With just two 10-win seasons, blowouts in his last two BCS bowl appearances, and “4-8” sitting in the “what have you done for me lately?” reply email, Brian Kelly had to make some changes at Notre Dame. And this offseason, Kelly made changes.
The biggest changes he made were hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball. The Fighting Irish landed Memphis offensive coordinator Chip Long to replace Mike Sanford when the latter left to take over at Western Kentucky. That means a departure from the pro-style spread that failed to overcome regional competitors. Kelly also replaced fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (and his complicated, pro-style scheme) with Wake Forest DC Mike Elko.
By nabbing Long and Elko, Notre Dame now has an RPO-spread offense and a 4-2-5 quarters defense, current with today’s “best practices” in football. Here’s how that could blend with the Fighting Irish roster in 2017.
Brandon Wimbush should take the reins of a new-look but experienced offense.
Kelly had been at the cutting edge of spread offense in the past, mixing power run schemes and tight ends with spread formations and QB option runs to create some nasty attacks. In 2015, he struck gold by pairing DeShone Kizer’s cannon arm with Will Fuller’s deep receiving ability. That allowed Kelly’s offense to call college defenses’ favorite bluff in yielding the space outside of the far hash mark.
However, the Irish never quite put it all together with run/pass option plays that could’ve forced opponents to worry about more than one of their offensive dimensions at a time. At Memphis, Long was all about the RPO and made great use of these packaged plays to unleash a savvy, throwing QB in Riley Ferguson.
I’ve broken down the basics of the Long RPO attack before. The biggest bonus of this attack is the way it will create opportunities for the Irish to fully leverage their absurd collection of talent on offense. For whatever reason, Notre Dame has two offensive linemen who were eligible for the 2017 NFL draft but stayed in school. Now the Irish return a left side of Mike McGlinchey (a 6’8, 310-pound, fifth-year tackle) and Quenton Nelson (a 6’5, 325-pound fourth-year guard).
In fact, the Irish figure to return four starters from a year ago across the line, along with top wideout Equanimeous St. Brown and starting RB Josh Adams. So as far as skill, talent and blocking, they can check off the RPO offense requirements of being able to beat man coverage and run on an honest front.
The only remaining question mark is whether redshirt sophomore QB Brandon Wimbush is ready to be a distributor in an option-heavy attack. If he can make reads throwing the ball around or alternatively add value as a running threat on QB option plays, the Irish will be set. They’ll probably be able to run zone behind their left side and expect to overwhelm a fair percentage of their opponents.
A brief scouting report on Wimbush from Bud Elliott, the SB Nation national recruiting analyst who evaluated him as a recruit at showcase events:
Wimbush generates excellent RPMs on his throws relative to his quick, compact stroke. If he has learned to vary his tempo and arc, Notre Dame's offense might not miss a beat after losing Kizer.
Mike Elko will install an NFL defense tailored for college.
Under VanGorder, the Irish struggled to implement schemes of NFL-level complexity in the college context of constant veteran turnover and the modern context of uptempo, spread-option offenses that punish defenses that can’t think quickly and play fast.
Elko is going to bring some similarly challenging blitz schemes, but all wrapped up in a package that was designed and repeatedly proven at the college level. He’s also going to have a better situation at cornerback than did VanGorder at the end, when he lost two starters at that position within a few games last season before his firing.
The Elko defense is a 4-2-5 quarters system that comes out of a 4-4 defensive background. It’s built largely around the wonderful options that are possible for a team with split field coverages.
It’s labeled a 4-2-5 because the field outside linebacker — lined up away from the near sideline — is a full-time starter and not a “nickel” substitute. But Elko has tended to use “space-backers” in this role and plans to convert 6’2, 230-pound returning safety Drue Tranquill to this role next season. The position is called “the rover,” but he doesn’t really do any roving. He’s just asked to manhandle slot receivers, play the wide field flat, and maintain the edge against the run.
The real “rover” in this system is the free safety, whom Elko loves to use as a free hitter to try to force opponents to play left-handed. This is made possible thanks to the split-field coverages that allowed Elko’s Wake Forest unit to load up the field with conservative, two-read calls, while playing aggressively on the boundary.
For instance, against Florida State, the Demon Deacons dropped the free safety into the box to make sure Dalvin Cook didn’t find easy running room:
Elko’s system is mindful of the threat from RPOs of the sort that Long is bringing to South Bend. To that end, the rover will force the run by working outside of the slot receiver’s block, rather than trying to go under and giving that player a free release to run a route. This puts a lot on the rover to be physical, hence Elko’s preference for big, physical players in that spot. It also puts pressure on the Mike linebacker to be able to cover ground laterally.
Here’s a great snapshot of how that looks when things are working properly (although it’s the Will linebacker forcing the run, rather than the rover, in this instance):
The weak-side linebacker puts the Clemson slot receiver on the ground and forces the RB to cut upfield early, straight into narrow space that is quickly filled by a fast scraping middle linebacker. Wake Forest has dictated the terms.
Elko’s Wake outside linebackers were laterally quick and effective playing blocks in space, while middle linebacker Marquel Lee was always up for running sideline to sideline. He led the team with 105 tackles, 20 of which took place behind the line of scrimmage and 7.5 of which were sacks. He was an excellent player for Elko.
Against Clemson, Wake Forest often leveraged the free safety by dropping him down to play man coverage. That meant the Deacs could bring a blitzer:
Deshaun Watson made throws that led to explosive Tiger gains on multiple occasions with a free-running inside blitzer in his face and decent coverage outside, often to Mike Williams. When that happens, you can only tip your cap.
This approach requires truly reliable corner play, particularly on the boundary, where Elko likes to use man coverage to free up that safety. It requires three linebackers who can roam the horizontal length of the field, and it needs some players up front for whom Elko can scheme opportunities in his varied blitz package.
The Irish have better athletes along the line and in the secondary than Elko had at Wake Forest, but how quickly they mimic the Demon Deacons’ sound and versatile play will be another story. Elko’s experience with installing and teaching concepts effectively at the college level will likely prove more important than his specific tactics for attacking offenses. Notre Dame’s recruiting on defense means execution of any system should make the Irish formidable. Or, at least, better than 4-8.