When Brian Kelly looks back at the issues that plagued his football team in 2013, he'd be wise to focus some of his attention on the running game. A season after riding Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood to Notre Dame's most efficient season running the football since the Holtz era, the Irish ground game all but disappeared.
Bouncing between George Atkinson, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle and Tarean Folston, the running game showed flashes of brilliance but failed to take hold this season. And while the entire depth chart at running back is set to return unchanged (both Will Mahone and Greg Bryant will be healthy heading into spring practice), the ground game's renaissance will be sparked by a player not even at the position.
Everett Golson's return brings back the perfect triggerman for Brian Kelly's spread offense. After losing its balance with Tommy Rees at the helm, Golson is the perfect welcome present to a new offensive coordinator that'll be named sometime after the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
|Notre Dame's Regular Season Offense|
|Points Per Game||26.8||27.1|
|Average Per Rush||4.9||4.5|
|Average Per Game||198.5||149.0|
|Average Per Pass||7.5||7.8|
|Average Per Catch||12.8||15.0|
|Average Per Game||222.8||249.5|
|Average Per Play||6.0||6.1|
|Average Per Game||417.3||398.5|
|Notre Dame Sports Information|
The offensive numbers from the last two regular seasons give us the first clue as to how Golson will revive the ground game. While points are up slightly this season, the Irish are far more reliant on the big play in the passing game. Notre Dame has managed to more than double its touchdown passes (27 up from 13), but interceptions have done nearly the same (13 up from 7). Moreover, the Irish have lost almost 50 yards a game on the ground, and rushing touchdowns have plummeted (Only 10 after scoring 22 last season).
Let's take a closer look at three key areas where Golson's return will change Notre Dame's running game for the better.
If there's one area where the Irish will improve almost immediately, it's third-down conversions. At first glance, it doesn't appear that Notre Dame took that large of a step backwards, with the Irish converting 42 percent this year, down just four percentage points from last season. But for all the clamoring for the Irish to find a big back who can pick up the key third-down conversions, Golson rejoins the team and immediately becomes their best option.
- Golson (2012): 30 rushing attempts on third down. Converted 15 for 1st down (50 percent).
- Team (2013): 50 rushing attempts on third down. Converted 18 for 1st down (36 percent).
- Golson (2012): On 3rd-and-short (1-3 yards), converted 10 of 14 attempts (71 percent).
- Team (2013): On 3rd-and-short (1-3 yards), converted 17 of 34 attempts (50 percent).
Of course, Golson's rushing statistics included sacks. When you look at Tommy Rees' third-down stats, you get a better idea of just how good Golson was. Rees rushed four times for -29 yards, with three of those attempts being sacks.
One formation that killed the Irish offense early this season was the no-back, empty-set grouping. According to Bill Connelly's Football Study Hall, it's a formation the Irish used better and more efficiently than just about any other program in the country with Golson at the helm.
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-of-32 passing for 178 yards overall versus Michigan State, but from the no-back, he was 9-of-14 for 122 yards. (That means he was 5-of-18 for 56 otherwise.) In the first half versus USC, Golson was 7-of-13 for 115 yards from this look. Hell, even against Alabama, he was more successful in the no-back (5-of-8 for 71) than he was in other formations (16-of-28 for 199).
Compare those numbers with Connelly's analysis of Rees' performance in the no-back formation, with rock bottom coming against Oklahoma.
The Irish went to an empty backfield 60 percent of the time on passing downs with almost no payoff whatsoever. Rees is the polar opposite of "run threat," so all 15 snaps from an empty backfield were passes. Oklahoma sent five pass rushers at Rees 10 of 15 times and had reasonable success: Rees was 4-of-10 for 64 yards and was picked twice, once for a touchdown. A third incompletion was broken up by a defensive back, another was tipped at the line and another was overthrown by a pressured Rees. Unable to scramble effectively to buy time, Rees found his options limited and his accuracy wanting.
And on top of that, the five times where Notre Dame went to a no-back formation and Oklahoma didn't blitz, Rees went 0-of-5, throwing passes well downfield (average length: 15 yards) with tiny to nonexistent windows for success.
You can't expect the Irish to stop running empty sets as long as Brian Kelly is coaching the Irish. But you can expect to see some diversity with Golson back in charge. Not to mention some competency.
Running at Tempo
After four seasons of talking about it, Golson's return finally allows Brian Kelly to move the offense at tempo. With Golson providing a more than capable zone-read quarterback, the playbook's natural run checks can be utilized, letting the Irish attack opponents quickly.
That will open up running lanes that didn't exist this season. That means more opportunities for George Atkinson to show his elite speed and Tarean Folston to run against a defense that'll need to read first and then react.
The Irish offense did move up tempo this season a few times, but Kelly let us in on the difficulties that come with the "Call it and Haul it" system that's just not able to mask some of Tommy Rees' deficiencies.
"We had been trying to settle on a few plays that we really felt like Tommy could handle well without putting us in a position where we had to check anything," Kelly said after the USC game.
"I didn’t want to check anything with him, and I didn’t want to be in a position where he had to pull it. And that’s not easy. So we settled on some plays, a cluster of plays that we felt were going to be good for us. I thought the tempo worked well, and I thought he played well."
Golson still needs to show a complete grasp of the system after spending the past season in academic exile. But if he's able to get this offense playing closer to the warp speed that exists at Oregon or Auburn, it'll be a huge breakthrough for the running game.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.