Spring Football Focus Part II: Conditioning
Usually, when a coach gets let go and a new regime is brought in, it’s because the original system wasn’t producing results and, like a pendulum, the administration heads to the opposite side of the philosophical spectrum. The transition can be full of bumps and many things can happen in that short period of time. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, right? Players may transfer, the staff may get changed, people get bitter, and still others breathe a sigh of relief at the impending change. This is certainly true for Notre Dame.
In the previous article in this series, I highlighted the first focus of spring football: personnel changes. While Notre Dame may not be filling many starting positions this off-season, they will, however, be conditioning players to provide quality depth behind those starters, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Because of the nature of the pass-heavy spread offense that Brian Kelly will bring to Notre Dame, several things need to be altered this off-season. Kelly’s offense predicates itself on spreading the field with vertical passing attacks and causing the opposing defense to make fundamentally-sound tackles in open space. The offense prides itself on scoring quickly and often, and puts less of an emphasis on ball control. This, in turn, puts increased strain on a defense who will be on the field the majority of the game. And while the new regime of coaches will have to condition the current players to fit their scheme, they must also make up for the fact that the previous scheme, installed by Weis, predicated itself on a much different philosophical approach to ball control. This makes for an incredibly grueling conditioning program for the players, one that will surely dictate how Notre Dame is poised to not only play four complete quarters of football, but have the stamina to finish a season as well as it started it.
Right Idea, Wrong System
When Charlie Weis came to Notre Dame, he promised that Irish fans were going to see a “tough, nasty team.” This gave Notre Dame fans everywhere an excitement that the Irish were going to return to the days of Lou Holtz or even Frank Leahy when Irish players out-muscled and out-played each of their opponents with superior strength, speed, and technique. But as the regime of Charlie Weis wore on, it was painfully obvious that even though Weis and Strength and Conditioning coach Ruben Mendoza were conditioning their players to be tough and nasty, primarily by bulking them up to be able to punish the opposing team, the problem was that Weis and his coaching staff weren’t using an offensive or defensive philosophy that utilized those types of players. This was the most apparent on the offensive line.
As Anthony Pilcher pointed out last season, the Irish were pouring additional mass onto their offensive lineman to be big and strong and then asking them to run in open space. They were conditioning their offensive lineman to utilize a smash-mouth type of running game, and then deploying a running game that used a lot of zone-stretch plays that required lineman to pull down the line of scrimmage in a zone-blocking scheme. They were conditioning their lineman to provide a protective pocket around their quarterback and then asking them to pass-block in open space, requiring them to be agile. But, offensive lineman are just part of the equation that saw Notre Dame consistently running out of gas. Over the past two seasons, Notre Dame was an abysmal 1-7 in the month of November. Furthermore, the Irish lost by a combined 17 points in the final four games of last season, and most of those losses came in the waning minutes of the game. Some of those losses can be attributed to mental errors or the lack of ball control by the offense or the coaching staff, but the majority of the reason for those losses came because the team wasn’t conditioned to sustain themselves in long games in which the contest was in doubt.
Recently, Ryan O’ Leary wrote an article at Blue and Gold that talked about the current players from Notre Dame involved in the NFL combine and the effect that Ruben Mendoza and his strength and conditioning program had on those players. Maybe Mendoza wasn’t as bad of a conditioning coach as we thought him to be, but there were some glaring problems with the program. For instance, Sam Young and Eric Olsen both had exemplary numbers in the bench press category, but both of them were lackluster in the agility or speed drills. Kyle McCarthy did well in strength and agility, but was found lacking in the speed drills. But what does this all add up to? Perhaps Ruben Mendoza isn’t the root of all things evil or isn’t completely to blame for all of Notre Dame’s problems over the past five years. However, some of the blame does fall on Weis and Jon Tenuta who were conditioning their players to be big and strong, yet installing schemes that required them to be quick, agile, and light on their feet.
Keeping Up With The Joneses
The firing of Weis may have opened up Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick’s eyes a bit to the significant deficiencies throughout the football program. Not only were there deficiencies with the coaching staff and their style of coaching, but also with some of the facilities and the options and tools at their disposal that the trainers had to condition the football players. Swarbrick has already taken one step to rectify some of those problems. Earlier this season, he purchased a training table for the football team, which was hotly contested topic among Irish alumni and fans.
Even though some Irish fans are fundamentally opposed to the idea of a training table, this convenience will help the team keep their weight at a healthy level and will also help the training staff monitor the players’ food intake and aid them in bulking up or slimming down. But, I think that one of the biggest concerns for Swarbrick was that Notre Dame didn’t have some fundamental tools to aid the team and the trainers that other schools already took advantage of.
In his article, Lou Somogyi quotes Chris Zorich, famed Irish player and now Manager of Student Development and Welfare at Notre Dame, who was talking about a conversation he had with Connecticut head football coach Randy Edsall: “‘He told me, “When I heard you don’t have a training table at Notre Dame, it blew my mind,”‘ said Zorich, noting that the UConn football has been in the FBS for only a decade.” And even though Notre Dame now has a training table, it doesn’t mean that the Irish will start racking up wins, but it does put them in a good position to use their resources to help the football players maintain their optimum weight. This may be a small step by Swarbrick to do some simple things to help the football program, and Irish athletics as a whole, achieve their goals.
A Game of Numbers
While Cincinnati’s offense is nothing new in the college football landscape, or even especially complicated, the type of conditioning it requires varies drastically from Weis’ offense. Because Kelly’s offense is run at such a high tempo, the offensive personnel must not only be able to spread the field with their speed on nearly every play, they must also maintain a level of endurance that greatly exceeds their opponents. Additionally, because the defense will be running a base 3-4 scheme, nearly every position must also have speed. But, on defense, stamina and agility will also be paramount to ensure that they have some control with how long they are on the field by consistently forcing opposing offenses into three-and-out situations.
Most of the reason for the increased emphasis on endurance on the defensive side of the ball, arguably more so than the offense, is that Kelly’s offense puts such little stock in time of possession (T.O.P.). Last season, Cincinnati’s offense finished next-to-last in the entire nation in T.O.P. at 25:20 a game, down nearly three and a half minutes from 2008 when they netted 28:47 a game. Because Cincinnati’s offense was on the field for such a small time last season, their defense was on the field 57.7 percent of the game, which ranked them 118th of 120 teams in the FBS. Compare this with Weis’ offense that finished 14th in the nation, netting a T.O.P. at 31:54 a game, which was nearly consistent with their 2008 time of 31:42 a game, causing their defense to be on the field just 47 percent of the game, which ranked them 19th of 120 teams. While the differences in time between the two teams doesn’t look considerable, over the course of a game this time really adds up and can take a significant toll on a defense, especially considering Notre Dame will play four teams this season that ranked in the top 25 percent of all teams in the FBS last season in T.O.P. (Navy — 1st, Stanford — 12th, Army — 14th, and Pittsburgh — 27th).
Even though Charlie Weis recruited better talent at Notre Dame than Brian Kelly had at Cincinnati, and Kelly has more high-profile talent to work with this season than he would at his former school, all this talk about ball control and stamina in defense has no bearing whatsoever if the offense can’t execute Kelly’s scheme like it is designed. If the offense can’t score on a consistent basis, which forces the defense to be on the field much more than it will already, the whole gameplan could implode. Conversely, if the defense can consistently force opposing offenses into three-and-out situations, it can quickly put the ball back in the hands of the offense, which can be a great thing if the offense is executing like it should, especially considering Kelly’s offense at Cincinnati ranked eighth in the nation in scoring offense in 2009, averaging 36 points a game.
While conditioning will be a major component to how the Irish perform this season, and is something that will be a primary focus this spring, all the stamina, speed, strength, and endurance won’t mean a thing if the Irish don’t play with solid technique in every facet of the game.
Check back soon for the final Spring Football Focus Part III: Technique and Fundamentals.