NOTRE DAME, Ind. – For those keeping score at home, that’s two in a row.
One was a bowl game and the other was a glorified scrimmage.
The bowl game – a victory over LSU in Nashville – required a carefully-crafted game plan, one which gave Notre Dame the best chance to defeat that opponent that day with a two-headed quarterback attack.
Saturday’s statement on a ridiculously beautiful mid-April day in South Bend was yet another declaration by Brian Kelly that the old gun-slinging days may not be on the way out, but are certainly working their way down the priority list of ways to maximize Notre Dame’s assets.
“We’ve got to play Texas, Virginia and Georgia Tech right out of the gate,” said Kelly following the 86th Blue-Gold Game. “We have to have an identity of who we are. We can’t wait four or five weeks and find out, ‘Oh, we’re a running team, we’re a passing team, we’re this, we’re that.’
“We have to establish our DNA and our identity as to who we are.”
For those clamoring for a more ground-based attack at Notre Dame under Kelly – I cannot tell a lie; I’m in that camp -- Saturday was another indicator that establishing control of the line of scrimmage and time of possession, while using the passing game as another weapon as opposed to the primary mode of attack, have taken hold.
Still, it would be wise to add a word of caution. When Kelly references DNA, it should be noted that his gene pool always has and likely always will be slinging that puppy all over the yard and attacking with guns blazing.
It’s going to take a much larger sample size than a desperate game plan with a month to prepare (and nothing to lose) to halt a four-game losing streak, and a spring game that doesn’t count, to complete the transformation.
But it’s also crystal clear that the only sensible foundation upon which to build the 2015 team begins with the offensive line.
“For me, it’s pretty clear that we’ve got a very good offensive line,” Kelly said. “They’re going to be able to control the line of scrimmage in most instances, and we’ll continue to go to our strength, which is up front.”
This isn’t the first time the Irish have boasted a quality line under Kelly. The 2013 team had Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Nick Martin, Christian Lombard and Ronnie Stanley, and one would have thought Tommy Rees was the second coming of Dan Marino based upon the 32 passes per game that he averaged. That unit ultimately will produce four NFL offensive linemen, including one first-rounder (Zack Martin) and probably two (Stanley).
The only time the Irish leaned heavily on the rushing attack in Kelly’s first five years at the helm was in 2012 when he had a raw Everett Golson at quarterback. Notre Dame averaged more than 200 yards rushing per game during the regular season and, lo and behold, played for the national title. (That team also had one of the greatest defenses in Notre Dame history.)
Well-respected offensive line coach Harry Hiestand didn’t just arrive at Notre Dame. He’s been here three seasons now, going on four, and yet a maximization of the offensive line – almost always the best-recruited area on the team – is seldom the focal point of the offensive attack.
That’s likely changing, although it’s also going to take a much better defense than the one that played like a sieve through the last eight games of ’14 – allowing 40 points per game – as well as the one that went through the motions during the early portion of Saturday’s spring finale before some play-calling manipulation kick-started the defense’s revival.
“We understand in the first half that we weren’t playing physical,” said linebacker Jaylon Smith. “We got off to a slow start, and it was just about picking up the tempo.”
Reading too much into anything that happens in the spring is unwise, particularly when the starting nose tackle (Jarron Jones) is sidelined with an injury. And yet injuries have hit the Irish on defense frequently in recent years, and it no longer suffices to write off a season because of physical setbacks.
Fortunately, the depth is better than it has been at any point in the Kelly era. The Irish are better equipped to withstand injuries over the long haul of a season than they’ve been since Lou Holtz’s days in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s.
If the Irish can stay healthy and/or have capable depth off the bench defensively, combined with an offensive attack that protects the football, controls time of possession and experiences consistency in the red zone, the 2012 season doesn’t have to be an aberration.
No team is a finished product upon the conclusion of spring drills. But this sure looks like one headed in the right direction.
UNDERSTANDING SANFORD’S ROLE
“Mike Denbrock and I had a long conversation about this. We agreed that we were looking for somebody that could turn the room upside down. We didn’t want somebody to be equal; we wanted somebody that was going to turn that room upside down, that was that good. We weren’t going to settle for somebody that was on the same plane. We wanted somebody that was going to challenge us on a day-to-day basis, and Mike (Sanford) does that.”
- Kelly on March 2 upon the hiring of Sanford as offensive coordinator
Those bold words by Kelly more than six weeks ago easily can be taken out of context. Kelly also made it clear when Sanford was hired just exactly what his top priority would be.
“(Sanford’s) first job here, job No. 1, is developing our quarterback situation,” Kelly also said on March 2. “He's going to be able to do great things with our quarterback position and develop our quarterbacks.”
And yet Kelly’s post-Blue-Gold Game comments still came as a bit of a surprise when he spoke about Sanford as if he were still apprenticing as an offensive coordinator as opposed to one of the brightest young minds in the game who prompted Urban Meyer to try to lure Sanford to Ohio State in the aftermath of the 2014 national championship.
“Mike Denbrock, right now, is running the entire offense,” said Kelly Saturday. “Those are his calls and his decisions to make.
“Mike (Sanford) is someone capable of doing all those things, but not at this time. His focus is on the quarterbacks and learning the offense. The next job will be continue to grow and learn the offense so there (are) play-calling opportunities.”
So what happened to turning the room upside down? When did Sanford’s job become on-the-job training as if he were yet to serve as a coordinator, when in fact he just recorded a successful first foray as a coordinator at Boise State?
Ultimately, we should look back on Kelly’s seemingly contradictory words and say, ‘Okay, now it all makes sense.’
Denbrock is too frequently underrated. His incredible ability to set his ego aside and play the role of chemistry-builder is taken for granted. The fact is Denbrock coordinated the most successful offense of the Kelly era in ’14, one that improved by nearly a touchdown per game and 40 yards total offense. You don’t just throw that out the window for some hotshot kid who has yet to experience the pressures that come with coaching at Notre Dame.
As observers of the game – and sometimes panic-stricken ones at that seeking instant gratification – we sometimes expect answers before answers can be reached. (Remember the five suspended players last fall? Impatient followers expected the media to announce resolution when the University itself had not reached resolution.)
When it comes to the dynamics of the Kelly-Denbrock-Sanford offensive team, it must be remembered that the trio has been together for about two months. Kelly cannot be expected to turn the entire offensive operation over to Sanford as Sanford is learning the personnel, the nomenclature and the very essence of the Kelly offense.
Put yourself in Kelly’s shoes for a second. He played for a national title less two seasons ago. He did. His team. His organization. His program, and he did that after incredibly leading Cincinnati to back-to-back BCS bowls.
While Sanford is a talented young coach, Kelly is an established head coach, and one of the most accomplished in all of college football over the last decade. He’s averaged just shy of 10 victories per season (9.75) over the last eight, including half of those seasons with double-digit victories.
No proven head coach is going to turn a successful offense over to a still-learning coordinator without measured consideration and a well-thought-out, carefully orchestrated plan that navigates through the process at the appropriate pace.
It would be a mistake if Kelly doesn’t take full advantage of what Sanford appears to offer long-term; it would be an even greater mistake to do it before the plan has a proper amount of time to unfold.
April of 2015 – two months after Sanford’s arrival – is not the time, which anyone in Kelly’s position would concur. Patience, albeit difficult to practice, is in order, particularly on a beautiful April day in South Bend, nearly five months before the bullets are live.