Pregame Six Pack: No place like home

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The Irish are home. After failing to get through an opening weekend stress test in the unfriendly confines of Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium, Notre Dame gets a chance to get back to normal with a Saturday in South Bend.

Even on short rest and a compressed preparation schedule, the Irish are hopeful to leave behind the sting of last weekend’s double-overtime defeat and get healthy—both mentally and physically—against a Nevada team that is young and needed overtime to beat FCS opponent Cal Poly.

With DeShone Kizer named as the teams starter and adjustments made to the lineup on defense, Brian Kelly feels that even with a tweaked run-up to the weekend, his team is ready to go.

“We were able to make up for the short week by really spreading the practice out,”  Kelly said Thursday. “We got all our work in and (Friday) we’ll have about 50 minutes on the field and we’ll be ready for Nevada on Saturday.”

To get all of us ready for Saturday, let’s turn the Pregame Six Pack on its head. Here are six players to focus on as the Irish get back to the basics against the Wolf Pack.

 

DESHONE KIZER

He’s clearly earned the starting job on the field. Now it’ll be up to Kizer to navigate the tricky dynamics of unseating a veteran leader who has a ton of respect in the locker room.

The good news is that Kizer lit up Texas, accounting for six touchdowns while giving up three series to Malik Zaire. That settled any debate on the field. So with a body of work that only picked up where it left off last season, Kelly’s expectations for the junior’s performance are unchanged.

“My expectation is that he’s the starter for this game and we know that based upon what he’s done in the past that he’s been very effective as a starting quarterback,” Kelly said. “I expect him to continue in that role. If he’s not effective, if he’s not what we’ve known him to be, we’ve got one heck of a good quarterback ready to play.”

That other quarterback, Malik Zaire, will have a lot of focus on him. And while Kelly is uninterested in the subplots that seemed destined to start after the camera found Zaire after nearly every good play Kizer made, the head coach was happy that his senior back-up went to work this week with his mind in the right place.

“I thought he had two really very good days,” Kelly said of Zaire. “I thought he was really focused, locked in, and is ready to lead our football team. That’s all I’ve asked him to be—ready to lead our team.”

 

JARRON JONES

The fifth-year senior made one of last week’s critical plays, blocking the extra point that Shaun Crawford returned for the game’s tying two points. But Notre Dame needs more from Jones, who is healthy after a season lost to injury, but still clearly working through the mental side of recovery.

“I don’t see that there’s anything that’s holding him back from a physical standpoint, Kelly said. “If anything is holding him back, it’s perceived. There’s nothing from a training room perspective that’s on my report that would put him back.”

One of the big surprises of last weekend was the loss in the trenches to the Longhorns. Some of that can be attributed to the three-man front the Irish deployed. Some should be focused on the lack of impact Jones made, playing only 26 snaps in a time share with Daniel Cage.

“He’s got to give us some quality snaps in there at the shade with Daniel, that’s his role,” Kelly said. “Continue to be a good technician. He doesn’t have to be a guy that gets a lot of tackles for a loss but he’s strong. Play physical and play with great technique.”

Irish fans expect more than just a technician. Especially after seeing the impact he had when he was healthy and motivated in 2014.

 

DEVIN STUDSTILL 

Notre Dame’s young free safety made it through his first game without any hiccups. And after the decision to start Drue Tranquill in his place backfired, it’s time to throw the early-enrollee freshman into the fire and see how he comes out.

Even with Avery Sebastian cleared through the concussion protocol, Studstill is moving into the lineup. And while Nevada won’t test Notre Dame’s personnel quite like Texas’s athletic receiving corp, it’s a great test for the Irish free safety, who’ll be doing and seeing things for the first time inside of Notre Dame Stadium, all while needing to be the stabilizing force of a secondary that had multiple busted coverages.

“He will see a lot of playing time this week,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We will have to continue to give him the opportunity to get out there and play and experience the scenarios that you can’t really duplicate in practice.”

 

Corey Holmes

Torii Hunter will take the practice field Friday, his status on Saturday still up in the air. But regardless of Hunter’s return, Holmes needs to seize the opportunity ahead of him, one of spring’s big surprises all but absent in Austin last weekend.

With C.J. Sanders locked in as the team’s dynamic slot receiver, Holmes will have to do his damage at the X receiver, lined up on the wide side of the field and often times on an island against defenders asked to run with the Irish’s fastest receiver. Now it’s time to see Holmes’ track speed translate to the football field. Because for the veteran to stay in the mix at receiver, he’ll need to make a few plays down the field, especially in the vertical passing game, a key part of the Irish offense last season thanks to Will Fuller.

K.J. Stepherson will also get a chance to contribute. But his knowledge base is still a work-in-progress, Kelly acknowledging what most of us saw during crunch time at Texas. That leaves an opportunity for the third-year veteran, a chance to build a niche role in the Irish offense as Hunter recovers from a nasty concussion.

 

QUENTON NELSON

Notre Dame’s All-American candidate at left guard didn’t play his best last weekend. He graded out negative against the Longhorns according to PFF College, struggles as a run blocker that are antithetical to what are believed to be the strengths of his game.

Expect some frustrations to be taken out on a Nevada front seven that’s breaking in six new starters. And Nelson, a 330-pound cinder block, needs to take a tough opening week and get back on track.

It’s hardly analysis to say that Notre Dame’s offense is better when the run game is humming. But to make things easier for a still-inexperienced receiving corps, the ground game needs to be the engine, opening up opportunities down field when Nevada adds an extra hat in the box to slow down the Irish running backs.

Billed as one of the best pairings in college football, Nelson and Mike McGlinchey didn’t put up the performance expected of them last weekend. That’ll change quickly on Saturday.

 

DRUE TRANQUILL

Back at home at strong safety, Tranquill needs to recapture his confidence. Because while his limitations in coverage seemed to be exploited last week, he’s far too important of a defender for the Irish to be thrown aside after one week.

“He was put in a situation where he fully understands what’s expected of him, things that he has to work on. He’s a guy that is very conscientious and works hard at his craft,” Kelly said.

Against triple-option opponents like Navy, his skills jump out — a sure tackler in the box and a great safety working inside out. But the Irish defense needs more from him than specialty work, and he’ll be given another chance this week to expand his repertoire.

“He’s not just a downhill box safety,” Kelly explained. “He has to play on the hash, he has to play man-to-man, he has to do more than roll down and be a flat-foot safety making tackles as the extra hat.”

Nevada loves to run the football, so there’ll be plenty of chances to make an impact in the ground game. But if he can’t survive in space and hold up against the pass, the Irish will need to make some big changes to their defensive alignment.

ICON: Something to Build On

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Fighting Irish Media and WatchND released their first ICON video for the season and it didn’t disappoint. With Chapter One called “Something to Build On,” it’s an inside look at Notre Dame’s double-OT loss to Texas, with Brian Kelly’s postgame comments the highlight.

“We work too hard. So there is never a great feeling after a loss,” Kelly said postgame in the locker room. “The thing that stands out the most, that the second half, most teams that don’t have the strength of character, the will, the desire, they fold. They go away. They get run out.

“Instead, you battled and took the lead. That we can build on. Is everybody clear on the message? We’ve got to turn the chapter quickly, moving toward Nevada.”

There’s plenty of other good stuff to pick up on, including a closer examination of the hit Torii Hunter took and the resulting no-call. (Four days later, it’s still confusing how this didnt get called.) There’s also DeShone Kizer talking to the offense pregame. Blink and you might miss former All-American Jaylon Smith standing on the sidelines behind the linebackers.

It’s a great look behind the scenes at a memorable game, but one that just didn’t go Notre Dame’s way.

***

For more on the Irish and moving forward after the Texas loss, John Walters and I went deep on our Blown Coverage podcast. Hope you enjoy. 

Talking Irish: Week One recap with JJ Stankevitz

Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer (14) runs for a first down against Texas during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
AP / Eric Gay
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The Avengers. The DC Universe. If this summer has taught us anything, it’s that people love superheroes uniting and merging universes.

(Or the exact opposite.)

Anyway, partner in crime—and member of the NBC/Comcast universe—JJ Stankevitz and I joined forces for what I hope will be an enjoyable new feature. Its the two of us chatting about Notre Dame football, something we already do pretty much non-stop this time of year, me here at Inside the Irish and JJ over at CSN Chicago.

So with a disappointing Texas game behind us and the home opener just around the corner, let’s roll out our first weekly installment.

Hope you enjoy.

Keith: I’ll be the first to admit it, I was surprised that Notre Dame lost last weekend. I looked at everything and just couldn’t figure out how this was a 2-pt line. Did you see this coming?

JJ: I mean, I predicted a Notre Dame 30-23 win, so I guess I didn’t.
But I’ll say this: That was mostly predicated on me not thinking Texas’ offense was going to be good enough. But as soon as Buechele led that first scoring drive and the 18-wheeler package started humming, I wished I could’ve gone back and re-done my prediction.

I still probably would’ve picked ND to win, but I would’ve gone with Texas scoring more points. There was just so much uncertainty going into that game.

Did Texas’ offense surprise you, Keith, or did Notre Dame’s defense disappoint you? Or somewhere in between?

Keith: It’s got to be somewhere in between — but I was super surprised at the defensive line play — namely, that I thought the guys up front got whipped, and they got whipped by a group that was banged up entering the game. Texas’s push at the point of attack really surprised me.

I’m less surprised by Buechele actually — while everybody started writing the legend, I secretly hoped we didn’t just give birth to another Tate Forcier. What do you do with the DL?

JJ: I mean, the stats don’t lie — ND was better with four down linemen than three. So I go with four.

Keith: I can’t claim to be a tape-breakdown expert, but it certainly wasn’t Andrew Trumbetti’s finest performance.

JJ: Whether that would’ve solved everything, we don’t know, but Brian Kelly admitted Tuesday he would’ve had more big bodies in against the Swoopes package. But even with four DLs there, they needed to generate a more consistent push.

Keith: That weakside DE position took exactly 5 minutes to be exposed as a problem.

JJ: I’d expect to see a lot of Jay Hayes there when he’s fully healthy. He took most of the first-team reps at that spot during the spring and preseason practices open to the media and looked solid enough there.
That being said, I don’t expect to see him this weekend, do you?

Keith: At this point, I’d have the guy with his foot elevated between now and next Tuesday, hoping he’s ready for a slugfest in the trenches against Michigan State.

JJ: If he’s healthy, he’ll play – no reason to hold out a guy who’s 100%. But it’s a short week and Nevada isn’t exactly a star opponent, so I could see him getting limited snaps. But you gotta get him some work so his first real test since 2014 won’t be against that bruising Michigan State side.

Keith: Remember, he was “healthy” heading into Texas, too.

JJ: I guess to put a wrap on the defense: Are you confident it can pull together and be good enough for Notre Dame to still have a successful year?

Keith: Successful yes. But I’m not sure what that means anymore. I had 10 to 11 wins as possible for this team.

JJ: I realize that was a loaded question, ha.

Keith:  And I really did think the defensive would play much, much better.
Now I probably have taken a step away from the ledge when it comes to Brian VanGorder, and I actually think BK is right to be preaching patience here — he’s breaking in SO many new players and doing it without a safety who was probably one of the three most important people on this defense, but this team will only be as good as its defense. And right now, that’s not very good.

JJ: Look, you can win a lot of games with your offense bailing out an underperforming defense. But you can’t contend for a playoff spot with that.

Keith: I think that’s true. Maybe Oklahoma would disagree — at least last year — but underperforming is one thing. What those guys did on Sunday night wasn’t underperforming.

JJ: The Big 12 is a different animal with that, though. Underperforming was last year’s defense.

Keith:  I’ll leave my defensive comments at this: I’m worried about not just the scheme, but the personnel. That’s what was more surprising to me. That ND’s guys were getting blown off the ball and their DBs were getting torched vertical.

JJ: There are a few individual players who looked good Sunday — Nyles Morgan and Shaun Crawford come to mind — but the whole defense has to be better.

But you raise the question: Can it?If the personnel isn’t there, and the scheme isn’t there, then what is? I guess we have 11 games to find out.

Keith: That’s essentially the big rub on the Brian VanGorder defense. What do you hang your hat on? This is starting to feel pretty “Tenuta-ish.”

***

Keith: So DeShone Kizer announced that DeShone Kizer would be the team’s starting quarterback. What do you make of the decision? And what do you think of BK having Kizer handle it?

JJ: That it was obvious? The way it was handled made sense.

On one hand, Kelly and Kizer talked, and it was clear Kizer was going to be the starter. Kizer was the only QB who talked to the media on Wednesday, so if he didn’t say anything about being the starter and delayed the announcement to Thursday, it would’ve raised far more questions than ND would’ve wanted.

But on the other hand, if Kelly came out Wednesday and briefly told us that Kizer was his starter, it’d be making a bigger deal out of it than I think anyone wants. It was clear Kizer outplayed Zaire and was going to be the starter, so don’t make a big deal out of it and let Kizer say it and move on.

Long story short: Having Kizer announce it was the path of least resistance and most common sense. I was fine with it.

KA: I couldn’t agree more. Nothing diffuses this like having Kizer talk about it. It also keeps all of us from picking around at BK, asking him how Malik took it, blah blah blah…

What do you think happens with Malik? I tend to think he’ll still get a series against Nevada in the first half. If only to get the bad taste out of his mouth.

JJ: It’s hard to not feel sorry for the kid, right? It’s a tough situation.

Keith: This feels pulled straight from Friday Night Lights or something.

JJ: He *should* be starting. He would’ve in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, and probably should’ve in 2014, in retrospect. But then he wins the starting job, gets hurt, and a guy who’s turning into a first-round pick right before our eyes comes along and takes his spot.

Keith: But the flip of that is: Damn — DeShone Kizer is good.

JJ: He’s so good!

Keith: This is a guy who Brian Kelly praised on Signing Day for being: Tall. Big. And Tall — in that order.

JJ: Bruce Feldman had a good look back at his recruiting process over on Fox Sports this week. Kizer was about as unimpressive in the Elite 11 as possible because he wasn’t solely focused on being a QB then.

But Kizer talked about it Wednesday and said something interesting — that being a three-sport athlete in high school was the best thing that ever happened to him. Not only did he gain other mental/physical skills from playing basketball and baseball, but it delayed the information dump about being a QB until he was mature enough to handle it.

So instead of having all this stuff thrown at him at age 16, he’s getting it at age 19, 20, and understands it better and is mature enough to handle it now. And we’re seeing him develop into a guy who could be a legit Heisman contender and first-round pick.

Keith: Pete Carroll once told me that he preferred recruiting multi-sport athletes. He thought they could be molded much better at college.

JJ: I’ve had a number of people in MLB front offices and clubhouses tell me they like multi-sport athletes more, too. So what was your favorite play Kizer made Sunday night? The somersault TD throw to ESB, the 29-yard TD run, the scramble-and-throw TD to Torii Hunter or the teardrop to Adams?

Keith: The throw to Adams, for sure. And honestly, I don’t think he played his best game. And I think the receivers were a big part of the problem.
I thought the offense came unglued once Torii Hunter got hurt. And it was because they had three or four kids lined up out there that didn’t seem to have a clue as to what they were doing.

JJ: Agreed. I think it was on the possession after that ridiculous two-point blocked PAT score where Kizer threw incomplete to Kevin Stepherson on third down. Having Hunter there would’ve been huge for that drive.

***

Keith: What do you want to see this weekend?

JJ:  First and foremost, Notre Dame’s defense has to get some positive momentum behind it. Nevada nearly lost to Cal Poly, which went 4-7 at FCS last year, so even though they’ve made back-to-back bowl games Brian Polian doesn’t quite bring the strongest side to South Bend.

This is a good opportunity for Notre Dame’s defense to get the bad taste out of its mouth from Texas and hold an opponent to, ideally, under 20 points. No explosive plays, make some third down stops, and hold them to a reasonable YPP average. Second, just for Kizer to continue to develop a rapport with the young WRs, especially assuming Hunter is out. Make sense? What about you?

Keith: Mostly good defense and a non-competitive game. I think this team can still achieve all of their goals. But they have to win. And they need to get themselves prepared for a tough run in the schedule. But defense first and foremost. And no broken plays.

JJ: Yep yep yep. Selfishly, I would like to not have six or seven re-writes of my game story, as was the case on Sunday.

Got a prediction? I’ll go first: Notre Dame 52, Nevada 24

Keith: I like that number. I think getting to the 50-point mark should be the goal — and to do it in regulation time.

Can I steal your score? That’s pretty solid.

Kizer set to start against Nevada

AUSTIN, TX - SEPTEMBER 04:  DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks to pass the ball during the second half against the Texas Longhorns at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on September 4, 2016 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly has named a starting quarterback. And as most expected, it’ll be DeShone Kizer.

The junior quarterback met with the local media today and confirmed the decision, the only one of the two quarterbacks to be made available. As you’d expect, Kizer was magnanimous in his comments, saying all the right things about the job, his responsibilities as a starter, and his fellow competitor, senior Malik Zaire.

“I had a conversation with Coach Kelly today and he decided that this week I was going to get the first snap for sure, and he kind of congratulated me on fighting through the process and encouraged me to maintain the same mindset and just ensure me that I would be the guy on Saturday,” Kizer said, according to CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz.

“There’s one quarterback now, but two leaders,” Kizer said. “Obviously Malik is an amazing athlete and there’s going to come a time where you’re definitely going to see him on the field, I believe. That hasn’t really been talked about too much. All I know is that he told me to prepare to be the starter on Saturday and that’s what I plan to do.”

For Zaire, the disappointment is likely still fresh. But it’s something Kelly discussed on Tuesday, keeping a back-up quarterback engaged and ready to step into the fray, just one snap away from leading the offense.

“It’s about your attitude and your attitude has to be such that whoever the No. 2 is, whether he’s the No. 2 quarterback or the No. 2 running back, you’re one play away from being in there,” Kelly said. “So you can’t let your teammates down and you can’t let yourself down.”

What comes next for Zaire is uncertain. Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson reports that Zaire can graduate after the fall semester, making a graduate transfer something possible for spring semester. But that’s a scenario for down the road—unimportant as the Irish stare down the barrel of a one-loss season and a team that needs to find its footing this weekend.

Polian prepares for Notre Dame

COLLEGE STATION, TX - SEPTEMBER 19:  Nevada Wolf Pack head coach Brian Polian has words with linejudge Michael Shirey and referee David South at Kyle Field on September 19, 2015 in College Station, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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This won’t be just any other game for Nevada head coach Brian Polian. The Wolf Pack head coach returns to South Bend this weekend, where he served as an assistant to Charlie Weis from 2005 to 2009. And while his time coaching the Irish ended when Weis was dismissed by athletic director Jack Swarbrick, Polian’s fondness for Notre Dame is undiminished.

“It was an incredibly formative time in my life and my career,” Polian said on Tuesday. “I have personal feelings for the place that you can’t help…

“I’m forever indebted to Charlie Weis for giving me the opportunity at 29 years of age to go coach there. My memories of the university and my time there are very fond. They’re very warm.”

Now he faces the challenge of beating the very same program that made it possible for him to quickly climb the coaching ladder. And even if the Wolf Pack catch the Irish with an opening game loss and questions on both sides of the ball, Polian knows—and speaks from experience—that things aren’t quite as dire as they seem.

“I think there’s part of the fan base that thinks the sky is falling right now, and I can assure them, it’s not,” Polian said.

So the fourth-year head coach, just 19-20 in his three seasons after taking over for legendary coach Chris Ault, will bring his program to South Bend looking for a “signature win.” The last time the Wolf Pack visited, Ault’s more talented team—led by star quarterback Colin Kaepernick—left disappointed, shutout by Jon Tenuta’s Irish defense.

While there’s no way to draw off that disappointing experience and visit to a place Polian calls “one of the great cathedrals in college football,” he believes some of the big stages his team has played on lately will have them better prepared to deal with a soldout home crowd eager to see the Irish play well.

“Once you’ve played on the road in the SEC, it might be the same but it won’t be any harder,” Polian said, referencing last year’s visit to Texas A&M, where the Wolf Pack fought hard, but eventually lost 44-27. “There were 102,000 at Texas A&M last year and we hung in there and fought out tails off. I have no reason to think we won’t do the same this week.”

After needing overtime to beat Cal Poly last week, Polian expects to see improvement from his young team. That said, he knows Notre Dame will have the same jump, sounding almost sympathetic to the youthful nature of the Irish secondary.

“I don’t care where you are, if you’ve got three freshman playing in the defensive backfield, it’s hard—it doesn’t matter what school you’re at,” Polian said. “Freshmen are freshman. No matter how talented they are, they lack experience. And then you put them in front of 103,000 in that setting, and obviously there’s going to be some growing pains. I have no doubt that they’ll be significantly improved with that experience when they face us.”

***

Speaking of the Notre Dame secondary, the starting lineup appears to be tweaked, with Devin Studstill starting opposite Drue Tranquill. Last week, the Irish chose to go with Tranquill and Avery Sebastian. They abandoned that pairing midway through the game, pulling Tranquill in favor of Studstill when it was clear that the 230-pounder wasn’t going to be able to run vertical with the opponent.

Kelly talked about making sure Tranquill was back on his game—a very important piece of the puzzle, especially back at home as a strong safety and will Sebastian a game-time decision after suffering a concussion late in the game against Texas.

“We’ve got to get him back out there and, again, it’s a learning process,” Kelly said. “Some of the mistakes out there were ones that he’s aware of that, again, we just have to be better.

“We’ve got to communicate and teach better. We’ve got to make sure that he’s clearly understanding what we’re asking of him and making sure that we get that on game day. So we come back out and make sure that Drue understands what is expected and he needs to come through for us.”

***

A week after Jay Hayes didn’t play a snap, Kelly is hopeful the veteran defensive end will be able to contribute, sharing some of the load with junior Andrew Trumbetti.

“It was a personnel kind of game for us in terms of running Jay Hayes in and out of the game there,” Kelly conceded. “It was going to be difficult with him not at 100 percent. He should be closer this week to being able to give us reps.”

If I’m reading between the lines, I’d expect the Irish staff to do everything they can to get Hayes back to full go before putting him on the field, especially knowing that Michigan State is just a week away.

Perhaps that opens the door for freshman Daelin Hayes to get some playing time, capable of coming off the edge in speed situations. Whatever the case, the Irish need Trumbetti to be better.