Film Study: Breaking Down the Notre Dame Passing Game

By Jonathan Stephanson on December 31, 2015 at 10:10 am
All-American Will Fuller leads the Notre Dame Passing Offense
Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

With a bevy of receiving options and college football's premier deep threat, expect the Notre Dame passing offense to take shots downfield early and often.

Gone are the days of a tight end-centric offense that methodically moved the ball in conjunction with a strong run game. With no Kyle Rudolph or Tyler Eiffort on the roster, the 2015 Notre Dame passing offense wants to utilize play action to attack downfield, with a healthy dose of drop-back passing concepts.

Entering the Fiesta Bowl with the nation’s 37th ranked passing offense at 256.3 yards per game, the Irish rely on a variety of pass catchers to balance the strong ground attack of C.J Prosise and Josh Adams. Five players (including Prosise) have at least 24 receptions this season, and Notre Dame quarterbacks have thrown touchdown receptions to eight different players.  Senior wide receivers Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle have combined for 74 receptions and four touchdowns, while running back C.J. Prosise has caught 26 balls out of the backfield. While the group is solid, most of the receving unit won't stress a defense downfield. When the Irish want to go vertical, they look to their star: 2nd-team AP All-American wide receiver Will Fuller.

To describe the 6-1, 184-pound Fuller as “fast” is an understatement. The junior wide receiver’s elite speed and quickness immediately jump out on game tape. Fuller used his these traits to rack up 56 receptions for 1,145 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, averaging 20.4 yards per reception. The future NFL first-round draft pick has 16 catches of 25-yards or more, and has tallied a touchdown reception in nine of 12 games this season. He will present Ohio State's11th-ranked pass defense with their toughest challenge of the season.

Fuller is deadly to opposing defenses because he brings more than elite, straight-line speed to the table. His footwork at the line of scrimmage to beat press coverage, sharp route running, and ability to track the ball and catch with his hands allow him to create separation and haul in the long touchdowns for which he has become known. 

When facing press coverage, Fuller demonstrates outstanding footwork and body control to create a clean release at the line of scrimmage, avoiding the cornerback’s jam and creating immediate separation.

In Notre Dame’s 42-30 win over the Pitt Panthers, this footwork was put on display on the way to a 14-yard touchdown reception. Facing man-coverage and a pressed-up corner, Fuller used an effective ‘out-in-out’ release to prevent the cornerback from using his hands to disrupt the route at the line of scrimmage.

Fuller Beats Press Coverage

The release uses four quick steps to keep the corner off-balance. Fuller wants to release outside (towards the sideline) for a fade into the end zone, so his first step points in that direction. He then pushes hard inside with his second step, using his head and shoulders to fake like is releasing towards the middle of the field. His third step pushes him back across the cornerback’s face and puts him hip-to-hip with the defender (known as ‘stacking’). His fourth step pushes him past the defender and puts him in position to catch the fade.

While his quick feet and body control make the release look effortless, this is NFL caliber footwork. The electric receiver demonstrated sharp route running skills on the way to a 47-yard gain against the USC Trojans.

Facing off-coverage from the defender, Fuller uses a slant-go double move, or ‘sluggo’ , to break down the cornerback’s cushion. The route's goal is to sell the slant route to the cornerback before breaking back downfield. If executed correctly the fake to the slant will force the cornerback to hesitate, and may even force him to open his hips towards the middle of the field, known as 'opening the gates'.

Dino Stem

Focus on the cut just before the 40-yard line at the top of the screen. The defender takes the bait, momentarily raising his pad level and preparing to break on the route before resuming his backpedal when Fuller breaks back up field. This slight hesitation is all a receiver of Fuller’s caliber needs, as he catches a well-placed ball on the sideline for an explosive first down gain.

Many of his touchdown receptions have been the result of the electric wide receiver’s raw speed and ability to track the ball. Facing an obvious passing situation in the Georgia Tech game, Fuller used his straight line speed and ball-tracking skills to get behind the defender for a 46-yard touchdown reception.

Track the Ball

Watch how quickly the speedster (located at the top of the clip) is able to eliminate the cornerback’s 8-yard cushion running a go route, a testament to his vertical speed. After stacking the defender, he uses his elite tracking skills to elevate and pluck an under-thrown ball out of the air, then maintains his body control when he lands for an easy six.

While Fuller’s award-winning season comes as no surprise after a 76-catch, 15-touchdown sophomore campaign, the same cannot be said about Notre Dame starting quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The 6-4, 230-pound redshirt freshman started spring practice third on the Irish depth chart before Everett Golson transferred to Florida State and opening-day starter Malik Zaire suffered a season-ending broken ankle in Notre Dame’s week two victory over Virginia. Under the tutelage of first-year offensive coordinator Mike Sanford though, Kizer has made the most of his opportunity to lead the Irish passing offense.

While Kizer’s statistics do not jump off the page (2,600 passing yards and 19 touchdowns), his execution of the vertical play-action attack and drop-back passing game have led to Kelly’s most prolific offense in his six years as Notre Dame’s head coach. Factor in his ability to move within the pocket and scramble for extra yardage (499 yards, nine touchdowns), and it’s easy to see why Irish fans are excited about the Toledo, OH native’s future with the program.

The Notre Dame spread-power offense is heavy on balance, averaging 214.8 yards on the ground and 256.7 yards through the air. Put the Irish passing game on tape and you will recognize any of the Ohio State staples: the running back flare, three level route concepts, and Drive.

While Kelly typically runs more drop-back passes than the Ohio State offense, play action has, and continues to be an important component of his offensive philosophy. Kizer’s ability to execute these vertical play action concepts with star receiver Will Fuller has contributed mightily to the offense’s record-setting output this season.

As safety Vonn Bell pointed out during Monday’s Fiesta Bowl press conference, the Buckeye secondary should expect several vertical shoots to Fuller off play action. 

"They’re going to take shots downfield. That’s where they’re going to try and get it."

When opposing defenses employ split safety coverage shells like Cover 2 and Cover 4 (Ohio State’s base coverage), the Irish offense will use a variety of dummy routes to clear the middle of the field for Fuller, allowing him to slip behind the vacated portion on post routes for easy scores.

Against USC’s Cover 4, Kizer hooked up with the All-American for a 76-yard touchdown catch off a ‘Pin’ concept, using the slot receiver to pull up the field safety, allowing Fuller to slip behind for a long score.

Pin Concept
Pin Concept

Kizer executes the fake perfectly and delivers an outstanding deep ball, hitting Fuller in stride for an easy six.

Kelly’s willingness to use the first-year starter on designed quarterback runs creates further opportunities for play action. The redshirt freshman is deadly running the quarterback counter, particularly in shorts yardage situations and in the red zone. In the clip below, the Irish constrain this tendency with a beautiful concept that incorporate the quarterback counter and a running back wheel route

This well-designed play starts with a false run key, the pulling guard, which sucks up the linebackers towards the line of scrimmage.

False Run Key

The route combinations by the wide receivers are cleverly-designed to open up the wheel route. The #1 wide receiver (Receivers are counted outside-to-in) runs a clear-out route to pull the cornerback downfield, while the slot receiver comes off the line like he is going to block before slipping inside and up field. The only defender in position to play the wheel route (#11) gets caught peeking into the backfield, allowing the wheel to get behind him for a 56-yard touchdown.

Caught Peeking

Over the course of the 2015 season opposing defenses often played man coverage shells, hoping to take away the deep threat of Fuller by providing safety help over the top. The Irish offense often responds to man coverage by running a variety of shallow routes and pick plays as part of their drop-back passing game.

Late in Notre Dame’s 24-22 loss to Clemson, the offense dialed up a shallow crossing route to wide receiver Chris Brown (#2) facing man coverage in a 2nd and long situation.

The play concept is to run Brown across the field on a shallow cross, with the second and third receivers in the trips formation running slightly deeper crossing routes that are designed to act as a pick to his defender. Notre Dame has made a habit of running the concept over the previous two seasons, most famously in their 2014 loss to Florida State in which a late fourth quarter go-ahead touchdown was called back due to an offensive pass interference call.

Wide Receiver Picks

The close spacing of the receivers crossing from the strong-side of the formation clue in the rub concept, as the routes are run too closely together to create spacing for either to catch the ball.


Although the throw itself was short, Kizer did a good job adjusting his arm angle to get the ball out while staring down a free rusher.

Later in the game Notre Dame went back to the well with a similar shallow cross concept. Notice the obvious picks by the #2 and #3 wide receivers.


Kizer’s ability to evade pressure within the pocket will present a challenge to the Buckeye defense. Unlike many inexperienced quarterbacks, Kizer has shown the ability to keep his eyes downfield as he avoids the rush, creating extra time for his wide receivers to work themselves open and forcing defensive backs to extend their coverage.

In the clip below, Kizer steps up and then outside the pocket facing a five-man blitz.

Eyes Downfield

Watch how he calmly comes off his progression to the left-side of the field due to interior pressure, escapes to the right, and keeps his eyes downfield rather than turning the corner for a minimal gain. By keeping his eyes up Kizer is able to find Fuller at the seven yard line for a touchdown.

After giving up yards to scrambling quarterbacks several times this season, the Silver Bullets must not let Kizer escape the pocket to pick up extra yards and first downs when the coverage holds up downfield.

Kizer possesses good speed/size and is a shifty runner in the open field. Although he does a good job of going through his progressions considering his experience, he will tuck the ball and take off fairly quickly if his reads aren’t there. In the clip below, he puts these attributes on display as he jukes and runs his way through USC’s linebacker corps. His size (230 pounds) allows him to take open field hits, although he will expose himself to punishment when he runs.

Kizer Scrambles

Slowing down Fuller and Kizer will come down to three factors:

  • Aggressive press coverage at the line of scrimmage
  • Deep safety help
  • Disciplined pass rush

The Ohio State defense employed aggressive press coverage against Rutgers wide receiver Leonte Carroo; expect to see more of the same against Fuller.

Fuller expects as much, saying of the OSU secondary, "They're actually a lot different. They press a lot.  They got some tall guys and bigger guys that play well. It's going to be a fun game."

Because Fuller is a smaller wide receiver (187 pounds), cornerbacks Eli Apple and Gareon Conley will likely try to bully him at the line of scrimmage. To do so, they MUST use their press technique to avoid giving the speedster free releases. Beat him up and make him work to get open.

Deep safety help should limit Fuller’s ability to damage the Buckeye defense with vertical routes. The Buckeye defense ran Cover 1, or man-free, a majority of their snaps against Rutgers. Fuller WILL wins at the line of scrimmage over the course of the game; give the cornerbacks deep help to minimize the damage he can do on his vertical routes.

Finally, the Buckeye pass rush must stay in their lanes against Kizer’s proven ability to scramble for chunk yards on broken plays. Interior lineman should focus on a slow, steady push into Kizer’s lap, while perimeter rushers should focus on not getting more than three to four yards up field while bending inside. Create a collapsing pocket around Kizer that leaves no holes for escape.

The Buckeye pass defense has been up to the challenge through twelve games; it's only fitting they face their most dangerous threat of the season against a top-tier opponent in a top-tier bowl game. Fuller will get his yards, but if the Silver Bullets can limit his damage downfield expect the Buckeyes to emerge with yet another New Year’s Day bowl victory.

View 3 Comments