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Thomas: Tommy Rees has given the Irish an offensive identity

| Sunday, November 21, 2021

Standing at the podium after a 24-13 loss to Cincinnati on Oct. 2nd, a frustrated Michael Mayer gave a short response to a question regarding Notre Dame’s offense: “We don’t really have an identity right now.”  

Fast forward seven weeks and sophomore tight end Mayer was back at the podium, with a cheerier outlook after an incredibly dominant 55-0 win over Georgia Tech. Mayer said the Irish have “found [their] identity,” quipping that he was trying to be “in a better mood than after UC.” 

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Irish junior running back Kyren Williams surveys the defenders as he takes off downfield in Notre Dame’s 55-0 win over Georgia Tech on Saturday.

Certainly, after their biggest win in 25 years, it’s safe to say that Notre Dame is playing as well as they have all season. But what has gone into that discovery process? There are a few key factors in the Irish’s offensive improvement, which culminated in a Senior Day shellacking of the Yellow Jackets. 

The tempo offense

First, and most obviously, has been Notre Dame’s transition to a tempo offense. There was a stretch early in the season where Jack Coan led Notre Dame to points on just 7 of 37 drives. Punter Jay Bramblett was frequently busy over the season’s first five games. Coan was benched in two straight games, but he came back to lead the two-minute drill offense against Virginia Tech. It was the second game-winning drive he led in that situation on the season. As Notre Dame entered the bye week, a change had to be made, and the Irish coaching staff pulled the trigger. 

When Notre Dame took the field next, their offense looked markedly different. Coan got the ball out fast and on time, taking just one sack all night. He was 17-20 on dropbacks of 2.5 seconds or less that night and 3-9 on all other plays. In the first half last weekend against Virginia, Coan was 8-9 for 89-79 on the shorter dropbacks and 3-5 with two scrambles on longer ones. Against Georgia Tech, Coan was efficient everywhere, going 12-13 for 185 yards on short dropbacks and spreading the ball out, with 11 different Irish players collecting a reception. 

Notre Dame’s offense needed a fix, and it took a completely different style to accomplish the task. Major credit is due to the coaching staff for taking a broken offense and a pro-style quarterback and turning it into a strong unit. 

Efficiency on every down

Offensive efficiency is considered to be getting 50% of the yards to go on 1st or 2nd down, and 100% of the yards to go on 3rd and 4th down. The Irish have been exceptional on really every single down. There had been justified complaints of Notre Dame’s vanilla offense being too predictable; however, they have turned that around in recent weeks. Since the bye, Notre Dame has operated at 52% efficiency on first down, 63% on second down, and 65% on third down. The Irish are moving the chains with great frequency, and they’re doing it by avoiding situations that limit their playbook. 

The Irish have also come out of the gate incredibly hot, scoring on 18 of 24 first-half possessions in their past five games. Notre Dame has punted just three times in the first half since their bye week. 

Credit whoever you want for this particular accomplishment — Rees for better play-calling, Coan for not taking sacks or Kyren Williams for averaging so many yards after contact. But the improved efficiency has been notable, and it has emerged with the tempo offense as a key driver for the Irish’s success. 

Getting the ball to their best athletes

Kyren Williams is really good at football — this is not news. That being said, it didn’t take a genius to see that Williams was struggling to start the year. He had some highlight-reel runs, but Williams couldn’t really get things untracked until the Virginia Tech game. However, Williams’ improvement has come with a bigger role in the offense. Williams averaged 18 touches in Notre Dame’s first five games, and he’s averaged a little over 23 touches in the last five. He has eight touchdowns in that time, averaging over five yards per carry in each contest. 

But it doesn’t stop at Williams. Wide receiver Lorenzo Styles went from a nonexistent role to an excellent complementary receiver in the offense. After two receptions in the first five games, he has since had 10 receptions over the last five. Kevin Austin gets his deep shots, Mayer gets a hefty number of targets every game — he had his second straight game with a touchdown on Saturday — and the Irish has adapted their offense to their personnel in fantastic fashion. Notre Dame has developed from an offense with good athletes to an offense that now utilizes them, and the on-field product has been incredible. 

Creative play-calling

I’m officially all-in on Tommy Rees. I’ve had my doubts before, but the 29-year-old offensive coordinator has put on a clinic in recent weeks. I could laud Rees’ improvements for much longer than the word count allotted for this column; instead, I’m going to highlight three plays that I saw in the last two weeks that serve as a microcosm of Rees’ improved offensive approach:

1. The Styles reverse

During the UVA game, I made a comment right before this play as the Irish lined up with both Chris Tyree and Kyren Williams in the backfield. The Irish haven’t featured that two-back look frequently in 2021, and I wondered aloud which back would get the ball. As it happened, it was wide receiver Lorenzo Styles. The freshman was in motion on the play and got the handoff sweep. Styles took it to the house, but the final few yards were taken back because of holding, and it went down as a 30-yard gain. It was my favorite play from the 28-3 victory, as with two dangerous running backs lined up in the backfield, Rees gave the ball to one of his fastest players in motion and broke off a chunk play. 

2. The fake screen TD pass

An absolute beauty of a play call. Coan took the snap and looked left to Tyree on a screen look — the transfer quarterback pulled a pump fake, turned and floated a pass over the line to freshman running back Logan Diggs. Diggs had acres of space to work with, allowing him time to let Josh Lugg make the final block needed for the freshman to reach the pylon. The best part of the play call was that Notre Dame had terrorized the Yellow Jackets on the screen pass several times. Rees knew this, getting several defenders to bite on the fake — and it turned into a 20-yard touchdown pass for the Irish. 

3. The power-formation sweep

Another pre-snap press box joke, another time being made an absolute fool by Tommy Rees. The Irish lined up in a power formation, with nine guys packing the line of scrimmage, Coan under center and Kyren Williams in the backfield. Facing a third-and-1, Notre Dame’s intention seemed clear — which I remarked aloud. Instead, Kevin Austin took his first handoff of the season, sweeping over from the right side and picking up eight yards on the rush. Kelly described it as a creative effort to pick up tough yards and get their athletes to the perimeter. 

At one point, predicting Notre Dame’s play calls was not a difficult task, even before the Irish lined up. But now, through a combination of fantastic play-calling, a new offensive style and improved efficiency, the Irish look alive. They have an identity, and they’re looking to bring that identity to the College Football Playoff. 

All aboard the Rees bandwagon: I’ll drive.

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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