SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 14:  Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes for a 98-yard touchdown against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on November 14, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Last Look: Running Game

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The season is over. Before we turn our attention to recruiting and some of our offseason plans that’ll surely lead into an interesting spring, let’s take a look at the final stats from the 2015 Fighting Irish as we reach some final conclusions on the season that was.

We’ll start with the running game. Notre Dame’s ground attack was its most potent in the Kelly era, both the cumulative 2,699 rushing yards and the astonishing 5.6 yards per rush the team averaged, eighth-best in the country. Big plays certainly buoyed those totals—Josh Adams, C.J. Prosise and DeShone Kizer each had touchdown runs of 79-yards or longer and Brandon Wimbush added a 58-yard scamper as well.

All of this came from a depth chart not many expected to see. Exiting fall, C.J. Prosise looked like a contingency plan, a wildcard added to a two-deep of Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. That duo took the field for a total of three carries, Bryant exiting the program over the summer and Folston ending his season on the third carry of the year.

That didn’t stop the rushing attack. Prosise managed to be the first Irish back to break 1,000 yards since Cierre Wood did it in 2011. Adams set a freshman record for rushing yards. And Kizer set a school record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. Not too shabby.

Let’s take a closer look at the stats and hand out some end of the year awards.

Rush Totals

 

 

 

 

 

 

MVP: C.J. Prosise. The late surge by Josh Adams makes this a much tougher decision than I expected—especially with Prosise touching the football only 16 times after Halloween. But that would undervalue the first two-thirds of the season, and Prosise was a star for the Irish essentially through the USC game, going on a three-game run of averaging over nine-yards a carry while also making huge gains in the passing game as well.

Prosise was dynamic in the open field. He was tough to tackle. And his versatility was likely what led to the decision to head to the NFL instead of playing out his eligibility. He still has room for improvement as a running back, especially between the tackles and picking up the tough yardage. But he supplied a season’s worth of big plays in his limited action, a triumphant debut season as a running back.

 

Biggest Disappointment: Tarean Folston’s knee injury. You can only wonder what Notre Dame’s running game would’ve looked like had Folston lasted more than three carries. The Irish’s most natural runner, Folston doesn’t have the big-play speed that Prosise and Adams enjoy, but his vision and elusiveness would’ve been really impactful behind the Irish offensive line.

Prosise’s departure likely impacted Folston more than anybody else. With Adams and Prosise both returning, Folston’s role in the backfield likely would’ve made things cluttered. Now the Irish will enjoy a two-back platoon with sophomore Dexter Williams fighting for carries after showing some skills as a true freshman.

Folston’s rehab is on track, the rising senior is already running as he enters the fifth month of his recovery. He won’t likely do much in spring practice, but he should be ready to cut loose during summer, a critical time for his reemergence in the backfield.

 

Biggest Surprise: DeShone Kizer’s record-breaking season. If you had DeShone Kizer as the quarterback to break the touchdown record for his position, I’ll check your pockets for Biff’s sports almanac from Back to the Future 2. Kizer’s abilities as a runner were the big surprise of the season. They allowed the Irish offense to continue churning after Malik Zaire‘s injury, with Kizer showing a great feel for the read option and better-than-expected speed.

As a big-bodied 23o-pound runner, Kizer turned into Notre Dame’s short-yardage weapon of choice. He allowed the Irish to add an additional blocker to the box, neutralizing some of the defense’s advantages in addition to his size allowing him to fall-forward for tough yards. No, it didn’t pay off on the two-point play against Clemson late in the game. But Kizer’s 10 scores eclipsed a team record held by Tony Rice and Rick Mirer. Not too bad for a kid who was collecting dust as the No. 3 quarterback last spring.

 

Brightest Future: Josh Adams. Notre Dame’s freshman back might have the highest ceiling of any running back recruited by Brian Kelly. A hidden gem courtesy of an ACL tear suffered midway through his junior season, Adams arrived on campus expected to redshirt and instead set a school record for most yards as a freshman.

Adam’s 835 yards were impressive. He broke loose in his debut against Texas for two scores on five carries. His 70-yard run against UMass hinted at the breakaway speed Kelly and his staff saw when Adams camped in South Bend.

But more important than any highlight was the workload Adams took on when Prosise could no longer go. In the season’s final five games, Adams ran the ball 83 times for 570 yards, averaging 6.9 yards a carry and 114 yards a game against five tough defenses. A true freshman picked up the slack when there was nobody else to carry the load, and Adams produced at an elite level.

With an additional year in a college strength program and another year away from his knee surgery, Adams could have a monster 2016.

Zaire says thank you to Notre Dame

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Malik Zaire #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes past defensive end Mike Moore #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the third quarter at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Big week for The Observer. Not just for its advertising revenues, but for the classy gesture that outgoing senior quarterback Malik Zaire made this week.

Thursday’s edition included a letter to the editor from Zaire, who took to the student newspaper not to make headlines around the internet, but rather to thank the university for his experience in South Bend.

While Zaire’s time at Notre Dame is drawing to a close, he will leave as a proud alum. So while he’ll play football next season at another university, Zaire wrote the following in Thursday’s issue:

Dear Notre Dame students and staff,

My life changed for the better the moment I stepped onto the University of Notre Dame’s beautiful campus. The one goal I had set in my mind to achieve was to become a better man, a Notre Dame man. After growing through many trials and triumphs, the thing I’ve learned most from my experience was that if you don’t believe in yourself first, then no one else will. I believed in becoming a better man and succeeding through any circumstance, and I can say that I’ve truly accomplished that. I often refer to the famous quote from the movie “Catch Me If You Can” that was well put by Frank Abagnale:

“Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out.”

I’ve put my heart, soul and passion into the University, the football program, the South Bend community and the Irish community worldwide. I have the unbelievable honor to represent this University to the fullest as a student and soon-to-be alumni. Thank you to the amazing students and staff that I’ve met through the years for helping me grow into the person I’ve always wanted to be. I love the Irish and will always be an Irish alum no matter where I go! I look forward to keeping in touch. Let’s change the world!

Go Irish!

Malik Zaire

Senior
Dec. 7

Zaire is expected to compete for a starting quarterback job next year as a graduate transfer. He’s reportedly taken a visit to Wisconsin and plans to visit North Carolina as well, just two of several programs on the radar as Zaire looks to step in and win a starting Power 5 job.

 

 

 

ESPN’s Kiper & McShay: Kizer should return to Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 29: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish drops back to pass during the game against the Miami Hurricanes at Notre Dame Stadium on October 29, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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It’s evaluation season. With college football’s regular season over, the focus now turns to the stay-or-go decision that faces many of college football’s best players. Return for another season? Or head to the NFL?

That’s the big question facing DeShone Kizer. Viewed as a can’t-miss prospect by some earlier in the season, Kizer now awaits feedback from the NFL’s advisory board, who’ll give him either a first-round grade, a second-round grade, or none — essentially serving as a message to return to school.

That feedback is something Kizer’s requested, with Brian Kelly revealing that Kizer is one of four underclassmen requesting a review, joined by Mike McGlinchey, Nyles Morgan and Quenton Nelson. 

And while most still think it’s merely a formality before Kizer heads to the NFL, two of the media’s most well-established pundits, ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, are among those who actually think Kizer should stay in school.

In ESPN’s 25 questions about the 2017 NFL Draft, Kiper and McShay focus their attention on potential first-round quarterbacks:

There’s really only one guy right now, and he might not even enter the draft. That’s North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, a fourth-year junior who is in his first season as the starter. Trubisky has thrown 28 touchdown passes to only four interceptions, but he’s still green — with another year of seasoning, he could be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. He’s not ready to play right away in the NFL.

I don’t see any other first-rounders in the group. Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, a third-year sophomore, has to go back to school. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has taken a step back this season. Underclassmen Luke Falkand Patrick Mahomes could use another year in school, and they don’t project as first-rounders.

McShay echoed Kiper’s evaluation of Kizer, stating: “Kizer needs another year.” And if the Irish get that, it means they’ll have a 1-2 depth chart of a third-year starter in Kizer and junior Brandon Wimbush, who saved a year of eligibility in 2016 and has three remaining.

Kizer’s been clear that he hasn’t made up his mind, planning on talking with his family about the decision in the weeks following the season. And with the year-end banquet this weekend with Notre Dame hosting the “Echoes,” that decision might come sooner than later.

Last year, the NFL draft wasn’t kind to the Irish roster. Four key players gave up eligibility to head to the NFL, with Ronnie Stanley going in the Top 10 to the Baltimore Ravens and Will Fuller joining him as a first-round selection after going to the Houston Texans. Even injured, Jaylon Smith was taken near the top of the second round by Dallas and C.J. Prosise was a third-round selection of the Seattle Seahawks.

Underclassmen have until January 16th to declare.

 

Swarbrick discusses the state of Irish football program

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Jack Swarbrick spoke extensively about the state of the Notre Dame football program. Released last Friday and a part of Swarbrick’s weekly podcast, the Irish athletic director covered the laundry list of hot-button issues, including Brian Kelly’s status, the NCAA order to vacate wins that Notre Dame is appealing, and the challenge of winning football games in today’s environment.

The entire 25 minutes are worth a listen, as Swarbrick and Nolan cover just about every question and complaint that’s out there. And in case you don’t have that time, here’s a quick breakdown:

 

Swarbrick on the 2016 season. 

“It was an extremely disappointing year. Every player, every coach, myself, other administrators involved in the program, we all share the same view. There’s no way around that conclusion. It’s not bad breaks, it’s not a play here, a play there. We didn’t do what we need to do. So we do start from that perspective.

“I think there’s a danger in overreacting to any one piece of information that you get in the course of the evaluation of football programs. That begins with, it looks one way from a this-season perspective, but it feels a little different to me from a two-season perspective.”

 

Swarbrick on the evaluation process: 

“I’m looking at the program. Wins and losses are a huge indicia of where the program is, but it’s not the only one. More important to me, frankly, is the experience of our students. My interaction with them and what their interactions with the coaches, and the environment and are we meeting their expectations. Now, we clearly didn’t meet their expectations competitively this year, because they want to win, too. But on many of the other things, the program elements are in good shape.”

 

On the off-field issues, and the challenges that faced the football team this fall. 

“I don’t want to do anything to minimize the disappointments, whether they’re competitive or unacceptable behavior in the last game at USC by one of our players, obviously, which just isn’t acceptable, it isn’t okay. The disciplinary issues we had to deal with at the front of the year, none of those are acceptable, all of those go into the evaluation, but those are the only ones that sort of get the public scrutiny. I’m dealing with the other 120 young men who are for the most part like my co-host James (Onwualu), doing everything right, making every right decision, having a real positive experience. You’ve got to look at it all, not just isolated elements of it.

 

Discussing the disappointment of the NCAA’s ruling to vacate wins and why the university is appealing: 

“If you’d merely expelled the students, you wouldn’t get this penalty. But because you went though an educative process and kept them in school and adjusted credits and made those things, you subjected yourself to this penalty. That seems like a bad message to send, but that’s one that we’re continuing to advocate for down the road.”

 

On the challenges of winning in today’s college football, as opposed to 30 years ago. 

“I think undoubtedly it is harder. Now, people from that era may have a different view. But there are things that make it harder. But it doesn’t make any difference. It’s harder to win basketball games than it was back then. It’s harder to do a number of things.

“We don’t treat any of that as an excuse or a reason to have different goals. I sort of embrace that. Some of those things that you might view as obstacles are ultimately the things that we have to offer young people. It is the eliteness of the institution and the quality of the education. You can’t say it’s an obstacle and then talk about how great it is because it helps you. That’s the way it is. I wouldn’t trade anything for the circumstance we now compete in. I think it is exactly what it should be. We have to do a better job with it, that’s all.”

Report: Corey Holmes set to transfer

Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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Receiver Corey Holmes is transferring from Notre Dame. The junior, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, will look for a new program after earning his degree this summer, Tom Loy of Irish247 reports.

Holmes told Irish247:

“It’s just the best decision for me. I’m graduating this summer and I’m just going to find the best fit for me to finish things up.”

Even after a strong spring, Holmes saw little action this season, though he played extensively against USC in the season finale. He had four catches against the Trojans, a large part of his 11 on the year, also his career total.

That Holmes wasn’t able to find a consistent spot in the rotation is likely a big reason why he’s looking for a new opportunity. After opening eyes after posting a 4.42 40-yard dash during spring drills, the Irish coaching staff looked for a way to get Holmes onto the field. But after losing reps at the X receiver on the outside, Holmes bounced inside and out, never finding a regular spot in the rotation, playing behind Torii Hunter Jr. and Kevin Stepherson on the outside and CJ Sanders and Chris Finke in the slot.

Holmes has two seasons of eligibility remaining, redshirting his sophomore season. Because he’ll earn his degree this summer, he’ll be able to play immediately next year. Irish 247 reports that Holmes is looking at Miami, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and North Carolina, though he’ll have a semester to find other fits.