Eye in the Sky: Offense

Today's offensive film review looks at Tommy Rees' outstanding ball placement, the full-scale breakthrough this fall by TJ Jones, the emergence of young targets, the lack thereof from DaVaris Daniels, and a running back tandem that should receive the bulk of the work this Saturday in an effort to determine the direction of Brian Kelly's running game going forward...

Rees' Record Day

My former roommate and fellow alum spoke for a large subset of Irish fans when he sent me the following text Saturday night: "I was a never a huge supporter of Rees, but I'm happy for him to have a game like that."

Whether you're a Tommy Rees fan or you view him as a place-holder for Everett Golson, there's no longer a doubt that he's the 2013 team's best shot at a BCS berth, and he's playing the best football of his career.

Rees' best game began with his worst throw of the day, a go-route that fell well short of open intended receiver Corey Robinson -- those 75 yards and a score would have looked nice on the post-game stat sheet.

-- It's apparent the boundary side out-route or "stick" route to Troy Niklas is Rees' go-to alternative to T.J. Jones running a slant or comeback. Niklas caught two such passes for first downs Saturday and a third-down touchdown on a similar pattern vs. USC. At 6'7" 260, defenders will have to overcommit to Niklas to stop the pitch-and-catch. I sense and hitch-and-go from the massive target in the near future as the Irish adjust…

-- Encouraging to see Rees finding Koyack for an underneath route as well. His three targets in two weeks are more than the junior tight end enjoyed over the final 10 games of 2012, and the wheel route touchdown allowed Koyack to flash the potential fans and recruiting analysts espoused of him coming out of high school...

-- Rees still has trouble moving and throwing right. He sailed a ball over Chris Brown's head moving to the right and throwing off his back foot and did the same on a roll left to Daniels. Rees looked better in past games performing the latter, less-natural movement. His awkward jump pass rolling right should be scrapped before it comes back to haunt him…

-- Irish head coach Brian Kelly offered Rees' best pass of the day -- in terms of ball placement -- was the fade route pass to Brown for his fifth and final touchdown toss. I submit instead it went to Jones on a 23-yard scramble route to the left side: high, outside, and in front of Jones. No chance a defender can make a play on that gem...

-- The out-and-up score to Jones in the second half wasn't bad, either nor was the aforementioned wheel route score to Koyack -- both placed to the outside shoulder with the pass-catcher having leverage up the field.

Given as much time as he enjoyed in the pocket Saturday, Rees will light up any team left on the Irish schedule. Therein, of course, lies the rub.

Time for a Tandem?

George Atkinson's 18-carry, 148-yard outburst vs. Oklahoma appears in retrospect more outlier than harbinger. The junior hasn't run with authority since, reverting to an upright style that resulted in a pair of unnecessary shots at the hands of Air Force and more important, in precious few yards after contact. In six first-half carries Saturday, Atkinson broke one tackle (at the ankles, no less) and made nothing out of, well, very little -- the Irish offensive front did him no favors early.

His best run Saturday was a 7-yard quick-hit to the right (boundary) side on a shovel toss from Rees. The junior turned upfield quickly and got what was there. On a swing pass one series later, again to the right but this time to the field side offering him more room to maneuver, Atkinson hesitated with blockers in front, tight end Troy Niklas eventually lost his block, and Atkinson took a shot as a result of running too high and tentatively through traffic…

Atkinson's maddening tendency and reliance on choppy, gather steps on his attempt to cut upfield on stretch runs not only slows his momentum, inhibiting him from running with lower body power, they also make him the slowest runner of Notre Dame's four 'backs…

The quickest from Point A to Point B still appears to be junior Amir Carlisle, unfortunately for the versatile junior, Point B is too often just after scrimmage. Carlisle appears shot out of a cannon when he receives the handoff but it's a dud thereafter -- he hasn't had a run longer five yards in the last three outings and just one (a 10-yard burst vs. the Sooners) in excess of five yards since Game Two.

Enter freshman Tarean Folston, he of the jump cuts, burst through traffic, and burst at the second level. Folston plays faster than Atkinson at present, and though he might not be an automatic 80-yad score when he gets a step on the last defender, he's going to break plenty of 30, 40, and 50-yarders during his days in South Bend (the runner than can go 80 against quality foes is a rarity in the modern game).

Folston danced for nine yards on a run off right tackle (nice in-line block by Chris Brown to open a crease) and added 16 more off the left side one snap later thanks to a James Onwualu crack-back block (Irish receivers springing runners in space is a welcomed site), and the rookie's talent did the rest as Folston showed great acceleration after a jump-cut in space. He later lowered his pads (and head) and picked up five yards over the left side, getting below the defender and delivering rather than absorbing a blow.

With Navy on tap, it's time to see if Folston can be the compliment to Notre Dame's best runner this season, Cam McDaniel. Wit 240 yards in his last three games (43 carries), McDaniel's "backup" status is in designation only -- he's the leading man. (Just ask the the Today Show).

McDaniel's second carry came at the outset of the second quarter, an 11-yard hit off left tackle with some help from Onwualu and tight end Ben Koyack at the point. He followed with 8, then 9 more, first with Koyack leading the way as an H-Back (almost an offset fullback in the formation) over left guard, then with a power un over right guard. Two snaps later, McDaniel's three rushes for 30 yards led to a stop-and-go touchdown to Jones down the right side.

The junior keeps his momentum forward continuously while usually recognizing creases off tackle. Fans that are concerned McDaniel too often hammers into a gap that's not cleared must come to grips with the fact that he's earning more carries because he often stubbornly adheres to the offense's stated desire to stay "ahead of the chains." In other words, a two-yard gain is much better than a loss of one.

The upcoming contest vs. Navy should be the McDaniel/Folston show. If Folston can show he deserves 12 carries in a backup role, another dozen should await in the Steel City on November 9.

TJ and the Young Guns

Is there a more surprising bona fide star than TJ Jones, 2013? A perfect compliment to Tyler Eifert last season, Jones has thrived as the no-doubt go-to receiver as a senior, and Saturday's 7-catch, 104-yard effort was an example of what a receiver in synch with his quarterback can accomplish.

The team's best offensive player (including LT Zack Martin) this season, Jones offered a beautiful vice grip grab on the sidelines, bending low and tapping his toes for possession on a first quarter catch. He drew a holding call one drive later (his third penalty drawn in as many games and fourth in the last five), and on the ensuing drive earned his first carry of the season, a 7-yard burst over the left boundary.

Jones added a scramble route for 23 (the aforementioned perfect pass from Rees), a clear example of a receiver and quarterback in synch.

The cherry on top for Jones is his continuous fight for an extra two to five yards following every catch, even hitch routes with his back to the defense. His out-and-up score from 30 yards out was set up by such routes, on one of which he gained 5-6 yards after the catch for 15 yards on first down.

Aiding his effort Saturday was a trio of youngsters, the aforementioned Brown who notched his first career score on a 15-yard fade route in the third quarter, and true freshmen Corey Robinson and Will Fuller.

Rees' 35-yard go-route to Robinson was simply an athletic mismatch, a pass thrown off back foot as he was getting hit. (A "trust me" throw of the modern era.) Good news for Irish fans: Robinson is an athletic mismatch for 90 percent of the corners he'll face during his time in South Bend.

Classmate Will Fuller likewise secured his first score, a 46-yarder down the pipes (one that Fuller secured after a bobble on the back end of the football). He later showcased his ball skills winning a 50-50 throw 47 yards downfield from Andrew Hendrix, a pass that ranks among the top 3-4 Hendrix has thrown in his collegiate career.

The first thing I noticed on high school film review of Fuller was his unique balls skills. Turns out he can flat out fly, too. The touchdown, however, was the product of terrible defense by the Falcons -- man-to-man coverage from the slot with no bump and no help. Recipe for disaster (ask Austin Collinsworth v. Jaelon Strong of Arizona State).

The Robinson, Brown, Fuller trio almost makes you forget that DaVaris Daniels has failed to take a step forward this fall. Daniels has four touchdowns on the season, all occurring vs. Temple and Purdue -- a pair of teams with one combined win vs. FBS competition.

He has just 13 catches over the last five games since torching Purdue (without him, the Irish would have lost and the season would be forever remembered for it), with just one outing of consequence, a 4-catch, 67-yard game vs. the Sun Devils in Cowboys Stadium.

Daniels Saturday caught a hitch route, was missed (badly) by Rees on another, and secured a 28-yard corner on a beautiful pass from Rees. It was the junior's 12th game with a reception in excess of 20 yards in just 19 career outings.

The emergence of Fuller and Robinson, and the reemergence of Brown is a promising development, but Notre Dame will not beat Stanford with 2-3 receptions for 40 yards from DaVaris Daniels.

It's time for Daniels to join TJ Jones at the big boys' table.

Odds and Ends

The boundary side pass is a bit of a tendency for the Irish passing game in crucial third down situations. Hitch routes, outs (stick) and comebacks are the method of transport for Rees and his aerial crew. Of note, Rees still mixes it up with field side throws on 1st and 10.

-- Rees' wheel route score to Koyack (with a post underneath by Niklas) was the fourth consecutive beautiful downfield throw by the vastly improved senior…Can Koyack become a third possession receiver, joining Jones and Niklas as mid-range and short threats inside?

-- When's the last time Daniels caught a route inside the hash marks? Arizona State I believe, one that set up a TJ Jones score...

--Tough first half for center Nick Martin. The junior was overwhelmed on Amir Carlisle's first carry, one limited to no gain, and was again destroyed on right side stretch handoff to the field side, Carlisle again the victim as and Carlisle as nose guard Nick Fitzgerald was simply winning one-on-one… -- Martin got a modicum of revenge with a a pancake block two snaps later to give McDaniel five yards as first-time starting guard Steven Elmer fired out of his stance…

-- Kelly noted post-game the offense adjusted it's running game to account for nose guard penetration…Air Force's six in the box too often whipped Notre Dame's six on stretch runs left. A bit disconcerting for the season's final three outings…Looked like Chris Watt missed badly in space trying to secure a linebacker on the opening drive and a 3rd-and-1 to Atkinson is stuffed...

-- Elmer, sophomore Ronnie Stanley, and the entire line showed great physicality is space on a boundary side gain of nine for McDaniel…

-- Credit Air Force for an astute blitz call to stop Notre Dame on third down, forcing a 51-yard Irish field goal. With Elmer a first-time starter on the right an junior Connor Hanratty replacing injured 5th-year senior Chris Watt on the left, the Falcons (on Hanratty's initial snap of the season, no less) executed looping blitzes to both sides, with Elmer engaging, then leaving his outside edge (expecting help from Stanley, no doubt, but the sophomore was likewise occupied), and blowing by a not-yet-loose Hanratty to sack Rees for a loss.

-- Hanratty showed good punch in the running game later. Entering the game on third-and-long was a tough 2013 debut for the junior guard…

-- Did you see Matt Hegarty make his debut at right guard with Elmer at right tackle? Air Force did and took advantage of the youngster on his initial snap as well, beating him to the gap for a TFL. Hegarty, like Hanratty, improved as the game progressed…

-- Aaron Taylor, color commentator and former Irish great (1993 Lombardi winner): "Tommy Rees is a mobile quarterback. He can also make plays with his legs."

So, uh, I have no transition to the next sentence from that comment.

Moving on.

-- Nice to see Hendrix enjoy some success after a USC outing that looked a lot like Spartacus.

His 47-yard throw down the right sideline was a beauty, but there's something missing when he runs the operation on short and mid-range passes. Of his other three throws, one hit an unwitting linebacker (trailing Carlisle down the left seam) in the arm, another sailed high and wide, and another was a clear case of miscommunication with Chris Brown on a sideline route.

Notre Dame also had to burn a timeout to save Hendrix (who had no idea the clock was running out) a delay of game.

Rudimentary is the word you're searching for.

Back to Taylor: Did he lose a bet that forced him to say something 100 percent inaccurate on the air? Wow.

Not as egregious: Sideline announcer Lauren Gardner referring to Notre Dame's 2002 season under Tyrone Willingham as a "Return to Victory" rather than "Return to Glory."

Destruction of the English language aside: Return to Victory?

With one notable, painful exception, Notre Dame's pass protection has been outstanding this season. Air Force was overmatched, but the unit deserve kudos, regardless.

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