There is a lot to digest with LSU head coach Brian Kelly. A coach known for using two running backs in formation, going empty (no running back), or anywhere in between. That was his story in Notre Dame and also before he came to Notre Dame.
What can LSU fans expect? Here is the first half of the information Tigers fans need to know, starting with the 2009 season when he was still coaching the Bearcats.
The first thing to know is that Cincinnati was fast playing; very fast. It was a really fast team and one that just wanted to beat its opponents. The Bearcats did not have the same kind of defense personnel as Notre Dame, and certainly not what he was given as head of the LSU. A few key data here.
First, Cincinnati averaged 38.6 points per game. Remember, this is before any team started throwing football everywhere, like in the last few years of college football. Coach Kelly was very open-minded about being a passing game.
The Bearcats would routinely not pull themselves together and overtake football as well as use zone reading concepts to keep the teams honest. The most ironic part of this team is that multiple quarterbacks were playing due to injuries and it still didn’t matter.
Dual-threat quarterback Zack Collaros passed for 10 scores, while pocket passer Tony Pike threw 29 touchdowns. It was impressive to see the Bearcats switch from one quarterback type to another and do so seamlessly.
Collaros started four games and never finished less than 70.8%. Pike, on the other hand, threw at least two touchdown passes at each start. Just looking at last season in Cincinnati and studying the quarterbacks, it’s interesting to be reminded once again of how versatile Coach Kelly’s offense really was. Once in Notre Dame, he had to undergo another change.
Kelly’s first year at Notre Dame was 2010. The Irish were up and down offensively as he took the reins of what was a real offensive under former head coach Charlie Weis and tried to turn it into a spread attack . The Irish averaged 26.3 points per competition, with the passing game averaging 253.1 yards per game and a total of 28 touchdowns.
The problem with Notre Dame was interception. Three different quarterbacks struggled not to turn the football around and it was a definite year of transition. The roaring attack helped make up some of the gap, averaging 126.6 yards per game and scoring 11 touchdowns.
2011 was pretty close to repetition at the quarterback, with second year old Tommy Rees (now Notre Dames Offensive Coordinator) taking the starting job in week three and the Irish averaging 252.6 yards per contest with 21 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions.
The key here was Tyler Eifert in the end, who caught 63 passes for 803 yards and five touchdowns. With Eifert drawing a lot of attention, Notre Dame did well in the game.
This is the season that Coach Kelly began to focus the offensive more on the running game. The Irish ran 160 yards eight different times, with running backs Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray adding 1,893 yards and 21 touchdowns. Notre Dame averaged 29.2 points per game in 2011.
From the undefeated regular season of Notre Dame 2012, the Irish adapted again. Rees played in many games, but the starter was quarterback Everett Golson. As a newbie to Redshirt, he was unpredictable which meant the Irish would turn to Rees and the frantic attack for stability and points. The Irish averaged only 25.8 points per game, but the defense was strong as it only allowed 12.8 points per fight.
Eifert caught 50 passes for 685 yards and four touchdowns. He was so difficult to keep up that Coach Kelly often set him up like a wide receiver. It caused inconsistencies with linebackers and security guards trying to defend Eifert. That helped in a stormy attack with a two-headed monster on top.
Between Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, the two Irish runners added 1,659 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Golson also chipped in 298 yards and another six roaring touchdowns.
Coach Kelly knew how to leverage his team’s strengths, and he did. Defense, special teams, the running game and real-time big plays by Eifert carried the Irish.
Note: With Golson’s running ability, it certainly enhanced Notre Dame’s possibilities, and it’s something that Coach Kelly has returned to throughout his tenure at South Bend (see Kizer below).
As of the 2013 season, the Irish pass attack was very inconsistent as Golson and Rees fought back and forth. Neither of them could really take the starting position. They combined for 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
That season, Notre Dame stayed in the shotgun and led the game, but it was never a team that could really hold its own against the top defenses. In short, Notre Dame hasn’t been where it should be with offensive talent, especially with Eiftert in the NFL, nor with top notch talent and depth on offense. It hurt her and Coach Kelly’s offense.
The Irish averaged 150.9 yards per game on the ground. Even so, Notre Dame averaged 27.2 points per game.
In 2014, Notre Dame got off to a quick start but faded with a host of injuries on both sides of the game. The biggest takeaway was that Coach Kelly really stepped up the offensive style (due to injury if possible) and tossed the football around. Young wide receivers made a huge difference, with the Irish scoring 32.8 points per game.
Key to this particular season would be explosive wide receiver Will Fuller (4.32 40) and his ability to take the top of the defense. He caught 76 passes for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns. With him in the lineup, Notre Dame absolutely went for home run shots.
The passing game moved forward, averaging 285.5 yards per game, throwing 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Despite the improved passing game, the Irish were still doing well in football.
Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant combined for 1,178 yards and nine touchdowns, while Golson ran for an additional 283 yards and eight touchdowns.
This would be the season when Notre Dame really had enough offensive staff to play power football or just to spread it. With Fuller out there, it was a lot easier. In 2015, the Irish had their most explosive offensive attack yet.
The even offense saw Notre Dame average 34.2 points per game despite starting a Redshirt freshman quarterback who was originally the third team during spring training. Signal Caller Deshone Kizer threw 2,880 yards, 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
He was particularly adept at throwing deep, and Fuller was once again the main weapon. Fuller grabbed 62 passes for 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns. Since Notre Dame is a very talented team at receiver and quarterback, the rushing game even improved its average to 207.9 yards per game.
Kizer was a threat to football, and with Fuller out there, there weren’t many defenses talented enough to hold Notre Dame down. CJ Procise’s running back also ran for 1,029 yards and 11 scores.
He was another distiller and one who achieved great success. Of all the teams that Coach Kelly resided on, the 2015 team is most similar to what LSU fans think of when they see their Tigers.
The Irish were packed with speed and playmakers at wide receivers and running back, so they used very wide receiver-heavy formations for much of the season.
Overall, the first six seasons under Coach Kelly saw a slow transition to a more explosive offensive once he got the talent on the list. Players like Eiftert, Wood and Fuller allowed Notre Dame to attack at certain moments and games.
With the wide receiver talent alone that LSU normally has, it’s hard not to imagine the Tigers making a very explosive passing game in a short amount of time.
Next: Part II looks at Power Football under Coach Kelly and the ability to shift the focus of the offense during a season.