Chalk Talk: the Notre Dame Box
Rockne was one of the game's best motivators
Rockne was one of the game's best motivators
BearReport.com Correspondent
Posted Jun 28, 2007


Knute Rockne is perhaps best remembered for his stirring pep talks, but he was also one of football's most innovative offensive minds. His Notre Dame Box scheme made legends out of the Four Horsemen. In Part II of his five-part series called "The Evolution of Offense," BearReport.com Correspondent Jeremy Stoltz breaks down the Notre Dame Box and how it expanded upon the single-wing.

In the first 10 years following its conception, Glenn ‘Pop’ Warner’s single-wing was, essentially, the only offensive formation used in football.

But by 1918, it was being tweaked by coaches across the nation. One of those doing the tweaking was Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne. Through subtle and not-so-subtle changes to Warner’s creation, Rockne created the “Notre Dame Box,” which would eventually come to rival the single-wing’s popularity in the early years of the NFL.

The Notre Dame Box made its first appearance in the late 1910s. It varied from the single-wing not only in the placement of its players, but also in its overarching offensive philosophy. By the early 1920s, Rockne found a group of four talented players to form the four corners of his Box. Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden ran the offense so successfully and dominated opponents so thoroughly that they became legends of the college game. Their overall supremacy while employing the Notre Dame Box led one poetic sportswriter to dub them a moniker that has lasted through the ages: “The Four Horsemen.”

During the 1924 season, Rockne’s Four Horsemen plowed through the competition and earned Notre Dame a national championship – one of six Rockne would earn between 1919-1930. Unfortunately for the Golden Domers, Rockne’s coaching career was short-lived, as a plane crash took his life on Mar. 31, 1931. It was an extremely difficult time for the Notre Dame community, but even though the man himself was gone, his legendary offense lived on.

The Notre Dame Box’s alignment differs from the single-wing in three main areas: the line is balanced, the two tight ends are split from the line of scrimmage, and the wingback, who lines up outside the tight end in the single-wing, is brought in more tightly. The wingback now lines up behind the tackle, with the quarterback next to him, the fullback behind him and the tailback set diagonally behind him. The placement of the four players when looked at from above resembles that of a box, hence the name.

Unlike the single-wing, deception and not power is what made the Notre Dame Box so successful. It was the first scheme to frequently send players in motion. A common shift would have the wingback motion out wide to the flanker position. This constant shifting of the backs was designed to keep opposing defenses off balance. Additionally, the backs often switched positions on any given play, causing even more confusion on the other side of the ball.

For an outside run, the team’s fastest player moved into the tailback spot; for a pass play, the team’s most capable passer shifted there; for a straight power run, the fullback lined up behind the center. Comparatively, the single-wing offense relied on a triple-threat tailback that could run, pass, and kick the ball with equal efficiency – and often failed when no such player was available. By using the Notre Dame Box, teams didn’t have to rely on a single outstanding athlete, instead utilizing each back’s abilities to the fullest.

Knute Rockne and his Four Horsemen revolutionized football at Notre Dame

By balancing the offensive line, or placing an equal amount of players on either side of the center, the offense was even more unpredictable as it could run just as easily to the weak side as it could to the strong side. This widened the field for the offense, giving them more options while not allowing the defense to stack players on one side of the ball.

Tight ends played half a yard off the line of scrimmage and were split a yard or two away from the tackle, which is where we get the term “split end.” Rockne felt that the end could better release into the secondary if he was not lined up directly in front of an opposing player. And if the defensive end decided to line up in front of the split end, there would be a gaping running lane outside of the offensive tackle. Either way, it was an advantage for the offense.

The versatility of the Notre Dame Box came not only from its basic formation, but also from its expansion of the passing game. The quarterback, used as a pure blocker in the single-wing, was used in a much more similar way to the quarterbacks of today. Oftentimes, the center would snap the ball at an angle directly to the QB instead of straight back to the tailback. The quarterback could then hand the ball off to any of the backs around him or, as often happened, run a play-action pass. It was with the invention of the Notre Dame Box that the forward pass flourished. The QB’s role increased dramatically, as he was now called upon to be the primary passer. For this reason, Rockne is widely credited as the catalyst for the current day forward pass.

The Notre Dame Box’s transition to the NFL began with Curly Lambeau – founder, player, and first coach of the Green Bay Packers. He was a running back for Rockne in the late 1910s. It was there that he learned the intricacies of the Notre Dame Box, eventually falling in love with the creative offense. Lambeau brought the Box with him to the Packers and used it to win six NFL titles.

It is sometimes amazing to consider how the smallest changes in an offense can have the biggest impact on the game. Had Rockne not lined his players up differently, shifted his players all over the field, and developed the passing game, football as we know it might never have existed. Which makes me think of an e-mail I recently received from a very knowledgeable football acquaintance of mine.

“There is nothing new in football,” he wrote. “Only wrinkles of the old stuff.”

Jeremy Stoltz is a graduate of the Columbia College Story Workshop program in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and BearReport.com.

Jeremy Stoltz's Chalk Talk Archive
06/21/2007 - Single-Wing
06/14/2007 - Defensive Tackle
06/07/2007 - Shotgun
05/31/2007 - Run-and-Shoot
05/24/2007 - 46 Defense
05/17/2007 - Screen Pass
05/10/2007 - Draw Play
05/03/2007 - West Coast Offense (Part II)
04/26/2007 - West Coast Offense (Part I)
04/19/2007 - Zone Blitz
04/12/2007 - I-Formation
04/05/2007 - Zone Blocking
03/29/2007 - Cover 2
03/22/2007 - Counter Trey


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