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‘Call duo until you can’t speak’: How the Irish used selfless football to forge their identity

“If I’m not down in time, call duo until you can’t speak.” 

The quote from Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees made waves around social media this week. Rees said it to Irish tight ends coach Gerad Parker after the third-year offensive coordinator decided to come down from his box to the sideline and celebrate the Irish’s 35-14 win over then-No. 4 Clemson.

“Duo” is a run-game scheme that has been the “crux” of Notre Dame’s offense for years, according to Rees. Among other things, it relies heavily on tight-end blocking and great reads by the running backs. While Rees’ quote about calling duo until Parker couldn’t speak was referring to the final minutes of the game, it served as a microcosm for the Irish offense. It certainly was on Saturday when the Irish ran ragged over Clemson. But it has been a focal point in recent weeks, as Notre Dame collected their biggest wins of the season on back-to-back Saturdays.

There was a lot of doubt this could happen. After rushing for over 200 yards against hapless UNLV, there was some questions as to why the Irish didn’t try to explore new avenues of their offense against a middling opponent. Against Syracuse, the Irish terrorized another weak run defense for 200+ rushing yards. After the game, when questioned about the continued struggles of the passing game, head coach Marcus Freeman seemed concerningly unbothered. “We scored, what, 41 points … I’m not looking for a certain number of passes or rushes.”

It was easy to say that after beating up on an undersized Syracuse defensive line. But Clemson was a different beast. Surely, the Irish couldn’t just pound the rock 40+ times to beat the unbeaten Tigers. 

Counterpoint: “Call duo until you can’t speak.”

Sure enough, the Irish did just that. Neither Notre Dame’s coaches, nor their players, were shaken by a 3-3 start and an inconsistent offense. They knew their identity and continued to work to establish it. And for the third straight week, the Irish rushed for over 200 yards, this time against one of the best rush defenses in the country.  “It was all about physicality,” Rees said. “They have a lot of really good players, but teams don’t see our style every week.”

Irish players lean into unselfish roles to build identity

Up and down the Irish roster, players demonstrate an unselfish commitment to fulfilling their role, no matter how unspectacular it may be. The running back trio recognizes that the workload may vary greatly from week to week depending on the opponent, game script and a number of other factors. Against Clemson, sophomore Audric Estime saw 27 snaps. Classmate Logan Diggs was on the field for 24 snaps. And junior Chris Tyree played 19 snaps. They recorded 18, 17 and 9 touches, respectively.

At different times, the backs have discussed the relationship that forms a tight bond in that running back room. “Logan [Diggs] is my brother. We’re always trying to push each other every day. We have that bond, it’s unbreakable. We always feed off each other,” Estime said after the Syracuse win. 

The week before, Diggs was the bell cow against UNLV, getting 28 carries after Estime fumbled for the third time in four games. “All I can do is continue to be my brother’s keeper,” Diggs said after the win. “Today I was a real teammate and told him … ‘If you want to play, you’ve got to hold onto the ball’ …We have that mutual respect. I could tell him anything, and he could tell me anything.”

And Estime demonstrated his resiliency and selflessness in response. After being essentially benched against UNLV, the sophomore bounced back to the tune of 38 carries for 227 yards and three touchdowns over the past two weeks.

Tyree has become more or less the third man in the rotation. But he continues to play a big role at pivotal moments. Five of his seven carries came on Notre Dame’s two long-scoring drives of 75+ yards. He notched a pair of chain-moving receptions for the Irish, as well. Against Syracuse, five of Tyree’s eight carries came on five straight plays to kickstart a key second-half scoring drive. He also came through in a key first-half moment when the play call was a play-action fake to him. Syracuse keyed on the run and leveled Tyree with a monster hit. However, Pyne pulled the handoff and found junior tight end Michael Mayer for a key first-down conversion. The Irish eventually punched in the touchdown.

Diggs spoke after the UNLV game on the team-first mentality with the running backs. “You’ve just got to go into every game knowing it’s one job. Everybody got the same job when we get in. When Audric get in, standard remain the same. When Chris get in, standard remain the same … I get in, standard remains the same.”

Team-first mentality expands past running backs

That team-first mentality doesn’t end in the running back room. The Irish tight ends and wide receivers are bought in on this offensive style, demonstrating team-first offense. The duo scheme that the Irish lean on so heavily calls for their tight ends to block. Of course, their best receiving weapon is Mayer. But sometimes, the game script calls for the All-American to get down and dirty with the offensive line and block. And Mayer will do that gladly. He’ll reel in 11 catches, like he did against BYU, when needed. But he’ll also settle for four catches and springing the Irish backs with an impressive run-blocking game, as he did versus Clemson.

Notre Dame’s No. 2 tight end, sophomore Mitchell Evans, has yet to really be unlocked in the passing game. In fact, his offensive touches lately come via “Mitch-a-palooza”, the quarterback sneak the Irish use with Evans under center on short yardage situations. When he’s not doing that, Evans is developing into a fearsome blocker. 

“I think [Evans] has made an impact in our running game more than people acknowledge,” Rees said. “Mitch’s ability to be in there and own the point of attack has been huge. It’s a huge plus for our ability to run that game.”

And then, there are the wide receivers. Much is made about the lack of depth and the lack of impact from this position group. In a game where the Irish only completed nine passes, they ask their wide receivers to do a lot more than run routes. On this particular play, sophomore Jayden Thomas and graduate student Braden Lenzy dominated their match-ups in run-blocking and keyed a big run.

Thomas notched three catches, making him the only Irish wide receiver to garner a touch against Clemson. But Notre Dame has embraced a team-first mentality across their offense. And the whole team is willing to get dirty and physically overpower their opponent.

So yes, the Irish passing offense isn’t the most exciting, and it’s more limited than what you traditionally see from a successful offense. But the Irish aren’t trying to be what they’re not. So as they look to extend their winning streak and move up in the rankings, look for more selfless, team-first football from this offense. Rees and the Irish aren’t keeping it a secret. They want to physically dominate their opponent. And, like with calling “duo”, they’re going to embrace that identity until they can’t speak.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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Thomas: How the Irish can build for the future without sacrificing 2022

Hopes of a national championship, a playoff berth, or even a New Year’s Six bowl game have evaporated for Notre Dame this season. The first two ended when the Irish dropped their second straight game to open the season, a stunning loss to Marshall. The latter ended upon Notre Dame’s embarrassing 16-14 defeat to the Stanford Cardinal. 

So what’s left to play for? And how can Notre Dame build for the future while not trying to give away wins? As much as tanking is a part of professional sports, it doesn’t exist in college. You only get four years with players — if you’re lucky. If you are an elite-level program, your top players stay for just three years. To simply give up on winning to play some younger players could instantly lose a locker room.

Notre Dame’s culture is praised by current players and alumni alike. And if Marcus Freeman jeopardizes that to start planning for 2023, it would be a catastrophic mistake. So here’s a look at some of the dos and don’ts over the last five or six games of this season (bowl eligibility pending).

DON’T: Start Steve Angeli

I like freshman quarterback Steve Angeli. He was a fun player to watch in the spring game last semester. His performance there is largely why so many are rooting for him to usurp Drew Pyne as the starter. Realistically, Angeli is not going to be some kind of instant upgrade to Pyne, nor does he give the Irish a better chance at winning games at the current moment.

Give me another ten minutes on this deadline I’m writing on right now, and I could probably find a nice long list of quarterbacks that had a good spring game and disastrous seasons. Let’s not assume Angeli is some savior because he had a couple of spring-game touchdowns.

Pyne has proven he has starting quarterback-caliber talent. He played very well against UNC and BYU. He was serviceable against Cal and UNLV. We didn’t get a full glimpse of sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner this year. And there’s no guarantee the Irish go to the transfer portal for a quarterback next year. Pyne remains part of this team’s future under center, and he’s a key leader in the locker room. To bench him so the Irish can “see what they have” would be a quick way to lose the locker room.

It’d be nice to see the Irish get some big leads against inferior opponents down the stretch (Navy, Boston College), so Angeli can get some game reps in. But he shouldn’t be starting. No matter how much I want to write “Peanut Butter Angeli” as a headline.

DO: Get everyone not named Michael Mayer more action in the passing game

Last week should have been a prime opportunity for this. But rather than expand the offense, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees demonstrated what we already knew about the Irish. Junior tight end Michael Mayer can dominate most teams and, in single coverage, he’s a total mismatch. The problem? Not only will teams like Syracuse, Clemson, and USC likely find ways to make life harder for Mayer, the Irish won’t have Mayer next year. Finding additional threats in the passing game will benefit the Irish in the short term and the long term.

The list is extensive. Do you want sophomore Lorenzo Styles to be your No. 1 receiver for the next year or two? Start getting him more than three or four targets a game. The drops are bad right now, but the lack of a consistent workload is also hampering his development. Same with sophomore Jayden Thomas.

And your guess is as good as mine when it comes to why freshman Tobias Merriweather is barely seeing the field. He played a bit under a third of the offensive snaps last week, which was a welcomed bump from past contests. The Irish have to see what they have past Mayer, or else the wide receiving corps is going to remain a crippling part of this roster moving into 2023. Get tight ends sophomore Mitchell Evans and freshman Holden Staes some reps in the passing game and not just in the quarterback sneak game. The Irish will need both to be a threat next year.

DON’T: Give up on Estime, Styles, etc

At the beginning of the year, a lot of the Irish’s hopes were contingent on unproven talent having big years. Topping that list were sophomores Styles and running back Audric Estime. Both have had some issues this year. Styles has had some brutal drops this season. Last week, on a 3rd and two, he was wide open on a return arrow route and dropped a pass that was a likely first-down conversion. Last week, Styles got wide open on a 3rd and 10 route. Pyne hit him in the numbers, but the sophomore dropped it.

Estime has looked great at times, but he’s fumbled the ball three times in the past four games. One of those fumbles came on a potential game-winning drive versus Stanford.

It’s easy to advocate for the younger guys getting more touches. But the younger guys are also definitively part of the offensive problem. That being said, the ceiling is still really high. Styles is getting open, which is half the battle. Estime is still an absolute ox of a running back, and he has solid numbers overall. Mistakes and growing pains are going to happen when you heavily rely on unproven talent. The Irish can’t let that affect their game plan.

Staes had a tough drop last week. Sophomore wide receiver Deion Colzie has had a forgettable season to this point. Merriweather has hardly even tapped into his potential. Notre Dame has young talent to work with, but they have to be patient. The Irish have seen issues with poor development at key skill positions haunt them in 2022. They have to stick to their guns and continue getting their young guys the necessary reps. The Irish need them now, and they’ll need them even more next year. 

DO: Start utilizing more linebacker depth

Notre Dame’s linebacker room is an interesting piece. They’ve struggled at times this year, but they’ve also made some big plays. It remains to be seen how many of those players will take their extra year or two of eligibility and stay at Notre Dame. 

The Irish reeled in some impressive linebackers last year. Freshman Junior Tuihalamaka and freshman Jaylen Sneed should see at least some rotational snaps. They could become key pieces of the defensive rotation next year. Last week, senior J.D. Bertrand played 62 snaps. That’s a ton, and the Irish have some depth to spell Bertrand and some others in that position group. The Irish rotate their defensive line relatively liberally, and it would be nice to see the linebackers at least embrace some of that moving forward.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu