For those hoping Tommy Rees saw educational value in Notre Dame’s postseason tangoes with two advanced offenses, his first Zoom conference of the spring ought to have fed those hunger pangs.
Notre Dame’s second-year offensive coordinator spent nearly 30 minutes on Thursday unpacking his offseason of studying and the ongoing reconstruction of an offense undergoing line changes at several key positions.
The word “explosive” popped up nearly 10 times. He said “one-on-one” at least seven times. “Space” eight times.
All of them acknowledgement that yes, he knows what beat Notre Dame in December meetings with Clemson and Alabama and wants to do it himself. In the run game. Through the air. With tight ends, running backs and receivers. Just like those two perennial titans. Few strategies are going unexplored.
“Look, I don’t have a family. I don’t have many obligations besides this job,” Rees said. “I’m fortunate in that I can pour a lot of time into studying the game of football. I’ve been around the game my entire life. It’s something I’m extremely passionate about, something I love to do. As you study different people and what they’re doing, how are people creating opportunities, the creativity and ideas start to flow.”
We’ll see a muted version of them in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, but he made the basic principles clear enough. Notre Dame’s 2021 offensive personnel favors a space-oriented, field-stretching, quick-hitting, matchup-creating identity. Last year, the Irish’s offense was a hammer in search of a nail. This season, it might end up being like a sports car seeking a path to the left lane.
“We have more speed than we did a year ago,” Rees said. “We have multiple running backs we want to feature. We have a hell of a tight end we want to feature. Right now, we’re trying to create as much space on the field as we can to allow our players to go be explosive. This offseason, the focus has been about creating space, creating one-on-one opportunities.”
Despite all the shuffling going on, Rees feels like he has clear starting points.
Notre Dame has two running backs, Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree, who have elusiveness, open-field ability and can catch passes. His offense’s best mismatch weapon is 250-pound tight end Michael Mayer and his yards-after-catch skills. A receiver room that’s unproven still owns common desirable traits: shiftiness, open-field ability and wheels to stretch a defense across the field and down it.
Rees’ objective is to get them the ball as often as possible in situations where they can rip off chunk yardage. Actionable ways to do so presumably and ideally include more vertical attempts than Notre Dame took last year, but that’s not the only way. The Irish’s College Football Playoff loss to Alabama confirmed as much.
“The biggest farce going is to create explosive [plays], every throw has to be 55 yards,” Rees said. “That’s not really the case. You can watch whoever you want, a lot of those explosive plays come when you create opportunities for your best players to have space and be in a one-on-one opportunity.
The preferred schematics are state secrets and will be until the season opener. Spring practice has the feel of a chemistry lab and widespread experimentation. Mix this idea and that one together and see what happens. Sometimes, it’ll explode, like baking soda and vinegar. Other times, it’ll yield something useful.
Adverse reactions are OK right now. Part of creating something is finding what fails, tossing it aside and trying again. Rees didn’t get to do that last spring. With an established quarterback and offensive line, he also didn’t need to do it as much. In this normal-ish offseason with more time for self-discovery, there’s a friendlier setup for trial runs.
“That’s going to be never-ending for me,” Rees said. “It’s always going to be striving to find the best ways to give our players opportunities to be successful. It’s our job as coaches to find out what our guys do well and put them in position to be successful based on matchups, space, leverage, all those different things.
“As you start to see this offense unfold, you’re going to see some other ways we’ll be efficient on early downs. Other ways to stretch the field. Other ways to create one-on-ones in space.”
Some are pretty obvious. Notre Dame wants to put even more touches on Williams’ plate – especially as a receiver – increase Tyree’s load, use receiver Braden Lenzy’s speed in the open field and force-feed Mayer. The last one was a staple a year ago. Expect it to be only more prevalent.
“It’s all about trying to isolate matchups for Mike,” Rees said. “How do we get him in a situation where they can’t help, where we can get a one-on-one? It doesn’t matter if it’s a corner – he’s going to have a size advantage. If it’s safety or a linebacker, he’s going to have an agility advantage.”
Even if Notre Dame builds around him, it’ll need more. He was one aspect of 2020 that can be the same in 2021. Rees has planned all along to introduce a lot of new ones.
“All of that stuff has been fun and exciting to start to develop and install, to see what we’ve been able to master and see what we’re still working at,” Rees said. “That’s going to be fluid throughout the spring, throughout May and June. As we lead into camp and get a better feel for who we are, that’s where we start to tailor it down and what we want to do.”
The apparent guiding principles behind it are encouraging.
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