No surprise, but Kelly confirms QB battle won’t end this spring

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Brian Kelly confirmed what many of us knew all along. No resolution to a spirited quarterback battle is coming soon.

On Wednesday, Kelly caught up with the media to talk about the progress made during the Irish’s first 10 spring practices. And with all eyes on the quarterback battle between Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer, Kelly acknowledged that they weren’t close to deciding anything.

“I don’t think we’ll make a decision after spring,” Kelly said.

And with that, a battle that we thought might go all the way up until Texas week just essentially got extended until at least fall camp—with Kelly explaining in one sentence why the decision is a difficult one.

“The two quarterbacks are really good players,” Kelly continued. “Each one of them has different things they need to work on.”

For Zaire, it’s learning some of the many things he missed during a regular season that ended after six quarters. That’s turned spring into an installation and learning period for the veteran of the depth chart, something that wasn’t necessarily unexpected.

“I think one thing we’re realizing is we did a lot of things offensively that we did not do with Malik in camp that we did as we evolved offensively during the year. There’s a lot of things he’s doing for the first time,” Kelly said.

Pair that with returning from a significant injury and shaking off the rust—things that impact basics like footwork and balance—and it makes it very difficult to measure these quarterbacks apples to apples.

“It’s hard to evaluate strictly who’s ahead of who because we’re installing for him,” Kelly said.

Kizer’s spring has a different flavor. After putting together one of the more impressive debut seasons in recent memory, the bar has been raised by the staff as they ask Kizer to be more than just a complementary part to the offense.

“For DeShone, it’s what I’ve talked about before. It’s across the board reads, it’s red zone efficiency. It’s consistency,” Kelly said.

With two quarterbacks and one football, Kelly knows that he faces a difficult decision. Even if the flavor of this battle is much different than the one that took place last season, it’ll still leave one quarterback on the sideline serving as a backup, hardly the expectation for two competitive kids.

“They’re both No. 1s. They both probably can’t play at the same time,” Kelly acknowledged. “One’s going to have to be the starter and somebody’s going to be unhappy, but I can’t keep them all happy. We’re not going to go into the season with a team that does not have an identity. We’re going to have an identity as to who we are and that doesn’t mean we can’t play more than one quarterback. But we’ll have a quarterback and we’ll get that established.”

Notre Dame mailbag: Now Open

CLEMSON, SC - OCTOBER 3: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish gather prior to the game against the Clemson Tigers at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images)
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Questions with spring practice winding down? Drop them below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.

(If there’s interest, we also might hold a video mailbag at Facebook. Throw in your votes for that, too.)

Ronnie Stanley signs first-ever NFL endorsement deal with Zappos

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Ronnie Stanley has signed a major endorsement deal with a shoe company. But unlike most professional athletes, the brand he chooses won’t matter.

That’s because Stanley’s signing with Zappos, one of the internet’s top-selling shoe and apparel retailers. ESPN’s Darren Rovell broke the news, getting this money quote from Stanley.

“Most guys do a shoe deal and they don’t have any flexibility because they are tied to who paid them,” Stanley said. “I can do whatever I want.”

The deal came from Stanley’s representatives at Roc Nation, the agency founded by Jay Z, who also represent C.J. Prosise and former ND hoops star Skylar Diggins. It’s a deal that seems like a product of the unique personality Stanley possesses, and the shared roots the potential top-10 pick has with the billion-dollar company headquartered in his hometown of Las Vegas.

From Rovell’s report:

“It was originally just about getting Ronnie in front of guys who are at the top of their game in terms of tech, which he is interested in, and to start a relationship founded on leadership, motivation and community,” Roc Nation president Michael Yormark said. “But, at the end, we talked about the traditional way athletes are marketed with their shoe and apparel deals and felt it made sense to work together to try something different.”

Jeff Espersen, general manager of merchandising for Zappos, said the deal with Stanley represents the first time they’ve had an endorser for the site.

“This is very much unknown territory for us,” Espersen said. “But as people who are deeply involved with Las Vegas, we’ve followed Ronnie’s amazing career to where he is today. He’s a good person, and like us, he wants to be very involved in the community.”

Stanley was Notre Dame’s offensive player of the year and earned consensus All-American honors. He’ll graduate this May, leaving a season of eligibility behind.

 

 

Injury in the clear, Alex Bars finding home at right tackle

Notre Dame offensive line
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After putting together one of the school’s most productive offensive lines, Notre Dame needs to find three new starters to step in for Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Steve Elmer. Spring has already revealed Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand’s intentions of playing rising junior Sam Mustipher at center. And after a time-consuming recovery from a broken ankle suffered last season, it appears that rising junior Alex Bars is looking like the answer at right tackle.

Bars landing on the edge is likely the type of decision that solves any remaining calculus up front for the Irish. Especially as a new-look left side of the offensive line featuring the monstrous duo of Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson takes hold.

Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he mentioned that Nelson weighed 346 pounds—a number dialed back by Hiestand and Notre Dame’s sports information department. But whatever the number may be, any reservations Kelly has about the transition of McGlinchey from right tackle to the left side have been eliminated.

“The left side is crystal clear,” Kelly said. “Those two players are really good. Mike’s been our most efficient blocker and Quenton is in the best physical shape that he’s been in. He’s a rare football player.”

The opposite side still needs clarifying, though Bars fitting in at tackle helps this group come into focus. It also allows us to better understand what this line will look like come an early-September business trip to Austin.

Bars has always had the ability to play tackle, catching Kelly’s eye as a true freshman on the scout team. But with limited depth on the outside, the 6-foot-6, 320-pounder can also solidify a rare roster deficiency that’ll be patched up once promising freshman Tommy Kraemer gets to campus.

“He needs to play tackle,” Hiestand acknowledged on Monday. “We have to have guys that can protect on the edge at tackle when the game comes down to that…Alex has to be able to do that for us. It’s been a process to get Alex back off that broken ankle. We’re kind of progressing in and not overloading him too soon.”

With Bars settling in, that moves the focus to right guard. Seniors Colin McGovern and Hunter Bivin seem to have separated themselves from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge. McGovern has gotten healthy after a concussion forced him out of practice. Bivin will have cross-over ability, capable of serving as a back-up at tackle and giving the Irish “three guys for two spots” with both veterans set to see their first substantial playing time in their career.

“If they’re even, they’re both going to play because they’re both good enough to help us,” Hiestand said.

 

 

Speed helps Corey Holmes turn into spring surprise

Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
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Corey Holmes put himself on the radar with a 40-yard dash time that the coaching staff couldn’t ignore. Now he’s working to make sure he’s not just the latest spring sensation—a 15 practice standout who gets lost once fall comes around.

Brian Kelly put Holmes’ name on the front burner for Irish fans when he revealed that the seldom-used rising junior ran a sub-4.4 during Notre Dame’s pre-spring testing. But he also talked about the need to translate that track speed to the football field, an effort that’s a work in progress.

“There’s track speed. There’s in-line, straight-line speed, and then there’s, quite frankly, football speed,” Kelly explained. “I think that’s been the struggle with Corey in the first couple years is to get that to translate.”

He’s not alone. It look multiple seasons for Chris Brown to make that transition, helped along by the utilization of GPS monitoring during practice and a confidence growth that became apparent during a productive senior season.

After a sophomore year where Holmes took a redshirt (that flew by most who just assumed he was buried on the depth chart), returning to a competitive fight for playing time had Holmes looking at things through a different lens after the team’s top three pass catchers all departed.

The staff has certainly noticed.

“I really like Corey Holmes and what he’s done. He’s been more consistent than he’s ever been to this point,” associate head coach and wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock said. “I’m a hard guy to please. He’s got more work to do but I like the direction he’s moving.”

 

 

Holmes credits the progress he’s made to a new attitude and a look inward. It also helps to have a father who has played the game—in Holmes’ case, his father played at Syracuse before being drafted and playing briefly with the Miami Dolphins.

“My dad used to tell me all the time, ‘Trust your speed. You’re fast, just trust it,'” Holmes said. “At times, I kind of get caught up in trying to make people miss and not show the speed.”

It took that trying sophomore season to figure that out. It also took watching a new generation of impressive young receivers arrive to understand that it was never about battling the roster, but more about challenging himself.

“It wasn’t about until halfway through the season that I finally just stopped worrying about other people and started to just worry about my own game,” Holmes said. “It was hard at the time, but I just looked it as a year for me to get bigger, faster, stronger and work on my game. I just took it as a blessing in disguise. It was a really humbling experience all of last year.”

 

Now the challenge isn’t getting off the bench, but finding a spot on the field. As Kelly and Denbrock mix and match their rebuilt receiving corps, Holmes is looking for a home in that rotation.

He’s lined up in Fuller’s X position, top-end speed on the wide side of the field. He’s moved inside to slot, a position that opened up with C.J. Sanders recovering from a hip injury and Torii Hunter showing flexibility.

It’s all a possibility for Holmes.

“Now that everybody else is gone, you could say it’s my time to step up,” Holmes said. “That’s what I’ve treated this spring as, an opportunity for me to really make some noise. This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for to finally earn a starting spot. That’s in my grasp if I continue to do my thing.”