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Notre Dame Football Offensive Preview
Cal heads to South Bend to take on one of college football's most storied programs.
Cal heads to South Bend for a hotly-anticipated matchup with a top 10 team, led by their talented dual-threat quarterback, Tyler Buchner.
Good thing I don’t prepare these out of conference matchups in the preseason, eh? Thank you Notre Dame for completely changing the narrative heading into this game and making me re-do this whole thing. It’s cool though, it’s not like I spent the whole offseason studying Tyler Buchner or something.
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Notre Dame’s all-time winningest coach, Brian Kelly, left the program last season to go spend time with his fam-uh-lee over at LSU. Former defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman took over the head coaching job, and has since become the first Notre Dame coach to ever lose his first three games as head coach. After a superb defensive game plan for their opening matchup this season against the Ohio State Buckeyes to keep things competitive, they decided to also keep things competitive with Marshall University, where things didn’t quite go according to plan.
Notre Dame kept plenty of games close last season that had no business being close (instead of Marshall, say, e.g. Toledo), but under Brian Kelly, they always found a way to pull through. Notre Dame won close game after close game—except against really terrible teams like… say, Stanford, who they beat by a score somewhere in the neighborhood of 41-11 (it was actually 45-14). Other than a loss to a playoff-bound Cincinnati, they kept winning these close games week after week all the way up until the Fiesta Bowl. That’s when Marcus Freeman took over, and it’s been close losses ever since. What exactly changed for Notre Dame, I’m not quite sure. They’d sometimes show Brian Kelly’s halftime speeches during these close games, and he always seemed like kind of an… let’s see, how do you put this into print… like kind of an Urban Meyer, you know? Things like, “You’re going to play up to our standards, or I’m going to bench you.” So I always figured Notre Dame was getting their inspiration from somewhere else.
One thing I’d say was a strength for them last year is now currently being tested: quarterback depth. Last year, Notre Dame doesn’t close out Toledo without the backup Tyler Buchner, and they don’t put away Wisconsin without third-stringer Drew Pyne (don’t let the final score fool you, it was still a 3-point game into the 4th quarter). Unfortunately, this year’s starting QB Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending injury in the closing minutes against Marshall, and Drew Pyne is now the presumptive starter (the backup is true freshman Steve Angeli).
Tyler Buchner was struggling this season, but it’s certainly not ideal to be without your starting quarterback. Don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security, though, because this is Notre Dame we’re talking about, and they are still loaded with talent. Because of their quarterback issues, I’m going to make a little shake-up to the usual structure of my articles here.
Let’s start with the tight end.
Notre Dame has the best tight end in college football, Michael Mayer, who currently projects to be a mid-first round NFL Draft pick following this season. Probably more impressive than the fact I just told you he’s destined for the first round is probably the fact he’s been nicknamed “Baby Gronk,” for reasons you’re about to see. If you’re ever unsure of what’s going on during the game for the Notre Dame offense, just find #87, as the offense runs through him. Whether he’s making a diving catch or blocking downfield for the running back (or, depending on how the defense is reacting to him, being used as a decoy), he’ll probably be involved in the play in some fashion.
First, he excels in his physicality. I’m going to start this one off with one of my favorite Stanford highlights (seriously, this is from my Stanford folder):
The most noticeable of Mayer’s traits is that he has fantastic hands. Is he open? It doesn’t matter:
In general, Mayer does a great job of using his frame to “box out” defenders to make contested catches.
He’s also a pretty good route runner:
He’s not especially fast, but he has good acceleration for a man of his size:
Mayer will make a lot of catches over the middle, and does a good job of hanging onto the ball through contact (especially with his quarterbacks sometimes throwing him into less than ideal spots).
Notre Dame will line him up all over the field to try and take advantage of certain matchups. He’s typically at the TE-Y spot, but they can also flex him out wide to get him matched up against a corner:
Of course, you can expect that a man of his size and strength is pretty hard to bring down:
Mayer is the guy Notre Dame will count on in the clutch:
Mayer is a mismatch for most defenders, and consequently by far the most frequent target of the ND QBs. It’s not unusual to see Mayer draw extra defender(s), which makes him effective in setting up plays to other receivers: a safety gravitating towards Mayer can leave a different receiver in a one-on-one matchup for a big play.
As good as Mayer is catching the ball, however, he can also make some crucial drops on relatively easy plays:
Whatever Notre Dame decides to do on offense against Cal on Saturday, you can expect Mayer to play a big part of it.
As I mentioned earlier, Notre Dame lost this season’s starting quarterback, Tyler Buchner, to a season-ending shoulder injury. Not to kick the man while he’s down, but I wasn’t super high on him to begin with, which is why I had a bit more optimism leading into this game than most ND fans would probably expect (although that’s not as surprising now, because they just, you know, lost to Marshall). Buchner looked extremely comfortable running the ball, but quite uncomfortable sitting in the pocket and making his reads, which is not great for the development of a young quarterback. In his place is the junior Drew Pyne. Pyne is also a dual-threat quarterback, and although he won’t run the ball as well as Buchner, that threat of the run is still there. Conversely, he’s probably also a bit better at ball placement on his throws.
Because Pyne has mainly worked as a relief pitcher here, it’s hard to judge his choice of throws too much. One thing that’s extremely noticeable, however, is that he absolutely loves to throw to TE Michael Mayer. I don’t have the stats, but I’d be willing to bet that Mayer was the intended target of Pyne’s throws about twice as often as any other receiver (and by “any other receiver”, I mean all the rest of the receivers combined). I’m sure they’ll work on that in practice and emphasize him spreading the ball around more.
Pyne doesn’t have the biggest arm, but he does have some nice touch on intermediate throws:
Again, he loves to throw to Michael Mayer:
Here Pyne does a great job of moving the defense with his eyes, since everyone expects him to throw it to Michael Mayer, the entire defense flows that way when he looks in Mayer’s direction:
If you thought that was a story of personal growth and learning, then you’re wrong: those clips are not chronological. Wisconsin was last year; Marshall was last week. I hope Pyne has learned nothing and throws nothing but picks to the Cal defense. We’re going to need some defensive scores to keep in the game.
After losing last year’s starting running back to the Los Angeles Rams, Kyren Williams, Notre Dame has become more of an RB-by-committee. Their biggest running threat this year was actually the quarterback Tyler Buchner, but I presume his injury is going to shake the strategy up in the backfield.
Let’s start with Chris Tyree. Tyree is the smaller, shiftier back of the bunch. Last year, they’d line up both Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree in the backfield, taking advantage of Tyree’s versatility as a pass catcher (ND will also line up Tyree in the slot and occasionally out wide).
Here Tyree showcase a bit of that speed and shiftiness:
And this isn’t even a run play, but I just thought it best showcased Tyree’s speed (and also because I didn’t want to bother with an entire special teams section this week):
Consequently, ND loves to get Tyree the ball in space, and so he’s frequently used on swing passes as an extension of the run game (and to stretch the field horizontally). Because of his size, though, he’s not relied on for more than cut blocks, and he’ll frequently look to bounce runs outside (where he can use his speed).
Logan Diggs is probably their most well-rounded, all-around back. He’s bigger than Tyree, but he’s also got good speed and a bit more power. I like his patience as a runner as well as his cutting ability:
Of course, he’s also got great athleticism:
Finally, there’s Audric Estime, the biggest of the bunch, a power back most useful in short-yardage situations.
He does not have quite the same leaping ability as Diggs:
Estime does a good job of churning his legs and falling forward:
That’s not to say he’s without athleticism, though: here he supermans his way into the endzone against Ohio State:
Notre Dame hasn’t relied much on their running backs, but I expect they should start to take a bigger role with Pyne at the helm.
This is another section that had to be scrapped due to ND injuries. I thought I would spend most of my time talking about Notre Dame’s most experienced returning receivers, Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins Jr., but injuries changed that. Davis is out for the season with an ACL injury, and Joe Wilkins Jr. is working his way back up the depth chart after a knee injury in the spring and a foot injury in the fall.
[Quick note: Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has his own verbiage for wide receiver positions. For example, the boundary receiver is the “W-receiver.” When I was watching Notre Dame games in the offseason, I wasn’t paying enough attention to which receiver was playing out wide on the boundary side and who was on the field side, so I don’t really know which receiver has which designation, other than I noticed some receivers in the slot and some out wide. Even if I had been paying close attention to this, I did notice that these receivers often shuffled around a lot anyway, so I still wouldn’t know who is who without actually taking snap counts. For example, Wilkins Jr. lined up out wide more often than in the slot, but Wilkins Jr. is currently behind Jayden Thomas on the depth chart, and Thomas has lined up in the slot most often this season. So I have no idea who is who and what is where.]
[Second, less-quick note: The reason I wasn’t paying close attention to the receivers is that I was actually hyper-focused on Notre Dame’s offensive line, which I thought would be a bigger story or focal point to this game (especially if Cal still had Brett Johnson). The reason Notre Dame had early season struggles against lesser teams was their disastrous offensive line, which they didn’t really figure out until the USC game. Consider this stat line— in the first 5 games, ND had 80.8 rush yards/game, 0.8 rush TD/game, 4.4 sacks allowed/game. Final 7 games: 204.1 rush yards/game, 2.7 rush TDs/game, 1.6 sacks/game. By now, the offensive line has stabilized, with 5-star sophomore tackle Blake Fisher picking up the slack. However, ND is very thin here. Backups like Tosh Baker, Michael Carmody, and Andrew Kristofic were beat like drums last season, with ND’s offensive line stats residing in the bottom 10 of FBS last season. I think LT Joe Alt and RG Josh Lugg are exploitable, but I’m not sure Cal’s defensive line has the horses to challenge them.]
In Wilkins Jr.’s place as the starter is the true freshman, Jayden Thomas. I don’t know anything about Jayden Thomas, because he’s a freshman. I tried to pay super close attention to him this season so that I could say something insightful, but sorry, I got nada. Here is the first and only catch of Jayden Thomas’ college career:
This is a good catch. The announcers said repeatedly that he is a good route runner, so I expect he’s known to be a good route runner. I tried to watch his routes carefully in the Marshall game, but all I really noticed is that he wasn’t really in sync with QB Tyler Buchner (the clip you probably saw on SportsCenter when Marshall upset Notre Dame—the Buchner pick-6—check out who the intended receiver was).
With Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins Jr. as nonfactors this season (Wilkins Jr I assume is available, but I am not sure he’s played a snap yet— at the very least, I don’t believe he’s been targeted), the receivers expected to step up in their place are Braden Lenzy and Lorenzo Styles. With Jayden Thomas in the slot, Lenzy and Styles will be lined up out wide.
Let’s start with Braden Lenzy. Lenzy is the former track star, with a ton of speed, and thus the most obvious deep threat on the team. He also shows some good ball skills in adjusting to the catch:
He’s got good body control and spatial awareness:
And of course, he’s good with yards after the catch:
Honestly, Lorenzo Styles is fairly similar. He also has a lean build with plenty of speed, and he’s more often used on “run” plays (e.g. the flip forward on the jet sweep, the swing pass, etc.; the part of the pass game that’s really an extension of the run game), so I’ll chalk that up as slightly less top-end speed than Lenzy, but maybe a tiny bit more explosiveness as an athlete.
Sure tackling and good fundamentals are important when covering Lenzy or Styles. Take a poor angle on a tackle, for instance, and they’ll break off a big play:
Another example with a missed tackle:
And here is Styles being used in the run game:
With Drew Pyne at the helm, Notre Dame is probably going to lean on its receivers to make more plays, like this one by Joe Wilkins Jr.:
Doing some wacky stuff like this probably won’t hurt either:
In the lead up to this season and to this game, I have seen a ton of disrespect from Notre Dame fans. Heck, even the announcer in the Ohio State game conceded, “they’ll have much easier matchups in the weeks to come against Marshall, Cal, and North Carolina.” Notre Dame is currently winless and desperate for a win, and I was unhappy with the Marshall upset because I know that a Cal victory in this game is not going to be viewed as a Cal success, but as a Notre Dame failure. We know that Cal has a fantastic defense, and here Notre Dame’s offense is already struggling. While this is just another game to Notre Dame (although perhaps with a renewed sense of panic to “save the season”), this is the biggest OOC matchup for Cal since Ole Miss (and we know how that game turned out). If Notre Dame’s offense scores a ton of points—and we know how previously unknown/struggling quarterbacks love to have the game of their lives against Cal—then Cal is doomed. More likely is that a stout Cal defense is going to mostly corral an improved Notre Dame offense— it’ll be harder for Cal’s defense to prepare for, because injuries will likely force a change in Notre Dame’s offensive strategy. What I think this matchup will really come down to is Cal’s offense against the Notre Dame defense. Notre Dame has NFL talent all over the defense, including a potential NFL first rounder on the defensive line who will almost certainly feast on this year’s offensive line. On that note, make sure you tune in tomorrow for the Notre Dame defensive preview, because I think we’ll be looking at one of the Evan Weaver/UW era rock-fights.
Full clips can be found here.
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