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Bye week snapshot: Tight end


Notre Dame knew it was rebooting the tight end position this fall. But with an early-season injury to Durham Smythe, Scott Booker‘s position group has had to rely on a converted defensive tackle, two players who had yet to see a college football field and Tyler Luatua, who served mostly as a blocker in ten games as a freshman.

That’s not to say there isn’t talent at the position. We’ve seen as much from freshman Alizé Jones. But there are limited opportunities. With Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise playing like stars, there are only so many footballs for the rest of a talented roster.

Through seven games, it’s clear the tight end position is still getting settled. So let’s take a look at a position group that’ll likely evolve throughout the season’s final five weeks.

Emerging Player: Alizé Jones.

You likely wouldn’t have been surprised if I told you that Jones was leading the tight ends in catches. But maybe a bit surprised if you considered he had almost double the amount of the rest of the position—all while being mostly anonymous this year.

At just nine catches and 117 yards, Jones is still finding his way. He’s been close to a few game-changing plays—a nifty one-handed grab was close to getting pulled off and tight coverage turned a near touchdown into an incompletion last weekend.

Jones has one freshman mistake on his resume—a fumble before halftime against Georgia Tech that didn’t end up costing the Irish—evidence that he’s still showing some of his youth. But with attention likely pulled the way of Prosise and Fuller over these final five weeks, Jones should have opportunities in space. Now it’ll be up to him to capitalize on them, especially if DeShone Kizer calls his number.

Biggest Surprise: Chase Hounshell

If you’d have told me that Chase Hounshell’s six games were the most he’s played since his freshman season as a backup defensive lineman, I’d have thought you were nuts. But the decision to let Hounshell stay with the team and transition to tight end has paid off in a big way, with the physical fifth-year player healthy after multiple shoulder injuries and capable of serving as an attached, in-line blocker.

Down the stretch, the Irish will likely need to ride the running game to continue to win football games. And with Smythe out and Luatua still showing some inconsistencies, Hounshell’s return is one of the more unlikely stories, and a testament to his willingness to endure through some terrible injury luck.

More to Come: Nic Weishar

I’m not sure how the snaps will break down for Weishar. But the sophomore tight end earned a lot of respect from Brian Kelly during fall camp, and even if he’s off to a slow start this season, Weishar might be able to earn some chances by staying consistent in practice.

That could come in two tight end sets. It could come in the red zone, where Weishar ate up Irish defenders. And if Jones suffers the slide that comes with a lot of freshmen as the season wears on, Weishar could be the one to capitalize on those opportunities.

While he doesn’t have the athleticism that Jones shows, Weishar is a natural catching the football and using his body as a shield. After spending last season on the scout team with Kizer, they could get an opportunity this November to put that chemistry to work on the field.


Bye week snapshot: Running Backs

C.J. Prosise

When Tarean Folston went down on his third carry of the season, few expected a position with zero career running back carries to become one of the most dominant offensive weapons in Notre Dame history.

But C.J. Prosise was the next man in. And after making the transition to the backfield during spring practice, Prosise became Notre Dame’s feature back, with Folston out, Greg Bryant transferred and only freshman Josh Adams and Dexter Williams left.

During his first seven games at the position, Prosise has used his game-breaking speed and surprising power to make himself one of the nation’s top weapons. And in doing so, he’s on a crash-course for Notre Dame’s record books.

Let’s take a look at the backfield.


Undisputed MVP: C.J. Prosise

Prosise is the only running back in college football with over 900 yards rushing and 200 yards receiving. And if it weren’t for the Irish calling off the dogs early in a few games to get Prosise some rest he’d be at 1,000 yards as he enjoys fall break and the bye week.

There’s still room to grow in Prosise’s game—especially in short yardage and inside running situations. But watching the 220-pounder routinely bust through tackles in the open field and continue to score long-range touchdowns, it’s amazing that Prosise is actually outplaying the lofty expectations Brian Kelly set for him when most thought he was just publicly challenging Folston and Bryant during spring practice.


Pleasant Surprise: Josh Adams

That Adams, a three-star prospect coming off a major high school knee injury, is actually leading Notre Dame in yards per carry is amazing. That he’s shown the ability to process and understand the Irish offense, and earn an opportunity in pass blocking situations, is an even larger testament to his football IQ.

Granted, there’s no other veteran option to be on the field. But Adams possesses the long speed that makes Prosise dangerous and runs hard and downhill. He’s also another datapoint on the “recruiting stars don’t matter as long as Notre Dame’s staff IDs you early” train, a bandwagon I’d like to see more Irish fans jump on.


Room for Improvement: Short-Yardage Victories

Yes, DeShone Kizer is a 235-pounder. But he shouldn’t be Notre Dame’s short-yardage running option, and currently he’s the guy with the ball in his hands on 3rd and 4th-and-short. (Not to mention two-point plays.) That’s less of an indictment on Notre Dame’s backfield and more a strategic preference to get additional blocking numbers, but it’s still an area of concern at a position that’s really over-performing.

For as explosive as Prosise has been, he’s done most of his best work running on the perimeter. Still young in his career as a runner, there’s certainly no reason why his vision in the trenches won’t improve. (We saw him pull off a great run to get to the end zone against USC, knifing through a hole and then spinning back for the touchdown.) He also iced the Navy game by allowing his blocks to set up on a slow-developing counter.

But with a difficult schedule of defenses coming up, earning the tough yards will be crucial.



Bye week snapshot: Quarterbacks

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks to pass against the USC Trojans in the first half of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

With Notre Dame on fall break and the football team getting a well-deserved week off, it’s a perfect time to take a look at the progress of the Irish. Sitting at 6-1 and squarely in the hunt for a spot in the College Football Playoff, let’s take a look at the play and statistics of each position group.

Notre Dame’s quarterback position is one of the surprises of the season. Starter Malik Zaire was one of the ultimate wildcards this season for Brian Kelly’s sixth squad, a first-year starter after Everett Golson decided to play out his eligibility in Tallahassee. But Notre Dame’s plans went awry when Zaire broke his ankle against Virginia and redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer‘s ascent into the starting lineup took him from third-stringer to leader of the offense in short order.

Here’s the stat-line for Notre Dame’s quarterbacks:



Big Picture: All things considered, the fact that Notre Dame’s quarterbacks are completing over 64 percent of their passes for an average of 264 yards a game with 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions has to be viewed as a tremendous success for new quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford.

Powered by big-play receiver Will Fuller and a running game that’s averaging 235 yards a game, the quarterback has been able to be more than a game manager, but hasn’t been forced to carry the load. That’s allowed both Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer to take the offense in pieces, both essentially first-year performers experiencing things for the first time.


Early Season MVP: DeShone Kizer 

This is probably the most obvious statement I’ll make in our snapshots, but the play of Kizer has been one of the best surprises of 2015. With Malik Zaire going down against Virginia, Kizer managed to take Notre Dame down the field for a game-winning touchdown and has played more than solid football from that day forward. Even against Clemson, Kizer looked poised as he rallied the team in a driving rain storm, far from the biggest reason the Irish lost.

Of all the “Next Man In” opportunities the Irish have had this season, Kizer’s play might be the best of them. And he’ll create competition in the program at a position that thrives from it.

Biggest Disappointment: Malik Zaire’s injury

You can’t help but feel awful for Zaire’s bad luck, a season-ending injury suffered on a designed quarterback run against the Cavaliers. The junior quarterback will be back in time for spring practice and has impressed anybody who has been watching the Showtime series by how engaged he’s been at both practice and during the games.

After a sizzling start against Texas, Virginia managed to confused Zaire with coverages and he struggled throwing the football. But he was just getting rolling as a runner, something that’ll likely be even more prominent next season, especially with Kizer’s experience allowing more risks to be taken.

Room for Improvement: Kizer’s Passing Efficiency

With five games to go and facing a collection of run-stopping defenses, Kizer will likely face numbers in the box as team’s make sure to slow down C.J. Prosise. That should open up some opportunities for Kizer in the passing game, a place where Kizer continues to evolve and get more comfortable.

“I have no hesitation of making a call for him to throw the football. I think there are certain situations that he is still learning,” Kelly on Sunday. “But no hesitation to put him in a position to make a play.”

Only Wake Forest ranks outside the Top 40 in rush defense, with Boston College (No. 1) and Temple (No. 8) inside the Top 10. So after watching Clemson plug the interior of the offensive line and force the Irish to adapt after halftime, Kizer’s ability to challenge defenses will be key.

Wildcard: Any room for Brandon Wimbush?

The talented freshman has already seen the field, dazzling with his legs against UMass and nearly making a few big plays in the passing game as well. With a redshirt already burned, can Notre Dame’s offense get anything out of the lightning-quick quarterback?




Notre Dame and Temple a primetime start on ABC

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 10: Ryquell Armstead #25 of the Temple Owls scores a touchdown against the Tulane Green Wave on October 10, 2015 at Lincoln Financial field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Owls defeated the Green Wave 49-10. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Another Notre Dame road game, another primetime kickoff. With Temple ranked for the first time since 1979, the Owls will host the Irish in Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field at 8:00 p.m. ET on an ABC national broadcast.

The game is a sellout crowd, with Notre Dame drawing another large audience. As Pete Sampson pointed out, 69, 176 tickets have already been sold. Last week’s Temple game against UCF drew 31,372 fans.

Temple head coach Matt Rhule will be bringing a much different team to the game than the one that showed up to open Notre Dame’s 2013 season. The Irish jumped ahead early against the Owls with two first quarter Tommy Rees to DaVaris Daniels touchdowns, before coasting to a 28-6 win.

Rhule has also seen his star rise—the 40-year old served as Al Golden’s offensive coordinator before returning to replace Steve Addazio as the Owls’ head coach. Rhule won just two games in his first season, rallied to a 6-6 record in 2014 and has matched that win total already in 2015. He appears to be a top fit for a program like Maryland that’s already looking to replace Randy Edsall.

This year, the Owls are 6-0 on the season, including 3-0 in American conference play. They have a Top 10 statistical defense, giving up just 14.7 points a game so far this season. Temple opened the season with an eye-opening win over Penn State and has done nothing but win since.

The Owls will play at night against East Carolina this weekend before welcoming the Irish to the City of Brotherly Love on Halloween night.

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


Start fast and finish strong. Those are two of the four key components Brian Kelly talked about when he mentioned a formula for winning football. So while the Irish defense missed tackles and gave up too many big plays, all four critical pieces—including the Irish’s attention to detail and a great effort—made it possible for Notre Dame to rally for a victory over rival USC.

Was it a perfect game? No. But it sure was exciting. And more important than anything else, the Irish showed great mental toughness, repeatedly battling back from adversity (usually in the form of a big offensive play by the Trojans) to score the game’s final 17 points.

“Our theme all week was the mental toughness that we wanted to exhibit today, it was the one question we wanted to answer,” Kelly said after the game “I didn’t see anything on the sideline that resembled our guys not believing they were going to come back.”

With fall break upon us and a much deserved weekend off for Notre Dame, let’s put the USC game through the good, bad and ugly machine.



Mental Toughness. This type of thing usually turns into one of those hard to quantify, usually subjective, and agenda-pushing topics that I’d rather avoid. (Consider it scar tissue from the Jeter is Clutch era.) But Saturday night’s victory deserves a viewing through this lens.

Most looked at the difficulties the Trojans faced heading into their rivalry game. USC tried to circle the wagons, bringing in Hall of Famers to practice and rallying around interim head coach (and offensive coordinator) Clay Helton. They played up the “Fight On” motto, pasting it to the front of their sweatshirts, doing everything they could to earn a victory in South Bend. Yet it didn’t work, with the Trojans now 3-3 and looking ahead at a difficult schedule that includes a date with a Utah team that some believe is one of the best in the country.

That the other sideline had a more mentally tough team shouldn’t have been anybody’s surprise. Look at what Notre Dame has done this season. Notre Dame’s two-deep at quarterback is gone from spring practice. So is their running back depth chart. The anchor in the middle of the defensive line went from a top-performing senior to a true freshman. The young, talented depth that looked to be a key part of Notre Dame’s plans in the secondary? Drue Tranquill and Shaun Crawford will both get medical redshirts for the season.

Notre Dame had every right to roll over and blame injuries for decimating their hopes for a special season. Especially after they essentially had the same thing happen during the second-half of last year, a group just not capable of battling through the challenges that faced them.

But the cohesion inside this program prevented that. Brian Kelly going “all in” on both the on-field schematics (the efforts to stop the option led by senior assistant Bob Elliott) were matched by those to build team chemistry (Marcus Luttrell and the extensive leadership immersion training).

After the Irish fractured last season and an uneasy leadership structure at quarterback pulled at the stitching of the team, Kelly and his staff got it right in 2015. And that’s a big reason why the loss to Clemson—and some of the head coach’s tough comments after the game—didn’t derail this group.

None of this guarantees the Irish future success. Nor does it mean that an 11-1 Notre Dame team deserves a spot in the playoff. But with USC ripping off 17 straight points and holding a lead in the fourth quarter, the Irish never blinked. They played with championship effort, their best players rose to the occasion, and they answered with 17 points of their own and an impressive 10-point victory.


Quick Hits: 

* Another Saturday, another impressive game by C.J. ProsiseThe senior running back is a touchdown scoring machine, adding two more for an even dozen on the year as he also eats up yards at a prodigious rate.

Prosise’s 1,141 yards from scrimmage rank third in the FBS. He’s also a top-10 player in the following categories:  yards per carry (10th), rushing TDs (t-6th), rush yards (6th), yards per game (9th) and TDs (t-7th).

It sure looks like Brian Kelly’s move to experiment with Prosise in the backfield paid off. And it’s also allowed the Irish offense to created more downfield passing opportunities with defenses needed to slow down Prosise with an extra man in the box.


* Junior linebacker Jaylon Smith led the football game with 14 tackles, nominated for the Lott IMPACT award player of the week for his efforts. While the Irish defense certainly needs to figure out how to eliminate the big plays and missed tackles, seeing Smith be the dominant defender on the field was a pleasant sight.

“When you’re playing talented players like USC it’s something where you’re not going to win every battle,” Smith said after the game. “It’s all about persevering and that’s something that we did tonight.”


* I tweeted it during the game, but it’s amazing the transformation we’ve seen from DeShone Kizer since this spring. Notre Dame’s starting quarterback has completed 65.4 percent of his throws with 10 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

He opened the game with an absolute dime, hitting Will Fuller in stride for a 75-yard touchdown pass. And while he might have struggled adjusting to some of USC’s defensive pressures and coverage, he made a clutch throw later in the game to Fuller that beat Adoree Jackson again, a big-time throw by a quarterback who is gaining confidence by the minute.

Think back and consider other Notre Dame quarterbacks’ first starts against the Trojans. Brady Quinn completed just 15 of 34 passes in a 45-14 defeat. Jimmy Clausen completed 11 of 22 throws for 50 yards and two interceptions in a 2008 shellacking. In victory, Tommy Rees threw three interceptions and for just 149 yards on 20 completions in the rain.

So Kizer’s ho-hum 227 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers sure looks pretty good when you compare it to what’s happened over the past dozen years.


* A tip of the cap to Quenton Nelson. Not sure how you can be in a walking boot on Tuesday and playing on Saturday, but the sophomore’s toughness certainly isn’t understated.


* Take a bow, Scott Booker! Notre Dame fans’ easiest assistant to beat up has had a wonderful season running the Irish special teams, and Saturday night was the best effort of the bunch. Equanimeous St. Brown blocked Notre Dame’s first punt since Robert Blanton stuffed one against Utah in 2010. CJ Sanders looked good on kickoff returns and Justin Yoon was clutch on all his kick attempts. Just as important Tyler Newsome has continued his incredible season, pinning USC at the 1-yard line late in the game, and Cody Kessler could do nothing to march the Trojans down the field.


* How do you not feel great for Corey Robinson, who scored the go-ahead touchdown on a critical 3rd-and-8 in the fourth quarter? After wearing the goat horns against Clemson after failing to reel in two scoring catches, Robinson extended his 6-foot-5 frame and held on to a Kizer pass in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown that brought the Irish all the way back.


* If Adoree Jackson was the fastest man on the field on Saturday, then Will Fuller found a magical way to slow a man down and run by him. Or… Will Fuller might just be even faster. Credit to Doug Flutie for saying it best, something pretty close to: “Fuller is as fast as he needs to be.”


* Lastly, it’s good that the Irish put on a great show. With a impressive group of recruits on campus, Notre Dame Stadium was electric and a strong collection of 2016 and 2017 prospects saw everything they wanted in the Irish victory.

With Jim Harbaugh rallying Michigan and Urban Meyer still undefeated, it’s important that Notre Dame hold serve and keep momentum in the Midwest. Just as important, beating their West Coast rivals—who now enter the home stretch of recruiting in a flat spin—Notre Dame’s staff should have a chance to make headway with some of California’s top prospects.



Defensive Lapses. Maybe this is just what Notre Dame’s defense is going to be in 2015. But if that’s the case, it could be what holds back the Irish from achieving their goals. Big plays nearly killed Notre Dame.

Since Brian Kelly took over in South Bend, Notre Dame had allowed just nine plays of 60 yards or more, third best in the FBS in that time frame. On Saturday night the Irish gave up three.

Sure, tip your cap to Adoree Jackson, JuJu Smith-Schuster and star-in-the-making Ronald Jones. But eventually the Irish need to start looking in the mirror and finding a way to clean up the devastating mistakes.

Kelly broke down the big plays, putting them into context. The screen pass to Jackson caught the Irish in a bad look. Jones’ big run came after he slid out of Isaac Rochell’s grasp. (The double pass? This is turning out to be a fairly gullible group—especially when the wideout catching the backwards pass was a quarterback during training camp.)

On Sunday, Kelly gave this appraisal of his group:

“We play at different times really, really good football. We saw it against Georgia Tech where we were dominating at times. We just haven’t put together four quarters of football defensively, and then there are simply issues of fundamentals and tackling and doing your job and not somebody else’s job.

“So I’m very, very confident that we can put four quarters of this kind of play together. So if we had not put together second half performances in the fashion that we have; for example, 132 yards in 33 plays against USC in the second half, I would be less optimistic. But we did that against Clemson, as well, against very good, talented teams, we’ve been able to put these quarters together.

“So we are going to keep plugging and we are going to keep coaching the fundamentals, and we are going to get it for four quarters.”

The ability to improve over the season’s final five regular season games will likely dictate this team’s fate—crazy when you consider the changes in key offensive personnel.



An electric Saturday night and a victory over the Trojans? Even if it didn’t all go according to plan, this should stay empty.

Except USC came to South Bend without the Jeweled Shillelagh. So when the FedEx arrives, all five of Notre Dame’s rivalry trophies will be sitting outside Brian Kelly’s office.