Looking To Move the Chains

The Bob Davie era has come and passed in South Bend, as has the archaic offensive scheme employed by he and his staff that became predictable down to the exact play that was being called. The pattern of running on first down – always with eight men in the box, mind you – followed by another rush on second down, and then either going deep or running a quick slant short of the first down marker as a last ditch effort never left opposing defenses guessing. It was downright obvious.

There was no threat of burning defenses that brought their safeties up or blitzed the linebacking corps, no passes on first down to, at the very least, keep opponents honest.

As a result, the Irish offense faltered. The passing game was horrific, averaging a shade over 100 yards per outing, ranking near the bottom (115th) nationally, and throwing for only four touchdowns the entire season. The rushing game, always looked upon as the trademark of the ground-oriented Notre Dame attack, ranked much better nationally (30th), but brought in only 188 yards per game – hardly the offensive juggernaut needed to carry the extra weight placed upon running the ball due to an anemic passing game.

What it all boiled down to was a Notre Dame offense that ranked 110th in college football, not even eclipsing the 300-yard mark on average, and leaving an under-appreciated defense on the field for longer than they could withstand. And I don't care what defensive unit you have on the other side of the ball (and believe me, last year's defense was solid), it could be the Baltimore Ravens of two years ago or last season's Miami Hurricanes, you're not going to win football games with an offense that unproductive.

Enter Tyrone Willingham and company, along with a complete offensive overhaul and a pro-style game plan that has proven effective in recent years, and Irish fans are given hope. Hope not only of consistently moving the chains and putting points on the board, but also hope of keeping another quality defense off the field for as long as possible allowing them the opportunity to shine.

Coach Willingham and Coach Bill Diedrick, who comes with Willingham from Stanford and takes over as offensive coordinator, have track records that prove their success. Diedrick, who is said to be the mastermind behind the explosive offensive squads produced at Stanford, is known for moving the football and punching it in for scores. In his four years with the Cardinal Diedrick engineered prolific offenses that put up 30.9 points per game and over 420 total yards on a typical Saturday afternoon. Last season Stanford ranked in the top 10 nationally in both categories, statistics that became common during Willingham and Diedrick's tenures in Palo Alto.

So what can Notre Dame faithful expect with all the uncertainty heading into the pair's first year in South Bend? An offensive explosion? An offense that scores enough points to win games on its own? A passing attack that makes even the traditionalists forget about some play called the "option?"

Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, at least not yet. But, an offense that puts together impressive drives and is a sure-fire bet to hang 25 or 30 points on the scoreboard might not be as far away as some think. A lot of the talent needed is already on campus, still being developed, and the rest is being assembled through recruiting.

Look at what's already being done with the receivers, a position that is a necessity to run the semi-west coast offense that Diedrick and Willingham love. Two blue-chip pass-catchers, Maurice Stovall and Rhema McKnight, were brought in with this season's recruiting class and could be instant contributors. David Marrero (also a RB prospect) and Chinedum Ndukwe, two highly coveted receivers of the class of 2003, have already verbally committed to the Irish for next year. Sophomore Carlos Campbell is apparently budding into a surprisingly effective receiver, and with two more years of eligibility following this season, should only add to the wealth in a position that has been MIA in recent years.

But the key, especially for this season, will still be who is delivering the ball to the Irish receivers and how effectively he's doing it. With an offensive scheme that prides itself on equal production from both the run and the pass, Coach Willingham will expect the passing game to improve. And if it doesn't, the no-nonsense coach won't hesitate to make a change.

With the transfer of Matt LoVecchio to Indiana, the starter should now unquestionably be Carlyle Holiday – who, in my opinion, would've been the starter regardless of LoVecchio's decision. Holiday, a powerful runner who showed flashes of brilliance after taking over the starting position last season, has good size and a strong arm but has yet to prove himself a consistent passer.

The bright spots for Holiday last season were the 666 yards he racked up on the ground, along with the two times he scampered into the end zone for touchdowns. It was bleak, however, when looking at his passing numbers. 784 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions are far from stellar numbers and certainly aren't the type of stats that you would expect from a quarterback looking to lead a program back to being a national contender.

Holiday has clearly been a better runner than passer, which brings the inevitable question: is he the man Willingham and Diedrick want at the helms of their offense? Is he capable of developing into an aerial playmaker, along with being a dangerous running threat, to control the west coast offense?

Yes. I don't even hesitate in answering "yes" whenever I'm asked this question. Carlyle Holiday is the man for the job at the moment, and there's very little holding him back from emerging as the perfect man for the position next season.

Holiday has two attributes that can't be taught. Technique and passing precision can be worked on through the off-season and spring practice. New formations, routes, and schemes can be learned through practice and repetition. Studying tape and game film can improve a quarterback's ability to read defenses and coverage. But you can't teach Carlyle's combination of size and running ability – Holiday is 6'3", 215, making him stand tall in the pocket and like a bulldozing fullback outside of it – and you can't teach arm strength, the one passing area Holiday showed that he's proficient in.

It has been proven at other major programs throughout the nation that arm strength isn't everything (hello Ohio State and Steve Bellisari), so it's vital that Holiday improve on his accuracy, which was erratic last season. Equally important will be learning every in and out of the new offense, as he's going to be the one calling the shots at the line of scrimmage. Willingham's style will require Holiday to be able to recognize defenses and adjust on the fly, so not completely understanding the system could be disastrous.

Some pressure will be taken off of Holiday by an experienced offensive line with at least one potential All-American candidate, and a tailback in Ryan Grant that might have as much potential as anyone on the roster. Notre Dame could run the ball last year, they should be able to run the ball this year, and Holiday should still see the occasional quarterback draw or bootleg that allows him to barrel over defensive backs in the open field.

It'll be interesting to see how Holiday develops at the position and just how much of the new style Diedrick tries to immediately implement. As any good coaches would, Diedrick and Willingham will play to their teams strengths, but at the same time they don't want to change what has worked for them in the past. What worked for them at Stanford was a balanced attack with a near 50-50 split in rushing and pashing. They like to throw the ball downfield, but they also understand that if you can't run the ball you're not going to be able to throw it effectively either.

This team's strengths, at least judging from last season, don't mesh with those principles. It was run-run-run last year, even for Holiday. Willingham has already vowed that the option is no longer the focal point of the Fighting Irish playbook, but what about Holiday's overall running skills? It will be intriguing to watch if Holiday is asked to become an immediate passer, to stand in the pocket longer, or if the adjustments occur gradually.

Like Fighting Irish Insider's own Mike Frank said, don't expect this team to put 42 points up every game. There are going to be growing pains in adjusting to new coaches and a new system. But the talent pool isn't as thin as some college football gurus have made it out to be, and judging from what Tyrone Willingham and Bill Diedrick have been able to do elsewhere, the Fighting Irish offense should be rocking and rolling sooner than expected. It may not happen this year, but if Coach Willingham and Coach Diedrick can get just enough production out of the offense to give the defense proper rest, this defensive unit is good enough to keep us in games. Then, it's just a matter of a player rising to the occasion and making the big play.


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