Many speculate that Billy Palmer will move to offensive guard. Carlos Campbell has been rumored to be moving to safety next year. I expect a few more will be tried at various positions to help out in the need areas.
With the offensive struggles and Notre Dame's inability to move the ball on third and short, it's obvious that something needs to be done with the Notre Dame offense. The scuttlebutt has been that the current offensive linemen are not quick enough to play this style of offense. The backs cannot pick up the blitzing linebackers or safeties and are not fast enough through the hole. The quarterback cannot read defenses. The wide receivers are not familiar enough with this offense and the tight ends cannot get down field past the linebackers. If all of this is true, no wonder the Irish struggle on offense.
So what can be done about it? Obviously Notre Dame will try to address the needs with recruiting but they can also address the needs with conditioning, position changes, coaching and repetition. I find it hard to believe that all of the "All-American" offensive linemen Notre Dame has signed the past few years can't move well enough to play on a west coast style of offensive. Our tight ends might not be fleet of foot but in sure size, they should be able to shield off a defender. Notre Dame has the best wide receiver talent they have had in many years. I think that some of these statements and proclamations are unfair.
As I stated early, each new coach has to play with the talent given him or her. If Notre Dame is going to run a west coast style of offense, they will need to coach and teach these players how to be successful in this style of offense. I do think it's unfair to expect immediate results but I would have liked to see the offense improve as the season went along. I do believe this offense improved but I also think they took a step back in the last 4 games.
I want to take a look at what I saw during the year and give my thoughts and opinions on what could improve to make this team more successful. These are just my opinions and I don't attend practice every day to be able to know all or even half the answers to the many questions fans have about the team. My opinion is just my opinion and I could be wrong in my assumptions.
So what needs to be improved? I will start with the quarterback play. This is not a criticism of Carlyle Holiday in the slightest. He has never been asked to run a system even remotely similar to what this staff wants him to do so a learning curve should be expected. What I did see was indecisiveness with the ball in his hands and the tendency to latch on to one receiver and not move on to the next progression. It also appeared that he lacked faith in his offensive line, as he rarely would step up in the pocket to make the throw. To be a drop back quarterback, you have to step up in the pocket and make the throw. At times Holiday seemed more concerned about taking a sack and avoiding that instead of finding the right guy.
The staff will have to make Holiday more comfortable in the pocket. Repetition and recognition will be two factors that help him a great deal. Improved pass protection will also help Holiday. If you notice, when Holiday feels comfortable in the pocket, he makes a lot of positive plays. The great quarterbacks can still make the play with less than comfortable surroundings and Holiday will have to improve on that. Another thing I noticed is Holiday does not throw to the middle of the field often. I am not sure if the staff didn't trust him to throw to the middle of the field but crossing routes and the tight end down the middle of the field is a large part of the west coast offense. It was not a part of the ND offense this year.
I do agree with what many have said in that the running backs do not pick up the blitz well. I saw this as a problem many times throughout the year and I think a number of sacks that some blamed on the offensive line were actually miscues by the running backs. Again, this is going to be repetition and recognition. The only way the backs will get better is preparation, repetition and recognition. I don't see this being a big problem next year because I assume they will work very hard on this in spring and fall.
I like Ryan Grant as a tailback. He has talents that clearly make him the best back ND has. He was very banged up all year but played through the pain. When healthy, he looks pretty good. He did rush for over 1000 yards this year so that is a positive. I do believe the Irish need to add some more speed, shiftiness and explosion to the backfield. They also need to find a back they can throw to because that was missing in this offense as well. Passes to backs out of the backfield are another key component to the west coast offense and this staff rarely threw to the backs.
The tight end situation is very interesting. I am not sure of the severity of injury sustained by Gary Godsey but it appeared serious. I am not certain if he would be back or would want to come back either. Matt Root has already moved to offensive tackle. I expect to see Billy Palmer move as well. Jared Clark had a fine showing in the game yesterday and appears to be the most athletic out of the tight ends we have seen. Clark represents the type of tight end Notre Dame would like to have so future recruiting will be focused on very athletic tight ends. The Irish need to find tight ends that can get past the linebackers into the gaps in the zone. John Carlson is rumored to be that type of player. Greg Olsen is also said to be light on his feet. This position should be a threat in the west coast offense and you should see that threat starting next year.
The offensive line probably didn't play up to the level that many expect out of a veteran offensive line. This veteran line has had three different coaches teaching and has gone through various blocking schemes and techniques so some confusion should be expected. Where the Irish seem to be hurting the most is at the tackle spot. Jim Molinaro has done an admirable job when he has been called upon and I expect him to play one tackle position. Molinaro will likely play left tackle next year but I think he is best suited for right tackle. Notre Dame doesn't appear to have a true left tackle on the squad next year. Will anyone step up?
Losing Jeff Faine is going to hurt but Ryan Gillis and Bob Morton will fight it out. Morton should be the future unless someone from this current recruiting class takes his spot. As we look at this offensive line next year, only Sean Milligan will be considered a returning starter. Stevenson has played some quality minutes and so has Molinaro but Notre Dame is very thin at the other two positions. While all three (Milligan, Steveson and Molinaro) are very solid players, I wouldn't classify any as overly athletic. I do think more focus on conditioning and agility training might help all the offensive linemen.
As it stands right now, Notre Dame will have at least two spots open in the starting offensive line. I also don't like the fact that nobody is a clear-cut leader for either spot as of right now. The Irish offensive line coaches are going to have a very difficult job next year of preparing these young players to play a lot of football next year. Not only will they need to develop solid starters; they will have to find quality reserves as well. I am the most concerned about this unit.
Wide receiver should be fine next year. They had a solid first year in this system but can always improve. Without the advantage of watching the entire field all game long, it's hard to know how many open wide receivers were missed. Were these wide receivers open all game and Holiday missed them? From what I could see, there were some missed receivers but they were not open all the time. Better route running, recognition of the defensive coverage and down field blocking needs to improve. Also, these wide receivers didn't appear to break off their routes when Holiday was scrambling often. This is just a general feel for the game and the offense the Irish will be running. It will take some time but they have the talented needed to make this unit a big threat.
A lot of people expected too much from Maurice Stovall and Rhema McKnight. Mike Williams did what he did this year because he has two talented wide receivers next to him. He has two great tailbacks and a good offensive line. He has a threat at tight end and a Heisman trophy winner throwing to him. Stovall and McKnight have many years to contribute and let's wait until they have similar talent around them and everyone is on the same page before we start judging their ability.
The Irish coaching staff obviously felt they needed help at offensive line with the moving of Root, Mattes and Thompson. I bet it doesn't stop there either and a few more might move there as well. Is that a sign that we should be concerned? I am most concerned about this unit for the next few years. The Notre Dame staff will have to do some excellent coaching to get this unit up to the level they will need to be.
What really needs to be understood here is that Notre Dame didn't run a west coast offense this year. They really didn't run anything close to a west coast offense or any version of it. What we witnessed is not what we should expect. Until we see our quarterback throwing the ball to all sections of the field (like Palmer and Rivers), we won't be seeing what this offense should be. The offense was built on having a defense defend all areas of the field. Notre Dame didn't throw to the flat, the tight end often or down the middle. We have not witnessed yet what this offense is supposed to do.
With regard to recruiting for offense, this staff has addressed some of the needs already. David Marrero is a speed back who can catch the ball out of the backfield. Travis Thomas is a power back who can get you the tough yards. Brady Quinn is your classic drop back passer. Jeff Samardzija and Chinedum Ndukwe are players that make their living going across the middle and making the tough catches. John Carlson is the athletic tight end who can stretch the zone. Ashley McConnell is the devastating blocker who can catch the ball out of the backfield and Ryan Harris is the left tackle they desperately need.
With the remaining slots, the Irish would love to land a speedy wide receiver that can stretch the field (Mark Bradford, Ambrose Wooden, and Chase Anastasio). They really need to land some quick offensive linemen. (Mike Jones, Joe Thomas, John Sullivan). They would also like another speed back (Reggie Bush) and another tight end that can stretch the field (Greg Olsen). If they can land most of these players they will have addressed the situation about as well as anyone could hope for. A story on the defense coming tomorrow.