Blue and Gold Illustrated

February 2024

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM FEBRUARY 2024 5 I n his first press conference after Clemson handed Notre Dame its third loss of the sea- son, Irish head coach Marcus Freeman admitted what everyone could see on the field. It was the one flaw in a good, well-thought- out plan at quarterback for the 2023 season. Sam Hartman, who spent five years in Wake Forest's slow-mesh offense, was always fighting an uphill battle in South Bend. "It's hard, because he's only going to have 12 to 13 games in this new system," Freeman said Nov. 13. "But that's not always go- ing to be a reflection of how good of a player Sam Hartman is, and there's a reason why he had so much success at Wake Forest. He was in that same system for five years." He was right about all of it. But, as Freeman admitted at the time, he and his offensive coaching staff should have made the transition easier. With first-year Irish offensive coordi- nator Gerad Parker, Notre Dame ran an offense focused on its power-run game and struggled when its O-line wasn't clearing huge holes for junior running back Audric Estimé. It took one of the most productive col- lege passers of all time and didn't let him do what he did best: reading the defense with the ball in the running back's gut. The Irish were never going to become the Demon Deacons, whose system is at best unique and at worst a gimmick. But they could have done more to modern- ize their offense for a quarterback who almost never took a snap under center in his college career. Now, Notre Dame has another trans- fer quarterback in Riley Leonard. He does not come from the slow mesh, so he'll go through a less stark learning curve. However, his offense was heavy on run-pass options. He rarely went under center, too. Most importantly, he brings electric, big-play rushing ability that the Irish would be negligent to not use. Parker is gone, now the head coach at Troy. And for some fans, that will be enough. As the man in charge of Notre Dame's offense, Parker got much of the flack when the Irish struggled in games against very good to elite defenses such as Ohio State, Duke, Louisville and Clemson. He wasn't perfect — the lack of play action against Clemson is still perplex- ing, among other things — but Parker's résumé earned him another shot with Freeman. Even after he was hired at one of the country's better Group of Five programs, there were still Notre Dame fans celebrating his departure as if it will fix everything wrong with the offense. It will not. The No. 1 problem with Notre Dame's offense in 2023, which showed up most against the top opponents, was its an- tiquated philosophy. Run the ball and simply block better than the other team can defeat blocks? Execution was the word of the day after the loss to Louis- ville in particular, but the truth is, when the other team knows a run play is com- ing and comes close in talent level, it's going to stop it. That was not a Parker philosophy, or at least not exclusively. The refusal to move off it with a quarterback who thrived on run-pass options and never turned his back to the defense was part of what cost Notre Dame a New Year's Six bowl appearance with a New Year's Six roster. The Irish were steadfast in their desire for a run-first, "pro- style" offense, but why? Modern college football — and, frankly, NFL — offenses mold their playbook to their players' strengths. They feature playmak- ing quarterbacks and the purpose of their system is to help them make plays. They know it's easier to stop a predictable offense, so they vary their tendencies and use pre-snap motion like crazy. Crucially, they aren't afraid to dive into plays that border on "cute" or use outright trickery, even if they believe they have the better players. Re-watch the terrific Washing- ton versus Texas College Football Play- off semifinal, for example. Heck, watch the Miami Dolphins on Sundays. With the hiring of Mike Denbrock, an experienced offensive coordinator, Freeman has a chance to turn complete control of that side of the ball to him. With that comes a chance to guide the offensive philosophy and build a mod- ern system. Denbrock did that at LSU, building his system around dual-threat quar- terback Jayden Daniels and helping him win the Heisman Trophy. Freeman can then turn his atten- tion to being the fantastic recruiter and motivator that he is, working with Al Golden to run the show on defense, too. That needs to happen for Notre Dame to maximize its year with Leonard as its signal-caller. And get the most out of two wide receivers who could wind up in the NFL with good years, for that matter. The Irish can't make that same mistake again. ✦ In seven games of an injury-shortened 2023 season, Irish transfer portal addition Riley Leonard of Duke threw for 1,102 yards and 3 touchdowns plus ran for 352 yards and 4 scores. PHOTO BY LARRY BLANKENSHIP OFF THE DOME JACK SOBLE Staff writer Jack Soble has covered Notre Dame athletics for Blue & Gold Illustrated since August 2023. Contact him at Irish Have Opportunity To Modernize Offense

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