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


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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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: Now Open

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 06:  A U.S. Postal service employee leaves the loading dock to deliver mail from the Los Feliz Post Office on February 6, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The U.S. Postal Service plans to end Saturday delivery of first-class mail by August, which could save the service $2 billion annually after losing nearly $16 billion last fiscal year.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s 3-0, a perfect first quarter of the season, even with a nightmarish set of circumstances. What are you looking for now from Brian Kelly’s team? 

Ask your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold. 


Is Jaylon Smith the best linebacker in college football?


Notre Dame’s junior linebacker Jaylon Smith is off to a fast start. He’s leading the team in solo tackles and just edges Joe Schmidt for the lead in total tackles. He’s also leading the team in TFLs, shares the lead in sacks, and already has two tallies in the pass breakups and pass defended, while also forcing a fumble and recovering one as well.

Asked by Brian Kelly and the defensive staff to elevate his game this season, Smith has done just that. Combined with his elite athletic traits and an advanced knowledge of the defensive scheme, Smith’s in the conversation for the country’s best linebacker.

At the quarter-turn of the season, ProFootballFocus thinks he’s the best.

He leads their grading system with a PFF rating of 10.8, the highest of any linebacker in the country. Smith’s defensive performance is a big reason why the Irish check in at No. 6 in the AP poll this week and sit at 3-0.


Once again, the defense calls on Matthias Farley

Matthias Farley

When Matthias Farley grows older, when his beard turns from black to grey, he’ll look back on his years at Notre Dame and smile. The fifth-year captain is a football survivor. He’s also the face of the resiliency that head coach Brian Kelly has instilled in his roster.

How best to succinctly tell Farley’s story? Let’s try.

Matthias Farley: The back-up plan? Matthias Farley: Bailing out the defense since 2012? Matthias Farley: No matter where you bury him on the depth chart, he’ll be there when you need him?

Last Saturday, Farley added another chapter to one of the more remarkable on-field stories we’ve seen in recent years. After spending the first half on the sidelines and playing special teams, Farley was called into action after Drue Tranquill went down.

And then, on one of his first snaps of the afternoon, Farley found a way to be involved in one of the biggest plays of the game: he and Jaylon Smith forced a fumble that Smith very nearly ran back for a touchdown.

There he was, a back-up superhero who only gets to put his cape on when Superman or Batman pull a groin or tweak a hamstring. Kelly talked on Tuesday about Farley’s ability to impact games, while still not being able to find his way into the starting lineup.

“He doesn’t like it,” Kelly said. “He wants to be out there starting. He believes that he can help this football team as a starter. But he’s one of those guys that makes this 2015 football team special in that he’ll do whatever is necessary for the good of the team.”

Farley has made a career out of being ready. It started in 2012, when the converted receiver was just days into his career as a safety when he leap-frogged fifth-year safety Dan McCarthy as the opening day option specialist in Notre Dame’s drubbing of Navy in Dublin. Then when Jamoris Slaughter’s season ended just a few weeks later, Farley was asked to step into the starting lineup, to carry one-eleventh of the weight for one of Notre Dame’s finest defenses in school history.

His teammates know that. Farley found a way to be a key piece of a defense that led the Irish to an undefeated regular season. And they’re hoping he’ll do it again.

“Matthias started like nine games on the way to the National Championship Game, and started in the National Championship Game and played I think four years now,” Joe Schmidt said Wednesday.

“He’s been a starter. He’s been not a starter. He’s been the special teams captain. He’s been just about everything in his time here, and so I just think it’s so funny that it’s even a question if he’s ready or if he’s going to perform because he’s a baller.

“He’s been a baller. He’s always going to be a baller.”

Farley’s fit in Brian VanGorder’s defense has been a curious one. After an injury-plagued and disappointing 2013 season, Farley switched positions, turning him from starting safety into what amounted to roughly a sixth-string cornerback. Farley looked closer to Siberia than the starting lineup.

But what ended up happening? KeiVarae Russell gets suspended.  Cody Riggs got hurt. And Farley ended up filling up the stat sheet better than any other defender on the roster.

Entering 2015, Farley once again didn’t look like he had a place in this defense. Freshman Shaun Crawford looked like a perfect fit at nickel cornerback. Safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate were dialed into the starting lineup. Even in specialty packages, Tranquill was a better fit for the battering ram VanGorder was looking for in dime and option situations.

So Farley did his job. And for two games, that meant leading the special teams.

“A captain’s role is to lead and it doesn’t always have to be on every single down,” Farley said Wednesday. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a play-a-hundred-plays-a-game kind of deal.”

But that moment is coming. With the Next Man In now clearly focused on Farley’s availability, the veteran has the opportunity to finish his collegiate career playing a ton of important snaps for the defense, a group that understandably has confidence in one of the team’s best leaders. Even if—once again—it’s by accident.

“We all have complete confidence in Matthias because he’s been there and he’s done it,” Schmidt said.  “He’s been successful and he’ll continue to be successful.”



And in that corner… The UMass Minutemen

Blake Frohnapfel

Notre Dame welcomes UMass to campus this weekend, the first ever meeting between the two schools in football. And while the game looks like a potentially lopsided affair on paper, Brian Kelly was quick to throw water on those expectations during his Tuesday press conference.

“These are the games that concern me the most where everybody else thinks that they are going to be easy games,” Kelly said. “This is going to be a difficult game. UMass will play very well.”

When Notre Dame announced this match-up, it was set to be played against former Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, who left the program to take on the challenge of bringing UMass to the FBS. Molnar was fired after two tumultuous seasons, replaced by Mark Whipple, back for his second stint in Amherst.

Earlier this summer, we caught up with the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s Matt Vautour, to talk about the state of the UMass program entering Whipple’s second season. With the Minutemen off to a hard-luck 0-2 start, we revisit that conversation, with Vautour spending some of his busy week helping us out as we prepare for the game.

Hope you enjoy.


Notre Dame fans likely didn’t notice, but UMass lost last week in excruciatingly painful fashion, with a blocked PAT returned for a score making it possible for Temple to escape with a victory. What emotional state do we find Mark Whipple’s troops?

I’m honestly curious. They’ve seemed pretty resilient this week, but that can’t be easy.

The past two years haven’t been kind to UMass in close games. (You wrote about that in the wake of Saturday’s loss.) Is it a reach to say playing an opponent nobody expects the Minutemen to beat… is actually a good thing? The Irish played down to the competition against Virginia, likely looking ahead to Georgia Tech. They travel to Clemson next week. It’s early in the week, but you’ve got to expect Whipple to play that angle.

Whipple has certainly talked about the Irish being in another class compared to anyone UMass has faced. He’s talked about playing well and improving more than a specific path to an upset win.


There’s considerable talent on this team, led by quarterback Blake Frohnapfel an a veteran offensive line. Yet the offense seems to have gotten off to a slow start. Any rhyme or reason for this? Any hope that they find some solutions against the Irish defense?

It’s been surprising. If the offense was sharper early they’d have beaten Temple. Uncharacteristic dropped passes and slightly overthrown balls have stunted some drives and the running game has been stagnant in the first two games. Notre Dame isn’t exactly a cure for that.


Colorado really hurt UMass with the running game. Notre Dame has rushed for over 200 yards in its first three games. Is that where you think the Irish should attack?

I was surprised Temple didn’t run more. UMass’ defense as a whole was much better than it was against Colorado, but I’d imagine the Irish will run a lot, especially early.


UMass is still in the nascent stage of being an FBS program. Mark Whipple took over for Charley Molnar, the former Irish assistant who was cited as a reason for scheduling the game in the first place. We already talked about Molnar’s early exit as the man atop the program. But what has Whipple done to turn things around, and even at 0-2, does it feel like this program is turning a corner?

I think Whipple’s system fits the personnel much better especially on offense. Getting Frohnapfel was huge for him. I do think this team will turn the corner in MAC play. The program however, will need to reboot a bit as an independent while hunting for a conference.


If UMass pulls off the upset on Saturday, who, why or how did they do it? And can you calculate what that win would mean to the program?

UMass would need considerable precision, luck and a big lead in turnovers gained, while Notre Dame would have to be sloppy and perhaps overconfident. For UMass an upset would be glorified for decades and would energize the fan base. The school would certainly try to leverage it in the pursuit of a new conference.