Following a spring of positive development at a number of positions–and a returning quarterback (no jinx) well regarded across the country–the hype and expectations are growing considerably for the Notre Dame offense. As I’ve scanned the landscape I have witnessed certain words beginning to be tossed around, including “elite”, “dominant”, and “unstoppable.”
Before we dig in further let’s first try to agree upon what those words would mean in context for Notre Dame. First, here are the S&P offense rankings in the recent past for the Irish:
2018 – 34
2017 – 19
2016 – 18
2015 – 6
2014 – 23
2013 – 35
2012 – 35
2011 – 25
2010 – 35
It seems like we have a floor of expectations, at the very least. These numbers by themselves aren’t perfect by any means. Even with the defensive struggles it’s hard to imagine 2016’s offense being the second best of the Kelly era but perhaps that’s a good debate. Last year’s offense didn’t always feel like the 4th worst of the bunch although the start with Wimbush and being smashed by Clemson didn’t help the cause.
Let’s say something around the Top 10 of S&P would be elite, that feels about right. The Irish defense finished 10th last year and most would say it was an elite defense in most respects. If you want something more traditional let’s target 35 points per game as a goal in 2019. The Kelly-era high is 34.2 points achieved twice in 2015 and 2017.
Why the 2019 Offense Will Dominate
1) Ian Book
I think the masses have done a 180-degree turn on Ian Book 4 times since last September. Most didn’t want to see him instead of Wimbush, then he quickly won over people, then he bombed in the Cotton Bowl, then he’s calmly solidified himself as the starter through the end of spring practice. The real question is if another 180 is coming during the 2019 season.
Of course, Ian Book has limitations. He’s short and doesn’t have a huge arm. Yet, he checks a ton of boxes that make up a great college quarterback. And really, when you look back Brady Quinn (spotty accuracy, relied on tall receivers/tight ends) and Jimmy Clausen (incredibly immobile) they had some obvious flaws too which are some of Book’s biggest strengths.
To put it bluntly, as we mentioned in the Notre Dame Hall of Fame Pyramid introduction post if you average out Book’s 9 starts from 2018 to a full 13-game season he will produce one of the top 2 or 3 passing seasons in school history. It’s difficult to think that could happen and the Irish wouldn’t have a potent offense to one degree or another.
2) Speed at Receiver
It’s weird bringing this up after Miles Boykin obliterated the NFL Combine but I will go to my grave believing he didn’t flash that speed and quickness for the Irish. For me, this is more about Chase Claypool hopefully reaching his potential, Chris Finke gaining even more confidence, and any combination of Michael Young, Kevin Austin, Lawrence Keys, or Braden Lenzy providing more speed that wasn’t there in any great abundance last year.
It will be crucial for the receivers to be great at picking up yards after catch. If we assume Book becomes modestly productive at completing deeper passes, he’ll still need to make his living in the short-to-medium throws and have his receivers turn 8 yards gains into 27 yard gains. History would suggest at least one receiver needs to have a big, big year for the Irish offense to be elite.
3) The Most Cohesion of the Kelly Era
Despite his critics claiming Notre Dame’s offense has been a Waste Management dumpster engulfed in flames that lucked its way into a 22-4 record over the last 2 seasons the S&P rankings tell a different story that the Irish have been cruising (Wimbush games 1-3 for 2018 aside) as a comfortably successful offense for several years now.
Coming into 2019, the offensive coordinator is back for the 3rd straight year (a first for the Kelly era), a nice veteran mix of starters return (7 in total) in combination with promising new blood, and perhaps the best quarterback of the Kelly era is coming back to give the program a level of continuity its been starving for over the last decade.
This amount of cohesiveness for a coaching staff and players working with a burgeoning star at quarterback could portend big things during the fall.
Why the 2019 Offense Won’t Dominate
1) Offensive Line Questions
I remember we had some lively discussions prior to 2018 about the offensive line. I remained skeptical as a new coach + losses of Glinch/Nelson + lots of off-season shuffling of positions + a lack of blue-chip NFL prospects felt like too much to overcome. A downward turn seemed inevitable it was only a question of how much.
On the bright side, the 2018 offensive line gave up 5 fewer sacks on 66 more pass attempts than the 2017 unit. They allowed 13 fewer quarterback hurries. Power success rate dropped only from 23rd to 38th which isn’t too bad considering the generational talent that was lost. Yet, we know the 2018 offense rushed for 1,127 fewer yards, 8 fewer touchdowns, and the overall rushing average dropped by a sickening 1.82 yards per carry.
Overall rushing success rate finished up at 48.8% just barely avoiding 2010 (by o.1%) for the worst of the Kelly era, too. As such, the advanced stats savaged Notre Dame’s offensive line. Adjusted line yards fell from 5th to 106th, opportunity rate from 11th to 112th, and stuff rate from 22nd to 121st. As we’ve discusses previously, the amount of stuffs (defined either by carries for 0 or fewer yards or 2 yards or fewer, take your pick) killed the Irish ground game when they couldn’t make up for it with explosiveness like 2017. For instance, runs of 20+ yards were cut in half from 42 to 21 carries in 2018.
2) Stars vs. Depth
Following a productive spring and Blue-Gold Game I do fear we’re being seduced a little bit by the depth on offense. Or should I say supposed depth on offense. There are encouraging signs in many places but we really can’t hang our hat on many proven players offensively besides Book, Armstrong, Claypool, and Finke.
That’s a nice group, although if you told me 10 months ago Notre Dame’s offense would dominate in 2019 off the backs of those 4 players I wouldn’t have laughed in your face but been extremely skeptical. When looking to the future I like to pretend I’m speaking to a fan of an opponent and convincing them about Notre Dame’s players. I couldn’t in good conscience hype up Michael Young or Jahmir Smith right now.
In off-season exuberance we sometimes run away with thoughts that there will be a handful of great players backed up by a handful of almost great players–basically a cascading flow of talent. In reality, it’s never that pretty.
Major stars are needed. I’d say all of Book, Armstrong, Claypool, and one tight end all have to reach their ceilings quickly for the Irish offense to be truly dominant. That kind of stardom sometimes gets ignored when good things are happening at one position like running back where 3 or 4 quality options could be used.
3) Lack of Explosiveness
It may be safe to assume the Irish running game will get at least a little more successful and a more experienced Ian Book should see at least a small increase in passing efficiency for someone who finished 17th nationally in passer rating. Quality ten percent bumps in each alone won’t be enough to create a dominant offense. The Irish finished 46th in success rate last year according to S&P and even if that was closer to 30th in Ian Book’s 9 games it’s always hard to rely so much on efficiency.
The top 5 offenses last year all finished in the top 16 in S&P’s explosiveness metric with the exception of Ohio State who led the entire country in passing yardage. Notre Dame was 37th last year down from 10th the year prior. That actually is better than it felt sometimes last year but can the Irish make a 20 to 25 spot jump in these rankings?
Last spring I was predicting we could see the worst offense of the Kelly era in 2018. For a few games at least, it seemed well on its way before the page was turned at quarterback. In terms of yards per play I predicted 5.82 for the 2018 offense. They started at 5.09 through the first 3 games (yikes indeed) but improved under Book to finish at 6.00 for the season.
Normally cautious, I’m surprisingly optimistic about the 2019 offense. I’m seeing 40 points per game being bandied about but I’m not quite that optimistic. That would take about 130 combined points against New Mexico and Bowling Green, averaging 20 points in the 3 difficult road games (Georgia, Michigan, Stanford), and then average 42 per game against the rest of the schedule.
40 points per game is super hard, especially with so few breathers on Notre Dame’s schedule. It would be a modern school record for a reason!
I’m really high on Book being able to become one of the upper-echelon quarterbacks in the country who’s good enough to carry the Irish in most games but who may never be a complete superstar. I’m also buying stock in the offensive line with one caveat:
The running backs have to be difference makers and help out their fair share. I’ve always gone against the grain on this topic as most pin nearly all the blame on the line when rushing isn’t up to par. Sure, up front things should’ve been better but there was a shocking lack of making tacklers miss and picking up additional yardage in 2018.
A lot of people like to look back at the 2017 team and envision McGlinchey and Nelson opening up huge holes. While true on occasion, running back Josh Adams was great at yards after contact. Not only did he lead the country in 2017 in yards after contact (4.95) Adams’ final season is the best from a Power 5 back over the last 5 years. You can’t block every single defender all the time and I thought 2018’s backs were atrocious at times creating their own yardage–a hallmark of the best running backs.
Notre Dame’s offensive line should perform at a B/B+ level in 2019 and you can have a very, very good offense with that protection and blocking, especially with a quarterback like Ian Book. So much of my focus is on the running backs–can Jafar Armstrong stay healthy and truly blossom into a star? Will the younger backs really push Tony Jones Jr. for carries and help drive down the awful stuff rate from last year? This unit has enough questions where there should be healthy skepticism about a truly dominant offense in 2019. Or maybe the passing game will be so fantastic the run game won’t matter as much.