Notre Dame

DeShone Kizer embraces high standards as he aims to pull Notre Dame out of tailspin

DeShone Kizer embraces high standards as he aims to pull Notre Dame out of tailspin

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly caused a social media stir after Notre Dame’s 38-35 loss to Duke when he said quarterback DeShone Kizer’s play was “not acceptable” and below standard. 

This was after Kizer threw for a career high 381 yards and accounted for three touchdowns (two throwing, one rushing) to lead the Irish offense to 35 points, which in reality should’ve been enough to beat a middling Duke side. Kizer made mistakes — Duke scored 10 points off his fumble and interception — but the point total speaks for itself. 

But Kelly’s standards, Kizer said, aren’t as high as the ones he sets for himself. So the redshirt sophomore quarterback didn’t have a problem with Kelly saying his play was substandard, because it wasn’t in his own mind. 

“I've always had very high standards for myself, and I'm never satisfied,” Kizer said. “That's the best part about playing the sport in general, the challenge that there's always something better you can do. There's no such thing as perfection in football. To a certain extent, standards are never met, unless you have a ring on and you're undefeated. That's kind of the only goal.”

So for Kizer, merely playing well isn’t enough. There were things he could’ve done better against Texas (like score after Jarron Jones’ miraculous blocked PAT) and Michigan State (like avoid that mid-game lull) that could’ve put Notre Dame in a better position to win both of those games. Against Duke, his fumble was a glaring mistake that led to a Blue Devils’ touchdown; his arm-punt from Notre Dame’s end zone was bad, but Duke still probably would’ve marched downfield for the game-winning field goal had that pass fallen incomplete and Tyler Newsmen punted. 

For almost everyone outside of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex — and, judging by Brian VanGorder’s firing on Sunday, some in it — the defense has been the problem for Notre Dame this year. Forcing Kizer to be as close to perfect as possible perhaps seems unfair, but he doesn’t necessarily think it is. 

“On the offensive side of the ball we have some really good stuff up and going, and we haven't come near where we can go, and that potential is what's fueling us to go out and compete and to get better each week,” Kizer said. “And to go out and put up five to six touchdowns a game knowing that you can go and put up four more is what allows us to go into practice Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday to do whatever we can to figure out how we're going to execute more this quarter every time we touch the ball. We don't want to punt the ball. We know we have the ability to score every drive, and we have the confidence that we are going to.”

Of course, having a quarterback with good-to-great statistics isn't always enough. Just ask 2009 Jimmy Clausen: He threw for 3,722 yards with 28 touchdowns (and only four interceptions) and was second to Tim Tebow in quarterback rating as Notre Dame skidded to a 6-6 season. More of the same from Kizer may result in an outstanding season and the Toledo native becoming a first-round draft pick, but it might not be enough to get Notre Dame to a bowl game. 

“If we are 4 and 0 right now, standards are met to a certain extent, because we won four games,” Kizer said. “If I throw for 500 yards, standards are met to a certain extent, but there's so many other things that go into that that we all see now that caused us to be below standard, and to sit here and find it and try to focus up on those would be a mistake on my part because by focusing up on things that aren't relevant to us winning a game is not good for the team. 

“All I need to do, my standard right now is to do whatever I can to help lead the offense to get a win. We're 1 and 3, and that's unacceptable, and my only goal right now, my only mission is to buy in to everything that's been said in this meeting room right here to get a W on the board because that's all that matters at this point.”

Kizer has proven to be one of the nation’s very best quarterbacks ever since he threw that heroic game-winning heave to Will Fuller in 2015 at Virginia. He’s made improvements to his game on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis — just look at how good Notre Dame’s been in the red zone this year for an example — and with those has raised his standards higher. They’re designed so he probably won’t meet them until he wins a College Football Playoff championship game or Super Bowl. 

But if he can meet Kelly’s standard, maybe Notre Dame will be good enough to overcome a shaky defense and win enough games to be bowl eligible. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but it is. 

“There is a standard that is set for a player, and that standard is based upon what he believes and what we believes should be acceptable for him, and turnovers and his ability to continue to grow as a quarterback sets that standard,” Kelly said. “If he was a first-time starter or he didn't set the pace that he had set last year, maybe the standard would be a little bit lower. But he has set a standard of play that we believe he needs to meet and exceed every time he goes out there.”

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.

I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.