Photo by The ACC/Notre Dame
Notre Dame Football

Adjustments, Rees' patience buoy Notre Dame offense

September 14, 2020

Nine first-quarter offensive plays, zero net yards. Sixty plays and 430 yards the ensuing three quarters.

The box score from Notre Dame’s season-opening win reveals nearly every key element to the game.

Except, perhaps, a critical one for the Fighting Irish offense: Tommy Rees’ stubborn patience.

"He's 1-0, baby. 1-0. Can't beat that,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “I thought it was good. Poised. My comments to (Rees on Saturday) were to be patient, hang in there with the run game and stick with it. Let's not abandon running in the game.”

In a turn from recent seasons the Irish (1-0, 1-0 ACC), who rose to No. 8 in the latest AP Top 25 and on Saturday host South Florida, are utilizing more zone blocking and seeking to create creases that can allow speedier backs, such as Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree, to slip through those areas in bursts.

“We featured the outside zone play as our primary blocking scheme,” Kelly said, “and that requires patience and seeing things and aiming points and you need a live-game situation (to replicate the work). That requires patience on our part. I thought Coach Rees did a great job of being patient and sticking with the running game after not having the success early on.

“We had great success in the second half. That is getting the reps and being patient and sticking with it. It was just going to be a matter of time. I just want to be clear, it’s not just making adjustments. It’s running backs getting more clear with the scheme, it’s execution at other positions, like the quarterback, receivers and running back all executing at a high level, which wasn’t the case (in the first half).”

Notre Dame began to steady itself offensively in the second quarter, when it churned through Duke for 221 yards on 25 offensive snaps. In the third quarter, with Williams getting increasingly untracked, the Irish ran the ball 13 times, attempted just six passes and still generated 103 yards’ offense.

“We're in a new running game relative to our scheme - give these guys an opportunity to really work through it and they did,” Kelly said. “We looked so much better in the second half because we needed -- you have to have live reps. You have to have guys going against you full-go.

"As we kind of found ourselves in the second half and our backs were more comfortable with what they were seeing, it looked the way I thought it would look. We expect to build off of that moving forward."

Aside from the zone-blocking scheme, Notre Dame and Rees also more effectively utilized screen passes, both to Williams and wideouts. In his first career start, Williams rushed for 112 yards and added 93 yards on two catches.

That wasn’t a one-off venture. It also proved an early asset for the former quarterback Rees.

“We would like to see that as a staple in terms of what we do, whether it be the perimeter screens or the slow screens,” Kelly said. “We think that that is something, with our offensive line and their ability to move, Ian Book’s experience, and we believe that we’ve got some receivers that have got some savvy that can take that screen and turn it into a big play.

“Tommy’s got a good sense. You know, calling screens is much more of an art than it is a science. Right time, right place, hitting them. Sometimes they’re zero (gain), and you’ve just got to hit them at the right time. He’s got a good sense for screen-calling as well.”

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