There are many reasons why Charlie Weis ultimately failed at Notre Dame.
He recruited poorly in the trenches. He made multiple questionable coaching hires. The athletic director that hired him left for Duke in the middle of his tenure. Most importantly, he couldn’t grasp the differences between running a college program and an NFL team.
One area where Weis did not fail was scoring points (insert 2007 jokes here). In three of Weis’ five seasons, the Irish averaged 30 points or more. In four seasons, Brian Kelly’s teams have failed to reach that magic number.
Weis’ best offense was his first—the 2005 unit that won nine games, nearly upset No. 1 USC and averaged 36.7 points per game. Quarterback Brady Quinn rewrote much of Notre Dame’s record book in his junior season that ended with the team’s first BCS bowl appearance in five years.
Nine years later, the Fighting Irish are poised to have their best offense since that 2005 team. After four years of drama, Kelly’s appears to finally have stabilized the quarterback position with junior Everett Golson returning from a season-long suspension. Redshirt freshman Malik Zaire will have a role as well, possibly in the red zone, a problem that the Irish have yet to solve.
Can the 2014 offense top 36.7 points per game? With a young defense and a new coordinator, it may have to do so in order to contend for a major bowl. Let’s take a position-by-position look at the two offenses.
Quarterback: Brady Quinn (Jr.) vs. Everett Golson (Jr.)/Malik Zaire (RFr.)
Quinn was the biggest recruit of the Tyrone Willingham era, the highlight of a loaded 2003 class that paved the way for Weis’ early success in 2005 and 2006. Despite being a Heisman Trophy finalist as a senior, his junior season was his best, throwing for 3,919 yards and 32 touchdowns while completing 65 percent of his passes.
Golson threw for just 2,405 yards in 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2012, with a mediocre 12-to-6 TD-to-INT ratio. While Golson has done something Quinn never did—lead Notre Dame to a BCS National Championship Game—even Golson’s most ardent supporters would admit the defense carried the 2012 Irish to the brink of a national title.
|Total Offense||477.3 yards|
|Rushing Offense||147.1 yards|
|Passing Offense||330.2 yards|
|Points Per Game||36.7 points|
|Yards Per Play||6.1|
Running Back: Darius Walker (So.) vs. Tarean Folston (So.)/Greg Bryant (RFr.)
Walker burst onto the scene in just his second game as a true freshman in 2004, scoring two touchdowns in a come-from-behind upset of No. 9 Michigan. At just 5’7”, Walker lacked elite size and speed, but his low center of gravity and pass-catching ability made him a dangerous weapon in Weis’ offense. He ran for almost 1,200 yards in 2005 while also catching 43 passes.
A spread offense and a power running game do not have to be mutually exclusive. Notre Dame proved that in 2012 with Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood helping the Irish grind their way to a perfect regular season. Folston and Bryant are a far more talented duo than their predecessors.
A Florida native, Folston was at his best last season when the weather turned cold. Bryant saw limited action before redshirting with a knee injury. If his performance in the Blue-Gold Game earlier this month was any indication, Bryant and Folston could be Notre Dame’s strongest backfield duo since Jerome Bettis and Ray Zellars in the early ‘90s.
Wide Receivers: Jeff Samardzija (Jr.)/Maurice Stovall (Sr.) vs. DaVaris Daniels (Jr.)/Chris Brown (Jr.)/Corey Robinson (So.)/Will Fuller (So.)/C.J. Prosise (So.)
Samardzija was known as a little-used junior with a funny name heading into the 2005 season. Stovall was a senior whose career appeared to have plateaued as a freshman when he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated following the Irish’s 4-0 start.
After a 42-21 season-opening rout of Pittsburgh, the tandem was on its way to becoming as good as any in college football that season. Samardzija finished with 1,249 yards and 15 touchdowns, while Stovall was right behind him with 1,149 yards and 11 touchdowns. Even with Rhema McKnight lost for the season after two games, the Irish aerial attack was nearly unstoppable in 2005.
Led by Daniels, the 2014 receiving corps is much deeper than the 2005 unit, but it’s also lacking in both experience and star power. Robinson and Fuller showed flashes of greatness as freshmen, while Prosise had a strong bowl game as he enters his second year after moving over from defense.
The strengths of the individual Irish receivers are diverse, allowing Kelly and his staff to match skill sets with specific position (W, X and Z) requirements. None, however, have yet displayed the total package that made Samardzija and Stovall so successful.
Tight Ends: Anthony Fasano (Jr.) vs. Ben Koyack (Sr.)/Durham Smythe (RFr.)/Mike Heuerman (RFr.)
Notre Dame’s recent run of elite tight ends began with Fasano, who caught 47 passes for 576 yards in his final season with the Irish before a lengthy NFL career. With a thin receiving corps behind Samardzija and Stovall, Fasano was a valuable weapon in the passing game. He had big-play capability, evidenced by a 43-yard touchdown reception against Tennessee in 2005.
The 2014 Irish must replace their top tight end for the second year in a row, as Troy Niklas is set to join Tyler Eifert in the NFL. Koyack made the most of his 10 receptions last season, as three of the 10 went for touchdowns. He’s always been a capable blocker, but now he must become the weapon in the passing game that Eifert and Niklas were. Kelly has raved about Smythe this offseason, despite the Texas native having yet to play a game for the Irish. With two-tight end sets used often, both Smythe and Heuerman should see plenty of action this fall.
Tackles: Ryan Harris (Jr.)/Mark LeVoir (Sr.) vs. Ronnie Stanley (So.)/Christian Lombard (Sr.)
Both Harris and LeVoir were steady on the outside of the line and went on to play in the NFL. The Irish allowed 21 sacks in 2005, 10 fewer than their defense had. Elite pass rushers that Notre Dame faced in 2005 included LaMarr Woodley (Michigan), Ray Edwards (Purdue), Lawrence Jackson (USC), Parys Haralson (Tennessee) and A.J. Hawk (Ohio State).
Stanley will slide over to the left side this season to replace four-year starter Zack Martin, the only offensive lineman on record to win MVP of a bowl game, doing so in last year’s Pinstripe Bowl. Lombard is versatile enough to play guard or tackle, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand will make the call on where to play the senior depending on where the biggest need is.
Guards/Center: Dan Santucci (Jr.)/John Sullivan (So.)/Dan Stevenson (Sr.) vs. Steve Elmer (So.)/Nick Martin (Jr.)/Conor Hanratty (Jr.)
While 147 rushing yards per game doesn’t sound all that great, the 2005 rushing attack was by far the most productive of the Weis era. Santucci was a converted defensive lineman who was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 2007. Sullivan remains a longtime starter in the NFL. The Irish interior was a veteran, albeit not overly athletic unit in 2005 that maximized its potential.
Elmer was the only member of Notre Dame’s monster 2013 offensive line class to see the field as a freshman. He filled in for an injured Chris Watt at guard and appears to have locked down the role as Watt’s replacement on the left side. Martin missed the spring after suffering a knee injury in November, but was extremely impressive last season, replacing three-year starter Braxston Cave at center. Hanratty or Lombard could fill the guard spot on the right side.
Much like the 2005 team, which returned just three defensive starters, the offense is going to have to carry the Irish in 2014. That’s a far cry from where Notre Dame was just two years ago, and even for much of last year, particularly the 14-10 win over USC that set offense back 100 years.
While the 2014 offense doesn’t have the major award finalist types like Quinn and Samardzija, the depth at the skill position is much greater than it was under Weis. The Irish couldn’t afford a major injury in 2005. Should that happen this fall, Notre Dame is much better equipped.
To reach 36.7 points per game, Notre Dame would have to average one more touchdown per game than it has in any season under Kelly. The schedule, while again rigorous, features some potent offenses, but not so much on the other side of the ball.
The call here is for the Irish to get into the mid-30s, but ultimately fall just a point or two shy of the 2005 offense. Will that be enough to earn a Fiesta Bowl-level postseason trip, as it was nine years ago? That’s the million-dollar question. Or, in today’s world of college football, the multi-million dollar question.