Plamondon: Kelly must innovate without Folston
Brian Plamondon | Friday, September 11, 2015
Let’s get this out of the way first: No matter how bad Texas looked last Saturday night, Notre Dame was impressive in all facets of the game.
To be expected, the Irish are getting love from the polls (No. 9), pundits (Kirk Herbstreit has them as his No. 4 team after week one) and even the computers, where ESPN’s Football Power Index says only Ohio State, Baylor and TCU have a better chance of finishing the regular season undefeated.
Although the rankings may be warranted at the moment, does Notre Dame have a shot to live up to all the hype now that workhorse Tarean Folston is done for the year with a torn ACL? Is the College Football Playoff still on the horizon, or is it a distant dream?
The easy answer to those questions is, we’ll wait and see.
The more complicated answer is that it all depends on head coach Brian Kelly and the offensive play calling.
For as good as Malik Zaire was against the Longhorns, it still was only his second career start. Plain and simple, the Irish won’t get to where they want to go by altering their game plan in Folston’s absence by having Zaire launch the ball downfield 35 to 40 times a game.
Kelly knows how to deal with an inexperienced quarterback, as evidenced by his approach to Everett Golson during the 2012 undefeated regular season. Drawing on that blueprint, Kelly must find a way to take pressure off the running backs without heaping everything on Zaire’s arm. One answer may lie in Zaire’s legs, however. His nine carries for 16 yards won’t cut it when Folston and Greg Bryant aren’t a part of the offense anymore.
“[Zaire] should have been nine carries for 60, 70 yards, maybe more,” Kelly said during his Tuesday press conference. “There’s a lot of room for improvement in there — he’s very capable.”
Although the reflex reaction after a top running back goes down is to ease in the backup and shift to throwing the football, Kelly should instead double down on the running game. It’s no coincidence the best season on the ground in the Brian Kelly era was in 2012, when the Irish averaged 4.9 yards per rush while racking up 2,462 total yards — 377 more yards than any other year.
While Notre Dame did rush the ball 52 times against Texas, it only averaged 4.1 yards per carry. While respectable, that number needs to go up.
Kelly, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and their creativity with the offense.
Without Folston, a player who could have carried the ball 25 times a game when asked, the offense needs to be innovative in the running game. That could include jet sweeps, trusting Zaire more with the read option or getting slot receiver Amir Carlisle, a former running back, a few carries. It could even include getting the deep crop of other receivers involved — what team wouldn’t be thrown off by Will Fuller and his 4.3 speed in the backfield?
Most importantly, Kelly must commit to a multifaceted attack in the backfield. Looking back at 2012 again, the Irish had three running backs with over 50 carries. There shouldn’t be any worry about converted slot receiver C.J. Prosise as the starter — Theo Riddick made the same move in 2012 — but he certainly can’t do it alone. Freshman Josh Adams, and even his classmate Dexter Williams, must be utilized in Folston’s absence.
It’s not often that a team’s Doak Walker Award watch list running back can go down with it still harboring national championship hopes, but that can be the case with Notre Dame. The Irish have the talent across the board to offset the loss of Folston. The season’s outcome will depend, however, on the sped-up development of their current stable of backs combined with a little ingenuity from Kelly.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.