Deshaun Watson, Alex Gray

Hyperbole aside, does Notre Dame have a talent advantage against Clemson?


With two full days of practice left before Notre Dame boards a flight and heads for South Carolina, we’re reaching the summit of Mt. Hot Take. (Or at least let’s hope.)

It’s only Wednesday and we’ve already hit every water-cooler (that’s so 1980s) Twitter troll’s debate points:

* Comparing cupcakes— Wofford vs. UMass! Is Wofford better?

* Dabo thinks Notre Dame should play 13 games—but spends 350 words talking about how he could (it’s actually couldn’t, Dabo) care less if Notre Dame joins the ACC.

(I’ll let Dan Wetzel of Yahoo or Dan Wolken of USA Today handle that one.)

Today’s topic seems to focus on the atmosphere inside Clemson’s Memorial Stadium. With 81,500 sought-after tickets, Swinney quipped that he couldn’t even get Jesus a ticket.

Notre Dame knows it’s going to be rowdy. Maybe that’s why last week’s against UMass the Irish went with a non-verbal cadence. So when asked about entering Death Valley, Brian Kelly fully acknowledged the preparation for noise in his Tuesday press conference.

“We’ll be working nonverbal cadence as if it were the loudest environment that we’ve ever played in,” Kelly said.

Loudest environment we’ve ever played in? That sounds like Notre Dame is taking things seriously.

This afternoon, quarterback DeShone Kizer talked about preparing for an electric environment. He pointed to last season’s battle of two undefeated, top- five teams, and how getting to travel to Tallahassee and watch Everett Golson take on the elements will hopefully pay dividends.

“I’ve never heard anything so loud in my life,” Kizer said, when talking about big moments. “It feels like your insides are shaking on third down.”

In a week like this, apparently that wasn’t enough reverence.

In many ways, this feels like a bizarro scenario. It’s usually trips to Notre Dame Stadium that this kind of non-story gets the major build up, with opposing coaches asked the stock question about watching Rudy, talking about Rockne or giving their team a history lesson about the Four Horsemen.

(I’ll answer on behalf of all opposing coaches from now until eternity. “No, we didn’t do any of that.”)

So while we won’t know until Saturday if the moment gets too big for this Irish team, with College GameDay, the prime-time ABC slot and two undefeated teams, it’s curious that the one angle we don’t seem to be talking about is the matchup on the field.

It’s clear that since Swinney took over the Clemson program in 2008, he’s elevated its position nationally. No longer do we hear punchlines associated with the program. Instead, it’s put together a near-historic run of winning teams, averaging 10.5 wins a season over the last four years, including bowl wins over Urban Meyer and Ohio State, Les Miles and LSU, and a five-touchdown pasting of Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma team last season.

But this is also a program that’s loss a ton of talent. Brent Venables has eight new starters on his defense, gutting the core of the nation’s best statistical defense. When asked about how that made him feel this spring, he said, “It was depressing.”

While Deshaun Watson is back and healthy, the group protecting him is breaking in three new starters. That kind of thing doesn’t show up against Wofford or Appalachian State, but it certainly could explain why Watson’s off to a slower-than-expected start.

That takes me to one of the more under-the-radar statements that’s been made this week that surprisingly hasn’t picked up much traction. ESPN’s Todd McShay had this to say, pointing to a pretty significant talent disparity between the two teams.

“For some perspective, 10 of our top 150 draft-eligible prospects will be playing in this game on Saturday, and all 10 of them will be wearing gold helmets.”

That’s a bold statement. And one that certainly flies in the face of conventional logic, especially with Notre Dame being down six big-time contributors.

So while most of this week’s discussion has been on everything that doesn’t seem to matter, one of the more interesting—and controversial statements—made this week doesn’t seem to have garnered any attention.

I’m going to Twitter to complain.

And in that corner… The Clemson Tigers

CLEMSON, SC - OCTOBER 19:  The Clemson Tigers enter the stadium before their game against the Florida State Seminoles at Memorial Stadium on October 19, 2013 in Clemson, South Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The Irish are headed out of town this weekend, no ordinary road trip as they head to South Carolina and Clemson’s Death Valley. Notre Dame will put their undefeated 4-0 record on the line in one of the most difficult stadiums in college football to come out a victor.

With over two weeks to prepare, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney brings in an unbeaten team as well, surviving a Thursday night in Louisville their last time out. With both teams understanding that they’ll need to play their best to win one of the early-season’s premier showdowns, now is as good a time as any to get the other perspective on how Saturday night in primetime will shake out.

Joining us is Shakin the Southland‘s Brian Lewis. On a really busy week, Brian was kind enough to revisit our conversation from earlier this summer, and also to look ahead to this weekend as we get ready for Notre Dame’s first visit to Clemson in almost 40 years.

Hope you enjoy.


When we spoke this summer, you talked about this being one of the biggest games on the schedule this year. Then on Sunday, Dabo Swinney said the Tigers were going to prepare just like this was… Wofford (or App State or Louisville).

I get that from a coach, but can you actually believe him? And do you expect that Clemson maybe held a few things back from a scheme perspective for this game?

Dabo is a very big fan of coachspeak, but in this case I think he’s right. Back in 2013 we hosted 2 big games that saw GameDay come to town. Clemson-UGA and Clemson-FSU. Against UGA we were relaxed and ready to play, against FSU the team let the moment get to them and it culminated in a rather depressing beating. I think the coaching staff will be able to treat this as just another game.

The staff has definitely held a few things back, but I think that is also because of our opponents. The first two games were always going to see basic plays on both sides, and gien what Louisville does on offense and what they tried to do defensively, I don’t think we’ve seen the full Clemson playbook yet.


The preseason perception of this Clemson team was a strong offense and a young, rebuilding defense that would grow as the season went along. That hasn’t necessarily been the case. The offense (on paper) struggled moving the ball against Appalachian State, and against Louisville it was the defense that seemed to thrive.

Sticking on the offensive side of the ball, can you give us a progress report on how the Tigers have played after replacing Chad Morris?

This year the biggest surprise has been the running game. Morris always talked about having a power running game to complement the passing we see in a HUNH (Hurry-up, No-huddle), but it never materialized. This year we finally have a group of RBs that seem to negate the poor play of our OL. In the passing game, I think the issue is more of Watson just being off. The playcalling has been pretty comparable to Morris, and now it comes down to execution.


Defensively, the game against Louisville sticks out. Again, we’ve only seen three games with two against FCS (and now Sun Belt) competition, but that Thursday night in Kentucky had to feel really good, right?

Thursday night games are always tricky on the road, especially for Clemson. Getting the win felt great, but there was definitely a little bit of missed opportunity surrounding the team. The poor special teams play and Deshaun Watson‘s inconsistency made many fans think Clemson should have done better. That said, a win against one of our top competitors in the Atlantic Division is always a good thing.


Here’s a matchup I’m excited to see: Will Fuller against Mackenzie Alexander. Brent Venables called Fuller the best receiver in the country last week. Is this the key matchup for the Tigers defense or is it slowing down the Irish running game?

I’m honestly not that worried about Fuller. He’s definitely talented and plays a very physical game, but if he’s beating us then I suspect we have a lot bigger problems with stopping the run. Alexander will have some help from the safeties, even if it isn’t needed, and we will likely put 7-8 in the box to stop the run.


Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is back after an ACL tear. How has he looked so far? Specifically from an athleticism POV? Notre Dame’s secondary is asked to play aggressively in Brian VanGorder’s scheme and can give up big plays. Is this where you expect the Tigers to attack?

Watson has seemed fine athletically, but we haven’t really seen any designed runs from him. Most of the time he’s taken off because of a breakdown in the play or very good coverage. Those runs he’s seemed fine, but he also wasn’t laying out against a team like Wofford or App State. The big worry has been his timing and accuracy. Some of his passes seem to be just a half step slow, but hopefully it is more about mechanics than anything physical.

I think the big guy to watch out for is Artavis Scott. The receiver has a silly amount of speed and is used on all sorts of sweeps and pitches. He could have a big game if Notre Dame gets a little too aggressive in defense.


Notre Dame brings DeShone Kizer into Death Valley, his first road start after taking over after Malik Zaire went down with a season-ending injury in week two. Just how daunting do you expect this atmosphere to be?

(It took me a while to find the last home losses for the Tigers, they fell to Florida State in 2013 and South Carolina in 2012—so two dropped games in going on four seasons..? That’s impressive.)

If Kizer can handle this atmosphere then Notre Dame fans should never worry about how he’s going to handle any other college stadium. A night game at Death Valley is always a treat, and this one is going to be even more special. The cheapest tickets are going on Stubhub for close to $200 and everyone I’ve talked to is planning to tailgate all day, even if they don’t have tickets.

The big thing for Kizer is not going to be avoiding mistakes, but rather making some plays. Just avoiding mistakes isn’t going to quiet the crowd. He’s going to need to knock back Clemson a bit with some excellent play. If he can do it or not is going to be the big question, especially if Clemson can score first or make a big defensive stand early.


Last question: Having only watched the Louisville game and highlights from the Wofford and Appy State games, I still am not sure what I know about this Clemson team. You’re much closer to the situation. Do you have an idea as to how good this team is? Is this as big of a litmus test for the Tigers as it is for the Irish?

The defense is definitely better than expected, but the offense still has a question mark. I’m fairly confident is saying we have a talented defense that may be a bit thin in some positions, but that depth problem only seems to come up when we have injured players.

On offense this game is absolutely a litmus test. We’ve been waiting to see Deshaun Watson at 100%, and hopefully we get that this weekend. After seeing it in a few games last year all Clemson fans know what he can do, and hopefully he’s just taken a few weeks to get acclimated.

I don’t do pure predictions, but I will say this, the score stays within seven points. It is hard for me to see either team coming out and absolutely dominating. There are too many question marks for both teams to see that happening.

Trip to Clemson represents biggest moment of DeShone Kizer’s career


DeShone Kizer is Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, a scenario that six months ago would’ve shocked even Kizer himself. The sophomore quarterback has not just emerged from a sea of self-doubt that engulfed him this spring, he’s shown a resiliency and on-field demeanor that have people mixing him up for a grizzled veteran, not a redshirt freshman who has started just two football games.

Kizer was an unlikely hero against Virginia, rallying the Irish with a game-winning touchdown pass to Will Fuller that stole a victory from the Cavaliers.  He followed that relief appearance up with two solid home starts, giving Brian Kelly a consistent performance from his quarterback as the offense continued to churn, all while Kizer’s comfort level seems to exponentially grow.

But with all apologies to the Yellow Jackets and Minutemen, Notre Dame’s trip to Clemson is another beast. Asked to lead his teammates into Death Valley, a place where opponents have only emerged with victories twice since the 2012 season, Kizer will have the weight of Irish nation on his shoulders as he prepares to lead Notre Dame to their third 5-0 start in four seasons.

For some, the moment could become too large. But Notre Dame’s head coach believes his second-year quarterback will be ready.

“He has a presence about him, a commanding presence that, when he goes out there with the other ten players, you don’t feel like you’re putting a freshman quarterback out there,” Kelly said.

“I see that every day he goes out there, he takes control of that offensive unit. It’s not meek. It’s not weak. It’s a presence that he brings when he goes out there, and I think that that’s what he’s brought.”

That Kizer finds himself filled with confidence is a credit not just to the quarterback, but to the coaching staff and teammates that have helped rebuild him. Six months ago, Kizer was closer to rock bottom than the leader of the Irish offense.

The odd-man out as Malik Zaire and Everett Golson battled for the starting job, Kizer even began to wonder if football was for him.

“Going into the summer, I literally hit rock bottom,” Kizer told Jac Collinsworth for our Stay Gold podcast. “I mean, I wasn’t throwing the ball well. I was the third-string quarterback. Am I even playing the right sport? I was thinking that to myself—why did I even play football?”

“I went one-for-five for three yards in the spring game. I got a safety, what dual-threat quarterback goes backwards and gets tackled in the end zone? I was so down. Finally I was like, ‘Look. There’s no more redshirt next year. There’s no more Everett Golson versus Malik Zaire. There was nothing.’ The only thing that was stopping me from playing was myself every time.”

Kizer built from that moment, working with new position coach Mike Sanford to reconstruct his confidence. He also fed off the work his teammates put in. A year after some competitive uneasiness in the position room, Kizer’s kinship with Zaire and freshman Brandon Wimbush was a significant change that’s been noticed by players and coaches alike.

“Those guys spend a lot of time together. Really it’s a room that I sit in every day and I can tell you that they have a very close relationship. When Malik went down, the first guy that was in the room to see him was Brandon and DeShone,” Kelly said Sunday. “It’s just a group that it’s a bit unique. Last year it wasn’t like that but this is a different group of kids, and they are pretty close.”

With Zaire down, it’s now Kizer’s position to carry. And while he’s still a first-year player seeing and doing things for the first time, Kelly’s confident that Kizer—along with the help of a dominant offensive line and explosive running attack—can do enough to go out and win this weekend.

“He’s learning along the way. There’s things that he hasn’t seen before. There will be mistakes that he makes this weekend as well,” Kelly said. “But I think that it’s his presence that allows the other ten players to have a great deal of confidence that they can go out and be successful.”

Fuller, Alexander headed for a showdown

Chris Milton, Will Fuller

Will Fuller is one of the hottest wide receivers in the country. Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander considers himself one of the best cornerbacks in the nation. As we examine the many subplots that’ll come into play this weekend, this showdown on the edge will be one of the best to watch.

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables certainly thinks so. Last week, he had nothing but good things to say about Fuller in his media availability, calling Fuller the best receiver he’s seen on tape and comparing him favorably to former Florida State standout Rashad Greene.

“They got probably the best receiver in America,” Venables said, per the Clemson Insider. “He might be the best there is. He gets my vote from the guys I’ve watched on tape, by a landslide.

“Fuller is very dynamic… Fuller is big and really fast. He can go up and highpoint the ball. He runs very good routes and runs in and out of his breaks extremely well. This guy is better than (former Florida State receiver Rashad) Greene.”

Green had Clemson’s number during his record-setting career in Tallahassee. (He also had Notre Dame’s, catching eight passes for 108 yards and a touchdown.) In four games against the Tigers he averaged more than 100 yards a game and scored five times. So credit the Tigers’ defensive coordinator for sounding the alarm bells, and making sure that in Clemson’s 17 days between games they didn’t forget about Notre Dame’s touchdown scoring machine.

The Irish have seen some solid secondaries this season, but heading to Clemson will be a different challenge. And it’s pretty clear that Clemson views Notre Dame in a different light, after starting their season with FCS Wofford, Appalachian State and Louisville.

“I told Mackensie, this will be the best one you’ve seen,” Venables said, while also telling reporters that it won’t be a one-man matchup.  “We’re about to find out what the heck he’s all about.”




Irish get commitment from SoCal safety D.J. Morgan


Notre Dame added their 15th commitment to the 2016 recruiting class this weekend when Southern California safety D.J. Morgan pledged his commitment to the Irish. Morgan stars for St. John Bosco, and is a jumbo-sized safety who has the length to potentially grow into an in the box player as well.

Depending on the recruiting service, Morgan is a fringe 4-star prospect. Yet he’s a late bloomer who missed his freshman season with an injury and converted from wide receiver. He’s also a long defensive back, somewhere in the 6-foot-2 or 6-3 range, certainly an asset for a Irish secondary that could use a big body. After committing early to Arizona State, Notre Dame worked their way into the conversation with Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford, the Irish assistants going into one of the hottest rising programs in Los Angeles and coming out with Morgan. (Bosco is where 5-star QB and current UCLA freshman Josh Rosen played.)

Morgan was on campus for his official visit and saw the win over Texas, hosted by freshman Nick Coleman. He’s known for his physicality near the line of scrimmage, and multiple reports say that the Irish coaching staff has referenced Drue Tranquill when discussing Morgan’s future role in the Notre Dame defensive scheme.

Ultimately, Morgan’s speed—and how big he grows—will determine where he ends up. There’s room for a lanky, hard-hitting safety in the Irish secondary, especially with Elijah Shumate, Matthias Farley and Avery Sebastian moving on after the season and Max Redfield finishing his eligibility next year.

With plenty of big names left on the board and the Irish short on spots, how Notre Dame finishes up this recruiting class will be anybody’s guess. But adding Morgan to a secondary that already has commitments from Julian Love, Jalen Elliot and Spencer Perry is another key piece to the class.