The 2014 season did not go as planned for Notre Dame. New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's complicated scheme exacerbated the depth problems the team experienced after a rash of injuries, while QB Everett Golson's 20 turnovers included four pick-sixes.
By the end, the Irish defense was a mess and the offense was phasing in quarterback Malik Zaire. The redshirt freshman had 192 total yards and two TDs while leading Notre Dame to victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl. Zaire did much of the damage with his legs, carrying 22 times and spearheading the power run game.
The consensus from the spring was that Golson was more "polished" and in the lead. Even after getting first-team snaps in the Blue-Gold scrimmage, Golson elected to transfer and leave the job to Zaire.
A change in focus
There's no question that Golson is the more polished passer and, despite frequent turnovers, a better pre-snap decision-maker than Zaire thanks to a more sophisticated understanding of the offense.
Zaire is most comfortable with pure run-option concepts and throwing on the run, but his mechanics are less consistent in the pocket.
In Notre Dame's run/pass option game, in which the quarterback has to quickly read second-level defenders, Zaire can struggle to throw an accurate ball to really punish the defense:
On this play his ball sails a bit, requiring the 6'5 Corey Robinson to elevate. The linebacker is still unable to reach the play, but against stronger opponents (or with shorter receivers) that is a problem.
When he's throwing on the run or on deeper routes, Zaire is more comfortable. His arm strength is evident. This 60-yard bomb was a stunning demonstration of his ability to stretch the field in play action:
At about 6' (the real kind of 6') and 225 pounds, Zaire is built like a running back ... one who just happens to have a cannon arm. And he is not a chunky 225. He has real burst and power.
Zaire has the speed to win the edge on zone read plays, run in the rollout passing game and scramble. He also has the strength to run power up the middle or fall forward for extra yardage.
This skill set is quite significant, as Golson wasn't always the most enthusiastic runner. The ability to run power schemes from the spread via the option really opens up Brian Kelly's favored vertical passing game.
While Golson was more comfortable with the basics, Zaire opens up possibilities in the run game, has the skills to execute Kelly's essential pass concepts and brings more improvisation.
Tons of Irish Xs and Os
The Malik Zaire offense
Kelly's ideal Notre Dame offense is a power-spread attack with spread-I formations. Its tactics pound the middle of the field with the run, attack the perimeter with screens and seal the deal with vertical option routes. When every concept is working, it's like a slower version of Art Briles' veer-and-shoot offense at Baylor.
The challenge is finding the pieces that allow the offense to attack every part of the field with efficiency. It requires a quarterback who can operate the spread option and consistently hit deep routes without interceptions. The offensive line needs to be able to impose its will on any defensive players left in the box, the wide receivers need to include burners who can win one-on-one matchups and someone needs to be a good between-the-tackles runner.
As it happens, Notre Dame is returning an impressive cast.
The Irish offensive line returns four key members of the nation's 15th-best unit in 2014 (when combining Football Outsiders' Sack Rate and Line Yards stats) and averages 6'6, 313 pounds.
When using the advantages afforded by the option, these massive figures can dominate one-on-one blocks and move the line of scrimmage. They're mobile, especially left tackle Ronnie Stanley, which allows them to pancake smaller defenders in open grass, springing speedy weapons on slip screens.
At the skill positions, Notre Dame is loaded. Out wide they have jump-ball enthusiast Robinson (son of David), the 220-pound C.J. Prosise, William Fuller (who had 1,094 receiving yards and 15 TDs in 2014), senior Chris Brown and slot/RB Amir Carlisle.
Notre Dame's love of tight end/H-back sets will probably rely on sophomore Tyler Luatua, the best blocker of the bunch, who will escort Zaire on option runs. But the Irish have a parade of athletic young receiving options at the position.
With its versatile bench and Zaire's fantastic ability, Notre Dame can run some dread-wing concepts and guarantee situational dominance in the running game.
Facing second and 1 against LSU, the Irish ran this single wing-inspired power-read, overwhelming the Tigers at the point of attack:
The fullbacks take out the defensive end and play-side linebacker, the pulling guard works his way to the backside linebacker (or just pushes the pile at him) and LSU's backpedaling deep safety can't reach Zaire before he's picked up a first down.
Notre Dame could save plays like this for when they're needed most, like Ohio State did with J.T. Barrett last season, and be unstoppably efficient. Or they can mix them in regularly and see if Zaire can run for 1,000 yards.
How good can Notre Dame be?
All of the pieces are in place for Notre Dame to have an awe-inspiring offense. Can Kelly and Zaire put them together?
The question is whether Zaire can master the RPOs and passing game well enough take advantage of defenses loading the box. If he can master his footwork in enough to be reliably accurate on POP throws and execute the deep passing game without throwing picks, there will be no way for defensive coaches to send help.
Opponents would be left to choose between dying a slow death beneath the run or risk getting blown away by quick scores. As Ohio State demonstrated, not even Alabama blows out teams that can do that.
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