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Spring Football Focus Part III: Technique and Fundamentals

By · March 21st, 2010 · 1 Comment · 7,532 views
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Spring Football Focus Part III: Technique and Fundamentals

Spring is definitely in the air. The trees have started to bud and most of the snow is melted away. People have pulled their grills out of the garage and the bravest of souls have taken the chance during the mildly warm weather to sport their flip-flop sandals. Fortunately, to beat the winter blues out of our systems, spring also brings spring football, much to the delight of Notre Dame fans everywhere. Spring practices begin in just under a week and it’s time we finish our look at three different aspects the Fighting Irish must improve to play up to their potential next season under new head coach Brian Kelly.

Earlier in the series, I covered the depth chart and what must happen, in terms of player development, for the Irish to have not only talented starters, but solid backups who can provide quality depth. Then, I covered conditioning and how the current football players must adapt their bodies to the new offensive and defensive schemes that Brian Kelly and his staff bring to Notre Dame.

In this, the final installment in the three-part series, I will cover something that will be absolutely crucial to the success of this year’s campaign: technique and fundamentals. While some problems of the the football team in the past few years can be attributed to other aspects of the game, had the Irish played with more solid technique, both offensively and defensively, they certainly wouldn’t have struggled as much as they did and would have won a few more close games.

Teaching technique to a player fresh out of high school is a somewhat daunting task, but one that defines a great coach. Usually, when a player is highly-recruited out of high school, it means that they have the physical attributes to be a great player and the potential to hone their skills to become solid contributors at the next level.

However, some of the techniques that these players used in high school, where their size and speed are usually unmatched against their opponents, won’t necessarily work at the collegiate level where the players are on a more physically-level playing field. It is here that solid technique and fundamentals are paramount to not only the success of the individual, but the program as a whole.

Offense

Last season, Notre Dame’s offense was in the top 25 percent of all teams in the country in scoring offense, ranking 28th out of 120 teams with 30.1 points a game. And while Notre Dame did have an explosive offense, there were certainly things that kept them from being more efficient.

As I talked about in my last article, one of the faults of the offense laid at the feet of Charlie Weis was his decision, along with former Strength and Conditioning Coach Ruben Mendoza, to condition his players to play a more smash-mouth type of football and then employ a high-tempo, finesse type of offensive scheme. This was no more apparent then on the offensive line. While the inconsistencies with their conditioning and the style of play that Weis employed isn’t as much the player’s fault as it was the coaching staff’s, the tenacity and technique with which they played is.

Against “less talented” teams, the offensive line did a respectable job protecting Jimmy Clausen. However, across the entire season, the Irish managed to rank only 48th in the nation in total sacks surrendered, allowing their quarterback to be sacked on 5.3 percent of all passing plays. And considering that this number would certainly be higher if Clausen didn’t have the mental maturity to throw the ball away when no receiver was open, the offensive line certainly regressed in their pass protection this past season. Don’t believe me? In 2008, the offensive line allowed a less-poised Clausen to be sacked on 4.1 percent of all passing plays.

But pass protection isn’t the whole story in regards to the offensive line. The other big downfall of the offensive line in 2009 was how it performed against talented defensive lines. Against USC, for example, the Irish offensive line was consistently man-handled which caused them to surrender five sacks. Additionally, the Irish only managed 367 yards of offense and had only 3 explosive plays (rushing play of 15 yards or more, passing play of 20 yards of more), all arriving via the passing game. The Irish managed only 87 rushing yards against the Trojans, with a lowly 2.6 average per carry, four fumbles, and zero explosive rushing plays.

The other lackluster area in technique on the offensive side of the ball was a pronounced absence of an explosive rushing attack, which is a direct result of down-field blocking by tight ends and wide receivers. While the Irish rushed the ball 46% of the time, they only managed an average of 3.8 yards per attempt, which ranked them 75th out of 120 FBS teams and 128.2 yards per game, which ranked them 79th in the nation. Furthermore, they only averaged 2.1 explosive rushing plays a game.

The other startling statistic is that the longest run of the season came from Robert Hughes, a power running back, who rumbled for 37 yards. The next largest run came from Golden Tate who ran for 33 yards on an end around. For the 2009 season, the Irish rushing attack only totaled 13 touchdowns, 3 of which came from Clausen.

While the offense averaged 30.1 points per game, they did so despite a fairly suspect blocking technique exhibited by both the offensive line and wide receivers. This season, as the Irish employ Brian Kelly’s version of the spread offense, it will be imperative that the offensive line improves its blocking technique: especially in pass blocking situations. While they will certainly be helped by a high-tempo offense that will spread opposing defenses across the field, it will also isolate an offensive line that will receive almost no help from multiple tight ends. Slimming down and becoming more agile will undoubtedly aid them in their ability to pass protect in open space. However, solid technique by the offensive line will be paramount in their ability to block for Crist, and thus, essential to the proper execution of the offense.

Furthermore, Notre Dame’s wide receiving corps must also improve their down-field blocking technique this off-season. Like the offensive line, they will be helped by an offensive scheme that will force opposing defenses to spread the field and make solid tackles in open space. Brian Kelly’s spread offense is meant to be highly explosive, but it will sputter if the wide receivers cannot effectively block in open space for their teammates.

Defense

While the offense was able to perform satisfactorily despite their sub-par technique, the defense wasn’t so lucky. Even though they had some players, like Kyle McCarthy or Manti Te’o, who played fundamentally sound, they also had players, like Brian Smith, Harrison Smith and Sergio Brown, whose sloppy technique was often times a contirbuting factor in Notre Dame’s losses last season.

Anybody who watched five minutes of Notre Dame football last season observed the most frustrating problem plaguing the defense: poor tackling. The entire unit’s inability to tackle was a large factor in the amount of time they spent on the field last season. Many times, entire games rested on the shoulders of the defense and the their anemic tackling meant the difference between a victory and a loss. In 2009 the defense gave up an average of 7.4 explosive plays a game, totaling an average of 193.4 yards a game. Too many times, the secondary was too concerned with stripping the ball from an opponent, rather than bringing the ball carrier down. And with all that emphasis on turnovers, the Irish defense only managed to create 1.6 turnovers a game. In fact, tackling was so poor at times, that players like Brian Smith, who have shown potential at their position, have been consistently hindered by their poor tackling skills.

Another technically unsound aspect of Notre Dame’s defense last season was poor secondary coverage. Allowing opposing wide receivers too much cushion at the line of scrimmage during short-yardage or blitzing situations, the inability to effectively bump wide receivers at the beginning of their route, allowing them to get too much separation on deep routes and poor over-the-top help by the safeties were all major issues in a porous secondary that, subtracting the rush-heavy opponents Navy, Connecticut, Nevada and Stanford, gave up an average of 270 yards per game through the air.

While that number doesn’t look extreme, consider the amount of inexperienced quarterbacks that Notre Dame faced last season. Additionally, the Irish gave up an average of 13.8 yards per completion to their opponents, which ranked them 112th of 120 teams. Before last season, the secondary was thought by many to be one of the strongest in the nation due to their experience, but through poor technique and execution, their performance turned out to be fairly pedestrian and often times very frustrating.

The final defensive area needing improvement regards the inconsistent pressure applied to opposing quarterbacks and running backs. Last season, Anthony Pilcher wrote an overlooked article on Jon Tenuta’s defensive philosophy that gave an excellent explanation of the defense Tenuta runs and how it should look when employed effectively.

One of the major inconsistencies with how Tenuta’s defense should have appeared, and how it was actually executed, has to do with the amount and type of blitzing that took place last season. Many times, players who were blitzing from the corner came into the backfield unimpeded, only to take incorrect angles and over or under-pursue their targets. Moreover, players who were blitzing through the defensive line came with little regard for filling running lanes and, in turn, entirely missed their intended targets.

On average, as a result of poor pressure and blitzing, the Irish defense only caused 2.6 three-and-out situations a game. Additionally, when Tenuta’s defense was predicated on creating favorable down-and-distances later in the series, the defense failed to execute, giving up an average of 6.1 yards per 1st down.

Last season, Notre Dame’s defense struggled mightily in many aspects of technique and fundamentals that, if corrected, could have changed the outcome of many games. As I have stated before in this series, because Brian Kelly’s offense puts such little emphasis on ball control, the defense will be on the field much longer than they are used to. If the defense doesn’t play with solid technique and fundamentals, they will undoubtedly be on the field much longer than they need to be. And, given the lack of depth at several positions, especially on the defensive line, poor technique could spell disaster for this group.

Final Observations

While it’s unfair to expect every person on the team to play with perfect fundamentals and technique, it isn’t unfair to assume that they will improve over the course of the season. Poor technique in 2009, on both sides of the ball, was so obvious sometimes, one had to wonder if Charlie Weis saw the problems at all or, if he did, was he simply unable to fix them?

The lack of solid technique can take a player with immense potential and cause them to play at a pedestrian level and for Notre Dame, this was the problem in many cases. The offense was able to use their superior talent at the skill positions to compensate for their overall lack of technique. The defense, however, seemed like they were holding on for dear life in many instances because of their lack of solid fundamentals. This must improve if the Irish want to take a step forward to becoming a better program this season.

As the last preparations for spring football are made this week by Brian Kelly and his staff, we all look forward to seeing the Blue and Gold on the field in the near future. This season has the opportunity to be a prolific one for a promising head coach, much like 2005 was for Charlie Weis. The Irish must contend with many things this year in order to lay a foundation for success this season. They must not only hone the skills of their starters, but they must also develop the talent of their reserves to provide quality depth on both sides of the football. They must condition themselves to play a much different type of offense and defense in order to finish games, and the season, as well as they start it. And finally, they must develop their technique to play fundamentally sound football in order to minimize mistakes and maximize their potential.

While they will continue to progress in these areas after spring football and into summer camp, when they are joined by a new freshman class, they have the opportunity to showcase their progression in these areas thus far for many Irish fans in late April. And after the disappointing season last year, what fan wouldn’t want that?

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