Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire gets ready to throw a pass as the Notre Dame football team practices at Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016.  About the only thing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly can say for certain about the quarterback position on the eve of practice is he doesn't expect DeShone Kizer and Zaire to play at the same time. (Santiago Flores/The South Bend Tribune via AP)
AP via South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly: Both Kizer and Zaire will play against Texas

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Brian Kelly announced that both Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer will play against Texas, answering one of the biggest questions of the preseason with an solution that didn’t seem plausible heading into training camp.

“We’re best prepared to play Texas playing both DeShone and Malik,” Kelly said Wednesday during his Media Day press conference.

Thus ends a quarterback derby—for now—that was one of the biggest position battles in the country and the single largest storyline for Notre Dame heading into this season. And with the decision coming more than two weeks before the Irish head to Austin, it was likely made to get that position settled and an offensive game plan started.

“The decision was made now so they can just settle into getting better every day,” Kelly said.

When pressed for specifics on how this will all work, Kelly didn’t tip his hand—keeping a schematic headache alive for Texas coaches, and every other opponent down the line. So while he didn’t commit to this being more than just a one-game experiment, he did think it was the best  way to ensure Notre Dame returned home from Austin with a win in the most important game on their schedule.

Kelly has spent much of training camp talking about how close this battle was. The past week has had him acknowledge that Zaire and Kizer are two of his best five playmakers. And because of that, it was the best move to make sure they both have a chance to help the Irish win.

“My ultimate decision is that I can’t put one of them on the sideline against Texas,” Kelly said.

Now the work begins on the game plan. As Notre Dame prepares its attack against Charlie Strong’s improved team, Kelly seemed confident that his offense will not struggle to find an identity, even with two different quarterbacks piloting the attack.

“The offense is seamless when one of them will come out of the game, there’s not a big change when one is in than the other,” Kelly explained. “There’s play call differences, but that doesn’t require much change at all.”

The team now moves forward with two leaders on offense. And while there might be frustrations among both players to be sharing a job, Kelly said it was in the best interest of the program to make sure both guys got on the field.

“These two guys are too good. I just watch them in practice and they’re making plays,” Kelly said. “It was just counterintuitive to take one of these guys off the field.”

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Devin Studstill

Studstill 247
Tom Loy / Irish247
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Another rookie, another young player who took charge as an early enrollee. Devin Studstill went from high school to pushing Max Redfield for starting reps this spring. Quite a jump for a guy who was supposed to be at prom, not running with the first string.

While fall camp looks like Redfield is back with the ones, Studstill quickly earned the praise of his defensive coaching staff—a group that needs to develop the talented young safety who projects to get on the field early.

 

DEVIN STUDSTILL
6’0″, 198 lbs.
Freshman, No. 19, S

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A consensus three-star recruit, Studstill earned All-State honors and was the Florida Sentinel’s large school defensive player of the year. While his physical traits didn’t wow any of the recruiting services, he had offers from Miami, Texas and a handful of other big programs, picking Notre Dame over West Virginia, where his father played quarterback before being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Another early target by Notre Dame’s staff, who got to see Studstill at Irish Invasion camp and followed his development during their recruitment of Te’von Coney. Studstill showed that a young player could figure out Brian VanGorder’s system, bringing a high-IQ safety onto campus and ahead of a few players on the depth chart.

He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he can play downhill, is physical and has free safety skills. His ceiling may top out because he’s not going to stand out as a physical freak, but Autry Denson paid him the ultimate compliment when he said “he was a young man that God created to play football.”

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Redfield may be the starter, but Notre Dame is going to need another safety who can play in the open field. And Studstill seems to have earned enough trust to get the staff to believe he’s the guy—though they don’t exactly have a ton of options.

With depth not making a redshirt logical, getting Studstill experience on special teams is a good start. And then he’ll likely be the next guy in behind Redfield, who has done a nice job of convincing the staff he’s ready to play consistent football, but has yet to show that he can actually do it.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson

 

Irish A-to-Z: Kevin Stepherson

KJ Stepherson
Tom Loy / Irish 247
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A modest recruit who flew under the national radar. A stick-skinny freshman with surprising deep speed.

Kevin Stepherson‘s early arrival on campus has led to great expectations. Now all he has to do is deliver. (No pressure, kid.)

 

KEVIN STEPHERSON
6’0″, 181 lbs.
Freshman, No. 29, WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A three-star prospect who dominated Irish Invasion camp, Notre Dame immediately viewed Stepherson as an under-the-radar prospect, not a guy who barely cracked the Top 100 wideouts in the country.

With offers from Florida, Miami, LSU and Michigan, he certainly caught the eye of some big programs. And after arriving on campus early, Stepherson looked like another great find for Notre Dame’s staff.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL 

At this point, it’s just a matter of time before someone compares Stepherson to Will Fuller. That might heap quite a bit on the freshman’s shoulders, but Brian Kelly has routinely praised Stepherson’s route-running and hands, two assets Stepherson enters college with that are at a more advanced place than Fuller’s.

Of course, pure speed is another commodity. And while Stepherson looks like a blazer, there’s good speed and then there’s Will Fuller speed. So until we see the young Floridian torch opponents over the top, we’ll drop his ceiling down a few notches—no slight when you’re comparing him to the most dangerous deep ball threat in college football.

Yes, that’s the freshman hype machine talking. But if we’re setting a ceiling for a prospect, all you can go on is what we’ve seen in 15 practices and snippets from training camp. So while comparing Stepherson to an All-American and first-rounder, that doesn’t mean his ceiling is anything but sky high.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

This is the part where I remind you that even Will Fuller wasn’t Will Fuller during his freshman season. He was a gangly kid who caught a couple deep balls among his six grabs as a rookie.

Stepherson is going to eclipse those numbers. He might even challenge for a starting job. But it’s just too much of a leap to predict a monster season from Stepherson, even if the entire starting receiving corps is being replaced and the Florida native seems primed for a key role.

I’m setting the standard for Stepherson high—but only to a point. If Stepherson is going to share time in the slot, he’s got a chance to put up numbers at least equal to the last true freshman who jumped into an unproven depth chart—TJ Jones.

Jones had 23 grabs and three touchdowns as a rookie. I think Stepherson is going to eclipse that, but maybe not by much.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown

 

No separation yet for Irish quarterbacks

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Brian Kelly has DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire ready to play for him. And the longer this competition plays out, the more likely it appears that both quarterbacks will help this offense.

How that shakes out remains to be seen. How this staff handles game-planning, let alone managing two distinctly different quarterbacks, is still a mystery. But with less than three weeks to go before the Irish travel to Austin to take on Texas, Kelly sounds like a coach still expecting to make it work.

If you’re looking at and asking who are the top playmakers on offense, and if you have five of them, two of the five are the quarterbacks,” Kelly said on Saturday after an open practice.  “You saw that again today.”

But as the pads go on and the competition ramps up, the two different paths this offense can go down begin to emerge. And while that makes the identity of this offense a still-developing process, Kelly did differentiate between the two quarterbacks when discussing how the team looked during a live scrimmage session.

One guy is making great checks at the line of scrimmage, getting us in protections, getting great one-on-one matchups,” Kelly said, in reference to Kizer. “And the other guy is making somebody miss in the backfield and throwing to a wide open back.

“They both have different ways of moving the offense down the field and that continues to show itself as we move through camp. Both of them have a way to move the offense, they just move it a little bit differently.”

You can slice and dice that last comment any way you want to, but if we know Kelly at all after six seasons, the attributes he assigned to Kizer are traits he values quite highly.

Then again, after watching the Irish offense be more explosive in 2015 than any other season, finding a play-maker who can bail out an Irish offense relying on youth at receiver isn’t the worst thing in the world. Zaire’s escape and touchdown pass to Tony Jones—a play that sounds mighty similar to the scramble and connection he had with Justin Brent in the spring game—is a skill that Kelly craves, too.

With camp soon to transition from installation and identity-building to focusing on a gameplan to beat Texas, if any one thing is starting to stand out, it’s that the staff is beginning to prepare specific menus for each quarterback.

“I think more than anything else is we’re trying to make sure that we run the offense through their skills,” Kelly explained. “Every day is not what did you see to decide about the Malik or what did you see that is going to help you decide on Kizer. We already know about both of them.

“It’s really about focusing the offensive play calls and the offense that we want to run through Malik. And focusing the play calls in the offense that we want to run through Kizer.”

So with Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford—three proverbial cooks in the kitchen–the question isn’t if Zaire or Kizer are capable of beating Texas. We’ve seen Zaire do it, slicing and dicing his way through the Texas defense. And Kizer won more games than anybody expected.

So as the team continues to evolve, a head coach once dead-set again juggling two quarterbacks sounds more and more comfortable with the idea.

Irish A-to-Z: Equanimeous St. Brown

Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown, left, moves by Andrew Trumbetti during the Blue-Gold spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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Equanimeous St. Brown already owned the tag of being one of college football’s most interesting recruits. Now he needs to find a way to keep fans interested by making headlines for his play on the field.

A trilingual son of a former Mr. Universe, St. Brown no longer gets to draw attention because of his unique upbringing. But with a starting job within grasp, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to step into a rebuilt receiving corps and make a name for himself on the field.

 

EQUANIMEOUS ST. BROWN
6’4″, 205 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 6, WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

An Under Armour All-American and a Top 250 prospect, St. Brown was an early target by Notre Dame and had most of the Pac-12’s elite after him. While his high school production was limited due to offensive scheme and an injury-plagued senior season, St. Brown still had offers from USC, UCLA, Miami, Stanford and LSU before picking Notre Dame.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Played in seven games, catching one pass for eight yards. Also returned a punt for 18 yards. His punt block against USC for a touchdown was one of the season’s biggest special teams plays.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

He was good enough to see the field, but didn’t make much of an offensive impact. Partial credit?

I don’t really see a world where St. Brown plays this season. It doesn’t make a ton of sense, especially with the depth in front of him. That said, if he’s able to push his way onto the field, he’s got the length and the jumping ability to be a candidate for the “freshman designated deep ball target.” That’s been a promising sign.

Otherwise, St. Brown can spend the season getting used to a college offense that’s far more complex than the one he ran in high school. That shouldn’t be much of a challenge for a guy who speaks German at home with his mother and has AP credits falling out of his pockets, so however 2015 plays out for St. Brown, the future is bright.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

The difference between impressive freshman and sophomore needing to make an impact is stark. So while St. Brown managed to draw plenty of eyeballs in fall camp last year, the bar has been raised.

St. Brown has immense physical gifts. His size and length make him a great option at the boundary receiver—a position that’s lost two potential contributors with Corey Robinson and Alizé Jones gone. That gives St. Brown a chance to be one of the surprise contributors of 2016, though he’ll need to add some consistency to his game.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

The drop-off from a veteran like Chris Brown to a receiver with one career catch is sizable. But from a physical skills perspective, St. Brown can do everything needed to be a standout, he just needs to grow up in a hurry.

Predicting a breakout sophomore season like the ones Golden Tate or Will Fuller had isn’t fair. But with a strong running game and Torii Hunter across from him, St. Brown will have plenty of opportunities to make big plays, he just needs to seize those chances.

Can St. Brown put himself on course to be the next great Irish receiver? The hype has slowed, but there’s no reason the answer should be no.

This camp has been all about young receivers finding consistency. While Kevin Stepherson seems to have taken most of the excitement, I think St. Brown will be the best of the bunch—at least in 2016.

But let’s keep expectations in check. I’ll set the bar somewhere between Torii Hunter’s 2015 and Chris Brown’s junior season, with St. Brown catching somewhere around 30 balls if he stays healthy and holds onto his starting job.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe