I spent some time talking with a former high school coach who is very well versed in this version of the west coast offense and asked his thoughts as well as discussed some of my own observations. Thanks to Coach Fletcher for helping me with this article. I hope this is helpful in explaining some of the problems that exist with the Irish offense.
The first thing that people need to understand is that this offense is so dependent on the play of the quarterback. Carlyle Holiday has never been asked to run anything close to this type of offense. Holiday is essentially a great athlete playing quarterback for Notre Dame. Think of how many blue chip quarterbacks cannot make the grade running a similar style of offense. Most were schooled in a similar style of offense during high school and still can't or could not execute this offense. What Holiday has accomplished so far is impressive when you consider this. Holiday has struggled at times, so has the rest of the offense. People need to recognize this. He also hasn't hurt his team often by making bad decisions.
That cautiousness is probably one of the reasons this offense struggles. Holiday is so tentative or cautious to not make a mistake that his decision making isn't quite where it needs to be. I am sure the coaching staff has stressed this as well. I don't think this staff wants Holiday throwing the ball all over the field and want him to be cautious in his reads and decision-making.
This offense is new for both the wide receivers and quarterback. These wide receivers have never been asked to read coverage as much as they are expected to now. The quarterback also has to read this coverage and they have to be on the same page together. The pass to Rhema McKnight last week was a perfect example. Holiday read inside slant and Rhema read fade. If Holiday and McKnight are on the same page, that is 6 points. Instead we had an incompletion and almost an interception. Each receiver is going to have a couple of options he can run on any given play. He has to read the coverage and the safety as well as the linebackers to know which route he is needs to run. That is going to take some time to perfect this.
Offensive line play has been under the microscope as well. Man or assignment blocking has appeared to be switched with zone blocking. No longer does the Notre Dame offensive lineman stare across the line of scrimmage, find his guy and focus on burying him into the ground. Notre Dame has switched to a zone blocking or stretch-blocking scheme. Each player is given a zone to defend and with that zoning comes confusion. They did zone block a lot last year as well but not for this style of offense.
Confusion comes from which guy to block. An offensive guard might have the defensive tackle right in front of his zone. The defensive tackle could take the inside slant to the quarterback or an outside slant. He might be in your zone but he ends up twisting or stunting with the defensive end. The defensive tackle might slide to the outside but the guard is engaged with him. The defensive end would then stunt and loop around (to the inside) the defensive tackle who is now in the offensive tackles zone. The guard would then be responsible for the defensive end and would have to leave the defensive tackle to pick up the defensive end. The guard might not recognize this right away and just gets there too late.
Teams have been sending their weak side backer on a blitz the last 5 games and that has caused the Notre Dame offense all kinds of problems. Notre Dame hasn't found an answer for this yet. A quick example would be the TE lines up on the right side to make it the strong side (think Sean Milligan and Brennan Curtin side) and Notre Dame is left with Sean Mahan and Jordan Black on the left side. Mahan and Black take up the defensive end and nose tackle. Let's take the example used above. The nose tackle slants outside, the guard takes him and then has to release to take out the defensive end stunting. The weak side linebacker is then waiting on a delayed blitz for the runningback to commit to another block and shoots a gap free to hit the quarterback. Notre Dame has nobody to pick up this weak side linebacker because the back has committed to a block in blitz pick up.
The confusion of Holiday has contributed to the success of this blitzing scheme. Normally a delayed blitz on a three-step drop would not be very effective. The ball would be out of the quarterback’s hands before the weak side backer could get to him. The quarterback would see hot read, the wide receiver, tight end or back would be the hot read for Holiday to dump the ball off to. The unstable pass protection, the failure of the back to recognize the proper blitz pick up, Holiday's uneasiness in the pocket and the chemistry between wide receiver and quarterback to read the same play all account for problems in the passing game. Holiday might read this and know where to get the ball but the wide receiver might not see it and might not be in the right place to catch the ball. This is all chemistry of the offense and it will take many repetitions for all players involved to get it right.
So how does an offense battle this delayed blitz? It's a site adjustment that the quarterback has to read. He has to recognize this and find the hot read. Wide receivers need to recognize it and break off their routes as well. The logical thing would be to hit them where they are blitzing. Throw the ball in the area where the weak side backer is blitzing. A simple flair or swing pass to a back on the weak side would be very effective. The weak side backer is responsible for that area of the zone and a swing pass would hit them where it hurts. Even if the defense runs a zone blitz with the weak side backer blitzing and the defensive end backs out in coverage, I like the match up of a back on a defensive end.
The running game is an enigma. I admit ignorance when it comes to offensive line play and that is why I spoke with Coach Fletcher. He has about 30 years experience in offensive line play. Coach told me that he sees the offensive line engaging in the running game but not moving their guy very far. Say Notre Dame wants to run between the guard and tackle (B gap). The tackle will take the defensive end and push him to the outside. The center and the guard will then wall off the defensive tackle and then the guard moves inside to pick off a linebacker or safety. The fullback will lead into the hole looking for a linebacker or safety to block and the back follows into the hole looking for running room. What the back is often finding is little room to run in this hole. What appears to be a problem however is that there are plenty of cutback opportunities on the backside and the runningback is failing to recognize this and heads straight into the hole with little running room. The backs could be coached to do this or the backs are just missing it.
I can't guess what the OL problems appear to be. Is it offensive linemen blowing their assignments? Is it the linemen not moving their guy far enough? Is Jeff Faine making the right line calls? Without knowing the line calls and what each player is supposed to do, it's very hard to decide who has missed an assignment. Playing a different type of scheme will certainly cause confusion. I do expect this unit to get better as the year goes on. This offensive line will never be great until the thinking stops and they just react. It's a learning curve and like all facets of the offense, they are going to struggle for a while.
Notre Dame fans need to understand that this offense is going to be a work in progress. We all want various plays added to the playbook but they are struggling executing the plays they do have in the playbook. To add more plays would add to the confusion. Lou Holtz used to go into his mode of "back to the basics." This team has never fully executed the basics.
People might be quick to judge this offensive staff because their success is not as impressive as the defensive success. The defense was actually pretty good last year. Coach Baer hasn't changed much with this defense so the learning curve is an anthill compared to what this offense has to grasp. Notre Dame essentially has a great athlete playing quarterback and offensive linemen recruited to play a power running game. They have wide receivers that played in an archaic offense last year and rarely saw the ball. Tight ends were asked to be glorified tackles and the tailbacks have very little game experience and zero experience in this offense. I am not sure what Notre Dame fans honestly expect out of this team.
It would be easy to determine the problems if just one unit was not performing to standard but pretty much all units are under the learning curve. A lot of credit is given to the defense but the offense has played with as much passion as the defense. The offense has every reason to doubt themselves with as much press as the defense has been given and criticism as they have faced. This unit is still playing with just as much passion as the defense and that is impressive. They surely know they haven't performed as well as the defense, yet they are out giving it everything they have every single play. If you question that, every time this offense has needed to score, they have. That speaks volumes about the will of this unit.
Fans question if Carlyle Holiday has the skill to be a pro-style quarterback. Holiday might not have the skill (that has yet to be determined) but he is a winner. He is tough as nails and he doesn't fold under pressure. He is a true leader and much of the success of the offense has come under his leadership. Would you rather have a QB who looks pretty throwing the ball or a QB who gets the job done? Holiday needs to trust his pocket and his pass protection. He needs to stand tall in the pocket and change his first instinct. His first instinct appears to be to avoid the rush or to run. Until his first instinct is to get rid of the ball, he will struggle. I will say this however; I would rather have Holiday as my QB over many of the starters for the top programs in the country. I doubt many (if any) would have the guts to take the hits he has taken and still get up for the nest snap. That is a sign of a true leader.
The offense is going to struggle and Notre Dame fans need to be patient. The Notre Dame coaches don't have time to teach fundamentals at this point. They have to worry about game plans and how to combat what the defense might do to stop this offense. They can't add a considerable amount of plays to this offense to keep teams honest. They are stuck with the plays they have chosen. The ND coaches will focus on perfecting the plays that they do run. As soon as they feel they are comfortable running these plays, the rest of the offense will be inserted. It might be until spring or even fall before this offense finally shows it's potential. Everyone needs to get on the same page and trust the system. The coaches have to trust the players. Notre Dame fans just have to be patient because they will get this system down and then Notre Dame is going to be a very difficult team to defend.
Thanks to Coach Fletcher for the help. I hope I didn’t screw up his thoughts too badly.