When Chuck Martin was named Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator last year after Charley Molnar departed to be the head coach at UMass I wondered how much influence he would have over Brian Kelly and the Irish offense. Kelly had combined head coach duties with offensive play calling since taking over at Grand Valley State in 1991 and hasn’t relinquished that dual role in over 20 years. He’s been judge, jury, and executioner of what’s gone in and out of his offense and quite frankly, with the success he’s had, who would question him?
Martin had been a defensive coach most of his career until he took over as head coach at Grand Valley in 2004 after Kelly left for Central Michigan. He found himself following in Kelly’s footsteps by taking on head coach and offensive play calling responsibilities for the first time in his career. It’s important to remember in all of this that Martin basically kept the same offense Kelly ran at Grand Valley, which made his promotion to offensive coordinator with the Irish a no-brainer.
During his time at Grand Valley Martin did make some modifications to what Kelly’s offense looked like both philosophically and structurally. After seeing some of those changes he made as Grand Valley’s head coach show their face again in 2012, I’m somewhat convinced that Martin as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator was more than just a title. The only thing I question is how much of the play calling did Kelly do and how much did Martin do?
First we need to look at what would compel Kelly to hand the play calling duties over to Martin.
HEAD COACH DUTIES
Kelly admitted before the season started that the distractions that go along with him being the head coach at Notre Dame was taking away from the time he spent with his players. With all the speaking engagements, public appearances, and alumni functions he’s required to attend there wasn’t much time left for actual football related items, much less being the “offensive coordinator” and play caller. If he wanted to continue to keep up with his public appearances (which I’m guessing he doesn’t have a choice) as well as spend time more time with his players, it would have made perfect sense for him to eliminate calling plays and having to worry so much about the offense. This also would have been the ideal time to let Martin take over the offense completely.
Everyone took notice as to how much calmer Kelly was on the sidelines this past season. If there’s anything that can take the edge off a coach on game day, it’s not having the responsibility of calling plays anymore. Take it from a guy who called plays for 10 years in a row on the high school level and then didn’t for four – I was much more relaxed and easier to be around the four years I didn’t. Calling plays makes you edgy and irritable all by itself, but when you add the duties of being a head coach it’s easy to see why Kelly’s fuse could be so short, especially when things didn’t go as planned.
Not having to call the plays on game day would also give Kelly the opportunity to be more of a game manager in all facets of football. Instead of worrying about in-game and halftime adjustments within the offense he can focus more on the big picture and having input in everything his team does. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but he did lead his team to a national championship this past season.
IN MARTIN HE TRUSTS
It isn’t a secret that Kelly and Molnar weren’t exactly on the same page the years he was the offensive coordinator. The only way Molnar would have called the plays was if Kelly was rushed to the hospital in the middle of a game. He didn’t trust Molnar, but he trusts Martin. That trust was built when they were together at Grand Valley and it continued when Martin was hired as Notre Dame’s defensive back coach. Finally, the ultimate show of trust was forged when he was chosen to be the offensive coordinator.
Kelly also knows that Martin can successfully run an offense that, for the most part, he created. Martin was an accomplished play caller at Grand Valley and at one point won 40 games in a row. Kelly doesn’t have to worry about whether or not he’s picking the right guy to take over the offense because he basically handpicked someone who’s earned his stripes the same way he did.
I mentioned earlier there were a few things in the Irish offense this season that may have been indicators of Martin either calling the plays or at least having a major influence on what Kelly was calling throughout the season. Here’s a look at what I noticed as to what those might have been.
The first thing I saw was the amount of snaps Everett Golson was under center as opposed to in the shotgun. Kelly’s offense has had the quarterbacks in the shotgun for years. The last two seasons Tommy Rees and Dayne Crist were almost exclusively in the shotgun and this season Golson spent over half his snaps under center. This is too big a change from one year to the next without someone who you trust telling you that the quarterback should be under center more.
When Martin was at Grand Valley he had his quarterbacks under center more than Kelly would have ever had and that as one of the minor changes he made when Kelly left for Central Michigan. Also, being under center allows for more north/south runs within the offense whereas being in the shotgun forces most runs to be east/west before moving downhill. Think about the power and inside zone run plays Notre Dame ran the heck out of this season – both were under center and north/south runs.
We saw a lot of multiple tight end sets in 2012. Although tight end Tyler Eifert was always on the field in 2011 and 2012, the difference this year was that he was usually joined by Troy Niklas or Ben Koyack - and sometimes both. In 2011 Notre Dame ran with multiple tight ends at different times, but not to the extent they did in 2012. Again, this was something that Martin increased at Grand Valley after Kelly left. Martin liked the idea of having an in-line tight end for blocking purposes and at the same time one on the wing or in the slot who could double as a blocker or create a mismatch as a pass catching threat. This was also something we saw a ton of when the Irish offense was on the field in 2012.
I remember seeing Martin at a clinic seven or eight years ago and he was talking about his passing game philosophy. One of the things he stressed was when a defense gives you man-to-man coverage on the outside you have to exploit it no matter what, especially in the red zone. He basically said if a defense gives you that look on first, second, and third down then you should throw fades until you complete one and if you don’t have the confidence to do that you need to find it.
I was watching the Navy game this past season and in the second quarter the Irish had a second and goal from the five and Golson threw an incomplete fade pass to Eifert against man coverage. The very next play Golson threw the same fade route to Eifert against man coverage for a touchdown. I thought to myself, “I bet Martin had something to do with that.”
In the first quarter against Wake Forest Golson threw a second and goal fade route to Eifert against man coverage that fell incomplete and came back with the same play on third down for a touchdown. If you recall the first quarter of the national championship game Notre Dame threw a fade to Eifert against man coverage on second and three that fell incomplete. The very next play against the same coverage Golson threw the same route to Eifert that also fell incomplete and ended up being one of the controversial calls of the game. In all three situations I thought that Martin was either calling the plays or had more of an influence on Kelly than anyone else has up to this point of his career.
Let me be clear by saying that I don’t know for sure whether or not Martin called the plays in 2012 or that he just had Kelly’s ear with some of the changes he wanted to implement. What I do know is there were several indicators during the season that made me think there was a distinct possibility that he was calling the plays. I also know that if he was, in fact, not calling the plays some of his schemes and philosophies certainly made it into the offensive game plan on a weekly basis.