The comment set off an alarm.
Those worried that the naming of Chip Long as offensive coordinator would result in the same scenario as the one created with the hiring of Mike Sanford had their antennae activated when Brian Kelly addressed the ol’ “whose offense is it?” question.
“The culture is the offense that we run here because look, we’re going to win next year and Chip’s going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head coaching job, right?” said Kelly, addressing the topic he knew would arise again and again this spring.
“Then I’m going to be introducing the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator. So it has to have my culture in it. The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I’ve always run because I’ve got to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”
That offense, by the way, has scored 32.8, 34.2 and 30.9 points per game the last three years while finishing 32nd in total offense in 2014 and 27th in 2015. It hasn’t been a juggernaut, often times because the red-zone offense hasn’t been consistent, but it’s not as if the design of the wheel needs a complete overhaul.
The wringing of hands over Notre Dame’s offense is understandable, but a bit overblown. Kelly hired Long because a) his spread background meshes with his, b) the aspects of the Notre Dame offense that Kelly believed needed to be upgraded are addressed within Long’s philosophy, and c) Long is one of the more dynamic young offensive coordinators in the country.
The Sanford hiring appeared to be something similar when the son of the former Irish quarterbacks coach arrived a couple of years ago. It was not.
Whether Kelly has more trust in Long than he did in Sanford, or whether Kelly simply wasn’t ready to relinquish the direction of the offense – it was probably more of the latter – this looks and sounds and feels like it’s different.
“Probably 50-50,” said Long Friday when asked how much change Notre Dame’s offensive players are undergoing this spring with his arrival.
“I’ve tried to keep the same general lingo so they can get lined up. The details and what we want to do is quite a bit different. I’ve streamlined it for them. They know how to line up, where to line up from the past, and from what we do, we’ve detailed it so they can play a little faster.”
One word can signal the play and formation. The simplification of disseminating information theoretically will allow the offense to play faster when tempo is in order. More often than not, the same personnel they started the drive with will stay on the field to maintain that tempo and keep the defense on its heels.
Sanford never talked about “how I’m going to run things” offensively. Long does, and that doesn’t appear to be a young coordinator usurping the domain of the head coach. It’s his job to be the offensive coordinator/play caller for Notre Dame. Long’s job – whether it was clearly defined for Sanford or not – is to run the offense.
Kelly has not called the plays in four of the last five seasons. Chuck Martin (2012-13) and Mike Denbrock (2015-16) called the plays, but they were “Kelly guys.” Kelly has gone outside his comfort zone with Long to add some diversification to the attack.
Long also talks about working hand-in-hand with offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, which can only be a good thing.
“In my mind with an offense, it always starts with the quarterback and the offensive line,” Long said. “Me and Coach Hiestand are attached at the hip.
“He’s one of the more special offensive line coaches I’ve ever been around. He’s been awesome. He has a level of comfort with me so we can always discuss those things, and we obviously always go over personnel with Coach Kelly.
“So we’re definitely on the same page. We want to put our kids in position to make plays.”
Call it the evolution of Brian Kelly…and the insertion of a bright, young offensive mind that has the creativity and the makings of a high-level, Power 5 coordinator with a promising future as a head coach.
Too good to be true? Maybe, since the seven years of Notre Dame football under Kelly always seemed to fall a step or two short. Or maybe Kelly just found the right guy to blend it all together and make it work with the fast-paced component.
Notre Dame’s offensive tempo is in the midst of an overhaul. Long talks as if he has free reign to institute a fast-paced offense, which Kelly/Martin/Denbrock always liked but never seemed to be able to adhere to as the game progressed.
“The biggest thing with me and tempo is between the plays,” Long said. “When the ball is stopped, (the offensive players) have to get (their) eyes to the sideline and understand what we’re doing, and then at the same time, run as fast as (they) can to get lined up.”
When Long talks tempo, he’s talking about ideal conditions and when the situation dictates.
“I’m not going to go fast and lose us a game,” Long said. “If the situation dictates it, I have the ability to slow it down without the kids knowing we’re trying to do that with shifts, motions, different cadences.
“I can dictate that, and then I can also get us to go faster. We have that in the offense. But I never want to have the case where they think I’m trying to slow it down so it gets them out of their rhythm.”
That doesn’t sound like an offensive coordinator who will be looking over his shoulder, waiting for the head coach to come swooping in and change plays/approach.
It’s Kelly’s offense. It’s Notre Dame’s offense. But it’s Long’s baby, and Long likes what he sees from his offensive components.
“I’m excited to be around these kids more and more,” Long said. “They work extremely hard. They’re trying to do their best. After four days, I’m really pleased where we are.
“They’re doing a great job of taking care of the ball, being physical and playing fast. They understand how we want to go with tempo, and those are the main things I want to see coming out of spring ball: build our physicality, understand tempo and understand how to take care of the ball.
“If they take care of the ball (better in 2016), they probably win three more games last year.”
And perhaps a few more in 2017.