Brian Kelly,DeShone Kizer

Preparation and opportunity key to Kizer’s ascent

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What a difference a few weeks make. During spring practice, DeShone Kizer was firmly entrenched as Notre Dame’s No. 3 quarterback as he watched Everett Golson and Malik Zaire compete for a starting job.

Reps were minimal. His attention was being grabbed by some off-the-field concerns. And Kizer was taking the longview about his road to the starting lineup.

“I was preparing to learn from [Everett] another year and watch him and Malik battle it out through the summer and see who was going to be the guy next year,” Kizer said. “So I had no idea.”

And then Golson transferred. Kizer found out during a stats exam. His cell phone flooded with messages as Kizer tried his best to focus on variances. But a third-stringer just moved within a play of the starting lineup.

Fast-forward to Saturday afternoon. Kizer went from the next man in to the man in charge of the offense.

The Toledo native made quite a first impression, marching the Irish to victory in less than two minutes. He converted a clutch short-yardage, fourth-down run. And he threw a perfect deep ball to Will Fuller for a game-winning touchdown.

Kizer showed a maturity and poise that didn’t necessarily look possible last spring. Last we saw him, he struggled mightily in the Blue-Gold game, completing just one of his five throws for a whopping three yards. (It was actually former walk-on quarterback Montgomery VanGorder that came on and looked sharp, nearly rallying the offense to a final score.)

But Kizer’s game turned around in the summer. Given more responsibility, he took ownership of his reps and his important role in the offense. And instead of throwing to incoming freshmen and walk-ons, he was building an on-field relationship with guys like Will Fuller and Corey Robinson, two receivers he hit on critical completions with the game against Virginia on the line.

“Playing the position I play has a lot to do with being comfortable. Over the summer I was able to get out and throw to all the guys as much as I possibly can, and I got quite a few reps in,” Kizer explained. “When it came to seven-on-sevens, I was working with the ones and twos rather than working with the incoming freshmen I was working with last year. With that preparation and all the reps, it allowed me to gain a little more confidence in my game. Obviously, that kind of carried in the fall, and that confidence is now at its best going into week three.”

“Week three” isn’t just another one on the schedule. The Irish offense will be asked to keep up with Georgia Tech, averaging 67 points a game thus far in 2015 (against mediocre competition), but nonetheless returning the No. 12 scoring attack in 2014, with option trigger-man Justin Thomas still at the helm.

That’s a daunting challenge for any quarterback. Especially for one making his first start. But the Irish have done their best to keep things the same, with Kizer acknowledging Wednesday that practice is the same, game-planning is the same and the offensive operations are all unchanged, a surprise considering most of us expected wholesale changes.

While most of the media digs and searches for information about the man now in charge of the Irish offense, Notre Dame’s new starting quarterback is just looking forward. So while his debut won’t soon be forgotten, it’s on to the next opportunity.

“I think the first drive of the Georgia Tech game will be a pretty good one. It’s going to be pretty big for me and gaining the trust and becoming comfortable with my team and rolling down there,” Kizer said. “Like I said, it’s all in the preparation, and I believe that after yesterday’s practice and what today’s practice holds for us, that we’ll be as prepared as we can possibly be for the game.”

 

Behind the scenes of emotional Virginia win

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Malik Zaire #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sits on the field after being injured against 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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Last night, Showtime took us behind the scenes and into the locker room after Notre Dame’s last-second victory against Virginia. And as you might have expected, it was an emotional one. As quarterback DeShone Kizer was celebrating his stunning touchdown pass to Will Fuller, starting quarterback Malik Zaire was coming to grips with the fact that his season was over after fracturing his ankle.

We also saw Brian Kelly in many different—and difficult—phases of his job. Postgame, he was in the tunnel underneath Scott Stadium consoling Zaire’s parents. He also spent some time alone with his coaches, likely trying to come back down to earth while also telling them about Will Fuller bold (and truthful) proclimation: “I’ll win the game for you, just give me the ball,” Kelly said Fuller told him before the two-minute drive.

Yet when Kelly emerged from the coaches room to address his team, you saw a leader balancing the human emotion of losing a beloved teammate and moving forward, proud of the work Kizer did to rally the team. (You’ll also get to like offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford nearly immediately after watching this clip.)

Showtime released a short clip from probably the most emotional moment of the episode. Also, check out the nice job Fighting Irish Media did with their latest ICON episode.

And in that corner… The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 12: Justin Thomas #5 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets scores a second quarter touchdown against the Tulane Green Wave on September 12, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
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With two triple-option opponents in Notre Dame’s first six games, head coach Brian Kelly knew he and his defensive staff needed to spend a large portion of the offseason game-planning for an offensive attack that’s traditionally given the Irish fits. Come this Saturday, we’ll see how his staff did, with Paul Johnson’s high-powered Georgia Tech team coming to South Bend.

A match-up of Top 15 opponents, Johnson’s Yellow Jackets are a super-powered version of his former Navy teams. And while we’ve seen Ken Niumatalolo and the Midshipmen continue to make things tough on Notre Dame, Saturday is the first meeting between the Irish and Georgia Tech since the Yellow Jackets kicked off the nightmarish 2007 season with a one-sided shellacking of Notre Dame.

This game has major ramifications for both teams. And to get us prepared for what Georgia Tech plans on bringing to South Bend, Benjamin Tankersley of From the Rumble Seat was kind enough to answer some questions for us before the afternoon showdown.

I hope you enjoy.

 

When we chatted back in June, there was some talk that Georgia Tech’s offense wasn’t necessarily going to be as scary as the unit that took the ACC by storm in 2014. That was before the Yellow Jackets started the season putting up 69 and 65 points. Obviously, Alcorn State and Tulane aren’t the toughest opponents, but have you learned anything about this offense in the season’s first two games?

The major thing that the Jackets have learned this season is that our A-backs and B-backs are a lot further along than anybody thought. Coming into the season, we had virtually no experience coming back so needless to say, everyone was worried. Two games in, though, we’ve seen glimpses of brilliance from the B-back position with the combo of Patrick Skov and Marcus Marshall. A-backs have also been pretty impressive, specific redshirt freshman Qua Searcy.

 

Justin Thomas has attempted a whopping 13 passes this season (coincidentally the same amount as DeShone Kizer, now the starting quarterback for the Irish). Thomas ran just twice against Alcorn, but did carry the ball 10 times for 72 yards against Tulane in the 55-point victory. What have you seen from him this season? How has his game changed since 2014?

Justin Thomas has shown himself to be flexible and efficient no matter what the defense gives him. In the opener against Alcorn State, the Braves did what they could to key in on stopping Thomas, allowing him to just hand it to Skov or Marshall. Conversely, against Tulane, the Green Wave keyed in on stopping the dive which gave Thomas more opportunities to keep the ball. The only way his game has changed is that he is bigger and stronger and smarter in how he runs the offense.

Passing the ball is never something that Tech is gonna do much while Paul Johnson is the coach. That’s evidenced in Thomas’ 13 passes this season. However, his completion percentage is sitting at 76.9 percent (51.3 percent career) with 151 yards and three touchdowns. It’s just Thomas showing that he is becoming more efficient.

 

So Notre Dame’s already gotten bit by the injury bug, losing their starting nose guard, starting running back, starting quarterback and starting tight end before the end of the season’s second game. How healthy will Georgia Tech be when they come to South Bend this weekend?

For the most part, Tech is healthy. Their biggest loss so far this year has been the knee injury to redshirt senior backup quarterback Tim Byerly. Mostly used in goaline situations and mop up duty, Byerly’s injury leaves the Jackets without much experience behind Justin Thomas. His replacement, Matthew Jordan moved back to quarterback after giving starting the season with the A-backs.

 

Georgia Tech’s defense welcomes back nine starters and Jabari Hunt-Days from academic ineligibility, making the Ramblin’ Wreck defense awfully similar to Notre Dame’s from a returning personnel perspective. Again, it might be hard to gather much in the two games you’ve seen, but can you give us an update on the defense’s improvement?

So far the aspect of defense that looks the most improved is the defensive line, something that was expected by a large portion of the fanbase. Ted Roof has been able to get good pressure on opposing quarterbacks, whether it be with the blitz or just four. We’ll get a real idea of just how good this seemingly improved pass rush is this weekend against the Irish.

 

Paul Johnson did his best to downplay his rivalrywith defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who pulled the option offense from Georgia Southern in his brief time as head coach there. But between his time at Navy, his disdain for VanGorder’s decision and the importance of this game, do you get the sense that this game means more for Johnson than most?

This game absolutely means the world to Paul Johnson. Johnson can downplay it all he wants, and he will because that’s the guy he is, but I guarantee he’s had this game circled on his calendar for a while.

 

During the offseason, Notre Dame committed a veteran assistant (Bobby Elliott, a member of the past two coaching staffs and now one of the team’s analysts) to going out and studying the option. Brian Kelly recruiting a walk-on quarterback, who could pilot the scout team option so the Irish could get ready for Georgia Tech and Navy. Do you think it will help?

We’ll find out Saturday. I do think it’s funny that people will often refer to Tech’s offense as a “high school offense” and then things like this happen. One thing I do know is that even having a walk-on who played quarterback in an option offense in high school won’t be enough to adequately mimic the speed at which Tech runs their offense. There’s a reason that he’s a scout team quarterback. He’s not quite Justin Thomas.

The thought of committing a coach to study a teams offense to learn how to stop it scares me a little bit. Well it would if Paul Johnson wasn’t the head coach. This man knows his offense better than any coach in the country and is easily one of the best at making in-game adjustments.

You’ve watched a ton of option football. How have the defenses that slowed down the Yellow Jackets done it? What does Notre Dame have to do to slow down this Georgia Tech offense?

Different people do it different ways. It takes a good athletic defense that will play to their man and if Notre Dame wants to win, that’s exactly what they’re going to have to do.

 

We touched briefly on the critical injuries to the Irish. We’ve talked about the lack of challenges on Georgia Tech’s early schedule. How do you see this weekend playing out, and who do you ultimately think walks out of Notre Dame Stadium undefeated?

Coming into the season, I had this game down as a loss for Tech because I thought the offense would take a larger step back than they have. They didn’t and now Notre Dame has lost a ton of people to injuries. This doesn’t bode well for the Irish and I think Tech wins 38-24.

Redshirt off, Irish staff preparing Wimbush to play

The Opening - Day 1
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The mystery surrounding freshman quarterback Brandon Wimbush will be coming to an end. The blue-chip recruit is going to play.

Entering the 2015 season, the intentions of Notre Dame’s coaching staff were to redshirt Wimbush, hoping to get through the season with Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer. But with Zaire done and Kizer moving into the starting lineup, Kelly is preparing to get Wimbush involved in the game plan, sooner rather than later.

“He’s going to have to play this year. So I haven’t decided yet, but he’s going to play this year,” Kelly said Tuesday. “Let’s try to get him as much experience as possible and we’re going to prepare him this week as if he’s going to play and go from there.”

That playing time could come this Saturday, even against a ranked team like Georgia Tech. And it certainly won’t need to be in mop-up duty, with Kelly understanding that it’s better to get Wimbush acclimated on his terms than on somebody elses.

(This is something Jac Collinsworth and I talked about during our most recent podcast.)

What Kelly and quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator Mike Sanford can get out of Wimbush remains to be seen. But he’s an elite athlete with a really big arm, a high school sprinter who can do some things to help diversify the offense.

Kelly talked about some of the challenges they face preparing Wimbush for action, especially considering they’ll be working on the field with him for really the first time during today’s practice. Outside of teaching Wimbush to protect himself and how to handle the moment, Kelly actually thought he needed some more time to see what Wimbush can offer before giving an educated opinion on how he can help the team.

“I mean, there are great challenges. Now he’s a very confident young man. We’ll give him enough to handle and run our offense this week and this will be kind of the first opportunity that we get a good look at him a little bit. He’ll be diving a little bit deeper this week,” Kelly said.

But with the offense in desperate need to score points this weekend against a Georgia Tech attack that’s averaged nearly 47 points over their last 10 games (opponents that include Clemson, Georgia and Mississippi State), the redshirt—not to mention the kid gloves—are coming off.

“He’s going to be in there and he’s going to be playing. I think we can add Brandon into the mix, and there are some things that he can do,” Kelly explained. “He’s got very good speed, he’s got a strong arm, he’s tough, and I think there are some things that could enhance our offense with him in the game as well.”

 

Video Round-up: Kelly talks secondary, Kizer and injuries

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Brian Kelly met with the local media on Tuesday, moving Notre Dame forward into one of the biggest games of the season.

Below, you’ll find three video clips from his press conference, where Kelly talks about the need for the secondary to play better, his expectations for DeShone Kizer and what the Irish staff does to prevent injuries.