In 2015, only 12 FBS teams had more 50-yard-plus plays than Notre Dame, and just five teams topped the Irish in 60-yard-plus explosions.
When the Irish needed a quick strike, the DeShone Kizer-to-Will Fuller combination was sure to surface. And if it wasn’t happening through the air, C.J. Prosise would snap off a 91-yard run (vs. Georgia Tech) or Josh Adams would burst for a 98-yard score (Wake Forest).
Notre Dame even had big-play running capabilities from its quarterbacks. Kizer sprinted 79 yards for a touchdown at Temple. Although freshman quarterback Brandon Wimbush took just a handful of snaps, one resulted in a 58-yard touchdown run against UMass.
Imagine what Malik Zaire would have offered on the ground were it not for his broken ankle in the second game of the season.
But Fuller -- with his 29 touchdown receptions over two seasons and his 20.3-yard average per catch in ’15 -- is gone. So is Prosise and his 6.6 yards per carry, as are three offensive linemen – including first-round NFL pick Ronnie Stanley and third-rounder Nick Martin – who helped pave the way for Notre Dame’s 5.6-yard average per carry.
Notre Dame’s 7.0-yard average per snap in 2015 set a school record.
So what will Notre Dame’s offense look like in 2016 without Fuller, Prosise, pass-receiving complement Chris Brown and two NFL offensive linemen?
“Each year, your offense finds its identity,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, whose offense will shoot for its third straight season of averaging more than 30 points per game after accounting for 32.8 in ’14 and 34.2 in ’15.
“Did we know Prosise was going to be the kind of back he was going to be? We weren’t really sure once we lost (Tarean) Folston (to a knee injury). We really weren’t sure what Kizer was going to give us. So each year the offense has the ability to blend itself to what we are and who we’re going to be.”
Two players who have the greatest influence on the direction of the 2016 Notre Dame offense are Kizer and his quarterback running mate, Zaire, both of whom will play an instrumental role Sunday night in the season-opener at Texas.
How it translates beyond the first game largely will be in the hands of Kelly, who will determine as the season progresses how he juggles the playing time of his talented signalcallers.
Kizer sees the offense as one of multiplicity, which he believes plays into the hands of the Irish over the long haul.
“I like to think that our identity is not having one,” Kizer said. “You never know if we’re going to come out and throw 50 passes a game or if we’re going to throw it 10 times and hand it off.
“But with the talent that we have and the cognitive ability of the players to be able to go out and run different styles of offenses and touch different styles of things, you can do a little bit of everything.”
The beauty of the Notre Dame offense, says Kizer, will be the ability to adjust to the opponent. Whatever the opposition has to offer, the Irish have a counter move.
“I think we have a lot of options on the offensive side of the ball,” Zaire said. “Right now, we’re just on a week-to-week basis of game-planning and then getting ready for the next week.
“I don’t think there’s a particular offensive set that we like to run over another. Everything is game-planned based, which keeps people on their toes.”
It will be difficult for the Irish to duplicate the detonations offered by Fuller over the last two seasons. He scored 29 touchdowns in 26 games, many of which were a matter of him simply running by opposing defensive backs for big-play scores.
Entrusted with the role of go-to man is Torii Hunter, Jr., who has just three scoring grabs the last two years.
“I think there will be a lot more guys contributing,” Hunter said. “It will be distributed. Will Fuller was kind of that guy last year. The balls that were thrown were targeted towards him. We’ll have more ways to attack defenses.”
Even Kizer admits that Fuller’s unique ability to get behind defenses was a special quality not likely duplicated by Hunter or any of the other young but talented Irish wideouts.
“Will was special in his ability to adjust to the ball and put his body between him and the defender,” Kizer said. “To say that Torii is Will…it’s completely different.”
Kizer doesn’t believe Hunter has to be a Fuller clone in order to be effective.
“Torii has some other things that he’s really good at,” Kizer said. “Coming from the slot receiver, he’s learned to be fearless. He’s learned to run full speed into places where there are a lot of big guys. That’s what you like your playmaker to have. You want to put the ball in his hands at all positions.”
The Irish also offer something at the W receiver this year that they didn’t a year ago. Gone is 6-foot-2 Chris Brown, a fast, clutch receiver who excelled at moving the chains on third down, which helped set up many of those big-play throws to Fuller.
This year, it will be a pair of inexperienced 6-foot-4 sophomore wideouts – Equanimeous St. Brown and Miles Boykin.
“Our backside receiver will average something like 6-5, 200-and-some odd pounds,” Kizer said. “That’s something you’ve never seen before. These guys are like (Tyler) Eifert in a sense.
“To have those guys backside, we’re going to have to get the ball in their hands as well. There aren’t a lot of corners out there that can guard a receiver like that. We’re going to have to exploit that side of the field.
“Instead of throwing the ball 80 yards downfield for Will to run under it, I’ll be able to put one high and outside and let a big guy go up and get it.”
Underneath, the Irish have speedy sophomore C.J. Sanders working in the slot with junior Corey Holmes and sophomore Chris Finke. Tight ends Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar hope to expand their roles following a nondescript ’15 season for the tight ends, who were led by a freshman, Alizé Jones, who is academically ineligible this fall.
To balance the scales, the Irish should boast another strong offensive line, led by the left side of tackle Mike McGlinchey and guard Quenton Nelson. Tight ends Tyler Luatua and Jacob Matuska will assist in the running-game process.
Still, the Irish must replace Stanley, Martin and Steve Elmer, who decided to bypass his final year of eligibility and move on to a career outside of football. Although inconsistent at times as a pass-blocker, Elmer was a plow-horse at right guard.
Add it all up and that’s a ton of talent and a whole bunch of beef gone from ‘15.
“We’re not going to have the guaranteed home run ball,” McGlinchey said. “So we’re going to have to grind some people out. That’s the way we like it, especially up front. Obviously, we’re going to run the same stuff we did last year. We have a few more wrinkles, but nothing too dramatic has changed.”
With Folston returning to the mix following a torn ACL in last year’s season-opener, he suddenly finds himself with an established youngster at the position and the prospect of another.
“I know in our room, we’ve got guys that can make big plays,” Folston said. “Adams, you could see last year. Dex, definitely, and me, I’m going to come out and show you all a little something.”
Folston is not closing the book on Notre Dame’s big-play capability in the passing game just because Fuller has departed.
“It still can be a big-play offense through the air,” Folston said. “Fuller definitely was a big-play threat for us. Not everybody is as fast as Fuller. He had God-given speed. But we’ve got some guys that definitely can make big plays in this offense. I’m definitely excited to see what our receivers are going to do.”
A second consecutive 200-yard-per-game ground attack certainly is the goal of the offensive line.
“I’m not going to make any guaranteed statements,” McGlinchey said. “We’ll hold off on that. But that’s obviously a goal of ours -- to command the line of scrimmage -- and we’re going to make sure we do everything possible to get that done.”
Balance remains the operative word for the Irish offense. In 2015, Notre Dame rushed for 207.6 yards per game and passed for 258.8. It was the most balanced attack offered by the Irish since 1999 when they averaged 181.5 yards on the ground and 238.2 through the air.
“I think we have enough players across the board that we can be who we decide to be,” Kelly said. “If we get the support at the other areas, we can be a balanced offense. If we find out that we can’t be, then we can be that offense that runs the football with a grind-it-out mentality. But I’d like to be more balanced, and I think we can be.”
Ultimately, the Irish should have enough weapons in the running and passing games to keep their 12 opponents guessing as to how to contend with the all-encompassing Notre Dame attack.
“The similarity (to ’15) is that we have a star at receiver in Torii Hunter,” Kizer said. “We’re going to try to get the ball in his hands.
“But we don’t set our protection to one guy. Every week we do something completely different and try to throw defensive coordinators off because we have the cerebral players to do so.
“The cool thing about last year’s team and about the Notre Dame offense and what Coach Kelly likes to do is that we don’t truly have an identity.”
A little of this and a lot of that. A lot of that and a little of this. Notre Dame’s 2016 offense is well-positioned for another productive season.