Rakes Report #165: What if the 2021 Notre Dame offense is really good?

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I know with how little information we have and all the roster changes it’s unwise to leap to the question above…but seriously: What if the offense ends up being really good, whether you are judging from the advanced numbers, aesthetics or points per game (please don’t judge things on points per game it’s 2021 come on)? You might say “It is genuinely irresponsible for you to write this based on highly selective clips released by the athletic department meant to show things in the best light” and while that would be correct the last newsletter had a lot of references to 3-9 and 4-8 so you’re due something a little cheerier.

Granted, this is the sort of thing that could seem really stupid come the second quarter in Tallahassee if things are bogged down in the heat and the Seminole athletes are flying all over the place, but a) It’s warm outside b) I got my first vaccine dose c) We can tailgate and go to games this fall probably?! d) The whole Hot Takes Exposed thing is dumb so have at it I guess e) Referring to c, the general theme of everything this season is Good Vibes Only.

I think the first thing we need to do is separate “The 2020 Notre Dame offense was really good for most of the season” from “The 2020 Notre Dame offense should be the model for the Irish going forward.” The former statement is absolutely true and the latter would be ill-advised as the Irish seek bigger goals. How the 2021 roster would be at running the 2020 offense is not a thing we have to concern ourselves with in this exercise. It would be madness for Tommy Rees to just roll last year’s scheme out, and he’s given no indication that’s his intent.

Notre Dame didn’t use many run-pass options (RPOs) in 2020, and I can mostly understand that, considering the abridged offseason and uncertainty on who would be available on a week-to-week basis due to the raging global pandemic. Keep it simple, lean on strengths, and guess what? It worked! Notre Dame started the season 10-0 and had a top 20 offense at the end of the season per both FEI and SP+* despite getting very little from the two guys who were expected to be the leading receivers. RPOs have been showing up on the practice clips and they seem to be a good fit for this group of quarterbacks. Additionally, it would be really easy for Rees to crank up the amount of play action as another boost since they probably didn’t do enough of that last season.

* The offense was top ten in both at the conclusion of the regular season, but coming through with a single non-garbage time touchdown in the final two games was as appealing to the numbers as it was to the fans.

Let’s walk through some of the reasons for excitement after acknowledging that the depth chart come Florida State is going to look a lot different than it does at the end of spring. Guys will heal and guys will get hurt, while the new normal of an ever-churning transfer market will mean increased volatility.

The quarterback trio competing at the moment feels nicely balanced: In Jack Coan, you have a productive veteran who’s won a lot of games (albeit not at Notre Dame) and presents a pretty high floor.* In Drew Pyne, there’s the four-star sophomore who’s impressed along the way, continues to show off a pretty ball in the highlight reels and comes with ringing endorsements from people I trust. And then you have Tyler Buchner, the freshman prodigy getting his feet wet and serving as an ever present source of hope. Ian Book’s combination of creativity and consistency over the last three years won’t be replicated exactly, and that’s okay, because this group seems capable of finding success via other methods.

* A thing I learned in this great Pod of Gold interview with Wisconsin beat writer Jesse Temple is that Coan was actually a productive runner in high school — in addition to being a talented lacrosse player — but wasn’t asked to do that in Madison. I doubt he is as much of a weapon on the ground as Book, but it’s good to know he has that capability because if you just looked at his stats as a Badger you would assume a more statuesque approach.

The biggest potential hiccup is the offensive line: Four starters are gone to the NFL, Jarrett Patterson is on the shelf for the spring and Josh Lugg might have lingering injury issues, resulting in a situation that you could kindly call fluid. This might be naïve but I wonder if much like many problems can be mitigated by throwing money at them you can get a competent offensive line by just throwing a bunch of blue-chip prospects at it. If you end up with some combination of Blake Fisher, Tosh Baker, Zeke Correll and Quinn Carroll in the mix, that’s a quartet of guys ranked in the top 120 of their class, and you have Andrew Kristofic and Michael Carmody, both comfortably Top 200 players. That’s just a lot of talent going through a prolific strength and conditioning program that’s been mentored in a system that consistently churns out NFL guys, before we even note veterans like Dillan Gibbons and John Dirksen or top freshman Rocco Spindler.

Could it be like 2018, which was a group trying to find its way after losing Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey to the draft and then Alex Bars at the end of September? That line was pretty crappy at run blocking (outside the top 100 in a few categories per Football Outsiders) but perfectly capable at keeping the quarterback clean and good on power success rates. If the offense is more RPO-heavy, that’s less of an onus on the trenches, which means if they’re lagging a bit the quarterback and skill players can carry more of the burden. While Dexter Williams was a home run threat and uber-productive player that season, his style was different from Kyren Williams, who approaches the line of scrimmage like a particularly burly and slippery eel. Both he and Chris Tyree should be capable of turning nothing situations into something plays and something situations into explosive plays.

Turning to the skill players, I don’t want to dismiss the work of Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek, who came through not just with some big plays down the field but with excellent support in the run game, nor of Tommy Tremble, a lethal blocker, capable receiver and key part of so much of last year’s success. They were perfect fits for the 2020 offense but I think it’s possible (if not probable) the receiving threats are collectively better than last year.

  • Sophomore Michael Mayer is better than Freshman Michael Mayer probably doesn’t require additional explanation.

  • Avery Davis will have another full offseason to work at receiver after spending much of his career bouncing around positions. It does not seem like a lift to think a hard worker and smart player who has already produced on a very big stage will take another step or two.

  • I don’t think it can be overstated what a nightmare the combination of Kyren and Tyree could be for opposing defenses. You’re focusing on trying to lock down Mayer and then all of a sudden one of them comes shrieking out of the backfield on a wheel route or sliding out into the flat for a particularly deadly checkdown option. Additionally, whoever starts at quarterback will likely be better at screen passes than Book.

  • Brian Kelly was recently complimentary of both Lawrence Keys and Braden Lenzy, which is nice. Could Keys be the upperclassman who takes a big leap this year? Could Lenzy return to his second half of 2019 form? Sure.

  • There are some elite guys that could pop. Kevin Austin could be healthy. Jordan Johnson appears to have his head above water with campus life and is making cool plays in practice which earn shoutouts from his offensive coordinator. Lorenzo Styles, Jr. has the skillset to be an out-of-the-box threat as a true freshman.

  • Xavier Watts? Joe Wilkins? Random Transfer X?

  • Tremble and Brock Wright completed a nasty trio at tight end but George Takacs had some flashes and every whisper about Kevin Bauman has been positive. Also, as fun as it is to roll out three and four tight end sets, if the rest of the players mentioned above are doing their jobs you don’t have to deploy that formation, necessarily.

I will acknowledge the first four threats listed here are a tight end, a slot receiver and two running backs, with the biggest question marks being at the position that translates to the most upside for an offense and therefore for a team in 2021 college football. If Notre Dame plays one of the sport’s elites that has a formidable defense and high-powered offense they might have trouble, barring multiple wide receiver breakouts, but that would also mean they had an awesome season because they’re playing one of the sports’ elites in a bowl. That kind of match up would be the result of the Irish hitting double-digit wins for the fifth straight season despite losing massive amounts of production and talent from the 2020 team, which would be a great sign for the program as a whole.

If the Irish maximize their talent and win total only to run into a much-better opponent in December or January that would be a somewhat unfortunate time loop situation, yes, but it would also mean they again provided us with a very pleasant experience over the course of three autumn months. That can’t be the ceiling for the program, but a ceiling for a season with this much roster turnover? Sure, particularly since we might actually get to go to games and gather in bars and all that fun stuff.

Couple other things that might help:

  • At least on paper, Notre Dame isn’t set to face many elite defenses. Cincinnati and Wisconsin were top five units last year and will be formidable, but outside of that, there might not be another Top 25 defense on the schedule, although USC and the Virginia schools absolutely have that potential. Random things happen and you could see someone surprise in this area, of course.

  • There’s no reason to think the Irish defense won’t be capable, meaning that the offense should find itself in advantageous positions where it doesn’t have to press. We could be looking at shootouts with the Trojans or Tar Heels or even the Boilermakers, but the majority of opposing offenses should have some issues consistently moving the ball as long as Marcus Freeman achieves all of our hopes and dreams.

In sum, that is the rosy view of the proceedings based, again, solely on selective clips released by the university and the players themselves. We are taking the kindest possible view of what is essentially propaganda, but so what? Reality will come this fall either way, so while we should certainly track how things are coming at offensive line, who is being consistent at wide receiver and the quarterback derby, it certainly seems like the vibes are good, and for that I am thankful. 

By sending this today instead of waiting until Monday, I’m probably guaranteeing something interesting comes out of Saturday’s practice. Here’s hoping it’s positive (Kelly heaping praise on some unexpected players) and not negative (an injury). 

There have been a few podcasts since the last newsletter (Libsyn) (Spotify) (Apple) you can check out:

  • A review of the new Netflix documentary, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal.

  • A conversation about Mike Brey returning to coach the 2021-2022 season.

  • A look at offseason myths surrounding the program as well as putting together a list of the best head coaches in college football.

I’m really happy with how all of the above turned out so give them a shot. Leaving ratings and reviews at Apple is apparently helpful so if you’ve been enjoying the pod and are bored, maybe mosey on over there.

That’s it for now - unsure of when the next one will be but until then please take care of yourselves and each other.

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