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Notre Dame Football

Prerequisites for Notre Dame's OC Candidates

February 6, 2023

Year one was a transition for Marcus Freeman. When he was elevated to head coach he hired plenty of new people. He also inherited some coaches from the previous staff, including offensive coordinator Tommy Rees.

It was an arranged marriage. Sometimes those can work out pretty well. In coaching, they tend not to last too long and it was clear that Rees wasn’t thinking of it as a long term fit when he interviewed for the Miami offensive coordinator position a year ago.

He stayed then. He’s gone now to Alabama.

Freeman now gets to make his choice to run Notre Dame’s offense. The timing isn’t ideal with spring practice just over a month away so the process to hire the next person has to happen quickly.

I have a general idea of what Freeman might be looking for at OC based on his public comments this past season, but I also think there are some prerequisites that should be prioritized when making a decision as well that could narrow down the list of potential candidates.

1) Must adapt to current personnel

Freeman just saw one of his mentors, new Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell, swerve hard in another direction on offense with his first OC hire. He brought in former North Carolina coordinator Phil Longo to install the Air Raid, which doesn’t fit the personnel at Wisconsin one bit, but they were able to go heavy into the transfer portal to make up for that.

They added four receivers and two quarterbacks during the transfer window. Notre Dame doesn’t have the time to flip their roster that quickly. They wouldn’t have the leeway with admissions to add a bunch of undergraduate transfers even if they had the time. The new coordinator has to be someone who can adapt to the strengths of the current offense. That takes any true Air Raid disciple off of the table.

It has to be someone who can highlight Notre Dame’s strengths up front, in the backfield, and at tight end. They have too much talent there that cannot be wasted.

It also brings into question whether or not Wake Forest OC Warren Ruggiero would be a fit. He’s had plenty of success with his slow mesh system, but that would need to be expanded on quite a bit with Notre Dame’s personnel.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson works in an offense right now that highlights tight end Dallas Goedert frequently and is one of the more run-heavy schemes in the NFL that utilizes multiple running backs.

Johnson was the offensive coordinator at Florida in 2020 and helped tight end Kyle Pitts become a top draft pick with how he was utilized as a downfield threat. He also integrated backup quarterback Emory Jones into the offense as a runner (6.8 yards per carry) and that fits with Tyler Buchner’s skill set too.

Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb had his top two tight ends combine for 60 catches (31 and 29 respectively), so he’s no stranger to making them an important part of his offense.

Oregon State offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren has coached multiple schemes (West Coast, Pistol, etc) and though the Beavers were 61% run last season with a good duo in the backfield, it was only a few years ago that they were more of a pass-happy offense.

Perhaps no one has been more adaptable than Akron coach Joe Moorhead who was heavy run at Mississippi State, heavy pass at Akron, and a mix of everything in between. He developed a strong RPO scheme out of necessity at Fordham for when his offensive line struggled to block.

Another former MAC coach, and current Colorado offensive coordinator Sean Lewis, has run a scheme that has run the ball a ton (top-30 in run play percentage over the last few years), but it incorporates play-action passing at a rate that would be a perfect complement to Notre Dame’s personnel. Kent State was in the top-nine in play-action rate in each of the last four seasons.

There isn’t a shortage of possible candidates who I think would do well adapting to Notre Dame’s personnel.

2) Have to produce explosive plays

It’s a must. It’s simply a “Don’t pass go, don’t college $200” if they can’t check this box.

It’s why I couldn’t see Paul Chryst being a realistic candidate. His Wisconsin offenses finished 80th, 124th, 113th, 110th, and 114th in passing plays of 20+ yards in the last five seasons. The only time his offense finished in the top-50 in explosive passing plays was 2011 with Russell Wilson as his quarterback (28th).

This again is something that highlights why Johnson is an attractive candidate. UF had more pass plays of 20+ yards than anyone, including that Alabama offense that had one of the best offenses in recent memory, in 2020. They compiled 2,025 yards AFTER THE CATCH.

Grubb’s offense this past year was 8th in passing plays of 20+ yards.

Moorhead’s offenses at Penn State were as good as anyone in the country at creating explosive plays. They finished 6th and 9th in plays of 20+ yards from scrimmage. Even at Oregon where his offenses didn’t gain as much fanfare as the ones at PSU, they finished 42nd in number of explosive plays from scrimmage (and 16th and 23rd in OF+ in both seasons).

Lewis’ Kent State offense in 2020 would have finished in the top-15 in explosive plays per game (only four games that season due to the pandemic) and they were 11th in explosive plays from scrimmage in 2021.

This is where Lindgren is lacking and though I believe a lot of it has to do with personnel, the Beavers have been below average in explosive play rate in each of the last four seasons and that is a big knock against him.

It’s a good time to bring up Jason Candle as well. The Toledo coach, who may be looking to become a Power 5 OC and then transition to a better head coaching job, has had a lot of inconsistency with his offense. They’ve been explosive some years and average in many others. It’s been very hit and miss.

At one time Candle was like Hansel (so hot right now). That has died down significantly for a reason as the offense hasn’t been one of the best in the MAC year after year when it probably should be.

3) A strong track record with quarterbacks

Freeman could go in a direction where he hires someone who coaches another position and then brings someone else in to coach quarterbacks, but that is a highly unlikely scenario.

Bet on him grabbing an OC who coaches the quarterback position and having it be someone who has had plenty of success developing quarterbacks.

Johnson has worked with Dak Prescott at Mississippi State, D’Eriq King at Houston, Kyle Trask at Florida, and now Jalen Hurts with the Eagles. That’s a pretty impressive list of guys he has helped develop.

Grubb has Michael Penix, whose passer rating jumped 50 points after a bad previous season at Indiana, and Jake Haener at Fresno State (top-25 in passer rating in both of his years working with Grubb).

Moorhead had Tyler Shough as the 15th highest rated passer in the country at Oregon and Trace McSorley was 11th and 13th with Moorhead at PSU.

Lewis has had Colin Schlee (recent transfer to UCLA) and Dustin Crum finish in the top-20 in each of the last three seasons for PFF’s quarterback grading.

It says a lot that none of these guys inherited a Caleb Williams type and yet had strong quarterback play from their offenses.

4) Have to fit Notre Dame

Everyone knows that Notre Dame is a unique program in college football in more ways than one. That’s why the fit with recruiting, the staff, and for college football in general matters.

For someone like Joe Brady, his desire to get away from college football makes it seem like an awkward fit. It’s hard to overlook his enormous success at LSU, but there would be more than a few things that needed to be worked out to ensure this wasn’t going to be a short term square peg in a round hole kind of deal.

It’s also difficult to compare the track record of NFL coordinators like Greg Roman and Byron Leftwich. They have been successful in the NFL. There is no doubt about that. Roman ran the offense when Lamar Jackson won an MVP and Leftwich won a Super Bowl with Tom Brady.

However, it’s practically impossible to contrast that with college quarterbacks.

For Leftwich, he’s only coached in the NFL and going from Brady to coaching Sam Hartman, Tyler Buchner, Steve Angeli, and Kenny Minchey is a completely different animal. His offense also had the lowest play-action rate in the NFL last season and that’s another strike against him in looking at a fit with Notre Dame’s personnel. It certainly wouldn’t make as much sense as someone like Johnson.

With Johnson, he has a connection to Frank Reich through Nick Sirianni and Johnson could be the next OC for the Carolina Panthers. That might take him off the board and he may just want to stay in the NFL.

Moorhead may be happy to stay in a head coaching role out of the spotlight. Lewis may be content to stick with the job he just took at Colorado. Lindgren has always coached out west. Grubb has already seen his salary increase twice this offseason and may be content to stay in his current situation.

Those things need to be figured out, but I do believe there are a handful of strong candidates who have proven at previous stops that they can provide what Notre Dame needs on offense. Honing in on the right one who fits in with Freeman’s staff can hopefully be accomplished soon. Then that person can hit the ground running before spring practice and we’ll eventually see if they can help take the offense in the direction Freeman wants to see.

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