The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Virginia

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The sun came up in South Bend Sunday morning.

After all, the Irish did beat Virginia in thrilling and unlikely fashion, with backup quarterback DeShone Kizer hitting Will Fuller for a 39-yard touchdown pass with a dozen seconds left on the clock.

Thus ended a bittersweet victory for the Irish that kept the lofty goals of the season alive all while added a few dozen more challenges to the schedule. And with Malik Zaire joining Tarean Folston and Jarron Jones with season-ending injuries, another talented piece of the puzzle will be relegated to the sidelines as the Irish continue their mission.

With one of the major hurdles of the season approaching this Saturday when Georgia Tech comes to town, let’s get to the good, bad and ugly of Notre Dame’s come from behind victory over Virginia.

 

THE GOOD

Will Fuller. Notre Dame’s playmaking assassin was at it again on Saturday, bailing out the Irish with two long touchdown catches, including a logic-defying game-winner that saw Fuller matched up in single coverage with the game on the line.

Fuller’s now caught four touchdowns in this young season, scoring from 16, 66, 59 and 39 yards, explosive plays that even a young Randy Moss would tip his cap to and salute. That’s 19 touchdowns in his last 15 games. While Fuller has yet to break loose on a screen pass, the junior receiver has been Notre Dame’s most impactful player this season, and it really isn’t even close.

Fuller received the game ball yesterday evening for his efforts. Head coach Brian Kelly said that his star receiver, “was not gonna let his team lose the football game.”

 

C.J. ProsiseThe senior running back broke loose for a career day on Saturday, dominating the first half by carrying for over 100 yards and finishing the day with 155 yards on 17 attempts, notching 9.1 yards per carry.

As the Irish look ahead to life without Zaire and Folston, Prosise is now Notre Dame’s lead back. But the senior is still figuring things out in the backfield, and Prosise now readies himself for the bumps and bruises that come along with carrying the load.

“I’ve just got to keep getting treatment and stay in the training room,” Prosise said. “I have to keep my body fresh and let it heal. I know I’m going to be sore tomorrow, but I know my body will be back and okay when we start practice again on Tuesday.”

On Sunday, Kelly talked about the workload for his converted running back. And when asked if he thought Prosise had what it took to be a 25 carry a game back, Kelly said it was too early to decide that.

“I think that’s probably asking a lot right now. I think he could be down the road. I think he still has to gain some more volume in terms of getting comfortable into the position,” Kelly said. “I think we can ask more of Adams and Williams. And the volume at the running back position can continue to increase and it can increase with all three of them and as the season progresses, I think it can increase with C.J., as well.”

 

DeShone Kizer. Notre Dame’s young quarterback led the Irish down the field to an improbable game-winning touchdown, the latest passing score for victory by a Notre Dame quarterback since some guy named Joe Montana won the Cotton Bowl as time ran out in 1979.

And after the game, Kizer impressed many with his poise and composure, understanding that the offense was now his to run.

“I’ve been ready for a while,” Kizer said. “I have no doubt in my ability to be the quarterback for Notre Dame.”

Kizer showed off his arm strength—not to mention his accuracy—when he bought time waiting for Fuller to get down the field and then delivered a perfect strike for the touchdown pass. His head coach, as you might expect, sounded confident that the team could rally around Kizer and that the offense could continue to thrive.

“Certainly DeShone doesn’t have the experience that Malik has, but we can run our offense through DeShone. He has a lot of weapons around him and we saw that tonight. He has a running back and receivers. We just have to balance the offense and do the things that he is capable of doing,” Kelly said.

 

QUICK HITS. 

The stat sheet showed a dominant performance by Jaylon Smith. He made 11 total tackles including 2.5 for loss. I have a hard time putting anybody from the back-seven of the defense in the good category, but Elijah Shumate had 10 tackles and KeiVarae Russell made nine, including a critical strip-sack and forced fumble on a corner blitz.

C.J. Sanders broke loose on a nice punt return, looking close to breaking another one as well. If I’m in charge of Notre Dame’s special teams, I’m swapping out Amir Carlisle for Sanders, as I think the young freshman can add a spark, especially in a game that might need the Irish to juice their offense.

While we’re talking special teams, you’ve got to give Scott Booker a tip of the cap for the design and dial-up of the fake field goal. He’s been a whipping boy long enough around here, so you’ve gotta give him credit when he does something good, too. (Now about that two-point conversion play…)

Another day, another disruptive day for the defensive front. Sheldon Day added another tackle for loss. Isaac Rochell had seven tackles, including a TFL. Daniel Cage chipped in three stops as well.

Man, that was one pretty ball DeShone Kizer threw. Clutch, clutch deep ball.

Two straight games: No Turnovers. 

 

THE BAD

Third down offense. It’s inexplicable that the Irish offense, especially on a day where Notre Dame ran for over 250 yards, couldn’t convert a single third down. A whopping zero for 10, one of the more bizarre, disappointing and frustrating performance we’ve seen in a few years.

Kelly kept things fairly vanilla when asked about it, but he was pretty clear about his displeasure.

“We were largely ineffective in our short yardage run game. There are a number of reasons for it. There were some miscues. Some credit goes to Virginia. I thought they did a good job of defending us on third and short, but it is unacceptable to be that ineffective on third downs.”

Needless to say, the Irish are going to need to find a way to extend drives, especially against an offensive like Georgia Tech’s.

 

The pass rush. Notre Dame failed to get home with any blitz scheme, minus the strip-sack, fumble recovery forced by KeiVarae Russell. (A big play we need to acknowledge.) That’s a problem, even if there was some disruptive play by Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell.

Defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti need to do more. (And Trumbetti’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was a back-breaker, putting the Irish back onto the field and eventually giving up a touchdown that would’ve never happened had Trumbetti not drawn the flag.)

The lack of a true pass rusher isn’t  a new development. Notre Dame knew they needed to find somebody who could come off the edge. But too often the Irish brought pressure and didn’t get there, with Joe Schmidt and Drue Tranquill getting to Matt Johns two steps too late one too many times.

 

Short Yardage. At this point, I don’t want to just duplicate some of my complaints from the Five Things. But Notre Dame’s struggles in short yardage offense were inexplicable, especially considering the Irish ran for 253 yards and 7.4 yards per carry.Over 250 and seven a touch, but inexplicably soft on short yardage!

I’m going to give this group a mulligan. And I think having inexperience at running back and quarterback plays into the struggles. But this needs to get fixed, and quickly.

 

Red Zone Defense. We got spoiled by Bob Diaco’s red zone defense. But after Virginia scored touchdowns on three of four appearances in the red zone, the Irish sit at 106th in the country in touchdown percentage given up.

Here’s how the Irish have done in the past five years in giving up touchdowns in the red zone:

2015: 75% (106th)
2014: 70% (116th)
2013: 52% (18th)
2012: 34% (3rd)
2011: 58% (46th)
2010: 42% (7th)

It’s too soon to draw conclusions on this defense. And last year’s unit at the end of the year was a beaten and broken group. But at face value, these stats are beyond obvious.

This group has struggled under Brian VanGorder in the red zone and they need to fix that immediately. Saturday was a terribly disappointing performance by a group that needs to play tougher and smarter near the goal line.

 

Secondary play. Notre Dame’s back-end played poorly, making Canaan Severin look like an All-American and letting Matt Johns slice and dice the defense. The secondary fell for an end around pass thrown by Johns, who was split out wide. That just can’t happen.

But no play was more frustrating than the 3rd-and-15 conversion that Virginia picked up late in the fourth quarter, right into the teeth of Notre Dame’s zone defense. It was a mind-numbingly frustrating conversion that pushed the Irish to the brink and could’ve cost the Irish the season.

Cornerback Devin Butler had no receiver in front of him, yet failed to sink deep into his zone. Worse than that, safety Max Redfield was inexplicably late getting to the deep route (the only pattern in the entire play that could get the first down), and when he arrived, he made a brutal effort to make a tackle, looking like a hockey defensemen throwing a shoulder instead of the last line of defense wrapping up a receiver that never should’ve been open. He took out Butler and when everything was over the Cavaliers had first and goal. One play later, they were in the lead.

After an active game against Texas, Redfield looked pretty bad on Saturday. He was wearing a cast on his hand, with Kelly saying after the game that Redfield was nursing a thumb injury similar to Joe Schmidt’s. But if Redfield is on the field, he needs to do more than hurt the team. And if he can’t be the free safety the Irish need and play with this injury, it might be Matthias Farley’s job soon.

 

THE UGLY

Malik Zaire’s injury. Seriously, this one is brutal. You could see it on Brian Kelly’s face in his postgame comments. You heard about it from the solemn players who didn’t look like they were celebrating a last-second victory.

Zaire’s loss is one of those not-fair injuries in football. And the heart of the Irish offense will now need to beat from the sidelines, doing his best to help DeShone Kizer from crutches.

Notre Dame’s John Heisler did the best job describing what the postgame scene was like. I’ll clip a snippet for you:

Brian Kelly came around the corner, stood right next to where Zaire sat, and it’s a wonder the Irish head coach could figure whether to laugh or cry.

“Look, I asked you to go out there and play for each other. I think I know I’ve got a team that will compete to the end.

“We know we’ve gotta play better. But there’s no quit in here anywhere. I love this group. We’ve got work to do. We’ve got to get better as a football team.”

Kelly then presented the game ball to Fuller, the guy Kelly said “was not gonna let his team lose the football game.

“Injuries are never anything we like to deal with, not when it’s our brothers. It stinks. . . . We lost Malik, and DeShone got his opportunity to step up. You don’t know when your time is going to come. DeShone didn’t know, but he came through and helped us win.”

Fuller, ever the calm and in-control one, referenced Zaire before leading his teammates in singing the Victory March.

Zaire put on a gold Notre Dame hat and Kelly and then quarterback coach Mike Sanford both sat with him—with Sanford kneeling and then associate head coach Mike Denbrock putting a hand on the quarterback’s shoulder.

Coming up with the right sort of consoling words to help Zaire was anything but easy, but everybody gave it their best shot. Athletics director Jack Swarbrick had one arm around Kizer as they viewed the scene.

Kelly visited with Zaire’s parents in the hallway tunnel on his way to the interview room, and Sanford did the same as he left the locker room.

Meanwhile Kelly can’t help but like his team’s fight:

“It says a lot abut their resolve as a group. They never got to the point where they didn’t believe they could win.”

You can’t help but feel for Zaire and his family after an injury like that. Now it’ll be up to his teammates to make sure they go out and win for their injured quarterback, especially in a critical game this weekend.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

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.