Brian Kelly's Ever-Changing Offense

There are few constants that represent the five-season Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame more than change -- either in the off-season or when the bullets go live -- to his ever-evolving Irish offense.

Whoever coined the phrase, "Nobody likes change," never met Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

Through five seasons and 65 games, Kelly -- a supposed dyed-in-the-wool advocate of up-tempo offense when he took the reigns in South Bend -- has since changed, or dramatically tweaked, his preferred method of operation either prior to or during each season at the helm.

The results have been mixed, though as the numbers illustrate below, an ample amount of yardage not commensurate with the dearth of red zone touchdowns has been a persistent detriment to the unit's continued success.

Change seems afoot again as Kelly, plus quarterbacks Everett Golson, and Malik Zaire, will help determine and define Notre Dame's offensive approach for the sixth time in as many seasons.

But before our initial look ahead at Kelly's offensive options for 2015, below is a look back at five seasons of offensive adjustments to date: good, great, and not-so-successful, alike.

2010 -- FROM TEMPO TO TOUGHNESS

"We're trying to score a touchdown on every offensive snap."

Former offensive coordinator Charley Molnar's steadfast adherence to attacking a defense with tempo was in lockstep with that of his head coach Brian Kelly, and spring ball 2010 was about the installation of a fast-paced offense that mirrored what the new Irish staff ran -- and succeeded with -- previously at Cincinnati.

Four wins, five losses, far too many pass attempts, and a backup quarterback later, Notre Dame and Kelly was forced to adjust that offensive m.o. -- adjust or remain below .500 for the head coach's initial season at the helm. The Irish famously won their next four, with a notable, stark contrast in offensive approach following the team's early-November bye week.

That is, they ran the ball, often with tight end Mike Ragone acting as an H-Back. lead blocker for Cierre Wood and previously buried power 'back, Robert Hughes. Senior Duval Kamara played more and excelled as a perimeter blocker in congress with Michael Floyd -- a pair of 220-plus pound athletes on the edge.

The final-month's change in plan of attack benefitted a surging Irish defense and ranks today as one of the most impressive -- albeit delayed -- expert uses of personnel in the Kelly era. (Of note, the approach was suggested on these pages in August, 2010, but I digress…)

First Nine Contests (4-5): 44 passes vs. Michigan, 55 against Michigan State, 45 apiece facing Stanford and Boston College, another 39 against Pittsburgh and Navy, plus a whopping 56 vs. Tulsa. The result was a lot of passing yards, too many turnovers (19) and five losses in nine games.

Final Four Outings (4-0): Pass attempts dropped to 20, 20, 34, and 29, respectively, with a combined 625 rushing yards paving the way to a four-game win streak. Not coincidentally, the 625 yards far exceeded any consecutive four-game total of the Irish season. In fact, it was more than any select four games of 2010.

Red Zone Efforts: 46 trips, 26 TD, 12 field goals, #49 national ranking vs. 379 ypg., #61 nationally

2011 -- A STARTER IN NAME ONLY

Kelly was blessed with two of the nation's top receiving targets in Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert, the offensive front returned four starters and added Chris Watt to its ranks, and breakout senior runner Jonas Gray emerged as the thunder to starter Cierre Wood's lightning -- the former forging a role post-September, again eliciting a change in Kelly's approach.

Despite Gray's greatness and Wood's continued production, "too many" pass attempts remained the story of the season's *five defeats -- a combined 40.6 per game in five defeats vs. 28.6 in eight wins. (*Gray however missed two of the team's five losses due to knee surgery.)

And oh yeah, the quarterback debacle. Kelly's choice of Dayne Crist over Tommy Rees lasted one half -- although that "half" lasted approximately nine hours in the horror show season opening loss to a sub .500 South Florida squad -- and Notre Dame never got a handle on its offense thereafter, at least not against one of the six quality defenses on the schedule save for its stunning collapse at Michigan.

-- 2011 Irish Offense vs. Top Six Defenses Faced: 14 TD scored, 20 turnovers
-- 2011 Irish Defense vs. Bottom Seven Defenses Faced: 32 TD scored, 7 turnovers

The offense fell into a predictable rut in its approach under Rees, the pocket-saddled quarterback that shined vs. the worst and struggled against the best. To wit: Notre Dame was one of the nation's best converting on third down (19th overall with a 46.5 percent conversion rate) but that too was a function of defenses faced, as Kelly's crew was successful in just 35 of 83 attempts against the six best defenses faced (42 percent) while thriving (46 of 91 for 50.5 percent) against the bottom seven.

The promised up-tempo approach was intermittent (highly effective against a terrible Maryland team; nonexistent one week later vs. a poor Boston College crew), and it was clear the off-season would be about finding a better fit under center as Rees and backup Andrew Hendrix were overmatched in two losses to conclude the campaign.

Red Zone Efforts: 48 trips, 32 touchdowns, 5 field goals, #88 national ranking vs. 413 ypg, #35 nationally.

2012 -- THE 12 PACKAGE PREVAILS…AS DO THE IRISH

Spring practice prompted one of the most curious moves of the Kelly era: linebacker/defensive end prospect Troy Niklas flipped scrimmage to join a trio of highly-touted tight ends Tyler Eifert, Alex Welch, and Ben Koyack.

Six months and one Welch injury later, Niklas emerged as the definitive No. 2 to compliment Eifert (Kelly 1 Media 0) and Notre Dame's offense morphed into run-first unit that relied on Eifert and the emerging junior T.J. Jones to offer a perimeter compliment.

The attack featured Eifert serving as a massive lead blocking receiver on the boundary in an early effort to protect first-time starter Everett Golson under center. (For example, Eifert was not targeted for a pass in a 20-3 win at Michigan State.) The adherence to protecting the football, coupled with definitive deference to the nation's No. 1 ranked defense, resulted in the changed perception of Kelly as a "pass-happy head coach" to that of "expert program architect" who finds a way to best-utilize his available personnel.

Notre Dame was back to its program's roots, and a 12-1 season was the result.

Red Zone Efforts: 60 trips, 29 touchdowns, 19 field goals, #70 national ranking vs. 412 ypg, #54 nationally.

2013 -- THE PISTOL, THE EMPTY SET, THE STRUGGLE

The 12 Package remained (with Troy Niklas complimented by Ben Koyack) but the offense became more multiple in its formations, featuring Rees and one of five unproven running backs often set behind center in the "Pistol," a formation first experimented with during spring ball 2013 when the later-suspended Golson was still an active member of the roster.

Rees was at his best as a play-action passer from the Pistol (the Irish rushing attack benefitted as well, at least relative to the alternatives) and TJ Jones was the main beneficiary through the air. Unfortunately, expected compliment DaVaris Daniels enjoyed only intermittent success: he was outstanding in Weeks 1, 3, 11, and 12; awful in Weeks 4 and 5 when pitted against MSU and Oklahoma; and average otherwise.

The lack of reliable, consistent weapons for Rees doomed the offense as a whole and Kelly couldn't resist utilizing an empty backfield throughout the season, regardless of the skill level of defense faced. Thought the empty formation often thrived against the dregs of the 2013 slate, it was bludgeoned in losses against a difficult slate that included three BCS Bowl participants.

(It's likewise notable that Notre Dame's highly-touted defense did the offense few favors along the way.)

Red Zone Efforts: 45 trips, 24 touchdowns scored, 12 field goals, #77 national ranking vs 406.2 ypg, #67 nationally.

2014 -- REACTIONARY…and the ZONE READ

The proverbial square peg (Everett Golson) in the round hole (zone-read) persisted throughout the up-the-down campaign, albeit intermixed with outstanding moments through the air from the embattled Irish signal-caller.

The regular season consisted of an offense that is best described as "reactionary" not necessarily pass- or run-first. It adjusted to what the defense-of-the-day allowed, was often explosive, and save for a trip to Los Angeles, highly operational. That approach however gave way to a bowl game celebration of power football, as first-time starter Malik Zaire ran the read-option better than any of the collection of quarterbacks that preceded him in the previous 64-games of the Kelly era.

The Music City Bowl victory featured 51 team rushes and 263 rushing yards -- both season highs with the exception of the opener vs. Rice. And LSU was a touch more talented than were the Owls.

The end result though was more questions than answers, and the pending Golson/Zaire competition will ultimately determine Kelly's plan of attack for 2015.

2014 Red Zone Efforts: 62 trips, 40 touchdowns, 10 field goals, #80 national ranking vs. 444.9 ypg, #32 nationally.

What will 2015 hold for Kelly's ever-evolving Irish offense? We'll discuss a trio of prevailing theories to that end on these pages Thursday afternoon.


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