Notre Dame

Notre Dame: How DeShone Kizer's experience advantage will affect QB battle

Notre Dame: How DeShone Kizer's experience advantage will affect QB battle

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame wants its quarterback competition to be conducted on a level playing field this month. But there’s a thorny issue in that plan: How does Notre Dame take into account the greater level of experience possessed by DeShone Kizer in comparison to Malik Zaire?

The short answer to that question coach Brian Kelly provided last week: The 2015 season offered a “glimpse” of what Kizer can do, but those 11 starts could be balanced out by Zaire’s offensive mastery in the three games he’s started at the college level. 

“You put the Texas film on and see how easy it was for Malik, or you put on the LSU game and you see how easy it was for him as well,” Kelly said. “That's why we are where we are. We've got two really good quarterbacks, based on what we've seen on film, and we've got to let them both compete and continue to compete.”

But Kizer has so much game experience across so many different situations. He’s led a miraculous comeback in a far-more-hostile-than-expected atmosphere at Virginia. He engineered what could’ve been a game-tying drive against national runner-up Clemson in a driving rainstorm on the road. He engineered what should’ve been a game-winning drive at Stanford with a potential playoff berth on the line. He teamed up with Will Fuller to trash USC and Pitt’s secondaries, and kept Notre Dame’s final four hopes alive with a game-winning touchdown drive in the biggest game in Temple’s program history. 

Those are all significant data points. Zaire has Notre Dame’s final drive against LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, in which he tagged in and out with Everett Golson. (It was Golson who completed three consecutive passes to move Notre Dame to the LSU 22, after which Zaire set up Kyle Brindza’s walk-off field goal with an eight-yard rush.) That game is important, but it’s only one game. 

“I’ve been through pretty much every situation — a must-win game, I’ve been through a game we’re supposed to win, a game we’re supposed to lose, I’ve been thrown into some really tough fourth-quarter situations,” Kizer said. “And with all that, those are all experiences that I can kind of build upon and act as a platform for me when I’m trying to set myself up to put myself in position to start this year. All those learning processes and all those situations are gonna be things that hopefully edge me out when it comes time to make a decision.”

And it’s not just that Kizer was in those situations, but he handled every one of them with a remarkable level of composure for a first-time starting quarterback (Fuller, who caught that game-winning 39-yard touchdown against Virginia, marveled at how poised Kizer was immediately upon subbing in for the injured Zaire). While coaches can justifiably expect Zaire to handle those pressure-packed situations well, there remains some level of uncertainty there. 

Zaire isn’t oblivious to the fact that he doesn’t have the experience of Kizer or any of college football’s other top quarterbacks, despite being a former early-enrolling freshman who’s in Year 4 at Notre Dame. 

“I think (Clemson quarterback) Deshaun Watson has also played a lot more games than me,” Zaire said. “And so has (Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett), and so has (former Cal quarterback) Jared Goff and a bunch of other guys that have played. So I just think it all comes down to being able to be ready for that opportunity and I always pride myself on being able to produce so I just focus on producing.”

In another sense, though, the stuff Kizer didn’t do well last year could benefit Zaire over the next few weeks. 

Notre Dame’s offense wasn’t lethal in scoring positions last year, averaging 5.06 points per trip inside an opponent’s 40-yard line (38th in FBS). Things were worse in the red zone, with Notre Dame scoring a touchdown on just 58.49 of its possessions inside the 20 (79th). And with explosive get-out-of-jail-free weapons in Fuller and C.J. Prosise off to the NFL, the Irish offense can’t afford to run into those same issues — either in settling for field goals or turning the ball over — when it moves deep into opposing territory. 

“I look at the things we did, last year’s offense, and the things we can improve on, which are the important things, and I think my focus on that has always been keeping me busy,” Zaire said. “So focusing how to score more in the red zone is something that we haven’t had in a good amount of time and I think I can add some value to that aspect of our team and that can only help us get to that next stage.”

(Zaire’s right about Notre Dame not having red zone success recently — the last time the Irish ranked in the top 40 in red zone touchdown percentage was 2011.)

Notre Dame’s offense also struggled in short-yardage situations last year (their 66.7 percent power success rate ranked 58th in FBS). Those critical third-and-short downs are another area Zaire could target to show coaches how he could improve the offense from which he was sidelined after about seven and a half quarters last fall. 

But those middling or below-average data points have also been Kizer’s focus for the last few months. And with Kizer largely running the show, Notre Dame’s passing offense ranked 10th in S&P+ last year. While there’s plenty of offensive personnel turnover from 2015 to 2016, the base Kizer built last year was impressive. 

Notre Dame had a good-to-very-good offense under Kizer’s guidance last year. Whether or not it can be good, or better, without him as the quarterback is one of the central questions Kelly, Mike Sanford and Mike Denbrock have to answer in August. 

“That decision isn’t in my hands,” Kizer said. “As of now I’m pretty confident in what I’m doing, with the experiences I’ve had last year and what I’ve done all offseason, I’m pretty happy with where I stand. And now it’s time to go out there and prove it and lay down what I have and see what the coaches say.”

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.