SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish passes against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

3-0: Assessing the Irish at the quarter-turn

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Step back from the computer. Or perhaps imagine yourself at a summer barbecue, talking football over a cold one with your friends. If someone told you the Irish would be 3-0 with decisive victories over Texas and Georgia Tech, you’d have taken it, right?

Well that’s where Brian Kelly’s team finds itself, undefeated at the end of the first quarter of the season. And while the cost of doing business has been steep—six key players, including starters at nose guard, running back, quarterback, tight end, and in the nickel and dime package—the Irish are No. 6 in the country heading into their weekend tilt with UMass.

Let’s take a look at each position group and take stock of where we are.

 

QUARTERBACK

After starting out elite, Malik Zaire struggled at Virginia before ending his season with a broken ankle. Zaire had passed with pinpoint precision in a victory over Texas and then averaged nearly nine yards a carry as a runner at the time of his injury against Virginia.

DeShone Kizer came in and after a slow start rallied the Irish with a late-game touchdown against the Cavaliers, with a touchdown throw for the ages to Will Fuller. Then Kizer executed a conservative game plan against Georgia Tech in his first start, throwing an interception but leading the Irish to victory.

Combine both quarterbacks work through three games and their collective stat-line—55 of 83 (66.2%) for 762 yards, 7 TD, 1 INT—it’s tough to ask for much more.

Overall: All things considered, this is a great result for a position currently living on the edge. And it’s a credit to new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford. Limiting the interceptions while being explosive in the pass game has been critical. But more difficult challenges are ahead, starting next weekend with a road trip to Clemson.

 

RUNNING BACK

On his third carry of the season, Tarean Folston saw a hole, cut hard off the back of his offensive line and exploded for a gain of 15 yards. It was his last play of the 2015 season. Folston’s ACL tore on the run, an injury that even slowed down and rewound is inexplicable. After losing Greg Bryant to academics and Folston to a knee injury, the door opened for C.J. Prosise to carry the load.

He’s done all of that, currently fifth in the nation in rushing yards with 451. At 150 yards a game, if Prosise can stay healthy he’s likely to shatter the single-season record held by Vagas Ferguson, and right now has an outside chance at running for 2,000 yards. A powerful runner still learning how to be a back, Prosise’s big-play potential has been obvious, he’s scored touchdowns on runs of 24 yards, 17 yards and a Notre Dame Stadium record 91-yards.

Behind Prosise, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams are still figuring things out. Adams started quickly against Texas, and really only saw minimal time against Virginia and Georgia Tech. Williams has seen even less, with Justin Brent still working with the scout team.

Overall: Limiting Prosise’s pitch count is the next order of business, though he’ll likely take just about every carry against Clemson, especially on the road. But if the young backs can build confidence against UMass and Navy and Prosise can carry the load against Clemson and USC, getting to the bye week healthy should be the goal.

 

WIDE RECEIVERS

It’s been the Will Fuller show. Notre Dame’s most explosive offensive weapon leads the nation in touchdown catches with five, not missing a beat with the quarterback change and growing attention in coverage. Senior Chris Brown has emerged as the No. 2 receiver, somewhat of a surprise, considering where Corey Robinson and Brown left things last season.

The depth at this position makes early returns tough to analyze. Other than understanding that Fuller is going to be fed the football, Brown could give some of his receptions to Robinson, Torii Hunter or Amir Carlisle and there’s nobody that would be that surprised. Freshman Equanimeous St. Brown has seen the field early, but it requires Fuller to stay off of it, a bad trade for the Irish offense. A redshirt is still possible for the lanky freshman, so we’ll see how they go there.

Overall: It’s hard for this group to do much more, especially considering the movement at the quarterback position. But Fuller is on pace to shatter single-season records, Brown is on pace for 60 catches and the depth at the position should help Kizer to stay comfortable, with too much talent to cover if the Irish receivers can find 1-on-1 matchups.

 

TIGHT ENDS

When Durham Smythe went down, the minimal experience the Irish had went down with him. Sure, Tyler Luatua played last season. But he was a glorified blocker, who’ll now have every opportunity to take more snaps.

We saw Brian Kelly force feed Alizé Jones the football. The freshman has done some good things, but has a drop and a critical fumble that nearly cost the Irish big time. Nic Weishar made his first catch against Georgia Tech and will likely be a safety valve, a solid pass catcher even if he’s still learning how to block.

With the running game explosive and the receiving corps stacked, there just aren’t a lot of footballs to go around. But Jones has potential, Luatua will be asked to do multiple jobs and even Chase Hounshell has seen some time, likely an option as a blocker. This group hasn’t done anything outstanding through the first quarter of the season. But ordinary and assignment-correct football will be just fine.

Overall: It’s not like Tyler Eifert or Kyle Rudolph is out there. Jones has a bright future that Kelly and company want to jump start, but this offense could stay conservative with Kizer at the helm.

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

Outside of a tough afternoon in Virginia blocking in obvious running situations, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line has protected the quarterback and helped trigger an explosive ground game. There’s been some difficulties handling presnap responsibilities—too many false starts. But a starting five of Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson, Nick Martin, Steve Elmer and Mike McGlinchey already looks like a rock-solid group.

Dictating the tempo of the football game is on the offensive line’s plate. And we’ll get a valuable datapoint against Clemson next weekend, with the Death Valley night crowd doing its best to make communication nonexistent and the Tigers challenging the Irish at the point of attack.

Overall: This is a group with a tremendously high ceiling. Stanley looks like a first rounder and Nick Martin is playing with more confidence now that he’s fully healthy. Seeing McGlinchey in space and you begin to understand why Kelly loves him, and Nelson and Elmer are two mauling guards. The numbers tell us one thing—this team can control play. But this season will be determined by this group keeping Kizer upright and the Irish in control, especially in upcoming tests against Clemson and USC.

 

Part Two on the defense next… 

 

Mailbag: All about BK

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17:  (L-R) Sam Kohler #29, head coach Brian Kelly, Grace Kelly and Hunter Bivin #70 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Welcome to a fairly action-packed Mailbag. Why didn’t one of you guys remind me to do these more often?

This one, as the title suggests, is all about Brian Kelly.

 

@chrise384: Do you think that silence from Swarbrick this week means anything or do you think it’s status quo and BK is back in ’17?

I think Swarbrick’s been silent because there’s nothing else to say. He made his comment to ESPN that Kelly would be back in 2017. Why would it benefit him to say anything else?

Kelly also made comments—10 feet away from his boss—that he’d be back and doesn’t want to go anywhere. So other than releasing a 2:37 a.m. tweet reiterating Kelly’s intentions—and essentially calling B.S. on the reports that BK was looking to get out—there’s no reason to respond to the noise, when there’s a ton of work to do and big decisions still to make.

Speaking of those…

 

Domer521: Keith – The banquet is next Friday evening. Do you expect any announcements regarding recruits or DC/assistant coaches before then?

I don’t. For a variety of reasons, I think Kelly is waiting to make any formal moves on his staff until after that evening. And in reality, any college assistant that’s going to come to Notre Dame is probably coaching in a bowl game, and won’t leave his program until after that game is played.

(That doesn’t mean that BK isn’t lining things up. I expect that he is.)

So while the idea of getting a coordinator on hand now might be ideal, the reality of the situation is that you need someone ready to hit the recruiting trail after the New Year, taking the world by storm for that final month and closing stretch until Signing Day.

 

@GhostAKG: Many are saying Charlie Strong for our new DC. Is that good/realistic? And what are some of the names you’ve been hearing more?

I was one of the people to speculate, but the more you think about it the less it makes sense. Charlie Strong is a head coach. And a good one. Any return to South Bend would feel incredibly temporary, with the circus following every job vacancy that opens up—with fans and media speculating, “Is this the one to get Strong back to the head job?”

That’s not a headache BK and company would want to deal with, especially when you consider how much this collective fanbase sweats out coordinator hires or parallel moves.

(Remember when Tony Alford left after Signing Day and it felt like someone died around here?)

Charlie Strong is a good man and a good coach. But that’s the wrong type of hire for ND. I think he’ll probably take a year off to examine the landscape, continue to cash those fat checks coming from Austin, and then get back into it next year.

 

irishwilliamsport:

Keith, I know this is an exercise in futility but I’ll ask a mailbag question… What would you guess BK’s combined job approval rating is among all fan bases ?

You’ve got me. No clue. Does anybody have a good job approval rating?

At this point, I don’t think anybody’s approval rating is all that high at 4-8, to the point that Jack Swarbrick—a guy who might be the most powerful and intelligent athletic director in the country—has seen fans turn on him as well.

I wasn’t quite sure what you were getting at with your question about “all fan bases,” but maybe you were talking about the perception of Kelly both inside and out of the program? If so, I thought Colin Cowherd’s take on Kelly, at least from a national perspective and a guy who watches a lot of college football, is interesting. (It’s a perspective that’s pretty common, I must say.)

 

codenamegee: 

What has Brian Kelly done to make you think he can win a championship at Notre Dame. Looking at his FBS coaching resume his teams have never beaten a top 5 team. I just don’t get why everyone thinks he’s a good coach. Notre Dame is poorly coached (too many mental breakdowns), offense lacks imagination (Running plays are too predictable, no tail back screens, no delay draws, lack of counters and traps). Yet all I hear how Brian Kelly is this great coach or Brian Kelly is a great offensive mind. If he is, he hasn’t showed it since he’s been in South Bend.

Well, first off—and this is a biggie—he played for one. So let’s not ignore that. And he was maybe one play away from getting invited to playing for another last year, a game-winning, last-second field goal against Stanford knocking the Irish from the playoff.

Now I get that playing for one isn’t the same as winning one. And when it comes to comparing this program to Alabama’s, frankly I don’t think Notre Dame has a chance to get to that level until Nick Saban retires… or the NCAA finds something illegal in his program. So if that’s the bar you’ll set, I’m not sure he can get there. And I’m not sure Notre Dame is willing to do what it takes to get there. And frankly, that’s something I’m okay with—especially as you

Last point for you—have you really heard anybody calling Brian Kelly a good coach lately? Is anybody following Notre Dame saying Kelly’s done a good job this season? Has the coach himself even said that? Have I?

Listen, I get it. Losing seasons are terrible. They are really painful and this one came out of nowhere, making it worse. Then throw on top of that just how close the games were—each week a decision here or there, or a blown assignment or missed opportunity sometimes the singular difference between a win and a loss.

That all adds up. And it certainly will carry into next season, a direct reflection on the coach’s job status, regardless of the length of his remaining contract.

 

irishdog80: Can Brian Kelly truly survive and thrive as head coach at Notre Dame or is his best opportunity a fresh start at a new school or pro team?

I don’t think Kelly would’ve stayed if he didn’t think he could thrive. He could get another job if he wanted one. And I don’t think Swarbrick would’ve let him stick around if he didn’t have comfort that the football program—a team that he spends more time around than anybody outside the players and the coaches—was in good hands, and that this was a bad season, not a bad program.

That’s a really good question though, Irishdog. We’ve seen Bob Stoops rally. We’ve seen David Shaw bounce back, though neither pulled a four-win season. And for now, I think Kelly can, too. But it’s worth pointing out that the rumor everybody seemed to be fired up about, three-win & nine-loss Mark Dantonio, would be a huge coaching upgrade over Kelly is funny, considering Dantonio just took a College Football Playoff team and drove it off a cliff.

 

 

irishcatholic16: With reports that Brian Kelly is seeking job opportunities outside of Notre Dame then shortly after saying that he’s committed to Notre Dame along with him bolting Cincinnati in the same fashion (saying he would stay then leaving), do you think he will lose the trust of his team and could we see more decommits as a result? Will the team trust him knowing that he isn’t fully committed?

I have no belief that those reports are true. And I have no reason to think that Kelly’s team—seven years in—would have their trust of the man leading the program hinging on reports from national media pundits.

Are we still talking about the way he left Cincinnati? Because it sure looked to me an awful lot like every coach leaves their program—Tom Herman just the latest example of a coach left in an unwinnable situation, with the media ready to pounce by asking unanswerable questions.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that Kelly’s agent was talking to teams. He was. He’s the same guy that reps Herman, and a handful of other top-shelf coaches. But that’s what agents do. They talk about their clients, 99% of the time without the client ever having any idea he’s doing it.

 

 

bjc378:

I’ll ask the obvious question. Sorry, I didn’t listen to the podcast.

Do you (still) think BK should be the Irish coach next year? If so, how long of a leash do you give him next year and what changes would you demand? If not, or if he decides to coach elsewhere, what’s your wish list look like?

No apology necessary, first off, on the podcast. It’s supplemental, but listen for John Walters’ wisdom, it’s basically like telling your friends you subscribe to Newsweek.

As for BK, yes I do think he should be the coach next year. I don’t think Notre Dame is a program that should fire someone for a single bad season—period. I didn’t like it when they did it to Ty (in retrospect it was the right thing to do), and I wouldn’t like it if they did it to Kelly, a year off a ten-win season and a Fiesta Bowl appearance.

(Also worth noting, they don’t do it in hockey, basketball, baseball, soccer, or any other sport.)

As for the leash? That’s hard to say. I think we’ll know quite a bit about this team at the end of next September. They’ll have played Temple (the potential AAC champ coached by one of the nation’s underrated head coaches in Matt Rhule), Georgia, Boston College, Michigan State and—don’t laugh—Miami (Ohio), who has got it going now under Chuck Martin. So if that month goes sideways and the season does too, I won’t have any problem with Swarbrick trying to upgrade and make a change.

As for the wish list? No clue. Not at this point. I’ll take Jon Gruden off of it, so cross him off before anybody asks me. And any other NFL head coach.

But I’d start by looking at someone like Willie Taggart, a young Harbaugh protege who coached at Stanford and has now done good work as a head coach at both Western Kentucky and USF.

Drue Tranquill named first-team Academic All-American

Drue Tranquill
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Drue Tranquill was named a first-team Academic All-American. The junior safety, who returned from his second major knee injury during his three-year career, earned the honors after posting a 3.74 GPA in mechanical engineering.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s first academic All-American since Corey Robinson earned the honor after the 2014 season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 79 and lead the team in solo stops with 52. He also had two TFLs and an interception.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s 60th Academic All-American, the third-most of any school behind Nebraska and Penn State. He’s active in the university community, serving as a mentor for the Core Leadership Team for Lifeworks Ministry, and is a member of Notre Dame Christian Athletes. He is a also member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) and Rosenthal Leadership Academy.

 

Postseason Mailbag: Now Open

SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 12: Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads his team onto the field before the start of their game against Army in a NCAA college football game at the Alamodome on November 12, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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It’s been too long. Let’s talk about the season, the decisions ahead and where Notre Dame stands after its nightmare of a 2016 season.

Drop your questions on Twitter @KeithArnold or in the comments below.

 

***

If you’re interested in hearing my recap on the USC game and where Notre Dame’s goes now that the season is over, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, with Newsweek’s John Walters. 

 

Report: Zaire set to depart with graduate transfer

Malik Zaire
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The wheels are in motion for Malik Zaire‘s exit from Notre Dame. What felt like an inevitability after Zaire lost out to DeShone Kizer after the Texas game is now a reality, as the Ohio native is expected to receive his release tomorrow, according to a report from Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated.

Sampson identified four programs as potential landing spots for Zaire: Florida, Pitt, Michigan State and Wisconsin, Power Five programs that all had better seasons (minus the Spartans) than Notre Dame. All have uncertainty atop their quarterback depth chart, though none look like guaranteed jobs.

With Notre Dame out of a bowl, Zaire can get a jump start on looking around, capable of taking visits and finding a home after the semester. That would let him join a program in time for spring drills, where he’d compete and be able to play out his final year of eligibility.

When Zaire leaves he’ll join a line of recent quarterbacks to finish their eligibility elsewhere. Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix, Gunner Kiel and Everett Golson all either played or were recruited by Brian Kelly and finished their careers elsewhere. That could leave a scenario—one many predict—where the top-two on Notre Dame’s depth chart depart, Kizer to the NFL and Zaire elsewhere, turning the keys over to Brandon Wimbush who redshirted this season.