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Notre Dame Football

Film Don't Lie | Motion and Mismatches

January 15, 2024
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Mike Denbrock’s offense at LSU was pass-first. They finished 82nd (49.5%) and 91st (49%) in run percentage and it’s easy to understand why. WIth Jayden Daniels at quarterback and receivers like Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr., any coach would be crazy to not lean on that kind of talent.

It was different when he was calling plays at Cincinnati. Back in 2019, they were 25th (60%) in run percentage. As Desmond Ridder improved as a passer and they became better at wide receiver, they were 67th (52.1%) in that final season.

So, what can we expect in terms of offensive identity at Notre Dame in 2024? That all depends on how they view their personnel. I think it’s fair to assume that the quarterback run game will be a bigger part of the offense this season, but how often the throw is going to largely depend on how all of the pieces fit together.

One thing I feel confident we can count on with Denbrock is plenty of pre-snap motion. During the 2022 season, they were the top offense in the SEC when it came to pre-snap motion at 29.9%. To give proper context to that number, it’s notable that the average for SEC offenses was under 20%.

Those numbers are courtesy of Clark Brooks (aka SEC StatCat) and he kept track of this for 2023 as well. LSU used pre-snap motion more than any other offense in the conference for the second year in a row.

Motion can create conflict and influence defenders. It can help identify coverages and also set up wins against those coverages. Denbrock was expecting man coverage and called this man beater that was set up by the slot going in motion. The defensive back chasing can’t close on this because he gets picked by the other route.

This motion against Florida State is added to the play-action fake and both of the safeties are impacted by this. The one safety on the left has eyes on the motion man with a potential for a jet sweep or maybe that turning into a wheel.

The other safety on the right has eyes on the run fake and when he sees it’s a pass, he immediately is sprinting back to try and help with the vertical route. All of the window dressing leads to the back being wide open on a wheel route.

Denbrock also does a nice job of using motion to open things up in the run game. Here’s an old school favorite against Stanford in 2015. It’s a simple counter that is executed perfectly up front and we get Quenton Nelson and Nic Weishar leading through on the play.

The motion just took away one playside defender and got the safety to widen. That opens up more of a hole on the playside and makes it a much more difficult play for the safety to make when Josh Adams cuts it back. (Sheesh, Adams in the open field was awesome)

Here’s another counter play from 2015 where the jet sweep motion makes the linebackers react to that rather than Nelson pulling. 41 is late to the party because of it. The safety is pancaked by Mike McGlinchey because of it as well.

There’s also the tight end motion that sets up this RPO that Denbrock utilized frequently at LSU and Cincinnati.

And that motion also stresses defenders when they focus on tendencies. Here we see Alabama’s safeties react to this in anticipation of that “Skip RPO” play that’s a Denbrock staple. What that also does is take away a safety from the deep middle and that means there is no one to help the nickel against Nabers.

That play is a perfect example of why Denbrock is one of the best at utilizing pre-snap motion and also one of the best at hunting favorable matchups. Nabers had more receptions of 20+ yards (34!) out of anyone in the country last season. It’s not just because Nabers is elite. It’s because Denbrock did a great job of trying to find mismatches and then attacking when those opportunities were presented.

Denbrock knew that using Baylor splits (both receivers lined up outside the numbers to the field) would force Florida to play single high in the middle of the field. That was the greenlight for a slot fade to Nabers where the safety had zero chance of getting over to help.

I believe most Notre Dame fans remember Will Fuller’s big game against Pitt in 2015. Denbrock knew he’d get more opportunities to target Fuller deep without help than most games because of Pat Narduzzi’s stubbornness. He refused to stray from his typical approach to adjust to one of the most explosive receivers in the country.

Denbrock made sure Fuller made Narduzzi pay for that. Pitt pressed on the outside with Fuller and with the safety staying home to account for a possible vertical threat from the slot, it meant the corner had to run with Fuller on the post. We know who won that matchup.

Knowing Pitt’s rules for their cover 4 opened up this mismatch in that same game. Fuller pressed the safety and then worked his way to the corner. There was zero chance the safety was going to make up that ground when Fuller broke outside. As soon as Notre Dame got this look, they knew it was going to be a touchdown.

He was doing the same thing at Cincinnati and took full advantage of it when they were able to beat Notre Dame in 2021. When the Irish were in “Dollar”, there were going to be opportunities for big plays with tight end Leonard Taylor (four catches for 70 yards and a touchdown) against Isaiah Foskey or JD Bertrand.

All of this equates to exciting possibilities with Notre Dame’s skill talent. Denbrock will hunt for mismatches to create explosive plays with speed receivers like Kris Mitchell and Jordan Faison. That could be Jeremiyah Love or JD Price catching the wheel route for the Irish with plenty of daylight in front of them.

Players like Malik Nabers and Will Fuller were supreme talents for LSU and Notre Dame respectively, but one of the reasons they had elite production had to do with Denbrock getting them into favorable matchups where their talent could shine. I think we’ll see plenty of the same with the talent at Notre Dame in 2024.

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