3-0: Assessing the Irish at the quarter-turn

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Step back from the computer. Or perhaps imagine yourself at a summer barbecue, talking football over a cold one with your friends. If someone told you the Irish would be 3-0 with decisive victories over Texas and Georgia Tech, you’d have taken it, right?

Well that’s where Brian Kelly’s team finds itself, undefeated at the end of the first quarter of the season. And while the cost of doing business has been steep—six key players, including starters at nose guard, running back, quarterback, tight end, and in the nickel and dime package—the Irish are No. 6 in the country heading into their weekend tilt with UMass.

Let’s take a look at each position group and take stock of where we are.

 

QUARTERBACK

After starting out elite, Malik Zaire struggled at Virginia before ending his season with a broken ankle. Zaire had passed with pinpoint precision in a victory over Texas and then averaged nearly nine yards a carry as a runner at the time of his injury against Virginia.

DeShone Kizer came in and after a slow start rallied the Irish with a late-game touchdown against the Cavaliers, with a touchdown throw for the ages to Will Fuller. Then Kizer executed a conservative game plan against Georgia Tech in his first start, throwing an interception but leading the Irish to victory.

Combine both quarterbacks work through three games and their collective stat-line—55 of 83 (66.2%) for 762 yards, 7 TD, 1 INT—it’s tough to ask for much more.

Overall: All things considered, this is a great result for a position currently living on the edge. And it’s a credit to new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford. Limiting the interceptions while being explosive in the pass game has been critical. But more difficult challenges are ahead, starting next weekend with a road trip to Clemson.

 

RUNNING BACK

On his third carry of the season, Tarean Folston saw a hole, cut hard off the back of his offensive line and exploded for a gain of 15 yards. It was his last play of the 2015 season. Folston’s ACL tore on the run, an injury that even slowed down and rewound is inexplicable. After losing Greg Bryant to academics and Folston to a knee injury, the door opened for C.J. Prosise to carry the load.

He’s done all of that, currently fifth in the nation in rushing yards with 451. At 150 yards a game, if Prosise can stay healthy he’s likely to shatter the single-season record held by Vagas Ferguson, and right now has an outside chance at running for 2,000 yards. A powerful runner still learning how to be a back, Prosise’s big-play potential has been obvious, he’s scored touchdowns on runs of 24 yards, 17 yards and a Notre Dame Stadium record 91-yards.

Behind Prosise, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams are still figuring things out. Adams started quickly against Texas, and really only saw minimal time against Virginia and Georgia Tech. Williams has seen even less, with Justin Brent still working with the scout team.

Overall: Limiting Prosise’s pitch count is the next order of business, though he’ll likely take just about every carry against Clemson, especially on the road. But if the young backs can build confidence against UMass and Navy and Prosise can carry the load against Clemson and USC, getting to the bye week healthy should be the goal.

 

WIDE RECEIVERS

It’s been the Will Fuller show. Notre Dame’s most explosive offensive weapon leads the nation in touchdown catches with five, not missing a beat with the quarterback change and growing attention in coverage. Senior Chris Brown has emerged as the No. 2 receiver, somewhat of a surprise, considering where Corey Robinson and Brown left things last season.

The depth at this position makes early returns tough to analyze. Other than understanding that Fuller is going to be fed the football, Brown could give some of his receptions to Robinson, Torii Hunter or Amir Carlisle and there’s nobody that would be that surprised. Freshman Equanimeous St. Brown has seen the field early, but it requires Fuller to stay off of it, a bad trade for the Irish offense. A redshirt is still possible for the lanky freshman, so we’ll see how they go there.

Overall: It’s hard for this group to do much more, especially considering the movement at the quarterback position. But Fuller is on pace to shatter single-season records, Brown is on pace for 60 catches and the depth at the position should help Kizer to stay comfortable, with too much talent to cover if the Irish receivers can find 1-on-1 matchups.

 

TIGHT ENDS

When Durham Smythe went down, the minimal experience the Irish had went down with him. Sure, Tyler Luatua played last season. But he was a glorified blocker, who’ll now have every opportunity to take more snaps.

We saw Brian Kelly force feed Alizé Jones the football. The freshman has done some good things, but has a drop and a critical fumble that nearly cost the Irish big time. Nic Weishar made his first catch against Georgia Tech and will likely be a safety valve, a solid pass catcher even if he’s still learning how to block.

With the running game explosive and the receiving corps stacked, there just aren’t a lot of footballs to go around. But Jones has potential, Luatua will be asked to do multiple jobs and even Chase Hounshell has seen some time, likely an option as a blocker. This group hasn’t done anything outstanding through the first quarter of the season. But ordinary and assignment-correct football will be just fine.

Overall: It’s not like Tyler Eifert or Kyle Rudolph is out there. Jones has a bright future that Kelly and company want to jump start, but this offense could stay conservative with Kizer at the helm.

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

Outside of a tough afternoon in Virginia blocking in obvious running situations, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line has protected the quarterback and helped trigger an explosive ground game. There’s been some difficulties handling presnap responsibilities—too many false starts. But a starting five of Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson, Nick Martin, Steve Elmer and Mike McGlinchey already looks like a rock-solid group.

Dictating the tempo of the football game is on the offensive line’s plate. And we’ll get a valuable datapoint against Clemson next weekend, with the Death Valley night crowd doing its best to make communication nonexistent and the Tigers challenging the Irish at the point of attack.

Overall: This is a group with a tremendously high ceiling. Stanley looks like a first rounder and Nick Martin is playing with more confidence now that he’s fully healthy. Seeing McGlinchey in space and you begin to understand why Kelly loves him, and Nelson and Elmer are two mauling guards. The numbers tell us one thing—this team can control play. But this season will be determined by this group keeping Kizer upright and the Irish in control, especially in upcoming tests against Clemson and USC.

 

Part Two on the defense next…