Analysis: Will double vision pay off for Notre Dame?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It remains to be seen if one of the most intriguing twists in Notre Dame’s climb into contention for a spot in the college football playoff also becomes a truly impactful one, over time.

The morphing of junior Torii Hunter Jr., into a two-way player — nickelback in addition to his normal wide receiver duties — Saturday against Pittsburgh in a 42-30 Irish victory at Heinz Field concocts more questions than perhaps it will eventually answer, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The most of enthralling of which is: What else could this lead to? For instance, All-America linebacker Jaylon Smith as a short-yardage/red zone running back?

The 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his final two seasons at Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers High School, including 150 yards and three TDs in Luers’ 40-28 Class 2-A state title victory over Indianapolis Ritter in 2012.

And Kelly has taken note that there are plenty of star players nationally who have joined the burgeoning trend of dabbling on both sides of the ball, among them Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche and Oregon wide receiver/safety Charles Nelson.

But he also knows two of the most prominent ones — UCLA linebacker Myles Jack and defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes (yes, that Eddie Vanderdoes) — are out for the season with injuries, though neither was a result of an offensive play in a game.

“When you have a dominating player like a Jaylon Smith, I really didn't consider that, because he's just so important to our defense,” Kelly said. “Torii Hunter shares reps offensively, so we felt like he was a great fit to do some work on defense.

“We know Jaylon can play running back. He can play wide receiver. He can play tight end, a number of different positions. But it never was a thought that we had.”

The Hunter experiment, three weeks in the making, didn’t make a big splash Saturday, but it went much better than the last time Kelly tinkered with two-way players.

That was 2011, when linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Steve Filer, and defensive lineman Ethan Johnson all lined up on offense as part of a jumbo package as the Irish faced a third-and-goal from the South Florida 1-yard line.

The first offensive drive of the 2011 season ended with the ball squirting backwards out of Irish running back Jonas’ Gray’s hands and USF’s Kayvon Webster scooping it up and scoring 96 yards later, setting the stage for a 23-20 upset loss.

Kelly never went back to that personnel package again and even ended up replacing the quarterback on that play—Dayne Crist — at halftime of the game. For good.

Kelly has flipped players since then, but on a permanent basis, not as two-way players. Four starters in Saturday’s Pitt game came to ND to play on the other side of the ball from their current positions — running back C.J. Prosise (safety), safety Matthias Farley (wide receiver), cornerback KeiVarae Russell (running back/slot receiver) and linebacker James Onwualu (wide receiver).

Hunter, meanwhile, had three catches for 37 yards and a TD at his familiar wide receiver position. On defense, he didn’t record a tackle in his limited cameos at nickel, but he didn’t allow a reception either.

Now that there’s no element of surprise, it will be interesting to see if teams intentionally target Hunter the next three weeks. And if they do, can he truly make a difference in a secondary that has been groping for consistency all season?

Kelly and the Irish have faced two two-way players so far this season. Both were primarily defensive players and both scored touchdowns against ND.

Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson’s offensive opportunities were expected, as he had already been doing double duty. He ended up with two carries for a modest nine yards, but he also took a short pass and turned it into an 83-yard TD.

Then Saturday, Pitt freshman safety Jordan Whitehead made his surprise collegiate offensive debut against the Irish. Safety Matthias Farley picked off a pass intended for the former Irish recruiting target, but Whitehead rushed for 27 yards on four carries and ran for two touchdowns.

So how did Kelly and his staff help the Irish players adjust to Whitehead’s new role on the fly?

“We didn't adjust very well,” he said. “We told our guys when he came in the game. We were alerting them. They were going to an unbalanced offensive set when he came in, and he was going to get the football. We told them that. We didn't do a very good job.

“Defensively he was a guy that we tried to take out of the mix as much as we could. I thought we did a pretty good job of that. We didn't do as good a job as we would have liked, though, when he had the ball in his hands.”

Numbers that matter

Notre Dame (8-1) on Sunday moved up to No. 6 in the two major polls (Amway coaches and unsponsored AP) that lose their overall impact this time of year.

But they do kind of help set the table for some of the upcoming storylines for Tuesday night’s release of the latest College Football Playoff rankings, where the Irish ranked fifth before their 12-point win at Pitt.

The intrigue figures to involve whether the Irish deserve to move up a spot to No. 4 or if Oklahoma State (9-0) deserves to jump the Irish, as it did in the two polls released Sunday. The Cowboys were 14th in the CFP rankings, several spots lower than the two major polls.

The litmus test will be how the committee treats a 49-29 waxing of TCU, in which Oklahoma State did a great job of making the most out of its four interceptions forced in a game in which it was outgained by more than 200 yards and surrendered more than 640 total yards for the second week in a row.

And how will that bottom line from the TCU win balance itself against a non-conference slate of Central Michigan, Central Arkansas and Texas-San Antonio, followed by some narrow wins over middling Big 12 teams? Before dispatching of the previously unbeaten Horned Frogs, Oklahoma State’s only victory over an FBS team with a winning record was a 24-13 triumph over a 5-4 Central Michigan team.

The only common opponent between ND and Oklahoma State is Texas, a team the Cowboys survived 30-27 and the Irish clobbered, 38-3, although at very different points of the Longhorns’ season. You can’t isolate that one game and build a case for differentiation simply based on that, but it should be one of many pieces in the hair-splitting equation.

From Notre Dame’s standpoint, it got a huge boost this weekend from the five teams, outside of the Irish themselves, that could help Notre Dame’s perception/playoff push the most: Clemson, Temple, Navy, USC and future opponent Stanford.

Not only did all five win last weekend, with two top 25 victories among them, they’re all five favored in their respective games this week.

ND’s past five opponents have a combined 36-8 record (.818), 35-4 when you extract the games against the Irish.

It will be curious whether the committee would see a 42-17 win over Pitt, which is what the score was with five minutes left in the game, markedly different than the 42-30 final outcome.

More relevantly, the scariest, most unplayoff-contender-ish number on ND’s résumé continues to be its national ranking in rushing defense, currently 70th.

Even if the Irish made the playoff, this is where it all could come undone in the national semifinals. The top four teams in this week’s AP poll —1. Clemson, 2. Ohio State, No. 3 Alabama, and No. 4 Baylor — rank 21st, 12th, 36th and fourth nationally in rushing offense.

Last year, the two teams that played for the national title were both top 20 rushing offenses (Ohio State No. 8 and Oregon No. 20). And the team that looked the least like a playoff-team among the four in last year’s field, Florida State, had the nation’s No. 71 rushing defense.

To even get to the playoff this year, Notre Dame will have to go through Stanford on Nov. 28. And yes, the Cardinal run the ball very well. They’re the nation’s No. 15 rushing team.

The Zaire factor

The man who started the season as Notre Dame’s No. 1 quarterback, junior Malik Zaire, is throwing again in practice.

Kind of off one foot, mind you, and in drills in which no significant movement is required. And Kelly revealed Sunday the QB is only two weeks away from having the protective boot removed from the right ankle Zaire broke during a 34-27 win at Virginia on Sept. 12.

But he’s still very much out for the season, even though Kelly’s comments were misconstrued on at least one website that posed a QB debate over what should happen this postseason.

But Zaire is helping to impact the quarterback play, DeShone Kizer’s quarterback play.

And the redshirt freshman, now with seven starts under his belt, woke up Sunday morning as 16th nationally in passing efficiency. His 160.5 rating is the second-best single-season mark ever for an ND quarterback with 100 completions or more, behind only Jimmy Clausen’s 161.4 in 2009.

“He's been great in the meeting rooms, on the sideline in games,” Kelly said of Zaire. “After (Kizer) comes to the sideline, I'll say a couple things to him, then he talks to (QBs) coach (Mike) Sanford on the phone.

“He goes over to Malik and gets the recap and any information he's seen. It's been really good dialogue and has built a strong relationship between the two.”

Kizer threw for five TDs Saturday, tying for the most ever in an ND road game and one short of Brady’s Quinn’s overall single-game record (vs. BYU, 2005). Kizer also ran for a sixth score against Pitt.

“I graded him out very, very high,” Kelly said. “I would probably say right now that he did some things in this game that he hasn't done all year.

“I think that probably is because he's gaining so much more confidence and seeing some things that he feels really comfortable with that has allowed him to now elevate his game to the level that it is right now. I would probably agree that it was his best performance this year.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame junior Torii Hunter Jr. (16) played offense and a little bit of defense against Pitt Saturday at Heinz Field (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. EST; Notre Dame Stadium


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Line: Notre Dame by 25 1/2