Mike Monaco (Bleacher Report)
We’re roughly six weeks away from the start of Notre Dame football, when the Irish play host to Rice on Aug. 30 at Notre Dame Stadium.
In recent weeks, we’ve taken focused looks at recruiting, positional units, backups and more. We’ll take a step back today and think about the big picture. In what areas does Notre Dame need to improve and/or excel to succeed in 2014?
We’ll zero in on certain statistics that will likely be very revealing as to how successful the Irish will be in various facets of the game. Obviously, the most important stats in the end are points, wins and losses. We’ll probe a bit deeper here.
Opponent Kickoff Returns
Of the 125 FBS teams in 2013, only three squads—Auburn, North Carolina State and Idaho—were worse than Notre Dame in kickoff coverage.
The Irish ranked 122nd in opponent kickoff returns, per CFBStats.com, allowing an average return of 25.68 yards. Far too often, Notre Dame handed its opponents prime field position.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly talked openly in the spring about the special teams struggles, not just with kickoff coverage. It’s difficult to see Notre Dame being that porous again in 2014. Even in 2012 and 2011—when the Irish ranked 80th and 76th, respectively —Notre Dame wasn’t as bad as it was in 2013.
Much of the problem could have come down to positioning, as Kelly hinted at in the spring. Between the 22-man, 11th-ranked 2014 recruiting class and the class of 2013, which featured 24 members and ranked fifth nationally, Notre Dame isn’t lacking talented youngsters, many of whom could fit on special teams in their early years.
Solid third-down play propels any good offense. And by multiple measures, Notre Dame was just average offensively in 2013. The Irish ranked 74th (of 125 teams) in scoring offense and 68th in total offense.
Not surprisingly, the Irish were middle-of-the-road when it came to converting on third down, landing 53rd with a 42.05 percent conversion rate.
It will be interesting to see how transitioning to a dual-threat quarterback will affect Notre Dame’s third-down success. Whether it’s Everett Golson or Malik Zaire under center, a more mobile option behind center could keep the defense guessing more than it would be against an inside-the-pocket signal-caller.
Turnovers and sacks aren’t necessarily the primary end goals of a more aggressive Irish defense under new coordinator Brian VanGorder, as we discussed Monday, but they are certainly welcome byproducts.
It’s a bit more stark offensively, where turnovers are crippling.
Notre Dame finished in the middle of the pack (61st) in turnover margin in 2013, taking the ball away 17 times but also giving it up 17 times.
And if we think of Notre Dame’s 2013 season in general, it pretty much feels like that—an average 9-4 season.
The Irish didn’t struggle too much with fumbles—only coughing it up four times—but Tommy Rees’ 13 interceptions proved costly.
Defensively, Bob Diaco’s bend-don’t-break scheme didn’t lend itself to creating turnovers. And while the defense was solid in 2013, bigger plays and more turnovers could cause huge momentum shifts and lift the Irish.
Notre Dame came away from red-zone possessions with points on 80 percent of its drives inside the 20-yard line, ranking tied for 79th.
But it gets uglier when we restrict our analysis to red-zone possessions that ended in touchdowns, not field goals. Notre Dame finished 53.33 percent of its red-zone possessions with six points, slotting 100th in the country.
Kelly spoke in the spring about better ball security in that area of the field. But that’s not the only problem.
At times, the Irish seemed predictable when they were in close. Developing a better mix of options should boost Notre Dame’s red-zone play.
Second-year running back Greg Bryant garnered seemingly endless praise in the spring for the power and ferocity with which he runs. Bryant could be a go-to back in short-yardage situations.
In his second season in South Bend, wide receiver Corey Robinson figures to be better able to use his 6’4.5” frame and impressive catch radius to impact the game in the red zone.
Robinson tallied nine receptions and one touchdown (a 35-yard grab) as a freshman. Of those nine catches, only two—a 17-yard play against Michigan State and a seven-yarder against Stanford—came on plays beginning inside the red zone.