The More You Can Do

Versatility the key for running backs and slot receiver competitors in the new offense.

Someone served as the sacrificial lamb. At some point, over the last 18 days or eight practice sessions, one Notre Dame football player offered an excuse, possibly even valid, to new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Charley Molnar.

There's little chance a second player has initiated such futile exercise since.

The animated and amiable Molnar possesses an energy rivaling his boss's. In tandem, they ensure Notre Dame's offense will click at some point next season. It simply doesn't have a choice.

"I think the last two practices (the offense) is starting to show they understand working at the tempo we want of them. They're starting to understand our base protections, our base runs and our base formations and really starting to play with the start-to-finish (effort) that we ask," Molnar stated Monday evening.

Though Irish fans have read similar phrasing throughout the spring, consider first that the paragraph above no longer possesses a hopeful tone.

Molnar's assigned personnel group has taken at least one major step forward since the middle of last week and the "one percent" understanding of the playbook the team's OC noted his quarterbacks and offensive unit owned after practice No. 2 doesn't appear to define the group at the spring session's midway point.

"Every day he seems to demonstrate more grasp and control of the offense," Molnar offered of current first unit quarterback Dayne Crist, before admitting, "I wouldn't want to play a game in a month, but I think by the time (Crist) goes through the rest of the spring and he does his due diligence over the summer; and we go through summer camp and we re-teach (the offense) from Day One like it's the first time they ever heard it…I think he's going to be ready by the time we play Purdue."

A long-term key to Crist's evolution in the offense will be his skill as a leader, notably the ability to impart his knowledge to his teammates, though in head coach Brian Kelly's spread offense, that tactic is more helpful in practice and during preparations than on game day.

"He does help guys when he sees they're struggling, but most of the guys that are in the first group (with Crist) seem to know the plays that we have in that day," Molnar state following Monday's practice. "Usually he's thinking a little faster than some of the other guys so he may help guys line up, or remind them of particular routes that they're running but for the most part, at the speed that we operate, its very difficult for him to go and talk to a guy and remind him (of his assignment on a given play).

"That's so different from being in a huddle where the QB can look at a TJ (freshman Tai-ler Jones) and say to him ‘remember you have a post on this play.'"

Physically, Crist isn't close to the level necessary to compete in a college football game. Nonetheless, Molnar has seen glimpses of the skill set required to run the staff's high-powered spread attack.

"He's got a very strong arm," Molnar offered when asked about Crist's strength as a quarterback, "and he seems to have great poise in the pocket, but again, he's not live (Crist is still restricted due to the ACL surgery) so we'll never really know until he's live and the bullets start to fly, and then we'll see how he reacts under pressure.

"But right now, I think he demonstrates good arm strength, good poise, and seems to do a good job of going through his progressions."

And does the aforementioned recovery serve as a natural crutch for Crist this spring?

"He's never asked to take play off and I've never given him a play off, so I don't even think about it," Molnar explained.

A dropped snap in the rain; the sun in your eyes resulting in a dropped pass; six months removed from ACL surgery...don't bother to explain why or how you failed. Just get the job done, and Charley Molnar will notice.

Multi-Dimensional Assets

The official move of promising freshman RB Theo Riddick to slot receiver elicited groans from the growing nation of armchair quarterbacks among Notre Dame's fan base.

Riddick appeared to possess the burst his cohorts at running back lacked: a one-cut and go style that promised a six-year dearth of long runs from scrimmage would end in 2010.

And though it's unlikely we'll see Riddick tearing up defenders from his slot role from the outset, the sophomore-to-be does possess at least one element of the position's necessary skill set.

"Ideally the guy we're looking for in our slot receiver is a hybrid type of player where not only does he possess the skills to be an elite receiver, but also we can put in motion and hand the ball off to him," Molnar explained. "Right now we've been moving guys around, trying to find the right fit."

Kelly noted Monday that superlatives such as "starter" or "distinguished" would serve as overstatements when describing the slot candidates at this stage, but that he was pleased that the candidates were at least "starting to understand what's expected."

Though we'll know more after watching Saturday's open practice, it appears that junior 6'3" 205-pound junior John Goodman generally mans the slot with the first unit, while Riddick (5'11" 190) and classmates Roby Toma (5'9" 175) and Shaquelle Evans (6'1" 205: Evans appears more imposing than his listed measurements) have moved into competition with the second unit. 5th-year senior Barry Gallup (5'11" 185) mixed in with the first group earlier in the spring session.

Also in the mix at WR, though as far as I could tell, not in the slot, is early enrollee freshman Tai-ler Jones. Jones lined up with the first unit in yesterday's initial team work ("team" signifying work with more than one position group) and made an impressive shoe-string catch while maintaining his feet early in the session.

"TJ's been very consistent since the first day of practice," Molnar offered yesterday of Jones. "He very rarely drops the ball, very rarely makes a mistake. Beyond the fact that he's brand new to college football, he certainly possesses the skill set that we're looking for and we're going to give him every opportunity to learn, and to mature."

Similar…but with a Different Emphasis

Last week, senior running back Armando Allen offered one notable similarity between the new offense and the former: his responsibilities as (primarily) a shotgun set-back.

Molnar agreed the running back unit's experience with the formation likely helps, though he offered a distinct difference between a Kelly running back in the spread vs. more conventional shotgun offenses.

"We may put a little bit higher premium on the ability to catch the football than another staff would because the running back is so integral in our offense: releasing on passes, going down the field vertically and also being a guy we can throw screens to, sometimes under great duress," Molnar explained.

With 102 career receptions (50 in 2008), Allen ranks second on the program's career list for a running back, trailing only '04-'06 screen maven Darius Walker (109). Though the bulk of Allen's production has arrived courtesy of check down's and designed screens, he has also shown the ability to catch flare routes at full speed near the sideline.

Allen's classmate Robert Hughes showed good hands in practice last season, and notched 19 of his 36 career receptions in 2009, though he was used almost exclusively as a screen receiver by the former regime.

Junior-to-be Jonas Gray also showed his wares early last season in the screen game (especially with two solid catch-and-runs at Purdue), but with four career receptions, its hard to imagine the still-developing junior as a trusted downfield target.

Thus Allen appears to have a leg up in two of the three main categories required of the position (pass-catching ability and pass-blocking acumen, though running backs coach Tim Hinton noted Monday that Hughes had fared well in the latter category through eight practices). But like minds can disagree on the comparative running ability of Allen, Gray, and possible wildcard, redshirt-freshman Cierre Wood.

Hughes appears headed for a type of offset fullback role, though if we had a nickel for every prediction made regarding Hughes over the last three seasons we could throw a heck of a party.

"He (a running back in this offense) has to be able to go make a catch," Molnar added. "We don't say "well he's a running back, we understand why he didn't catch it,' where in other systems they might. In our offense, he has to be able to catch the football."

In other words: no excuses.


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