How Notre Dame's Running Game Has Evolved Under Brian Kelly

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How Notre Dame's Running Game Has Evolved Under Brian Kelly
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Notre Dame has come a long way since the 6-6 season that ended Charlie Weis’ run as the Irish head coach. The team is coming off of a 12-1 season that saw a berth in the national title game and put the Irish back in the national spotlight.

Most of the success can be attributed to the team's defensive play and the offense's ability to control the clock with the ground game.

The running game has become the staple of the Irish offense under Brian Kelly, and the shift in philosophy has turned this program into a title contender.

 

Production has Shifted

Under Charlie Weis, the passing game was the driver of the offense. In the final two years of his tenure, Jimmy Clausen passed for over 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns.

By Weis' fourth year, the Irish were throwing the ball 447 times. Last year Kelly's squad threw the ball only 388 times and rushed 506 times.

As you can see in the charts, Weis and Kelly both attempt to stay balanced, but Kelly's ability to produce yardage on the ground has made this offense a much more potent attack over the past three seasons. 

2008-2009 under Weis
Year Pass Attempts Pass Yards Rush Attempts Rush Yards
2008 447 3190 436 1,426
2009 447 3882 401 1,539

 

Stats provided by CFBStats.com

2011-2012 under Kelly
Year Pass Attempts Pass Yards Rush Attempts Rush Yards
2011 473 3,284 433 2,085
2012 388 2,896 506 2,462

 

Stats provided by CFBStats.com

The Irish aired the ball out under Weis and failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher in his final three seasons.

Now the ground game has become the focus of the offense.

To be clear, the first two years of Weis’ run at Notre Dame produced consecutive 1,000 yard rushers, but as his offensive scheme was fully implemented in the final years the ground game became an afterthought.

The play action became the reason for running the football. By the time Jimmy Clausen had taken over the Irish offense, the play-action downfield passing game was the driver of the offense.

 

For yards to be produced on the ground in Weis’ final season the Irish also turned to gimmick plays like this one with Golden Tate.

 

Don’t be confused. The Kelly offense is not simply a ground-and-pound scheme, but it does rely heavily on the ability to churn up yards consistently with the rushing attack. Look for it to continue to develop this fall.

 

Mobile Quarterback

Kelly recruits mobile quarterbacks. He took a pro-style system that was developed under Weis and turned Notre Dame into a multiple attack that relies on quarterback mobility. He did the same at Cincinnati.

The last two stops that Brian Kelly has made have produced dual-threat quarterbacks that take over the national discussion.

At Notre Dame it has been Everett Golson. and while at Cincinnati it was Zach Callaros. Callaros was in Kelly's first recruiting class at Cincinnati, and Golson came in the 2011 recruiting cycle as an early enrollee

Having an extra dimension in the ground game is a product by design in the Kelly offense.

The quarterback draw produces a lot of yardage on the ground for Notre Dame and has always been a part of the Kelly offensive attack.

Here is a look at a Callos touchdown run:

 

Now this is a Golson touchdown run:

 

Notice the similar lane setup and downfield blocking scheme. Kelly loves a mobile quarterback, and his offenses are always better when the quarterback can make big plays with his feet. Notre Dame has continued the trend in recruiting.

 

Recruiting Focus

 Charlie Weis was a solid recruiter when he was in South Bend. In his time there he landed some top running back prospects, but only one developed into a star during his tenure. 

James Aldridge was a 5-star recruit (via 247Sports) out of high school and was the feature back for most of Weis' tenure. He was a physical and bruising back that was a great addition to the pro-style offense. 

Weis also recruited 4-star Armando Allen (via Rivals) to Notre Dame, but his style of play didn't fit the Wies offense very well. His production was limited by the pro-style offense. He would have thrived under Kelly. 

When Brian Kelly left Cincinnati he left behind a star in the making in running back Isaiah Pead. Pead was the leading rusher for Kelly in 2009, finishing with 806 yards and nine touchdowns on 121 carries (via ESPN).

He was a Kelly recruit that was brought in to take the ground game to the next level.

It worked.

Pead produced two 1,000-yard seasons by the time he finished his career with the Bearcats.

We also saw what Kelly was able to do last season with the mix of talents that Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood brought to the table. 

This past recruiting cycle Kelly picked up two of the best backs in the country in Greg Bryant and Tarean Folsten. Bryant was the No. 45 overall player (via 247Sports) in the country for 2013, and Folston was the No. 104 player (via 247Sports) in the class.

Both are expected to come in this fall and compete for playing time.

Kelly also picked up a stud dual-threat quarterback early enrollee in Malik Zaire. He was the No. 4 (via 247Sports) dual-threat quarterback in the 2013 class.

Kelly recruits top backs that bring a blend of speed and power to the fold to help drive his offense. He has relied on a heavy ground attack since hitting FBS and that trend has continued at Notre Dame.

The Irish will continue to be a ground-and-pound offense as long as Kelly is around. The results speak for themselves.  

 

Note: All screenshots were pulled from YouTube video uploaded by users EAPlayMaker, JB5GoIrish

 


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