Notre Dame

DeShone Kizer puts offseason improvements on display against Texas

DeShone Kizer puts offseason improvements on display against Texas

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — DeShone Kizer established himself as one of college football’s most promising quarterbacks last fall, throwing for 21 touchdowns and rushing for 10 more. But there was still plenty of room for improvement in his game. 

On Sunday against Texas, Kizer treated the crowd of 100,000 and a record TV audience to some of the strides he’s made between his redshirt freshman and redshirt sophomore seasons. Two throws in particular represented those gains.

The first came midway through the third quarter with Notre Dame trailing by 10. Facing third and goal on the five-yard line, Kizer identified Texas’ “picket fence” coverage with a bunch of players lined up across the front of the end zone. Running back Tarean Folston, split out to the boundary, was bracketed by a cornerback and former five-star linebacker Malik Jefferson. 

So Kizer pump faked toward receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who had two players in the vicinity, and scrambled outside the pocket. Torii Hunter Jr. flashed open and Kizer threw off-balance to his team captain for a touchdown. 

“Any time anyone gets into a zone coverage like that in the end zone there’s a lot of spots that you kind of lose,” Kizer said. “Typically, it’s the back line, but in that case I was able to scramble out and create time and Torii came open in the front end of the end zone.”

Kizer added on his line of thinking on that throw: “Now it’s time to be the athlete that I am and try to go make a play to score in the red zone rather than trying to stick one in tight and end up having a tipped ball or a pick.” 

Kizer struggled to identify double coverage at times last year, which led to his first career interception against Georgia Tech and a couple of other poor red zone decisions. But on a third down, with his team down 10 points on the road in a hostile environment, Kizer cooly picked up what Texas’ defense was doing, went through his progressions and found time outside the pocket to easily hit Hunter for a score. Nothing about it was forced. 

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“Last year he would have tried to drill it into the primary receiver in bracket coverage,” coach Brian Kelly said. “I think he probably would have you had rushed the throw and it would have been incomplete. We've worked hard on bracket coverage with him, being more patient. You're not getting a great pass rush down there because they're doubling out, keep working toward the line of scrimmage. Be patient. Guys will find openings on the back end line and the pylons. 

“He was patient, and I think that that was a step in the right direction for him.”

The second throw had less to do with good decision-making — in fact, Kizer actually made a poor decision on it — and was more about the kind of quarterbacking talent possessed by a guy who a handful of prognosticators are pegging as a 2017 NFL Draft first-round pick.

With Notre Dame down three points early in the fourth quarter, and this time facing a third-and-eight from the Texas 17, Kizer floated a picturesque pass to running back Josh Adams — who made an excellent catch himself — for a go-ahead touchdown. 

Left tackle Mike McGlinchey, who’s generally the team's most reliable offensive lineman, was a little slow on his block and Kizer had pressure over his blind side/left shoulder. A Texas player had a free run at Kizer, too, after quickly shedding tight end Durham Smythe’s chip — that’s the protection Kizer missed — just beyond the line of scrimmage. 

But even under that pressure, Kizer dropped a perfect throw into Adams’ arms on a wheel route for a score. 

“That’s usually how fast he gets the ball out on that type of play,” Adams said. “I think we executed it well, just like we practiced week in and week out and I think it definitely showed in the game.”

“He missed that protection, he usually gets that protection right,” Kelly said. “He had been seeing that nickel fire all day and for some reason he missed that nickel pressure. But he's a guy that will stand in there as well and make the big throws. It was a great throw, but I think it was an even better catch.”

Notre Dame converted three of its five trips to the red zone into touchdowns, though one of those possessions ended when Justin Yoon’s field goal was blocked following a controversial non-call on Texas safety DeShon Elliott’s apparent helmet-to-helmet hit on Hunter in the end zone. 

Without Will Fuller, Chris Brown or C.J. Prosise from last year’s squad, Notre Dame will need Kizer to head up playmaking efforts when it gets into the red zone. On Sunday, he did just that, and in the process showed a glimpse of just how good he can be in 2016. 

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.