SOUTH BEND, Ind. — From a pure production standpoint, Notre Dame is averaging about five and a half points per game more in 2016 (39.8) than it did in 2015 (34.2), when it fielded the first offensive lineman picked in the last NFL Draft (Ronnie Stanley), an early leader for NFL Rookie of the Year (Will Fuller) and a 1,000-yard running back (C.J. Prosise), among many others.
While Notre Dame’s defense has struggled to replace last year’s front-line players, the Irish offense has successfully re-loaded. It’s better in certain areas than it was in 2015 and worse in others, but on the whole, it remains one of the better groups in college football. So how has that been the case?
The first, and most important, piece to Notre Dame’s offensive evolution has come from DeShone Kizer. We’re about a month out from that season-opener against Texas, and it grows even more inconceivable by the week how this team’s quarterback competition played out through the first 35 or so minutes of that Sunday night in Austin. Malik Zaire is a good quarterback who deserves a shot to play, but unfortunately for him, he’s stuck behind a guy who could be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Kizer is averaging 10.4 yards per attempt (up from 8.6 YPA) while completing the same percentage of passes he did last year (62.9). He’s averaging one interception per 37.8 throws, as opposed to one pick per 33.4 attempts in 2015. And he already has six rushing touchdowns through five games after totaling 10 in 12 games last year.
Kizer’s strides have paid off in the red zone, where Notre Dame is converting trips inside the 20 into touchdowns 73.9 percent of the time, up about 15 percent from 2015. No longer are whiffs on seven-point gimmes happening with a head-scratching frequency.
“Last year, being a little inexperienced, I was down there thinking that the red zone was some foreign object to me and I was just trying to fit in tight throws and do a little too much,” Kizer said. “Now I'm just trying to keep it basic, continue to run the same plays that we're running from the other 20 that's getting us down there. And when things aren't there, not forcing it and taking what they give me. If I need to extend the play, I'm going to use my feet to extend the play and hopefully make something happen.”
That red zone improvement had to happen without Fuller and Prosise, both of whom were threats to score from anywhere on the field in 2015. Those two players combined for 17 touchdowns of 20 or more yards last year, frequently bailing out an Irish offense that was prone to getting bogged down and making mistakes with a short field.
“There's tremendous confidence when we go into the red zone,” wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. said. “I think that's one of the reasons why we're so successful because we have practiced it so many times over the course of the year since last season. So I think that's why we're pretty confident when we get in the red zone that we can execute and score.”
The red zone is a prime area of improvement that’s led to that uptick in points scored. But Notre Dame hasn’t run the ball as effectively as it did in 2015, with the team’s average yards per carry down more than a yard from 5.63 to 4.39. Notre Dame only has seven carries of 20 or more yards this year after averaging about two of those per game last fall.
Part of the issue there is opposing teams putting an extra player or players in the box to try to mute Notre Dame’s ground game. But Notre Dame’s offensive line only has a middling opportunity rate (the percentage of carries on which the offensive line “does its job” by generating at least five yards) of 40.8 percent, which ranks 53rd in FBS. 2015’s group led by Stanley and Nick Martin — a second-round pick of the Houston Texans — ranked fourth in FBS with a 45.4 percent opportunity rate and ranked second in adjusted line yards.
“There's certain things that teams just aren't letting us do,” left tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “And we have to find other avenues to score points, and we've done a pretty good job with that. But teams know that we're going to try to run the ball, and they tend to put a lot of people in the box, and it's a matter of when those looks come that we really like, it's about executing our job to the best of our ability.”
Kizer has largely covered for a sluggish ground game, though, by deftly picking apart opposing defenses and finding guys like Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson for explosive gains. And that’s why Kelly wasn’t too concerned with Notre Dame’s ground game lagging behind its air attack so far.
“We're averaging 500 yards a game and 40 points a game,” Kelly said. “… It’s a give and take, you know, for our offense based upon how teams are playing us. If I was to stand here in front of you at the start of the season and say, hey, we're going into the fifth game and averaging 40 points a game I probably would take it and 500 yards in offense.”
Having an elite quarterback over whom NFL scouts drool certainly is important, but having a consistent, established coaching staff and culture helps as well. This is Year 2 of the Kelly-Mike Sanford-Mike Denbrock coaching triumvirate, and it's Kelly and Denbrock’s seventh year working together in South Bend. The wheels are properly greased on offense — which is partly why Kelly can spend so much time with the defense now — which allows for a consistent message from coaches to players and veterans to greenhorns.
“Once that system’s in place, the older players are more knowledgeable, they gain respect, and the younger players see that and trust them and just go from there,” tight end Durham Smythe said.
Of course, this offensive evolution hasn’t resulted in the kind of win total Notre Dame had last year (unless the Irish win out, which seems unlikely). But the Irish offense ranked seventh in S&P+ last year and is 13th in 2016; its defense has gone from 35th in 2015 to 84th in 2016.
As it relates to this weekend’s game at North Carolina State — complete with a forecast calling for a little under four inches of rain from Hurricane Matthew — Notre Dame’s offense should be able to put up points against a Wolfpack defense ranked 62nd in S&P+. If this defense can improve to the point where it’s not a complete disaster, Notre Dame shouldn’t have a problem reaching a bowl game.
Because, despite losing Fuller, Prosise, Stanley, Martin, Chris Brown, Alize Jones, etc. — you get the picture — Notre Dame’s offense has held up its end of the bargain.
“The game plans aren't too much different from last year, the mindset on offense isn't too much different,” Kizer said. “But we've just been put in a couple of situations where we're required to throw the ball down the field and we're making big plays. It's all about just executing. We have the opportunity to score every time we step on the field, and we know it. And so far we've done a good job of being pretty successful when we do step on the field.”