Five things we learned: Notre Dame 34, Virginia 27

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With the clock ticking below half a minute and Notre Dame’s offense tossing away precious seconds as backup quarterback DeShone Kizer tried to get the Irish back to the line of scrimmage, Kizer made the wisest decision of his young football career when he turned to Will Fuller to bail the Irish out of season-destroying calamity. The sophomore looked left and saw Fuller streaking down the sideline, delivering a perfect throw to a receiver who was inexplicably in single coverage. Fuller pranced into the end zone for his fourth score of the season and Brian Kelly’s team escaped Charlottesville by stealing a victory in the game’s last dozen seconds.

That’s the good news.

The bad? Well, where to start?

Kizer was thrust into the role of hero after starting quarterback Malik Zaire fractured his ankle on a run up the middle, ending the junior’s season in mid-September. In consecutive weeks, the Irish have now lost pillars of the offense, with the Irish M.A.S.H. unit now including starting running back Tarean Folston, Zaire and nose guard Jarron Jones.

If Zaire’s hard-luck injury was the worst of the news, perhaps the biggest disappointment of the afternoon was the performance of Brian VanGorder’s defense. The Irish surrended 27 points to Virginia’s offense, taking a unit that looked inept last week in the Rose Bowl and turning them into world-beaters.

Leading the way for the scrappy Cavaliers was quarterback Matt Johns, who had his way with the Irish secondary, exploiting the continuous man-coverage looks that VanGorder threw at him. Johns nearly played the home-team hero in Scott Stadium when the Hoos scored with just 1:54 left in the game.

But Fuller could not be stopped. And while the Irish emerge 2-0, in seven days, Notre Dame went from having all the ingredients of a playoff team to a team quarterbacked by one very big question mark.

Notre Dame escapes the Commonwealth of Virginia with a surprisingly hard-fought victory. But Kelly’s football team will return to South Bend with a slew of questions that didn’t exist when the sun came up.

Let’s find out the five things we learned.

 

Without Zaire, Brian Kelly, Mike Sanford and Mike Denbrock will need to reinvent Notre Dame’s offense. 

Let’s not lose sight of the big picture: DeShone Kizer rallied Notre Dame to a victory with a game-winning touchdown drive in his very first two-minute drill. That’s pretty special.

But as the dust settles on the Irish’s 34-27 victory, Notre Dame’s coaching staff might as well sweep up what’s left of the Irish’s offense and chuck it into the recycling bin. It’s time to rethink some things.

Saturday afternoon was hardly a good one for the Irish’s play-calling collaboration, with Notre Dame’s schematic design nearly as poor as its execution. After missing only three throws on Saturday, it took four passing attempts for Zaire to miss three times, with the Irish starter off from the start.

The entire Irish offense seemed off its game minus C.J. Prosise and Fuller, converting exactly zero of its ten third-down attempts, consistently losing in short yardage situations and having little success in the red zone. Want a recipe for losing football? Jon Tenuta might have slipped Betty Crocker into the Irish playbook.

With Kizer behind center, the Irish will likely reboot the offensive game plan for the season. Gone is Zaire and his ability to carry a significant part of the load in the running game. Enter Kizer, a 6-foot-5 quarterback who can run the football but certainly doesn’t make for the ideal zone-read signal caller. Especially with only true freshman Brandon Wimbush behind him.

When Kelly brought in Mike Sanford from Boise State, he attracted the rising star with an opportunity to have a seat at the table and “turn things upside down.” Well Zaire’s injury did all the turning upside down the Irish ever needed. Now Sanford, Denbrock and Kelly will need to rearrange things and find a way to cobble together an offense that still has elite pieces.

Kelly has done that before, most notably at Cincinnati when he rode five different quarterbacks to a Big East title. But Notre Dame isn’t playing the Big East this season. And to survive the short-term, this coaching staff is going to have to earn its salary.

 

The offense shouldn’t be the only group rethinking their game plan. Brian VanGorder’s unit needs to take a hard look in the mirror. 

Just a week ago, Virginia fans would’ve packed the moving vans for head coach Mike London and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, chipping in enough gas money to make sure the duo took its vanilla scheme outside state lines. On Saturday, Fairchild had the Irish defense on a string, consistently wreaking havoc with motion, formation shifts and play-action passing.

After spending all offseason talking about how ten returning starters had a better understanding of what VanGorder’s scheme demanded, the Irish reverted back to a unit that found ways to get as little as possible for their production. The Irish struggled in man coverage against Virginia’s wide receivers and playing woeful defense in the red zone. They made Matt Johns look like a big-time quarterback and failed to take advantage of multiple 50-50 balls that hung dangerously in the air.

Now 15 games and two offseasons into VanGorder’s scheme, it’s time to start wondering if the former NFL defensive coordinator is getting the most out of his personnel. We can talk all about the mad scientist designs and his exotic schemes. But they don’t matter if the Irish continue to struggle to execute.

Communication issues seemed to plague the Irish all afternoon. On a critical 3rd-and-short in the first half, Drue Tranquill ran straight into Jaylon Smith, the collision leading to a Virginia first down. The very next play, the Irish got beat over the top for a touchdown, a trick play that young, inexperienced teams fall for, not a defense like Notre Dame’s.

Add to that the difficulties the Irish had playing Virginia’s Canaan Severin straight up, and you can help but project those struggles forward, especially against teams like Georgia Tech, Clemson and USC.

The focus shifts as soon as the Irish get back to South Bend, with VanGorder taking on Paul Johnson’s triple option and the Georgia Tech coach out to settle old grudges. So for now, maybe we can give the Irish defense the benefit of the doubt and say hey were just looking a week ahead. But a unit that looked like world beaters just a week ago played poorly on Saturday, and it’s time to examine some of the bedrock assumptions for the defense.

 

C.J. Prosise looks at home as a feature back. 

Playing in front of family and friends, C.J. Prosise put on a show on Saturday, running for 155 yards on 17 carries. Breaking the 100 yard barrier by halftime, Prosise responded to Zaire’s season ending injury by matter-of-factly running 25 yards for a touchdown on Kizer’s first snap and extending the Irish lead to double digits.

No, the lead didn’t last. But the Irish found their new offensive engine in Prosise, with the senior playing just his second game as a running back looking up to the task.

As you’d expect, Kelly didn’t put much on the shoulders of his freshmen backs, never wanting to do so in road games. And while the Irish struggled in short yardage (we’ll get to that in a second), Prosise found big lanes early and often and could’ve put up a monster number had the Irish offense found a way to stay on the field by converting some third downs.

With Folston and Zaire gone, there’s no other option to trigger the ground game. But Kelly’s big spring decision—one that looked like a head-scratcher to many, me included—has paid off big time, with Prosise now Notre Dame’s first offensive option.

 

Harry Hiestand’s offensive line is going to have one uncomfortable Sunday. 

Lost in all the snickering about Jon Tenuta the last seven days, Irish fans forgot that Virginia’s defense was one of the more disruptive in the ACC last season. Forcing turnovers and making big plays behind the line of scrimmage, the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator did plenty of good things for a Cavaliers team that was searching for positives in 2014.

After a tough Saturday last weekend in Los Angeles, the Virginia defense gave the Irish fits, especially in the passing game. They made five tackles for loss and had two sacks, disrupting the passing game from the opening bell. And while it’s hard to take many positives out of blowing a victory in the game’s final seconds, Tenuta’s defense was incredibly disruptive on Saturday, slowing down the Irish offensive juggernaut in short order.

No, they couldn’t stop Will Fuller. But they certainly gave Harry Hiestand’s offensive line their share of problems.  Notre Dame’s veteran offensive line coach will likely spend the evening breaking down tape and showing his troops a lot of plays where improvement is desperately needed, especially with a new quarterback behind center.

The point of attack was won too often by the Cavaliers. And the interior of the offensive line struggled too, especially in short yardage. A week ago, center Nick Martin was Notre Dame’s highest-rated offensive lineman, according to ProFootballFocus. I don’t expect that to be the case after the tape gets graded.

It’s hard to be too tough on this group when the Irish ran for 253 yards and 7.4 yards per carry. But Tenuta wreaked havoc in the passing game with pressure and the Irish receivers struggled to find space working against the Cavalier’s secondary. That all stems from line play.

Mediocre isn’t going to cut it next weekend against Georgia Tech, especially when moving the chains and controlling the clock will be vital. So Hiestand and his guys need to get back to work.

 

 

It may not have helped, but Brian Kelly tried his best not to let the Irish start flat. 

Yes, he’s the head coach. But I’m not sure how much blame you can give Brian Kelly for Notre Dame’s lethargic start. Kelly did everything he could to jump-start the Irish, including a bold fake field goal that went for Notre Dame’s first touchdown.

You watch football long enough, and trap games start to feel like watching a car crash in slow motion. You see it coming. I see it coming. We all see it coming. Unfortunately, the college kids laughing in the car and passing around the snacks and the Big Gulps don’t realize things are going to go very wrong until it’s too late.

Kelly looked like a cagey baseball pitcher, doing his best to work through the early innings without his fastball. As the Irish bumbled their way through the early going with two blown timeouts and a field goal operation that took a delay of game penalty, Kelly pulled a rare rabbit out of his special teams’ hat to score the Irish’s first touchdown.

On a day where touchdowns weren’t easy to come by, those six points (the two-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful) came in handy. And with the Irish now looking to ham-and-egg their offense with Kizer (and true freshman Brandon Wimbush) in the two-deep, Notre Dame’s head coach needs to be as cunning as ever.

We saw that on display last week when he burned two timeouts before halftime and waited out Texas kicker Nick Rose for a long-range miss. So hopefully the sixth-year head coach has learned some magic (and maybe some dark arts) from friend Bill Belichick, as the Irish are going to need every edge they can get.

For all the Irish fans who’re certainly grumbling about Notre Dame once again letting an average team hang around, her Lady’s team hardly has a monopoly on that habit. Arkansas just nuked its season with a loss to Toledo. Auburn slid by Jacksonville State thanks to an FCS punter and an overtime score. Even Urban Meyer’s Ohio State team looked sluggish for three quarters against Hawaii before pulling away late.

A win is a win is a win. Dominating Texas and sliding by against Virginia counts the same in the history books. But after starting this season with great expectations, Kelly now needs to find a way to squeeze every ounce of goodness out of this team if the want to achieve their goals.

 

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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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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