With Tommy Rees behind center, Notre Dame's offense too often came to a halt in the no-back formation. By design, you'd think an empty set would favor a quarterback like Rees. The cerebral veteran could take advantage of spreading the defense out pre-snap, identifying a mismatch and making a quick decision.
But that wasn't the case in 2013, and the Irish offense too often got stuck in neutral with Rees by his lonesome in the backfield. In the Oklahoma game alone, the empty set put the Irish in a hole from which they couldn't dig out.
On 60 percent of passing downs, the Irish went empty. The results were disastrous: 4 of 10 for 64 yards and two interceptions with one returned for a touchdown.
Last year's struggles won't last. Expect the empty backfield to be a staple in Brian Kelly and Mike Denbrock's offense.
With Notre Dame's talent at the skill positions, spreading out opposing defenses and asking them to cover some dynamic personnel one-on-one will challenge just about every team on the schedule. Making it tougher? Golson's excellence playing in the empty set.
In 2012, Notre Dame was one of the most frequent—and effective—users of the no-back formation in all of college football. And Golson thrived in the formation. Over at FootballStudyHall.com, Bill Connelly charted multiple spread-heavy offenses in 2012 and found that Golson was at his best alone in the backfield.
The team that combined no-back frequency with effectiveness the best might have been Notre Dame. The Irish were known mostly for their defense, but even against the strong defenses listed in the above sample (Michigan State, Stanford and Alabama), they were tremendously effective from the no-back set. Quarterback Everett Golson was just 14-for-32 passing for 178 yards overall versus Michigan State, but from the no-back he was 9-for-14 for 122. (That means he was 5-for-18 for 56 otherwise.) In the first half versus USC, Golson was 7-for-13 for 115 yards from this look. Hell, even against Alabama, he was more successful in the no-back (5-for-8 for 71) than he was in other formations (16-for-28 for 199).
Without Troy Niklas to play alongside Ben Koyack and supply two veteran tight ends, Notre Dame's offense is built to spread out. The wide receivers can go five-deep with DaVaris Daniels, Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Torii Hunter Jr., and that's not even including slot receivers Amir Carlisle and C.J. Prosise. And both Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant are excellent pass-catching running backs.
Those groans you often heard when Rees lined up alone in the backfield with little threat of a run? They won't exist in 2014.