When head coach, Brian Kelly, was at Cincinnati, most considered him an offensive genius. It may have been a bit premature for him to be compared to guys such as Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach, but he was quickly building that type of résumé.
Irish fans didn't want to hear this term because Charlie Weis was labeled the same thing, and that resulted in a combined 35-27 record in the four years previous. But the truth is that Kelly doesn't exactly have a concrete offensive scheme. He doesn't force his players to run a certain style of spread offense. Instead, he figures out what he has on the field and adjusts accordingly.
When Kelly came out of Cincinnati, he had this reputation of being this up-tempo coach that rarely huddled up. Regardless of who was playing the quarterback position, he wanted his offense to play like their hair was on fire. Everything was quick pace and guys would run to the line quickly to try and give the offense as much as an advantage as possible. It was like the Oregon of the Big East when Kelly was calling the shots.
With the Bearcats, Kelly would hit defenses with a combination of zone-reads and four wide receivers. Using a man-blocking system, guys would be assigned to block a particular defender before the ball was snapped. The quarterback would then make a read on the outside defender and make his decision on whether or not to hand the ball off or keep it himself.
Here you see a play from the 2009 Cincinnati team where the offense is going to run a zone-read to the weak-side of the field. Everybody is assigned a certain defender and the right tackle (Circled) is going to pull to fill the gap where the running back is going to run. He is basically playing a fullbacks role and if everybody fills their assignment correctly, this should result in a big gain.
You can clearly see the hole big enough to drive a truck through on the left side of the field. The blocks just need to hold up long enough for the running back to clear the first line of defense and the Bearcats are off to the races for a touchdown.
The problem with this play is that the right guard (Circled) and center (Square) were both beaten by their man, which helped close the lane quickly. But even with a mediocre gain, Kelly saw that he had the Connecticut defense on its heels, and he came back the very next play with a similar run to the weak-side, and it resulted in a near touchdown.
That same blocking system is in place now that Kelly is in South Bend. The only difference is that Kelly now has the smash mouth players in place to get the job done without using what most would call a "gimmicky" style of offense. The offensive linemen are much bigger than they ever were at Cincinnati, so the style of play has been tweaked just a little.
Here you see Notre Dame in a single-back set against BYU. What you should notice is that the quarterback is actually under center in this play. In Cincinnati, the quarterback was almost always in the shotgun. Another thing to be aware of is the addition of the two tight end package, which helps neutralize the effectiveness of the run defense with added big men on the line.
Just like in Cincinnati, there is somebody assigned to one blocker. The linemen are just bigger, stronger and hold their position a lot longer than they did back in the Big East. This allows for a more balanced offense, and for Kelly to do different things without diving so deep into his bag of tricks as much as he would at his old school.
But this doesn't mean that the zone-reads and option plays are dead to Kelly. One of the more explosive plays of the entire season came on a option play to running back, Cierre Wood, against Wake Forest. The difference is that Kelly now has the pieces in place to overpower defenses and run between the tackles, which he didn't have in Cincinnati. It was more about making plays in space and relying on angles to hit the homerun.
In last year's game against the Oklahoma Sooners, Notre Dame was simply lining up the football and running straight down the throat of the defense. You can see in a single-back set with two tight ends on the field, Oklahoma is eager to come up with a big defensive play on second and short.
But instead of another running play, Kelly has the ability to switch things up by hitting the defense with a play-action pass. You can see the safety (Circled) bites on the play fake, which allows wide receiver Chris Brown to make an easy, wide-open catch on a post route.
This variety to the playbook has made Kelly and the Irish offense more explosive than ever before. While he can hit you with the options and zone-reads to this day, he no longer has to bring out four and five wide receivers and sling the ball around 40-plus times to be successful. Sure, the Irish would like to be a little more consistent offensively this season, but it all depends on the growth at the quarterback position.
Again, Kelly is somebody who adjusts to the personnel, rather than forcing a square peg in a round hole and making players adjust to him.
When Tony Pike was the quarterback for Cincinnati, the Bearcats were the team that was coming out with five wide receivers and throwing the ball around an insane amount of times. Once Zach Collaros stepped in, Kelly decided to add more zone-read plays and quarterback options to take advantage of his athletic ability. That is what you see near the top of the article.
Once Kelly came to South Bend is when you started to see more of the pro-style offense mixed in with the spread. Guys such as Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees simply weren't athletic enough to run what he was running back in Cincinnati. Now that Kelly has somebody who can do a little bit of everything in Golson, the playbook opens up a bit and defenses are scared as ever that Kelly can create that magic once again.
It isn't really what Kelly has changed since his days with Cincinnati, it has more to do with the type of players he has at his current school. Bigger offensive linemen and physical runners have given him the chance to shy away a bit from his more comfortable offense and lean more towards a physical style of play.
I guess it is safe to label Kelly somewhat of an offensive genius after all.
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