TJ Jones on a 3rd and 4 out route to the boundary was 99 percent mental, one percent physical. No quarterback misses that throw when fully engaged in a contest...

-- Hendrix's throw to DaVaris Daniels was actually well-placed to the receiver's back shoulder. Daniels either had no awareness of the type of coverage he had ("in-phase" to borrow from Kelly) or assumed he wasn't getting the ball from the struggling passer.

-- Is Daniels better than he was last season, or just in better health? He has four touchdowns, all of which occurred vs. two teams that haven't beaten an FBS school this season.

-- McDaniel's fumble was inexcusable given the circumstances. I don't care if five helmets hit the football, you can't lose the rock in that situation…

-- I could use more Prosise in the near future. More Prosise with a sprinkling of Folston, Robinson, and plenty of touchdown Troy Niklas.

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