Arizona State v USC

Marqise Lee hopes to be ready for Notre Dame

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Last year, Notre Dame caught a break when quarterback Matt Barkley wasn’t able to play against the Irish. They might catch a similar break if All-American wide receiver Marqise Lee‘s knee injury keeps the Trojan’s best player off the field on Saturday.

The Biletnikoff winning wide receiver watched the Trojan offense explode in Ed Orgeron’s debut as USC’s interim head coach last Thursday night, but hopes he’s healed enough to make it onto the field in South Bend Saturday night.

Various reports surrounding the Trojan beat had Lee doing some individual work at practice on Sunday, but did not participate in any team work. Orgeron gave an update on a fairly lengthy injured list on Sunday and had Lee among those questionable along with linebacker Morgan Breslin, fellow receiver Victor Blackwell and a handful of others.

Injuries have plagued USC, limiting an already undermanned Trojan roster early this season. But even without Lee, the Trojans broke loose through the air against Arizona, with Nelson Agholor leading the way with seven catches for 161 yards and a touchdown as Cody Kessler threw for 297 yards on just 15 completions.

 

 

Depth chart set for Texas

Line
Notre Dame Athletics
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Brian Kelly hasn’t decided on a quarterback. But he has decided on a free safety. Sixth-year senior Avery Sebastian will get the start over true freshman Devin Studstill Kelly announced, giving the Irish a veteran presence on the back line.

Kelly made the decision to go with Sebastian, the former Cal safety back with the program and on the field after earning a medical redshirt in 2015 when he was injured against the Longhorns in the opener. And a strong camp—combined with Studstill returning from a lingering hamstring injury—helped Kelly made the decisions to tap the veteran as the teams starter at safety.

“Devin was a little behind with his hamstring,” Kelly said. “But certainly you want to put veterans on the field, if you can. I think if Devin was clearly ahead of Sebastian, we’d have Devin on the field over Sebastian. But Sebastian’s had a good camp. He’s been really rock solid.”

Positional fit is the next issue. Pairing Sebastian with Tranquill puts two in-the-box safeties on the field at the same time, neither at their best when asked to cover in the open field. But as Texas breaks in a freshman quarterback and a veteran whose best trait is running the football, it’s clear that making sure the defense is fundamentally sound is more important than someone best suited physically for the job.

“What we’ve seen and what we can evaluate is a consistent performer. He’s assignment correct,” Kelly said of Sebastian. “He makes very few errors, and that’s what we like. We have two performers back there in Tranquill and Sebastian that are assignment correct.”

***

It may have surprised some, but Te’von Coney and Kevin Stepherson were listen in the official two-deep for the Texas game. Kelly said that all four players remaining from the incident in Fulton County were available to him—though he did say that the university’s disciplinary arm will have their own say.

But Kelly’s decision comes not necessarily because of anything he’s decided, but rather the athletic department’s disciplinary policy on first-time offenders for a drug violation like marijuana.

“Throughout our entire athletic program, your first time is an educational process. In other words, counseling and education,” Kelly explained. “Then you enter into that track program that you could have random drug testing.

“So it’s not just football. It’s the entire athletic department. And our whole department is set up that way. I don’t know how other programs are, but we certainly consult and look at other like schools. And I’m confident to say that most if not all are pretty much the same.”

***

If the depth chart holds true on Sunday night, the following players will be earning their first start at their respective position:

Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders at WR.
Mike McGlinchey (LT), Sam Mustipher (C), Alex Bars (RT) and Colin McGovern (RG).
Shaun Crawford (CB), Avery Sebastian (S).

Five things we’ll learn: The 2016 Notre Dame season preview

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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Entering his seventh season in South Bend, Brian Kelly is on the most stable footing of his career. In lockstep with his bosses Jack Swarbrick and Rev. John Jenkins, Kelly has spent the better part of his time at Notre Dame building a program to his specifications, granted unprecedented control and resources as the coach and administration continue to evolve a football program that serves as the university’s outward identity.

That’s what makes the 2016 season so fascinating.

Because for as comfortable as Kelly has become in a job that hasn’t seen anything close to comfort since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines, he’s got his hands full this season. His roster is turning over more high-end talent than any team since Holtz and Vinny Cerrato were stocking the pond, and he’s also attempting to upend conventional football wisdom as he juggles two quarterbacks.

Add to that a rebuilt defense and untested talent at several key positions, this type of high wire act is what gets coaches a bronze statue or a For Sale sign in their front lawn.

Having already faced an off-field mogul that cost him his starting free safety, Kelly and his coaching staff will spend the week going through final preparations before stress-testing his young team in front of 100,000 fans.

With the goal still a berth in the College Football Playoff, here are five things we’ll learn this season.

 

No coach is better qualified to juggle multiple quarterbacks. But that doesn’t mean it’ll work. 

In DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, Brian Kelly has two quarterbacks he handpicked. They’ve both showed flashes of brilliance on the field, character and resolve off of it, and the type of competitive nature that the head coach finds so vitally important at every spot on his roster.

Now he’s asking both quarterbacks to trust him as he tries to bring out the best of both players.

“They understand that my decisions are based upon what’s best for Notre Dame football, and not necessarily what’s in their best interest,” Kelly said after announcing that both would play.

“There’s always going to be that struggle with the individual versus the team. They clearly understand that team is most important and winning and beating Texas is more important than how they feel about the current situation.”

Those feelings struggled to stay beneath the surface on Media Day, when both quarterbacks answered question after question—often times the same one—from reporters roaming the room and looking for a quote.

But more important than anything Kizer or Zaire say is how they manage to play when the lights go on. And while we saw Kelly and Mike Denbrock navigate a far more toxic situation with Zaire and Everett Golson when they put together a remarkable game plan to beat LSU in the Music City Bowl, a month of bowl preparation is one thing, a 12-game regular season is another.

Most have forgotten that Kelly’s commitment to a two-quarterback situation was mostly framed through the lens of beating Texas. From there, what they decide to do remains to be seen—especially if one of the quarterbacks separates themselves on the field.

Thumbing his nose at tradition and trying to win with both is a calculated risk. Kelly is capable of pulling it off, but it’s one of the biggest gambles of his time at Notre Dame.

 

Three seasons in, there’s hope that the defense now fully comprehends Brian VanGorder’s scheme. But can it improve after replacing so much talent?

There is no shortage of postmortems on Brian VanGorder’s 2015 defense. Even with plentiful talent, big plays and maddening inconsistency ruined the Irish season.

Now without Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, KeiVarae Russell, Joe Schmidt and Romeo Okwara, Brian VanGorder is hoping that a younger, less experienced unit can skip past the rookie mistakes—finding a way to absorb and implement a scheme that mentally stressed even the most experienced starters.

Putting all the struggles on VanGorder’s system isn’t fair. Legacy issues and mismatched personnel doomed the group.  So did injuries, taking away some of the variables that allow a tactically-brilliant strategist to go from grease-board to gridiron.

Outside of the considerable weight hoisted onto several new shoulders, making sure all eleven defenders are on the same page remains the key to success. So is finding a pass rush.

As Kelly talked early on about making sure this team does the ordinary things extraordinarily well, that message may as well have been aimed solely at his defense, a group that needs to get back to the basic principles of winning football—even if it forces a few weapons to stay holstered.

 

Can a rebuilt offensive line serve as the identity of Notre Dame’s offense? 

Whoever ends up piloting the Irish attack, they’ll do so behind an offensive line that should serve as the identity of the team. Because Harry Hiestand’s rugged group has size, strength and a nasty disposition that should help the team win now—especially as the passing game finds its footing.

With Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson perhaps the strongest 1-2 punch in college football, dictating terms will be a necessity. So will breaking in three new starters, with Sam Mustipher, Colin McGovern and Alex Bars getting no warmup before they operate in a very hostile environment.

Coming off a breakthrough season running the football, there’s talent in the backfield and two quarterbacks capable of executing the zone-read attack. But without Will Fuller keeping safeties honest and receiving depth to keep secondaries occupied, it will be much rougher sledding in the trenches.

That’s where McGlinchey and Nelson come into play. Because even if everybody in the stadium knows where the Irish are going on 3rd-and-2, it’ll be up to this offensive line to pave the way, excelling in predictable downs and distances and pushing opponents around even when the numbers make things difficult.

Dominance can come in many forms. Last year’s offense found that ability with the highest yard-per-play total in the school’s modern history. That’s not likely in the cards this season, making it even more important that the Irish control the game in the trenches.

 

Can freshman Devin Studstill be Notre Dame’s last line of defense? 

Max Redfield’s dismissal was the final disappointing chapter in a collegiate career that will long be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Asked to be Notre Dame’s last line of defense—to serve as the nerve-center of the secondary—Redfield instead served as the ringleader to the most maddening, inexplicable preseason decision in recent memory, bringing guns and drugs and Notre Dame football into the same sentence, all too good of a reason for Kelly to pull the chute on a tenure that seemed like hard work on even the best days.

In his place, freshman Devin Studstill makes his first start. Matched up against a Texas offense that’ll need big plays (and maybe even a little broken coverage) to find its footing, Kelly puts a key job on the shoulders of an early-enrollee freshman, a safety who actually took a final look at playing for the Longhorns before heading to South Bend.

So for all the optimism that’s followed Studstill from the recruiting process, through spring drills and into fall camp, Kelly’s not unaware of the circumstances his young free safety will face.

“We’ll have a true freshman, on the road, playing against a talented team,” Kelly said through gritted teeth. “Devin is a kid that has a lot of talent. He’s a very confident player. But we’ll all be looking at it like you will be.

“He’s a pretty talented player. He’s confident. He had a pretty good spring game. He’s got some experience now after the spring. But we’ll have to play a few guys, I don’t think he’s going to go out there and play every snap.”

Behind him is where things get murky. There’s sixth-year safety Avery Sebastian, long on experience but built like a strong safety. Freshman Jalen Elliott has earned praise as well, but will be playing in his first college game as well. Sophomore Nicco Fertitta earned mention, but isn’t the athletic matchup you want with Texas’ receiving corps.

So that leaves Studstill to learn on the job. And at a position that’s seemed difficult to fill since Harrison Smith roamed the secondary, that’s a lot of pressure on a freshman.

 

With leadership still a work in progress, can this team grow—and win—while finding its identity?

Naming four captains after an embarrassing weekend found six players posing for mug shots, Brian Kelly’s concerns about player leadership found their way to the forefront before his young team even played a game. But there’s a silver lining in that embarrassing dust-up. Namely, the Irish stubbed their toe before it could cost them anything more than a starting safety and a week of headlines.

Kelly knows that this team will be a work in progress. That makes the key to this season winning while still figuring things out. If you’re wondering why he was so willing to play both quarterbacks, it ultimately comes down to the fact that he can’t take anything off the table as he looks for the right recipe for success.

Winning the weekend is the only goal that matters. Survive Texas and get home.

Because the cliche that each week is a season in college football holds true for this football team. Winning the week and going onto the next should allow this team to find its footing, doing so against a schedule that only features three true road games and opponents that all deal with major turnover either in the coaching ranks or in key personnel.

One Saturday at a time. (And this weekend, one Sunday, too.) Because even after six seasons, if Kelly takes a step back to look at the road ahead of him, he might understand just how much he’s trying to achieve.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Malik Zaire

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Malik Zaire #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes past defensive end Mike Moore #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the third quarter at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Malik Zaire will play this season. After battling DeShone Kizer to an unexpected draw this fall, the senior quarterback will have a chance to prove he’s one of the team’s top playmakers—even if his role in Brian Kelly’s offense is still uncertain.

The ultimate competitor and an emotional leader who plays with a chip on his shoulder and his heart on his sleeve, Zaire’s a key piece of an offensive puzzle that’ll only begin to show all its pieces starting this Sunday in Austin.

 

MALIK ZAIRE
6’0″, 225 lbs.
Senior, No. 9, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-rising recruit, Zaire made a statement at the national level with an impressive showing at the Elite 11 camp. An early target of Brian Kelly, Zaire rose to a four-star prospect, earning offers from Alabama, Arizona, a handful of others and eventually Ohio State.

Mostly an option quarterback until his senior season at Archbishop Alter, Zaire was a Top 150 recruit and a national prospect by Signing Day.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action, preserving year of eligibility.

Sophomore Season (2014): Saw brief action early in the season before relieving Everett Golson against USC in the second quarter and starting the Music City Bowl. Zaire was named the bowl’s MVP after winning his first ever start, running for 96 yards and a score while completing 12 of 15 passes.

Junior Season (2015): Started the season’s first two games before breaking his ankle against Virginia, ending his season. Played a nearly perfect statistical game as a passer in 38-3 win over Texas. Ran for 87 yards on 10 carries against Virginia.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Seemed on track until his ankle broke.

With an excellent set of skill players and an offensive line among the best in the country, Zaire won’t need to be the best player on the Irish offense, but simply make sure he allows this unit to prosper. Whether that makes him a game manager or point guard will be determined by how well the offense produces.

The Irish will need Zaire to be a capable runner. He showed more than enough ability to do that against LSU and also with big runs in limited snaps before then. The Irish will also need him to play smart. It’s long forgotten now, but late against LSU, Zaire made an ill-advised deep throw down the middle of the field that could’ve been intercepted. Golson took over in the passing game from that moment forward.

Zaire is going to make some mistakes. He’s seeing defenses and adjustments for basically the first time. But he also needs to show the confidence that allows him to run the football, adding a needed dimension to this offense that just didn’t exist, even with Golson behind center.

Ultimately, it’s probably unfair to say it, but Zaire will be the main factor in the Irish’s ability to make it to the four-team playoff. If he’s able to limit mistakes and trigger the running game, this team will be hard to stop. But if he plays like a first-year starter and struggles to get the passing attack started, it’ll be an opportunity lost.

I think this offense is ready to dominate and Zaire is prepared for his moment in the spotlight. Now he’s got to go out and prove it.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Not many quarterbacks have had a harder path to the top than Zaire. But the fact he’s still fighting to lead this team says quite a bit about him. He may not have the NFL ceiling of Kizer—or the same type of arm talent, but Zaire does so many things that Kelly values, and his ability to make plays after things break down is key to this offense.

One of the unquestionable leaders of this unit, Zaire may not be wearing the captain’s ‘C’, but he’ll have one of the strongest voices on the team. The longer he stays part of this time share the more likely he’ll be engaged.

A fifth-year is available, but projecting anything past this week isn’t wise. There are just so many different ways this position can go. But after most had all but given the starting job to Kizer this offseason, it’s wise not to count out Zaire.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I don’t quite know how he’ll do it, but I keep believing that Zaire will find ways to be a key piece of the Irish offense. Maybe that’s injury, maybe that’s outplaying Kizer, but some how, some way, Zaire will find a way to impact this offense.

Of course, the flip side is also just as likely. The more Kizer gets a chance to be comfortable, the more likely it is that Kelly relies on him to continue to run the offense. But there’s a reason that Kelly made the unorthodox decision to chose both quarterbacks. And it’s not just that Kelly didn’t want to split the locker room. It’s that he respects Notre Dame’s veteran quarterback—so much so that he’ll continue to give him a chance to lead this offense.
2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn
Nick Watkins
Nic Weishar
Ashton White
Dexter Williams
Brandon Wimbush
Justin Yoon

Strong not showing his cards at QB either

AUSTIN, TX - AUGUST 30:  Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong looks on during warmups before kickoff against the North Texas Mean Green on August 30, 2014 at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly isn’t the only coach playing coy about his quarterbacks. Texas head coach Charlie Strong hasn’t committed to a starting quarterback either, waiting until game time to reveal whether or not he’ll start senior Tyrone Swoopes or freshman Shane Buechele.

“I know who we’re going to start, but Sunday we’ll see who runs out there,” Strong said Monday.

Both expect to see time on Sunday, with Strong only willing to confirm that “both will play.” But even as Buechele’s stock continues to soar as a fast-riser during fall camp, Strong isn’t willing to step away from Swoopes, a veteran who has seen a charged atmosphere like the one expected Sunday night and has also had success running the offense, though mostly as a running option.

Likely adding to the decision is the health of the Texas offensive line. While Strong was confident that he’d have his projected starting lineup prepared to play by Sunday, as many as three starters—center Zach Shackelford, guard Patrick Vahe and tackle Tristan Nickelson—have battled considerable injuries this camp.

“We have some bumps and bruises on our offensive line,” Strong acknowledged. “We’re hoping that by the time we get to game time that we will have some guys and get some guys back. We’re kind of banged up a bit there.”

***

Strong acknowledged the one-sided nature of last year’s 38-3 Notre Dame victory in South Bend. And while it was Malik Zaire that started for the Irish last year in the season opener, he knows that whoever he faces at quarterback will present a challenge.

“You look at the two-quarterback tandem, when you look at Zaire and you look at (DeShone) Kizer, two of the best in the country, when you look at what they can do,” Strong said. “Everybody talks about Zaire and they look at him as runner, but he can also throw the football. You look at how well he threw the ball against us.

“And then Kizer, one thing, he’s a thrower and then you look at some of the quarterback runs and some of the big plays he made last year with his feet.”

On the flip side of the ball, Strong praised Notre Dame’s front four, calling a group led by Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones “probably the most physical front four that we will face all season.”

Compounding issues for Strong and new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert is Brian VanGorder‘s scheme. With Gilbert brought in to install a spread attack that comes from the Art Briles coaching tree, Strong acknowledged that VanGorder will test both quarterbacks with his trademark attacking style.

“VanGorder, he’s not going to change. He loves to bring pressure, and he’s going to bring the pressure, and he feels like with his front, with the front that he has that he can get pressure on the quarterback and also bring an extra guy,” Strong explained. “So it hasn’t changed. If you look at them from game by game, they’ve been solid, and once you feel like that you have a good defense and you’ve had some success, there’s no reason to change it all.”