Notre Dame

Notre Dame's quarterback competition is just beginning

Notre Dame's quarterback competition is just beginning

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After a sun-splashed Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish exited spring practice without a clear picture of who their starting quarterback will be Sept. 4 at Darrell K. Royal Stadium in Austin, Texas. 

That was always going to be the case. But in the only publicly-available window into Notre Dame’s quarterback competition between now and the season opener, DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire each did some good things and each revealed areas in which they need to improve. 

Neither player has a distinct advantage over the other, which very well may not change any time soon.

Kizer picked up where he left off in 2015, looking comfortable in command of his half of the Irish offense. Zaire, who hadn’t played in even a semi-competitive game since fracturing his ankle Sept. 12 at Virginia, volleyed reminders of his strong arm (with a 50-yard highlight-reel bomb to Torii Hunter Jr.) and running ability (with a 13-yard touchdown run). 

Kizer completed 10 or 17 passes for 113 yards and rushed four times for 21 yards; Zaire completed 6 of 15 passes for 120 yards and rushed five times for 12 yards with the game’s only touchdown until walk-on Montgomery VanGorder plunged in for a touchdown against his dad’s defense late in the fourth quarter. 

But the on-field results were just a part of Notre Dame’s Blue and Gold Game, and the quarterback competition as a whole. Kelly designed Saturday to split up Kizer and Zaire and give each an opportunity to lead a segment of the offense.

After Tarean Folston, clad in a green non-contact jersey, took his first carry, Kizer — who’s barely played with the senior running back given Folston’s season-ending torn ACL came before Kizer stepped in for Zaire last year — urged the crowd to cheer. When early-enrolling freshman Kevin Stepherson dropped a pass on a deep fade route, Kizer raced over to him to pat him on the back in a “get-them-next time” gesture. 

While Kelly cautioned he’s not giving Kizer the starting nod, he did say that the redshirt sophomore “continues to show the things that you want a starting quarterback to show.” Kizer said he wants to continue to display those traits while building off 2015’s Fiesta Bowl berth.

“Last year was pretty good,” Kizer said. “Obviously we were about four points away from being an undefeated regular season team and with that, I've just got to make sure that I can develop off that.

“… As long as I continue to have the confidence in myself and once again continue to develop, hopefully it will be an easier decision.”

As for Zaire, he commanded the offense well, though some of his calls and checks were a little off. Still, Kelly said Zaire was much better in those areas than he was upon returning to practice in mid-March. 

“What we didn't have today were some communication errors that we had earlier in spring,” Kelly said. “I thought he really accelerated that end of his game, where I thought he was a little rusty earlier in the spring. Really did a nice job today and clear communication with his offensive line.”

Both quarterbacks were live in the first half, and Zaire showed no ill effects of his ankle injury. His first run looked like the same play call on which he fractured his ankle in Charlottesville; he was hit and popped right back up after it Saturday. On his touchdown run, he planted and cut back to his right before turboing off into the end zone. And before that score, Zaire escaped some third down pressure from linebacker Asmar Bilal, rolled to his right and found running back Justin Brent for a 28-yard gain.

Kizer began spring practice ahead of Zaire, given he had 11 starts to have the Irish offense evolve with him at the helm. While clearing the mental hurdle was important for Zaire in his recovery process, spring football was important for him too in learning those wrinkles added to the offense, as well as the tendencies of new teammates, after his injury. 

“We've got a new team,” Zaire said. “Last year's team is different than this year's team, so getting acclimated and adjusting to those guys, building chemistry not only with the tight ends and receivers and running backs, but also the O-line. … We've got a lot of time before our first game. I think getting closer to that chemistry is something we worked on in the spring and is something we accomplished.”

Kelly said Zaire exited spring practice on the same plane as Kizer in terms of offensive knowledge. While both quarterbacks were scrupulously evaluated over the last few weeks, they now can be evaluated on an even playing field. 

“He was at a bit of a disadvantage coming into the spring, and I thought he caught up,” Kelly said. “So I think now that he has a better understanding of everything that we're doing, I think now you've got the race and that will obviously be decided through camp.”

We don’t know when Notre Dame will name a starting quarterback. In fact, neither Kelly nor offensive coordinator Mike Sanford nor associate head coach Mike Denbrock have an idea with four and a half months separating the Blue and Gold Game from that season-opening trip to Texas. 

Eventually, one will be picked. It may come down to the head coach and offensive staff making a call between two players with equal ability to run the offense. Kelly wants his team to develop an identity with whoever the quarterback is, and that kind of stuff doesn’t happen overnight. 

“There will be a time when I'm going to have to say, that's our quarterback, let's go with him, we're all in, and let's move forward,” Kelly said. “They are both that good. I already know that. But there will be a day, and we're going to have to say: It's time to go, he's our quarterback, everybody's behind him and we need to go, and that's who the quarterback is.”

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.