Five things we learned: Notre Dame 38, Texas 3

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When it comes to season openers, you can’t ask for much more than that. On a beautiful night for football, Notre Dame kicked off the 2015 season with a performance nearly as perfect, trouncing the Texas Longhorns 38-3.

Backed by a flawless night by junior quarterback Malik Zaire and a strong defensive effort that held Texas to just 163 total yards, the Irish played a stress-free season opener and looked every bit the part of a playoff contender by out-classing one of college football’s blue-bloods in every phase of the game.

If you were looking to the season opener for the Irish to check off some boxes, you likely left happy. Notre Dame’s depth and skill flashed from the start. The Irish defense, a question mark after imploding late last season after injuries, dominated.

The offense showed balance on the ground and explosiveness through the air. And after watching a season go up in smoke courtesy of self-inflected mistakes, the number probably most impressive was the very large zero in the turnovers department.

The night was not without some worries, namely the health of starting running back Tarean Folston, who left the game with an early knee injury that had most on the Irish sidelines prepared for the worst. But after the first Saturday of the college football season, Notre Dame served notice that this was a football team prepared to do big things.

Let’s find out the five things we learned in the Irish’s 38-3 win.

 

 

With Malik Zaire at quarterback, Notre Dame’s offense looks as good as ever. 

Those worries about Malik Zaire? Put them away for another week. The junior quarterback, making his first home start and just the second of his career, put together a near perfect performance. He completed 19 of 22 throws for 313 yards and three touchdowns, showing accuracy, a power arm and great feet in the running game as well.

Zaire did everything his head coach asked of him, making the ordinary plays and doing a good job moving the chains early, converting on multiple third downs when the Irish offense needed it. While the unit made a few mistakes that knocked the Irish out of scoring range and kept points off the board, Zaire did a few things that just made you say wow—including a perfect dart to Will Fuller for a 63-yard touchdown.

Zaire hit his star receiver for two touchdowns on Saturday evening, throwing his third to Chris Brown on a nifty play-fake in the red zone. The junior quarterback did everything you could ask for, managing the game, being aggressive when the moment called for it and burying the Longhorns when the game was ready to be put away.

“We believe in Malik and we trust in him,” Kelly said. “I think we put him in a good position to succeed.”

This is just the first step in a season-long evolutionary process for Zaire, and you can bet that Brian Kelly, Mike Sanford and Mike Denbrock will have some game tape to look at come tomorrow morning. But after an offseason where many wondered how the Irish would cope without Everett Golson, the early returns are in: Just fine.

 

 

Notre Dame’s offense is likely bracing itself for very bad news with Tarean Folston’s injury. 

It didn’t take a medical degree to see things looked quite grim for starting running back Tarean Folston, who was injured on his third carry of the season, a seemingly ordinary tackle after Folston burst through a big hole for a nice gain.

We saw Folston get his knee checked out by head trainer Rob Hunt on the sideline, and we also saw the junior get emotional as teammates came by to give encouragement or a quick hug, with the NBC camera catching the back taking the long walk up the tunnel, ice bag on his knee and just about everybody bracing for a season without the talented runner.

Without Folston, C.J. Prosise came in and carried the load, running for 98 yards on 20 carries before he was subbed out. Prosise seemed to do just fine, though he likely wasn’t fully prepared for the increased workload, with Prosise himself still on the way back from a hip flexor injury that kept him out of two weeks of camp.

Brian Kelly said Folston will get an MRI tomorrow. Perhaps the results will be less serious than we expect. But most are bracing for a season without Folston, the depth chart at running back perilously thin after just one game.

 

 

The Irish front seven totally overwhelmed the young Longhorn offensive line. 

Maybe Brian VanGorder knew a camera would be focused on him. Because Irish fans were ready to see another viral moment from Notre Dame’s intense defensive coordinator, who was likely very pleased with the effort of his embattled defense. VanGorder didn’t throw any mega-fist rockets or get “turnt up,” but you have to expect that the “D-Boys” celebrated this completely dominating performance, especially as the front seven swarmed Texas quarterbacks Tyrone Swoops and Jerrod Heard.

Texas receiver John Burt got behind KeiVarae Russell for a 48-yard gain. But other than that? The Longhorns were held to a ridiculous 2.2 yards a play, with the Longhorns only gaining 60 yards total on the ground and 103 in the air, Burt’s long catch included.

After spending all offseason wondering how Notre Dame would get pressure on the quarterback, Swoopes and Heard were constantly under pressure. Sheldon Day may only have notched one tackle—a sack—in the box score, but he was in the backfield all day, with Swoopes continually pressured by the Irish senior. Jaylon Smith, Romeo Okwara and Jerry Tillery also earned sacks.

Notre Dame’s linebacking corps looked every bit as athletic as you wanted it to look, with Smith playing excellent football and wreaking havoc off the edge and Joe Schmidt his normal solid self. The Irish took on Texas’ up-tempo attack with little problem, forcing the Longhorns off the field as quickly as they could move on it, setting up their defense for a horrific time of possession deficit that saw the Irish hold the football for over 39 minutes.

Whether it was from a three-down front or four, the Irish looked stout in the trenches. Daniel Cage lived up to Kelly’s comments earlier this week, while Andrew Trumbetti and Isaac Rochell destroyed the pocket and made Texas’ undermanned offensive line look like a group trying to break in two true freshmen.

 

 

Josh Adams had quite a debut. 

You’ve got to wonder what tonight feels like for Josh Adams. Notre Dame’s freshman running back took the road less traveled to the end zone tonight, with Adams one of Notre Dame’s earliest running back commitments, even when he was recovering from a torn ACL.

Notre Dame identified Adams as a back they wanted early and didn’t care if recruiting services collectively shrugged their shoulders at the former three-star prospect. But Adams showed good size, great speed a nose for the end zone on Saturday evening, scoring on the first carry of his career and then shaking off a major collision with Malik Jefferson to bounce back and score a second time to finish off the game.

Kelly talked about how Adams was able to make such an immediate impact.

“He was able to pick up all the protections early on,” Kelly said. “Any time when a freshman can come in and pick up all the protections early on, it’s been my feeling that he’s ready to play, provided he’s got the skill and also what kind of skill he has.

“We felt like he was a kid that was under the radar last year. He had a knee injury that kind of took him off the radar a little bit. But he’s just scratching the surface. He’s got elite speed. He’s got great size. He’s got good ball skills and obviously he’s a kid that we believe in.”

Adams is now the No. 2 back in Notre Dame’s offense. (That redshirt that was planned for Dexter Williams? Likely off as well.) Now Adams will need to continue learning the intricacies of the position, with first-year position coach Autry Denson ready to earn his keep as he works with a position group that’ll find out tomorrow if it’ll be without its leader.

 

 

 

Will Fuller: As good as he ever was. 

I know most of the mainstream media forgot Will Fuller when they were filling out their preseason All-American ballots or short-lists for the end of the year banquet circuit. But I didn’t think Charlie Strong’s defense would forget to account for him.

Notre Dame’s star receiver was once again a difference maker and took over the football game, hauling in seven catches for 142 yards, including touchdowns from 16 and 66 yards out. Fuller’s early season chemistry was on-point with Zaire, an interesting data point, especially for those who worried that the passing game would take a step backwards without Everett Golson behind center.

Fuller has now scored 17 touchdowns in his last 14 games, notching a score in every contest he’s played in the last two seasons except on a rainy Saturday against Stanford last October. More importantly, we didn’t see any mental mistakes by the blazing receiver, with Fuller reeling in the routine balls and making a very nice play on a sideline throw from Zaire, dragging his foot on a catch that needed to be overturned by replay.

Fuller is a quiet guy, a player who prefers to do his talking on the field. But to get a glimpse of how the junior thinks, I spoke with him briefly on Media Day about the difference between playing with Golson and Zaire.

And while most would expect a receiver to like the quarterback who shows more comfort throwing the ball (that’s still Golson, though Zaire will certainly have a say in that), Fuller mentioned that he didn’t have a final conversation with his former quarterback, with Golson heading to Tallahassee without even a goodbye.

So one game is hardly a conclusion. But even if the Irish find a better running game, expect this season to be another big one from the duo of Zaire and Fuller.

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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