Mike Sanford should be used to running somebody else’s offense.
This spring won’t be the first time he’s served under an offensively-wired head coach as Sanford attempts to influence Brian Kelly’s playbook, which has struggled to hit peak efficiency the past five years.
Sanford spent one season as offensive coordinator at Boise State under head coach Bryan Harsin, another former Broncos quarterback and one-time hot coordinator prospect. At Stanford, Sanford worked under David Shaw, a pro-style offensive head coach who was Jim Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator in Palo Alto.
So what does a Sanford offense look like? It’s still in development, although his year at Boise State offers some insight into how Sanford can mix power running with spread passing into one coherent game plan. Irish Illustrated combed three Boise State games from last season, a mid-season road win at Nevada, the Mountain West Championship Game against Fresno State and the Fiesta Bowl upset of Arizona.
First up, third down conversions, where Boise State ranked 31st nationally last season at a 44.4 percent clip. Notre Dame slotted 14th at 47.4 percent.
Here are four takeaways from those game films.
1. Run game variety
If Sanford truly has a voice in Notre Dame’s offense, Tyler Luatua could develop into a key piece of the run game puzzle. Boise regularly lined up its tight end in the backfield in short yardage third down calls, putting the position in a spot more associated with fullbacks.
Sanford used more variety than Notre Dame showed last season, with quarterback Grant Hedrick as comfortable in the shotgun as under center. Multiple tight ends were a regularity, a area where the Irish thrived two years ago. The Jumbo packages employed at Stanford showed up too.
On a 3rd-and-1 snap against Fresno near the goal line, Boise came out with zero wide receivers, Hedrick under center and four “backs” in the backfield, with two being offensive linemen. Then those linemen motioned into the line to give Boise State a seven-man offensive line with a tight end attached, although a timeout stopped the play from going.
In the Fiesta Bowl, Boise State turned a 3rd-and-2 into a 56-yard touchdown run and hammered a 3rd-and-goal from the one into the end zone, both with Jay Ajayi (led nation in carries, second in rushing TDs.
But the best of Sanford’s short yardage was a 3rd-and-4 call from the Fresno State 21-yard line. Hedrick, out of an empty formation, checked into a designed quarterback run, pulling the center and both tackles to his right. He went virtually untouched for a 21-yard touchdown to put Boise State up 28-0 early in the third.
Most significantly, against Arizona, Nevada and Fresno State (Mountain West title game), Boise converted 9-of-10 third downs when needing three yards or less.
2. Spread it around
Boise State’s passing game on third down in these three games had one deep shot that nearly came good, but for the most part Hedrick passed to the sticks in medium yardage. When needing 4-to-6 yards, Hedrick went 5-of-7 for 52 yards and converted four first downs. A fifth came up a yard short on an awkward route by a Boise State receiver.
The passing game figured out how to isolate slot receivers against linebackers, whether in zone or man. Sanford also moved Hedrick outside the pocket, including a sprint out to avoid pressure that turned into a 12-yard gain against Nevada. Formations were standard, although Boise State showed a diamond look with four receivers on some snaps, something Notre Dame has not shown often.
The best pass play of the bunch went against Nevada on a shovel to the tight end on 3rd-and-3 at the three-yard line. Hedrick faked an option run to his left with Ajayi, then pitched back right to Jake Roh for a walk-in touchdown. Despite having eight men in the box, Nevada didn’t get a hand on the tight end.
There was no Will Fuller, Corey Robinson or Chris Brown in the Boise State offense, no vertical threat to take the top off a defense and no stretch player with jump ball skills. For how efficient the Boise State pass game proved to be – Hedrick completed 70.8 percent of his passes – the Broncos’ leading receiver averaged 8.6 yards per catch. That’s basically half what Fuller produced every time he touched the ball.
In the games against Nevada, Fresno State and Arizona, the Boise State offense converted 4-of-12 third downs of 7-of-10 yards. On third downs of 10+ yards, Boise State went 0-for-7. That’s a combined 21 percent success rate, although some of those long distance snaps came in game situations where Boise State was conservative with a fourth quarter lead.
For the sake of comparison, Notre Dame went 29-of-76 on third down when needing 7-to-14 yards last season. That’s a 38.2 percent success rate.
4. Some improvisation required
If Hedrick walked into Notre Dame’s quarterback room tomorrow he’d be the worst athlete of the bunch. But in these three games against better competition, Boise still needed Hedrick to make something out of nothing on third down pass calls that didn’t come open. Remember that Hedrick is a spread quarterback but not a dual threat.
However, Hedrick – a four-year back-up until last season – developed under Sanford to know when to give up on his downfield options. He doesn’t have the escapability of Everett Golson or Malik Zaire, but he scrambled to convert a 3rd-and-5 against Fresno and a 3rd-and-8 against Nevada. Both those drives ended in points.
Hedrick looked more like Tommy Rees than Notre Dame’s current quarterbacks when blitzers came free or defensive ends beat their blocks. He couldn’t spin out of one-on-one match-ups. But if Hedrick didn’t see options down the field and had time, he was coached to tuck and run without panic.