Notebook: Brian Kelly gives Notre Dame QBs a shot of reality

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND —DeShone Kizer looked downfield and saw nothing but potential interceptions — and the anticipated eruption from Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly that usually accompanies such occurrences.

So the Irish redshirt freshman quarterback tucked the ball, weaved his way through defenders for a modest gain and got clobbered.

In fact, Kizer got hit a lot Saturday in practice, though mostly on zone-read plays. So did true freshman Brandon Wimbush, the other player competing to be junior Malik Zaire’s understudy at quarterback.

Zaire wore the protective “hands off” red jersey Saturday that all the Irish QBs typically don in practice sessions. Kizer and Wimbush wore blue, and were live to give Kelly a better look at reality.

“When you put a red jersey on them, it’s hard to evaluate them sometimes as truly who they are as a quarterback,” Kelly said, “whether they’re somebody that can make plays on the run, how they are physically, their ability to run the football.

“We want to be able to run the football with our quarterbacks, and I think sometimes you hamstring them and can’t evaluate them. And I think we’re still evaluating them in terms of what they can and can’t do.”

Kizer, playing with the No. 2 offense against the No. 2 defense, did everything with a little more ease and proficiency than Wimbush (with the 3s vs. 3s) on Saturday, though the latter’s speed and arm strength shine through even when his grasp of the big picture fades in and out.

Kizer capped his day with a nifty 12-yard touchdown run through traffic to finish off an impressive drive.

“I don’t think I come into the office thinking, ‘I’m looking for separation,’ ” Kelly said of the two backups. “But I want to put them in a positon that if there is, there can be. I think the best way to do that is to give them the opportunity to play the game live and play real football.”

Zaire, meanwhile, looks more and more like a No. 1 QB as training camp progresses.

“I think what I like about him — extremely coachable. I like that he’s focusing in on some of the detail areas that are so important at the quarterback position: Red zone functionality, management of the offense in its smallest details, communication, the real important elements that don’t get talked about.”

Freshman surprise reprise

It’s becoming a recurring theme, both visually during practice and in Kelly’s post-practice dissections. On a team teeming with experience and returning starters, many of ND’s first-year players continue to push themselves into prominent roles.

Here’s a sampling from Saturday’s practice:

• One of the most impressive plays wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown concocted Saturday was a catch he didn’t make.

On an overthrown ball that looked destined to be picked off by cornerback Cole Luke, St. Brown — with no chance to make the catch himself — extended his 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame just enough to tip the ball away from Luke.

“We thought that Equanimeous was going to be a good receiver for us, but maybe down the road,” Kelly said. “He’s ready. I mean, that kid runs like a deer. And we’ve put him up against everybody, and he can run past you and can go up and get the football.

“But the thing I like about him the most is twice now he’s sprained his ankle and he’s been back in 24 hours. He’s got toughness, too. When you get a freshman like that who’s got that kind of toughness early on, you know you’ve got something special.”

• Freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford has risen to the top of the depth chart as a nickelback on obvious passing downs. The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder, poached from Michigan’s recruiting class, continues to show the speed, physicality and smarts to handle the position.

“He knows our defense already,” Kelly said. “He knows our calls, and he’s already helping our safeties in certain situations in terms of overriding some calls. The kid’s a smart football player. He gets it. He just has a knack for the game.”

• Nick Coleman, a former high school teammate of Zaire’s at Kettering (Ohio) Archbishop Alter, has also impressed in the defensive backfield. He’s a former three-star prospect and was one of the least-hyped recruits in the 2015 class.

“He’s long, athletic and has makeup speed,” Kelly said. “That’s a great quality to have, because usually corners are making up. And he plays the ball very well in the air, has the ability to adjust when the ball’s in the air.”

• The shortest player on the Irish roster, 5-8, 185-pound slot receiver C.J. Sanders, made one of the biggest offensive plays of the day, and on a run, no less.

Sanders took an inside handoff and looked to be bottled up for at least a five-yard loss, but somehow wiggled and accelerated for a sizeable gain.

“Some of our guys have got straight-line speed, but they don’t have the ability to cut at full speed,” Kelly said of Sanders, who returned a punt 86 yards for a TD on Saturday. “He’s got the ability to cut at full speed, which we haven’t had in my time here. It’s something that’s been lacking. He’s certainly a guy that can be a weapon for us.”

Personnel matters

Beyond nose guard Jarron Jones’ season-ending knee injury, co-starting running back C.J. Prosise and freshman linebacker Josh Barajas missed time Saturday with injuries that will keep them out of action for at least next week.

Kelly said Prosise suffered a hip flexor, while Barajas sustained a hamstring pull. The latter is expected out two weeks, while Prosise is expected to be 100 percent within a 10-day window.

“I think how it affects us, more than anything else, is making sure that we don’t wear out (Tarean) Folston,” Kelly said of Prosise’s injury.

Newly minted scholarship running back Josh Anderson leaped up the depth chart to share carries with Folston on the No. 1 offense. He didn’t look out of place, scoring on a six-yard run.


• Saturday was faculty, staff and family day, with the swell of visitors mixing in with the media. Perhaps the highlight of their presence was when Sheldon Day’s mom let out a boisterous cheer when her son unceremoniously hit a blocking dummy during a drill.

• Comeback kid Jarrett Grace had a comeback of a different kind and the line of the day post-practice when pressed about his new facial hair.

Media member: “That’s the best mustache since Troy Niklas.” To which Grace responded: “Well, this one’s real.”

On a serious note, Grace revealed he played through significant pain during the spring as his comeback from a serious leg injury, suffered in the 2013 season, gained significant momentum.

“I can now hone in on being a great linebacker and go at it with great health,” he said.

• After making the first 18 field goal attempts of training camp, freshman Justin Yoon had his first attempt on Saturday blocked. He then nailed all three of his remaining tries.

• As expected, transferring Notre Dame sophomore defensive end Kolin Hill announced Saturday that his landing spot is Texas Tech.

• Cal transfer Avery Sebastian, a grad student, took No. 1 reps at safety Saturday, with displaced senior Elijah Shumate working with the 2s.

Jarrett Grace's stache is playing for keeps, guys.

A photo posted by ND Insider (@nd_insider) on Aug 15, 2015 at 10:53am PDT

Quarterback DeShone Kizer (14) took his hits Saturday in practice and kept on ticking as he makes a bid to be ND's No. 2 option at QB. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)