Kelly honors piece of his past, defines part of Notre Dame future

South Bend Tribune

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — By the end of the evening, Brian Kelly had probably exhausted himself trying to find original ways to frame Notre Dame football’s quarterback depth chart.

All the while his heart was clearly occupied by the memory of Jason Kinzler.

That’s what brought the fifth-year Irish head coach to Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park Thursday night — just 20 minutes away from where Kelly’s coaching career was essentially launched and eventually fast-tracked — instead of parking himself in front of a television to listen to Mel Kiper Jr.’s hours of NFL Draft patter.

Kinzler was one of Kelly’s first stars at NCAA Division II Grand Valley State, a kid he plucked out of Concord High the same year he persuaded Elkhart Central’s Spencer Calhoun to play running back at GVS. Kinzler (1993-96), a linebacker, left GVS as its second all-time leading tackler. He still is 18 years later.

His more-profound legacy has come after his death in May of 2011 from a heart attack brought on by coronary artery disease at age 37. Seemingly the epitome of health and fitness, Kinzler died during the Fifth Third Riverbank 25K run in Grand Rapids. He left behind wife Kristi and three elementary school-aged children.

Thursday night Kelly gathered with them, Kinzler’s mom (who still lives in Elkhart), Kelly’s wife Paqui, and a sold-out crowd at a dinner to raise money for the Jason Kinzler Family First Foundation. One of only two known charities of its kind in the U.S., the JKFFF provides financial assistance to families with minor children who have experienced the unexpected loss of a primary care-giver.

“I was absolutely shocked,” Kelly said when he heard the news three years ago. “The guy was handsome, fit, always in the best shape. And to hear that he had passed away running a road race at mile 14, you just can’t believe it.

“My first thought was there was some kind of accident. But there was obviously some medical condition he had that nobody knew about. I mean, he ate right way back in the ’90s when nobody ate right. He was the guy who was always talking about nutrition and eating the right way. It was a stunner for me.

“When Kristi called Paqui a couple of years ago to talk about starting a foundation, it really got our interest. Some foundations are tied down in red tape and you’ve got to go through paper work. And this foundation was going to be able to help those people who needed it immediately, people who were losing the financial piece of that family.

“That’s part of the reason we wanted to help and why we’re here tonight.”

Prodded by a handful of media and later Notre Dame fans, Kelly did veer off into some Irish football talk. Here are the most pertinent of those topics:

The quarterback chatter

Kelly isn’t committing to a quarterback duel all the way up until Aug. 29, the eve of the season opener with Rice, but he’s not going to end the process until there is actual separation between 2012 starter Everett Golson and hard-charging sophomore-to-be Malik Zaire — or vice versa.

“I’d rather clearly have somebody be the guy. We’re not at that point, where there’s a clear separation between the two yet. I think that could happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.

“I think Everett has more games under his belt, but you still have to respond when the lights go on. Malik has shown the ability to play better than he practices. Everett has practiced better than he plays. And so we’ve got to continue to work through that and Everett’s got to — when it’s time to shine, he’s got to go take it over.

“We’ve got to get Everett to really grow and develop and then go from there. But nobody has really said yet, ‘Hey, this is my job.’ They’re still competing.”

Kelly envisions Zaire would have made this kind of push even if Golson hadn’t missed the 2013 season because of academic misconduct.

“Playing well in places like Norman, Okla., that asset got him through the year,” Kelly said of Golson. “That put him over the hump. (Playing well against) Alabama put him over the hump. And it’s got him to where he is right now, so maybe that says a lot more about where Malik is.

“Malik is a really good player, and that’s just the way it is. And Everett’s just going to have to continue to grow, and that’s a good thing. I kind of like the fact that we have a guy that’s really pushing him.”

Grace status

After Jarrett Grace’s second round of surgery on March 28 for a right leg broken Oct. 5 in four places, Kelly hoped to know by early May whether the senior middle linebacker would be a go for the 2014 season.

Kelly says now that the timeline was a little ambitious and that it would likely be the middle to the end of June before a final prognosis is reached.

The 6-foot-3, 253-pound Grace played in six games in 2013 and had overtaken Dan Fox as the starter when the injury ended his season.

“I was with Jarrett (Wednesday), and he is moving where we thought he would be in a natural progression,” Kelly said. “But he is now in the Torii Hunter zone relative to that rod healing. Torii (an ND wide receiver who broke a leg in January of 2013) had that rod placed in that leg, and then it was a matter of how that healing took place.

“Torii did not heal very well, and, hence, that’s why he was redshirted. We think, based upon what we saw early on, that Jarrett is going to heal, but we won’t know for another four to six weeks.”

Senior Joe Schmidt, a former walk-on, took the bulk of the reps at middle linebacker in the spring but is viewed as somewhat undersized (6-0, 230). Crete-Monee (Ill.) standout Nyles Morgan is the most celebrated of a handful of freshman linebacker prospects who will be added to the roster in June.

“Another possibility is Ben Councell,” Kelly said.

The 6-5, 254-pound Councell was an outside linebacker in the old defensive scheme. He too had his 2013 season cut short because of an injury (knee surgery).

“He’s a big, strong, physical kid that we can do something with,” Kelly said of the senior, “but it may require us to look at a freshman to come in and eat up some plays for us. I think right now, we’re expecting Jarrett to be able to give us something there, but we’re prepared to be able to get through whatever we need to.”

Baratti on the mend

A frustrated Nicky Baratti pounded his fists as trainers worked over his right shoulder on the sidelines during the Blue-Gold Game April 12 at Notre Dame Stadium.

A first surgery on the junior safety’s left shoulder already cost him spring practice in 2013 and a second surgery for a dislocation wiped out his entire 2013 season.

Kelly said the right-shoulder injury last month was also a dislocation, but that Baratti will not undergo surgery and is expected to compete for playing time this fall.

“This one was not as severe,” Kelly said. “This MRI did not show some of the collateral damage the other dislocations did. So we feel like with a (support) harness that he can play. We’re going to have to see how far that takes us.

“But we’ve had a number of guys play — Bennett Jackson played a whole season with a harness. (Dan) Fox played a year with a harness. So we’re going to have to see how it plays out, but surgery would have disqualified him from playing this year.”

Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly reveals The Shirt during a ceremony on Friday, April 11, 2014, at Notre Dame. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)