2011 Notre Dame Preview – Offense
Notre Dame RB Cierre Wood
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Notre Dame Fighting Irish Offense
Preview 2011 - Offense
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What You Need To Know: Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar had to completely rework the line, lost the best tight end in the nation – Kyle Rudolph – early on, and lost the one player the team couldn't lose – QB Dayne Crist – to a knee injury. With a mediocre ground game and a true freshman under center, the Irish offense pressed on to finish with a decent kick. The line figured out what it was doing, and now it should be a killer with four starters back. The running game will always play second-fiddle to the Irish passing game, but Cierre Wood is an exciting back leading a good rotation. The question marks are at receiver, where someone like Theo Riddick or John Goodman must step up and produce more no matter what the final outcome is from superstar WR Michael Floyd's legal troubles and suspension. The quarterback situation will be a non-stop source of discussion with Crist back and getting healthy, Tommy Rees now a grizzled veteran, and with two terrific athletic prospects in Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson to add some flash in gimmick packages.
Star of the offense: Senior WR Michael Floyd (assuming he's back)
Passing: Dayne Crist
174-294, 2,033 yds, 15 TD, 7 INT
Rushing: Cierre Wood
119 carries, 603 yds, 3 TD
Receiving: Michael Floyd*
79 catches, 1,025 yds, 12 TD
*Assuming he'll be back
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior WR Theo Reddick
Unsung star on the rise: Junior OT Zack Martin
Best pro prospect: Floyd
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Floyd, 2) TE Tyler Eifert, 3) Martin
Strength of the offense: Passing Game, Offensive Line
Weakness of the offense: Explosive Running Game, Settled QB Situation
State of the Unit: Brian Kelly is a whiz at creating ultra-productive quarterbacks. Even though disaster struck last season, the passing game still clicked at times with all the quarterbacks combining to throw for 3,287 yards and 28 touchdowns with 16 interceptions. The efficiency wasn't there like Kelly usually gets out of his quarterbacks, but now he has more experience and more talent returning to what should be a strong, solid group as the season goes on.
Can Dayne Crist come back from yet another knee injury? The huge question mark going into last season was whether or not he could faster than normal from a torn ACL, and then he tore his other knee, suffering a patella tendon injury, after completing 59% of his passes for 2,033 yards and 15 touchdowns with seven interceptions. Surprisingly mobile considering his balky knee, he netted 75 rushing yards and score four touchdowns before getting hurt, but his game is about winging it around the yards. At 6-4 and 235 pounds he has the size, the arm, and the tools, but he has to hold up and he has to keep the mistakes to a minimum. While it helps that he was playing against worse teams, it just so happened that the Irish was 0-3 when he threw for 275 yards or more – losing to Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford. Better when he doesn't have to carry the entire attack and with the ground game helping out, his job will be to throw accurately, keep the mistakes to a minimum, and to get the ball to the playmakers in places where they can do something with it.
After Crist went down, then-true freshman Tommy Rees stepped in and did a decent job. After completing 6-of-7 passes for 79 yards against Navy, he was thrown into the full-time role the week after when Christ got hurt against Tulsa and threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns. However, he also threw three interceptions in the loss. With the season starting to crumble and after the ugly losses to inferior teams, the Irish got solid play from its young quarterback in wins over Utah, Army, and USC – even with three picks thrown against the Trojans – before throwing for 201 yards and two scores in the bowl win over Miami. The 6-2, 210-pound sophomore has a quick release and a nice, live arm, but he needs more time. He's being given every shot at getting the starting job back, considering he started to settle into the job late last year, but he has to be nearly perfect with Crist the front-runner and a few great prospects waiting in the wings.
Is Everett Golson really ready to be in the mix for the starting job right away. The star recruit is only 6-0 and 180 pounds, and he might not quite look the part, but he's a good enough athlete to consider playing on the Irish basketball team and he's one of the most accomplished passers in the history of high school football throwing for 11,634 yards and 151 career scores despite missing half of last year hurt. More than likely, he'll battle with 6-2, 218-pound redshirt freshman Andrew Hendrix, the star of the spring game, for the No. 3 job. Extremely athletic and with good size, he has a good mix of skills and fits the Kelly offense a bit better than Crist or Rees because of his mobility. However, he might be the odd man out. Despite blowing off Florida, Ohio State, Miami, and Wisconsin for the Irish, and even though the talent is there to be the face of the program, there's a logjam of talented quarterbacks and he has to stand out to hold off Golson and push past Rees as the star of the future.
Watch Out For … A few packages thrown in to get either Golson or Hendrix on the field. It's not like Hendrix is Denard Robinson, but he ran extremely well in the spring game and showed off an element that Rees and Crist don't have. Golson would redshirt in a perfect world, but he's enough of a baller to be put in the mix immediately.
Strength: Talent. Kelly made college football superstars out of Tony Pick and Ben Mauk, and once the young Irish passers mature a little bit, the starter who ends up rising above the fray should be special. It might take one more year to figure out who the right guy is for the foreseeable future, but Rees, Golson, and Hendrix are phenomenal talents.
Weakness: As the saying goes, if you have two starting quarterbacks, you have no starting quarterback. Notre Dame has four. Boo hoo, and Notre Dame also might be getting too much money from its TV and BCS deals. No one's going to be crying about the Irish's abundance of quarterback riches, but the starter will always be looking over his shoulder and won't be allowed to make too many mistakes. No matter who the starter is, the interceptions have to slow down after the quarterbacks gave away 16 last year.
Outlook: No one puts quarterbacks through the ringer like Kelly. He's a taskmaster who demands perfection out of his passers, but for the time being he'll have to hope for the mistakes to be kept to a minimum and for good, accurate play from all the options. If Crist's knee is good enough to get by, he'll be the main man, but everyone will get a chance to show what they can do in practices. The Irish quarterbacks will be good this year, and they could be special next season and beyond after a little more seasoning.
Unit Rating: 8
State of the Unit: The Irish running game couldn't quite find its footing last year until the very end. It was steadily mediocre, doing just enough to provide a slight semblance of balance, but it didn't explode, hovering around the 150-yard mark on a good day and bottoming out in the blowout loss to Stanford, netting just 44 yards. And then came the came the Sun Bowl win over Miami, and with it, hope for 2011 even though the team's second (Armando Allen) and third (Robert Hughes) leading rushers are gone.
Junior Cierre Wood was a superstar recruit who could've gone anywhere after rushing for 2,612 yards and 34 touchdowns as a high school junior, and with 1,632 yards and 20 scores as a senior, but he sat on the sidelines as a true freshman. The new coaching staff benefitted from the redshirt season, and now it has a back to work around for the next three years after he ran for a team-leading 603 yards with three scores to go along with 20 catches for 170 yards and two touchdowns. He averaged a solid 5.1 yards even though he rarely broke off any big runs. With a great blend of speed and power, he became a key part of the attack over the second half of the year – just when the offense needed him the most after Armando Allen went down – and finished up strong with an 81-yard, one-score day against Miami.
Wood will be the main man for the attack, but 5-10, 230-pound senior Jonas Gray needs to play a big role. The big thumper in the equation, he has been a bit lost in the shuffle throughout his career, and while he averaged five yards per carry last season, he only ran 20 times for 100 yards. He has been around long enough to be a steady part of the rotation, and he has the hands to be used as a receiver out of the backfield from time to time, but he needs to be quick through the hole and he has to bring more power in short yardage situations.
The hope was for Cameron Roberson to step up and shine as a true freshman, but the 6-0, 218-pounder spent his season working on the scout team. With a terrific blend of speed and strength, he has the tools to be a do-it-all back, but the promising prospect from California suffered a knee injury in spring ball and is questionable for the start of the season.
Watch Out For … More Gray. The injury to Roberson will mean that Wood has to stay healthy, and for Wood to stay healthy, Gray has to handle at least half of the workload. While Wood proved he could carry the ground game when needed last season, he only ran the ball 119 times while Armando Allen and Robert Hughes combined to carry it 175 times.
Strength: The offense. In a perfect world, the running backs in a Brian Kelly-led offense should have open spaces to fly through. Since the attack works mostly around the short to midrange passing game, and does it in an up-tempo style, the openings will be there.
Weakness: Depth. This was one of the team's biggest strengths last season as four different backs got regular work. The depth became a major plus when Allen went down, and while Wood was able to step in and shine, there isn't a back who can do the same if needed. Gray is a big step back from Wood, and assuming Roberson's reportedly torn knee ligaments won't be 100% healed in a few months, the No. 3 back in the rotation will soon become a big deal.
Outlook: When Roberson is back and healthy, and that might not be for a bit, the Irish will be loaded up with good options in the backfield. But Wood has to plan on becoming a 200-carry back, while Gray will have to prove he can be the decisive runner needed to bring close to five yards per run. Because of the potential issues with depth, don't be shocked if some quirky packages are put together to utilize the running ability of some of the backup quarterback options.
Unit Rating: 7
State of the Unit: All questions about the Notre Dame receiving corps revolve around senior Michael Floyd, a superior talent who was suspended from the team after getting charged with drunk driving and allegedly having a blood-alcohol level twice the legal limit for driving. It's been reported by the Chicago Tribune, among others, that he'll be back on the team at some point after the legal process is sorted out, but after also getting hit with underage drinking charges twice during his career, he'll be on a short leash.
Assuming Floyd is back in the mix, he has all the talent and all the skills to win the Biletnikoff. Minnesota's former Mr. Football hasn't had too much luck staying healthy, suffering a broken collarbone in 2009 and a leg injury in 2008. Even so, he's been ultra-productive whenever he's been on the field, leading the team with 79 catches for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns last season despite missing the Navy game. He score twice against Michigan State, caught 11 passes for 104 yards and two touchdown against Tulsa, and ripped up Miami for 109 yards and two scores. At 6-3 and 228 pounds he has the size and the hands, but he'll have to prove at the Combine next year that he's not a 4.6ish runner, he has to prove he can stay healthy and he has to get back in everyone's good graces.
Junior Theo Riddick stated out his Irish career as a running back, and he got a little bit of work last year running 11 times for 29 yards, but he quickly made the switch to receiver and now has grown into a top target. The No. 2 man next to Floyd last season, he came up with a solid 40 catches for 414 yards and three touchdowns. Just as he was starting to become a major factor, helping the cause when Kyle Rudolph went down, he suffered an ankle injury and caught just two passes for eight yards in the final two games. The 5-11, 198-pounder is a quick target who could be used as a kick returner if needed, but first it'll be his job to come up with more performances like the ten-catch, 128-yard, one touchdown day against Michigan State.
5-11, 187-pound sophomore T.J. Jones stepped in as a true freshman and saw starting time early on. While his production tailed off late after suffering a hamstring injury, his 23 catches for 306 yards and three touchdowns showed a glimpse of his immense promise. With tremendous quickness and phenomenal athleticism, the star-in-the-making who was wanted by Alabama and Auburn last year will soon be a No. 1 target. It might not happen until next year, but he has the skills to be special.
Senior John Goodman started slow last year and was non-existent late, but he was a key part of the passing game in the middle of the year with three starts and 15 catches for 146 yards. The 6-3, 207-pounder has a decent burst and he uses his size well, but he'll have to fight to hold off a few promising prospects. With the quickness to be used as a punt returner, even though he struggled averaging just 1.3 yards per try, he has an intriguing mix of skills.
There will be plenty of chances for some of the little-used backups to see more time in a receiving corps looking for depth. 6-4, 215-pound sophomore Daniel Smith was mostly a special teamer last year, but while he didn't catch a pass, he has the size and all-around athleticism to be an interesting factor in a rotation if he can hold off several more promising players. 6-3, 202-pound junior Deion Walker has the speed to go along with his size, but he didn't come up with any grabs last year, while sophomore Luke Massa, a former quarterback who made the move last offseason, is still learning the ropes as a receiver but has upside with his 6-4, 220-pound frame.
The Irish were set at tight end last year with Kyle Rudolph a lead-pipe cinch to win the Mackey Award, but he suffered a bad hamstring injury that knocked him out early. On the plus side, that meant junior Tyler Eifert got more meaningful work finishing fourth on the team with 27 catches for 352 yards and two scores. While he's a pro prospect, the 6-6, 242-pounder isn't quite the talent that Rudolph is … but he's getting there. He stepped up as a prime target over the second half of last year and should be a regular for at least four catches per game.
Backing up Eifert is veteran Mike Ragone , a fifth-year senior who doesn't have NFL skills, but has the experience to work in two tight end sets. Deep in the doghouse early last year after some off the field issues, and with a torn ACL early in his career, he hasn't been able to become the player he was expected to be out of high school. A superstar prep wrestler, the 6-4, 245-pounder isn't afraid to get physical, but he needs to be more involved in the passing game after catching a mere three passes for 32 yards.
Watch Out For … Eifert. The coaching staff will design more and more ways to get him the ball in space. He proved over the back half of last year that he can be more than just a safety valve with field-stretching ability and excellent hands.
Strength: Options. The Irish have a nice corps with or without Floyd in the mix, but obviously he takes things to another level. Assuming he's back, the Irish have a flash of a rising star in Jones, a solid up-and-comer in Riddick, and a strong tight end in Eifert with all-star potential.
Weakness: A sure-thing without Floyd. The receivers were hardly awful this offseason, but there wasn't enough flash on deep plays without the main man in the mix. That's not to say that Jones can't blow up in a hurry, and there's certainly enough speed across the board to get the ball deep, but Floyd is the No. 1 target the passing game needs. There will be a huge drop-off if he misses any time suspended or gets hurt again.
Outlook: Floyd is an All-American who'll be on everyone's NFL Draft first round short lists, but the key to the passing game will be the emergence of the promising targets. Eifert and Jones are going to be great before their careers are over, and if Goodman and Riddick can step up their play with more responsibility, the results will be tremendous.
Unit Rating: 8
State of the Unit: The biggest failing of the Charlie Weis era was the inability to transform a slew of high school All-America offensive line recruits into a killer line. Kelly and his staff had to piece together some things last year, and the results weren't too bad. The style of offense demands that the quarterback gets the ball out of his hands in a hurry, which helps limit the sacks and hits, but the line didn't do enough for the ground game. Cincinnati led the Big East in sacks allowed under Kelly, and it should grow into more of a strength this year.
The Irish desperately needed someone to step up and become a rock of a tackle, and 6-5, 297-pound senior Taylor Dever did just that. He had problems with a hamstring injury in the middle of the year, but he came back roaring to dominate over the last few games of the season including a tremendous performance against Miami. When 100% healthy he's one of the team's best blockers, but injuries have been a problem throughout his career. He'll be backed up by Christian Lombard, a great-looking 6-5, 301-pound sophomore who can play either tackle spot. A high school All-American, he has the size and the tools to be a great one, but he might have to wait until next year to get a regular starting job.
Stepping in and coming up with a solid year at left tackle was junior Zack Martin, who started every game last year on the outside, but moved over to the right tackle spot when Dever went down. He bulked up a bit to get to 6-5 and 297 pounds and didn't lose a thing, and now he deserves to be in the mix for all-star honors. Athletic, tough, and nearly mistake-free, he did a phenomenal job against the speed rushers.
The line needed a mainstay for the interior, and it got it with senior Braxston Cave , a 6-3, 303-pound senior who led the team in time logged in and grew into a leadership role. Mostly working as a special teamer early in his career, he won the battle for the job and never let it go despite having a few early problems. While he hasn't been steady, he got better and better as the year went on and now should be in for a terrific season. He'll be backed up by Mike Golic Jr., a 6-3, 295-pound senior who doesn't have much in the way of athleticism, but is a decent veteran who'll know what he's doing if he has to step in. However, there's a huge drop-off from Cave.
One of the key anchors on the line will once again be senior Trevor Robinson , a 6-5, 300-pound veteran with 27 career starts and just enough skills at right guard to be consistent and effective. He's hardly the team's best blocker, but he has the feet to play tackle, where he has been tried out for a time in past practices. While he didn't dominate too often and there's room for improvement, he's a solid veteran to work around.
The one new starter up front is sophomore Chris Watt , who's stepping in or Chris Stewart at left guard. The 6-3, 310-pounder is one of the team's biggest linemen, and while he has the size and the bulk, he has to be consistent and he has the versatility to play almost anywhere, including center. Not only does he have to battle with a foot injury that limited him in spring ball, but he has to hold off senior Andrew Nuss , a 6-5, 303-pound swing blocker who can play either guard spot or see time at tackle if needed. He even saw a little work in practices at center. While he'll push hard for a starting job, he'll likely see more than enough time as a key backup at both guard spots.
Watch Out For … the three man guard rotation. One of the talks of spring ball was how Robinson got stronger and better in the offseason, and while he didn't necessarily show it all the time in the spring game, the potential is there for a great senior season. Watt is a big body who'll be a major factor on the line for the next few years, while Nuss is good enough to start right now anywhere up front but left tackle.
Strength: Experience. What was the biggest weakness last year could be the strongest plus. The line had a clean slate last year and yet everything came together for a surprisingly consistent year. The interior had the same combination for all 13 games, while the only blip on the screen was a midseason hamstring injury to Dever. Now everyone knows what they're doing.
Weakness: A ton of depth. The line is going to be eight deep, and while there's decent versatility from several players and a good group at guard, there could be problems if a slew of injuries strike. The Irish got lucky with health last year up front.
Outlook: This was one of the team's biggest problem areas going into the season, and now it could be a strength. Martin is a rising superstar while Dever isn't that far behind. The interior isn't going to be special, but it'll be experienced and should be consistent for what the Irish want to do. As long as the tackles stay healthy, all will be fine.
Unit Rating: 8
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