Of Notre Dame’s eight Fiesta Bowl practices before it heads to Arizona Dec. 27, five are set aside for preparing for Ohio State and three were characterized by coach Brian Kelly as general practices.
These are different practices than you’ll see during the season, when gameplanning and fundamental tweaks are condensed into just a week. With the benefit of both time and hindsight, Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl practices can be invaluable for its three quarterbacks.
That’s a number that again includes redshirt sophomore Malik Zaire, who’s taken some reps in seven-on-seven drills as he works his way back from a fractured ankle suffered Sept. 12 at Virginia.
“He’s well ahead of schedule,” Kelly said. “… (He’s) phenomenal in terms of the way he’s able to get back and move around and throw the football.”
Zaire won’t play against Ohio State, of course, and he won’t be used on scout team to mimic J.T. Barrett either. But he’s getting a head start on the ultra-competitive quarterback competition that’s likely to materialize in 2016.
For freshman Brandon Wimbush, December is about getting some necessary experience that Kelly hopes eventually will turn into muscle memory. Wimbush, who was expected to redshirt his freshman season before Zaire’s injury, only saw a handful of snaps during the season with some moments both good (like his 58-yard touchdown run against Mass) and bad (like his fumble against Pitt that was returned for a score).
“I think it’s more about repetition and getting to that time where he doesn’t have to think about it,” Kelly said. “It’s just, I know that’s a boundary up read, it’s two deep, that’s where the ball goes and he’s not thinking about it anymore. Just the repetition of getting those meaningful reps is invaluable for him.”
As for redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer, who threw for 2,600 yards and 19 touchdowns, he and quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator Mike Sanford have been able to focus on a few specific areas of his game on which he needs to improve.
“When you’re going through a season, sometimes that can cloud up the ultimate vision,” Kizer said. “When you go up there and you notice that this is my huge deficiency right now, you start focusing on that and you lose some of the other things. This is an opportunity after a full season and having some time where you can truly go back and evaluate your whole year and truly see where the deficiencies actually lie.”
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Kizer mentioned throwing across his body to the field as an area he planned on looking at during these Fiesta Bowl practices, while Kelly said getting the Toledo native to improve his quick throws on the move will be a focus as well.
“We did not move the pocket much with him because he was not very good at throwing on the run, and we’ve increased that the last couple weeks of the season where we got some perimeter throws,” Kelly said. “Because you’re playing off coverage on Will (Fuller), we run some quick spot hitches on the outside with quarterback movement, those are chain movers. We’ve worked on that, he definitely feels more comfortable on the move.”
Notre Dame navigated itself to a 10-2 record this fall with Kizer, who was buried on the depth chart as recently as last spring. Kizer, Kelly and Sanford built an excellent base, and Fiesta Bowl practices are Kizer’s first opportunity to start making some significant gains.
“It’s going to be an opportunity for me to take the preparation that I normally get that lasts for four days,” Kizer said, “and turn it into 15-plus days and truly challenge myself to see how much I can learn about a defense.”