Heading into 2012, the best way for Brian Kelly to improve his Notre Dame offense is to pick up the tempo. A faster pace can generate greater production from his existing group of offensive contributors.
This is part two in a three-part series examining the implications of tempo on the Irish offense. Last week in part one, we broke down the statistical side of things. This time, we'll delve into the specific benefits of quickening the pace on offense. Next week in part three, we'll detail exactly how this system can be implemented at Notre Dame next season.
One quick note: Throughout this series, we're operating under the assumption that either Andrew Hendrix or Everett Golson will be starting at quarterback for the Irish in 2012. Brian Kelly has already demonstrated that he doesn't feel comfortable running an up-tempo offense with Tommy Rees at quarterback, so in order for this to work, either Hendrix or Golson will have to take over.
Notre Dame, running a slow version of the spread, ranked 18th in the FBS this season with 207 plays from scrimmage that went for 10 yards or more. Oregon, pioneers of the "blur" offense, ranked fifth with 243 such plays.
The Irish converted those 207 medium-sized plays into just 16 plays of 30 yards or more, ranking 98th in the nation. The Ducks delivered 48 plays of 30 yards or more, ranking second in the nation.
Certainly, LaMichael James, De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner had something to do with that, but don't underestimate the impact of the tempo that Chip Kelly demands from his offense.
Oregon runs as many plays as possible as quickly as possible, and that wears on a defense. After just a few drives at that pace, opponents are physically and mentally exhausted. A tired defense can easily take a run that would normally go for 12 yards and turn it into a 60-yard scamper to the house.
It's not just that tired players aren't as physically capable of tackling, it's that they don't want to tackle in the first place. The ability of an up-tempo offense to break its opponents will is even more valuable than its physical impact.
The lack of big plays was the second biggest problem (behind turnovers) for the Irish offense in 2011. If Notre Dame can pick up the pace, that area can very quickly become a strength.
Ever since Brian Kelly took over as head coach, Notre Dame has made speed a priority in recruiting. With current players like George Atkinson III and Everett Golson ready to step into bigger roles and incoming recruits like Justin Ferguson expected to contribute next season, the Irish are starting to build a speedy team on offense.
Playing at a faster pace is only going to make that speed more devastating.
Of course, it'll help to work against physically tired defenses, but the mental advantage that Notre Dame can gain from picking up the pace will be even more important.
Even against an equally fast defense, the offense will always have a slight advantage. The split-second that it takes a defender to interpret and react to the offense's movement will always put him a step behind the offensive player.
An up-tempo offense serves as a multiplier for that split-second.
In a normal circumstance, a defensive player, let's say a cornerback, has about 15 seconds to catch his breath, get the play call from the sideline, see how the offense is aligned and line up across from the receiver he's covering before the ball is snapped. By the time that happens, he's already clear on his assignment. All he has to think about is reacting to how the play develops in front of him. He can read his keys and respond at full speed.
An uptempo takes that 15 seconds and turns it into five.
In this case, the corner may be watching for the play call as he's running out to cover his man. He doesn't have time to regroup or communicate with his teammates. When the ball is snapped, his head is spinning. He can't just react to the offense, because he's not sure how he's supposed to react. That moment of confusion gives the offensive player the advantage and can lead to a huge play down the field.
Running offense at a break-neck pace forces the defense to compress its decision-making, and that leads to mistakes.
An up-tempo offense succeeds because it doesn't give the defense time to think, but that challenge doesn't just work one way. It also forces the offense to make quicker decisions as well.
For a Notre Dame team without a capable, experienced quarterback, this is a blessing in disguise.
The system can still be complex enough to baffle defenses, but in order to be executed quickly, the basic concepts have to be simple. The confusing part is the way in which those concepts are combined together or applied across various formations. Yet even in those cases, the quaterback's reads will be relatively straightforward.
Golson and Hendrix are both outstanding athletes, and without having time to think, they'll both be forced to survive on instinct. At this point in their careers, there's nothing wrong with giving either quarterback permission to take off if the play doesn't develop like he thinks it will.
More often than not, those reads probably will be exactly what Golson and Hendrix expect them to be.
When opposing defensive coordinators are game-planning for an up-tempo team, they have to be careful not to over-complicate their schemes. As we discussed on the previous slide, offensive speed creates defensive confusion, and when confused 19-year-olds are navigating through a sophisticated defensive game plan, they will make mistakes.
Against a simplified defense, Notre Dame's young passers can get comfortable. Once that happens, the fast tempo will only serve to further reinforce the offensive rhythm and keep the team moving.
One of the great strengths of an up-tempo offensive system is its ability to limit the defense's ability to substitute. That strength becomes exponentially stronger when the offense doesn't have to substitute, either.
Playing at a quicker pace makes versatile players more valuable, and the Irish are loaded with multi-talented offensive weapons.
Regardless of what position group Theo Riddick is lumped in with next season, he's proven that he has the skill to play both running back and wide receiver.
With Riddick on the field, the Irish can spread things out and force the defense to show its hand. If Notre Dame lines up with an empty backfield and the defense counters with a nickel or dime package, the Irish can motion Riddick into a tailback position and instantly create an advantage with a running formation. Even if he stays at wideout, Riddick can be a weapon on reverses and jet sweeps.
If Riddick lines up at running back and the defense covers him with a linebacker, he can motion out wide and use his agility to get himself open against the slower defender.
George Atkinson III is also a bit of a tweener, but he's shown an explosive skill set on special teams and could fill a similar role to Riddick's on offense.
A receiver/runner hybrid will be important for Notre Dame, but the most versatile position for the Irish has to be tight end.
Tyler Eifert has field-stretching speed on a frame that can create lanes in the running game. With Eifert on the field, the Irish can very easily shift between power and spread formations without having to change personnel. He can excel in either role, whether he lines up next to an offensive tackle or flexed out wide.
Like Atkinson, Ben Koyack hasn't proven himself yet, but has a toolbox of abilities that would fit perfectly in the same role that Eifert will play.
Notre Dame is loaded with athletes, and running a fast-paced system allows Kelly to move those athletes around to take advantage of every one of their capabilities while creating mismatches for the defense.
The flip side of the up-tempo offense coin is the pressure it puts on the defense. When the offense doesn't hold the ball, even if it scores quickly, it forces the defense to spend extra time on the field.
When a defense has to play more than 30 minutes per game, the first unit to break down is usually the defensive line. A group of 250-plus pounders can only explode off of the ball so many times in the three-hour span. Once those guys lose it, the whole defense falls like a row of dominoes.
The defensive front easily gives way to the offensive line, which is then able to move on and neutralize the linebackers. This clears a path for the running game, forcing the secondary to push up in support. Once that happens, the offense can take advantage with the play-action pass.
Even with an fast-paced offense that can score, no team aspires to get into that kind of a shootout.
Fortunately for the Notre Dame, the 2012 Irish are well-equipped to deal with this issue.
Injuries on the defensive line in 2011 forced freshmen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt into early service, giving them valuable experience heading into next season. With those two budding stars joining Louis Nix III, Chase Hounshell and Sean Cwynar as experienced contributors up front and more reinforcements coming in through recruiting, Notre Dame will have the ability to liberally rotate players through its defensive front.
The only place where the Irish will be thin is in the secondary, but without much contact on a play-to-play basis, Notre Dame should be able to get away with a tighter rotation in that area.
With a deep and talented defense, Notre Dame will be able to successfully support an uptempo offense in 2012.