The 2022 college football season is approaching fast, and the Ohio State Buckeyes continuing their preparations in fall camp to hit the ground running in Week 1 of the season. Their first test is a marquee match up against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who will be traveling to Columbus for Marcus Freeman’s regular season debut as the program’s head coach.
The storylines are full, and this will be the one game on every one’s radar and an opportunity for both teams to make a statement immediately. With a game like this leading the way, we’re going to start taking a look at all things Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish had minimal staff turnover in the transition from Brian Kelly to Marcus Freeman, meaning last year’s film is a good place to look, and their recent Spring Game is another resource that shows a lot of what the team is going to do from a base sense on both sides of the ball. They also played Jim Knowles’ Oklahoma State defense last season, even if Knowles wasn’t coaching it himself.
With all that being said, today we’re going to be taking a first look at Notre Dame’s offense under offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. We’ll be looking at Notre Dame’s favorite personnel packages, what they like to do in the run game, and some of their passing concepts to understand how the Irish are going to try to attack Knowles’ Buckeye defense.
Their quarterback situation will bring on some newer looks and potentially more 11-personnel spread packages. Tyler Buchner is a dual threat quarterback who was used as a gadget player last season to change the pace of the game. At running back, they lose one of their best backs over the last decade in Kyren Williams. However, they return a strong room with Chris Tyree leading the way and some talented players behind him. At receiver they don’t have any game breakers, but some consistent players from last season were Lorenzo Styles, Braden Lenzy and Avery Davis.
The most talented player on the offense is Michael Mayer, who may potentially end up as a first round tight end in the NFL Draft. He created mismatches all of last season, leading Notre Dame in catches, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. This group is also filled out with quite a few experienced, big bodies in Mitchell Evans and Kevin Bauman. On the offensive line for the Irish they have a lot of size and this should provide an immediate test for Knowles’ defense and the Ohio State front seven.
Overall, outside of Mayer, their offense relies on a methodical approach rather than big plays. Expect more of that with a receiver group not known for their explosiveness and a quarterback with limited throwing experience.
Offensive formation breakdown
Notre Dame has a quite a bit of versatility in their formations. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees always has a tight end on the field, and is a strong proponent of utilizing 12-personnel, meaning one running back and two tight ends. Using these big formations allows them to get more run blocking bodies on the field, as well as create size mismatches in the passing game. Similar to Ohio State, Notre Dame will never not have a tight end on the field, especially given the fact they have the All-American tight end Mayer.
Looking at the first package against Oklahama State’s defensive front gives an idea about how the Buckeyes might line up against Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish line up with two tight ends to the boundary side of the field. Oklahoma State puts their “Leo” over the inline tight end, and has their “Bandit” safety shading over top. Notre Dame likes to use this look to condense the defense and create some confusion with run fit responsibility by creating more gaps to cover. This is a standard base formation that also creates challenges in the passing game, getting tight ends covered by linebackers and potentially smaller players in safeties. From my viewing, this was their most common 12-personnel formation.
In the second picture, Notre Dame is under center and they are actually in 13-personnel here. As stated, Rees loves his tight end bodies in the game, and this gives an unbalanced look with two tight ends offset off the inline tight end. For the Buckeyes, expect them to utilize a Sam linebacker or a player like Kourt Williams who can match the size and athleticism of the tight ends. Notre Dame does not use fullbacks, and opts for this type of look instead. By putting this many bodies in the box, defenses have to match the numbers. If they dont, short yardage plays out of this formation can turn into much bigger gains.
Just like Ohio State, Notre Dame will never not have a tight end on the field. In the first look of 11-personnel, the Fighting Irish have Mayer split out into the slot. Oklahoma State brings a safety down to match up against the tight end. They are also bringing pressure against the six man protection here, aligning in man-to-man straight across the formation. This is a standard look for Notre Dame, and one they use often in obvious passing situations. Ideally, they get a mismatch with Mayer or have him draw attention, leaving the receivers in one-on-one situations.
In the second look here, Notre Dame starts in a 11-personnel doubles, with Mayer lined up as an inline tight end. They motion the receiver to the tight end side across the formation, leaving Mayer as the lone receiver to the short side. This gives the tight end a lot of range to run out breaking routes and routes crossing the field. When this happens there tends to be coverage checks as well, which gives the offense certain looks to attack in these scenarios. This also creates a quick RPO action with a potential bubble or line route to the field side with the motioning receiver.
This look is one that has a lot of versatility and can create a lot of conflict for defenses.
Passing game concepts
Notre Dame had a really rough outing in the passing department in the spring game, but their offense was able to make a few plays. The Fighting Irish rely a lot on the tight ends, check downs to the running backs, and the screen game. For the most part they try to stretch the field vertically in the passing game, with a lot of their concepts showing four vertical routes up to the breaking points. Rees has added a few RPO’s to the mix as well. They also mix in some traditional pro-style passing concepts, including Mesh, Flood, and Smash.
Notre Dame’s only real success on offense in the spring game came from screens. The main screens were out of the backfield to the running back with slip screens and delayed screens.
In the play below, we get to see Notre Dame running a tunnel screen to the outside receiver out of an RPO look. This is a pre-snap RPO, with the quarterback looking at numbers outside over the receivers and in the box to the run side. The blockers are outnumbered in the run game, so the quarterback throws the screen pass. Notre Dame’s trips bunch has three defenders over the three receivers at different levels. The receivers don’t need to do a lot, but they do enough to create a running lane for the receiver who catches the screen.
This is a wrinkle that the Buckeyes really need to be prepared for with Buchner at quarterback, and Buchner adds a third option to the mix with his legs.
Notre Dame relies on a lot of vertical routes in their passing game. All of their offense leans on the concept of the vertical stems in routes. Pushing up the field is key, so we’re going to look at the base route concept of Four Verticals for ND.
On the top side of the screen you have three receivers including the tight end. The outside receiver runs up the numbers, the middle slot receiver pushes vertical up the hash, and the tight end crosses the formation or splits the safeties if the look has two-high safeties. In this case he splits the safeties. The quarterback has a one-on-one match up to the short side and the defensive line interferes with the throw, but this gives the look of a back shoulder throw. The offense runs four verts in all situations, but this is the play they build a lot of their passing offense on.
Red Zone Passing Game
This play has become common place in goal line scenarios for teams, especially teams with strong tight end units. The premise of this play is to get the defense moving to the side of the play action and get the quarterback an easy throw rolling to the right. The play action is a basic outside zone look from the gun. They fake the run to the short side of the field and the tight end who catches the pass sets up his route here by taking a blocking step down, then slips out to the flat with no defender. He catches the ball and gets an easy score.
These types of plays are hard to defend, but if a defense is disciplined they should be able to disrupt this play.
In a quick research into Tommy Rees’ – and Brian Kelly’s – run scheme, they run three types of run plays: Pin and Pull, Inside Zone, and Outside Zone. The emphasis on the zone run game is by no means new to the game of college football, but the way they approach it is actually quite effective. They utilize size well in their blocking schemes, and the running backs are well coached.
The play below shows a basic inside zone read option play that Notre Dame will utilize quite a bit in short yardages situations with Buchner at quarterback. On defense, the read defender is No. 31, and he plays this exceptionally well. He puts the quarterback in a bind by squeezing the end of the line of scrimmage and not overcommitting to either option. Notre Dame’s quarterback hands the ball off in this play, and the double team in the interior is unable to create push. Look familiar?
But this gives a good indication of where their double teams are. They double team the read side end and the play side defensive tackle, while they solo the backside defensive end. The double teams get eaten up, and this allows the linebackers to flow in and ends up being a great team defensive stop. Ohio State will need a big performance from their defensive line to make plays against Notre Dame’s run game.
Pin and Pull
This a fun run concept to evaluate, and one that has become a focal point in Notre Dame’s running game. After a heavy dose of inside zone throughout the game against Oklahoma State, the Fighting Irish finally decided to offer a different look. The “Pin and Pull” concept is really self explanatory: the four non-pulling linemen turn their defenders opposite of the run action. This is set up with a counter step by the running back to give the pullers time to get a cross. In this case they are the left guard and left wing set tight end.
The pulling guard does a great job kicking out, but the tight end fails to go through the hole. If the tight end goes through the hole he’d be getting to the second level and making a block that possibly springs this play. Instead, it results in a fumble, which was the luck of the Irish in the second half.
In this initial look, we went over some of the basic concepts of Notre Dame’s offense. Tommy Rees has built a balanced offense that can attack in multiple ways, but they do not do anything the Buckeyes shouldn’t be able to prepare for. They are a zone run offense and they are a vertical pro-style spread passing offense. A lot of the passing game is based in timing, and they utilize the screen game quite a bit.
From a formational standpoint, they will always have a tight end on the field and will play up to three tight ends in certain situations. When we take a deeper look into the passing game, one of the biggest issues Notre Dame had in the spring was the receivers creating separation. Expect Rees to get creative in crossing receivers and trying to put defensive backs in tough situations, especially when looking at Ohio State’s defense last year.
Overall, the Notre Dame offense tries to be balanced and they use a quick methodical passing game at times to create tempo, which gave Oklahoma State some fits in the first half of the bowl game. They rely on screens and getting their offensive line in space to make big plays. The Buckeyes will have their work cut out for them, especially with a player like Michael Mayer on the other side. Discipline and physicality is how Notre Dame’s defense dominated their offense in the spring game, so if the Buckeyes can create havoc through physicality, the Irish offense could be in for a long day.