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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

February 17, 2022

When the season is done in college football, it might seem like the football part of things get put on hold until spring ball and it’s all about recruiting. That’s not the case for coaches who are constantly evaluating their own roster and the schemes they are running.

One thing we’ve learned about the two years with Tommy Rees as offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, is that he’s someone who is open to new concepts and is more than willing to adapt to the talent he has to work with. That’s a good thing for any college coach, and it’s an especially good thing for Notre Dame because his offense had to be so different in year two compared to year one.

Based on the personnel changes he’ll be dealing with in year three, it’s likely that the offense will look quite a bit different than it did last year as well.

The offseason is the time to tackle all of this. It’s the time for fresh ideas and, as Marcrus Freeman likes to say, it’s the time to enhance what a team does. I even think that way when I’m writing about Notre Dame and it’s clear that the coaching staff is thinking that way as well.

Rees was asked about the impact of new tight ends coach Gerad Parker sharing ideas because of Parker’s previous experience as a coordinator at West Virginia and he did mention how Parker has already been sharing ideas of what they did at WVU as well as asking questions about things he was unfamiliar with as the staff has watched film of Notre Dame’s offense. The question led to Rees talking more about the brainstorming the mostly new staff on offense has done so far and how energizing that has been.

Rees expanded on that answer later on when speaking with the media separately from the press conference. This piece of his answer was the most interesting to me because it focused on the impact of having so many new coaches in the room.

“Besides the other guys in the room, I was the only one here last year so it's challenging me to say OK, let's take a look at this from other people's perspectives. How can we enhance? How can we get better? Is there a way to do this?
“We're talking about something today, when Harry was with Chicago, they did this with a back instead of this. I said, if that freezes the back-side backer for even a half a count, we have an advantage.
“The growth for me in a two-week period as a coordinator, as a coach, has been tremendous. I've been really pleased with the way the staff's gone about the business. Been there, been prepared and ready to go.”

What Rees said here stood out to me over everything else any Notre Dame coach said yesterday. Maybe he’d be equally as fired up if it was just a new offensive line coach and receiver coach in the room, but having an entire new offensive staff all coming from different places is something that can be beneficial when it comes to looking at different perspectives on offense.

I also can’t help but think about this being the first set of these meetings where Brian Kelly isn’t present. And that’s not to say that Kelly wouldn’t provide valuable feedback or that his knowledge wasn’t useful in these types of settings, but when the boss man isn’t looking over your shoulder, it’s an opportunity for the ideas to flow out a little bit more freely.

Even when Freeman is there, it’s more about understanding what’s going on or sharing a defensive perspective. It’s different than having a head coach who was a play-caller for two decades.

Those conversations that are going on right now are going to help shape the direction of the offense this season. Some stuff they may try out in spring and not like. Some stuff they may have to tinker with once it’s implemented. Not every idea is going to be a winner.

Some will be, though. Those are the things that I’ll likely be writing about this fall and that excites me too. There’s a lot of fun directions that the offense can go.

I can’t wait to see how things look on offense come September. It’s being shaped now by things the staff is talking about in February.

2. Here’s one thing I desperately hope is a point of emphasis with these offensive meetings this winter: maximizing touches for Notre Dame’s playmakers.

This note from Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel about why his former team, the San Francisco 49ers, led the league in yards after the catch the last four or five years is perfectly straight to the point. In his words, the coaches were addicted to getting their talented skill players the ball.

I should clarify that I think Rees also was addicted to getting his playmakers the ball, which is why Michael Mayer had more targets than any other players on the team and why Kyren Williams had almost four times the touches of anyone else on the roster not named Mayer. There certainly could have been an argument that he needed to share the love with Lorenzo Styles Jr., but that was rectified in the Fiesta Bowl.

With players over plays in mind, scheme is fantastic to add in as long as the focus remains on getting players like Mayer, Styles, and Chris Tyree the ball where they can make plays after the catch.

3. I was impressed with Al Golden yesterday in his first introduction to the media and what he said about staff empowerment in particular hit home with me. That level of collaboration was important to the success of Mike Elko and Clark Lea as well as Freeman after them. It’s good to hear that is going to continue and potentially expand under Golden.

His comments on adjustments and finding solutions from series to series is something that should be invaluable to the defense as well, especially because the worry with Freeman is that he won’t be able to deal with that while having to be involved in other areas during games.

Here’s what Golden had to say about what the NFL experience taught him about adjustments:

I would say from my experience in the NFL, the NFL is about problem-solving. Everybody thinks, oh, great halftime adjustments. I'm gonna tell you right now, by the time you get into the NFL, you're turning around and going out. It's a 12-minute halftime and a lot of guys have to get an IV or get medical treatment, or whatever it is. So you're working, but the point I'm making is those adjustments are made after every series.
“I think that's the one thing that the NFL has taught me. Just how to make those adjustments and how to solve problems, because you have to be a problem solver in the NFL constantly in terms of the matchups or who you need to eliminate on offense or those types of things. So I think from that standpoint, I feel really good about that."

When your last game is one where the defensive coordinator had no answers as the game progressed, it’s nice to know that they hired someone as the new defensive coordinator and one thing he is bringing to the table is the ability to solve problems between series.

4. I highly recommend checking out this interview with Golden where he spoke with Dave Lapham prior to the most recent Cincinnati Bengals season. They go into his coaching background and also get into some specifics with linebackers and how he teaches/coaches the game.

When asked about how Golden uses his experience coaching on both sides of the ball, he also played and coached the tight end position during his career, he talked about how that experience helps in simplifying things for his players. 

“The educators would say it’s pattern recognition. I can see it on the sideline on game day, but more importantly I can make it really concise for the linebackers.
“You know, it’s the most amazing game when you’re on defense because you’ve got 22 variables on every play, right? So you’re out there and you have all of these things going on, but what do I really need to pay in tune to? And I think that’s where our group as a linebacker position is making the most gains right now, Dave, to be honest with you.
“It’s finite focus, it’s where do I need to be, and it’s stimulus response. It’s not just, “I hope I get to the play because everybody’s moving that way.” It’s the guard is doing this, the center is doing this, the back is doing this, and this is where I have to go right now. I just hope that I can continue to provide them that little piece of, hey if the quarterback is doing this, there’s a good chance that this is the route that you’re getting or whatever the case may be.”

To put that more succinctly, it’s Golden passing on his knowledge to help his players play faster. That’s exactly what any player would want from a coach and the kind of thing that Notre Dame fans should be encouraged to hear.

5. I know this was already shared on the board, but this piece from Kyle Kelly adds more insight into Golden from players on Cincinnati’s defense and this quote from Vonn Bell reinforces what he said in that Lapham interview.

He helps simplify the game for players and that’s why this sure seems like a great philosophical fit between him and Marcus Freeman.

6. The NFL is a sub-package league now on defense, which means that the Bengals were like most other teams where they played about 70% nickel with a 4-2-5- as their base. Adapting to the spread offenses in college isn’t going to be something to worry about for Golden because 11 personnel (one back, one tight end) is the base offense for most NFL teams.

I think whether or not Notre Dame plays more nickel this year, outside of 3rd down, will be largely determined by their personnel at defensive back, but it will be interesting to see what kind of wrinkles Golden will bring with him to enhance (there’s that word again) what Notre Dame does there. Greg and I talked about this look from the Bengals where the nickel switches off with the safety to become the Robber on this particular call.

It will be fun to see what the Irish do when it comes to disguising coverages this season.

He’s faced offenses where playing with a nickel isn’t the base on defense as well. The great thing for Golden is that he also experienced having to go against a running attack that is similar to some of what he’ll see at Notre Dame. Cincinnati had to deal with playing the Baltimore Ravens twice a year, which means they saw an option offense regularly with the possibly best running quarterback of all time running it. They adjusted and played more 4-3 and even some 4-4 looks against Baltimore.

There will be concern about how someone who has coached in the NFL for the last six years will transition back to college. There also may be some consternation about how Golden will handle calling a defense when has not been a defensive coordinator for a while. For me, I’m looking at it more in the sense of the things he can add while collaborating with Freeman. That combined with shared core philosophy has the chance to be a recipe for success.

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