Notebook: Brian Kelly still seeing gains in Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The most benevolently twisted story line on a Notre Dame football team saturated with them this season is that Brian Kelly isn’t spending time this week helping first-year starting quarterback DeShone Kizer pick up the pieces.

Instead, the Irish head football coach is trying to coax Kizer to new heights, confident there’s another level still out there for the redshirt freshman who seems to feed off the bright lights and the big stage.

He’ll get another dose of both Saturday night in Palo Alto, Calif., when AP No. 4 and recently demoted CFP No. 6 Notre Dame (10-1) presents its final eye test for consumption by the College Football Playoff Selection Committee in a clash with brainiac rival and AP No. 13 and CFP ninth-ranked Stanford (9-2).

When he does, Kizer will be facing his eighth top 45 defense nationally in his 10th career start. Only Clemson and QB Deshaun Watson (also eight top 45 defenses this season) are in that stratosphere among the top six teams in the College Football Playoff rankings.

Michigan State has seen four and will face its fifth top 45 defense Saturday against Penn State (14th). Iowa also will hold at five after the weekend, with Alabama having taken on three and Oklahoma one — that being Akron (No. 28 total defense) in the Sooners’ season opener.

Kizer and the Irish are the only ones to face two top five defenses (No. 5 Clemson, No. 1 BC). Stanford comes into the weekend at No. 43.

And Kizer is the wild card in that game, having evolved well beyond a game manager, and with pass defense being the weaker component of the Cardinal D.

“He's a very strong person,” Kelly said of the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder, who is coming off a three-interception performance in a 19-16 edging of Boston College last Saturday night at Fenway Park in Boston.

“He knows who he is. He's comfortable in who he is as a person. So just a strong character kid that can recognize when he makes a mistake, he can move past it. And that's why he's destined to be a great player, because he can learn from his mistakes and move on.”

Of the five metrics that tend to be strong points of the national champions in the BCS/Playoff Era — rush offense, rush defense, total defense, turnover margin, pass efficiency — the box Kizer checks among ND’s national rankings in those categories is closest to a titlist’s template.

He ranks 19th in passing efficiency, first among true or redshirt freshman nationally, with a 152.5 rating. And with 371 rushing yards, he’s 50 away from passing Paul Hornung for sixth place on the single-season rushing list for ND quarterbacks, which he logged in his Heisman Trophy-winning season of 1956.

“He's just scratching the surface,” Kelly said of Kizer, the latter of whom admitted questioning whether he was even playing the right sport after emerging from spring practice as a distant third on the depth chart behind Everett Golson and Malik Zaire.

“As I told him, the discipline to play quarterback is incredible, because it requires a mental discipline and it requires a discipline in the scope of that's when you've got to take a sack. And you don't want to. And that's the hardest thing. Those are the things that he's learning.

“So he did some things physically that were outstanding. That's why it's so exciting that as he goes through some of these things and sees them and realizes it, you know there's another level for him.”

Grounded perspective

The splits when Stanford head coach David Shaw and ND’s Kelly win or lose the rushing battle are so extreme, it’s easy to see how important the performances of Irish freshman running backs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams are to Saturday night’s outcome.

Particularly since the nation’s fourth-leading rusher, Christian McCaffrey, is on the other side of that equation.

Shaw, whose official title is actually the “Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football,” is 48-4 at Stanford when the Cardinal outrush their opponents, 3-10 when they don’t.

The Irish won the rushing battle the two times Shaw has lost to Notre Dame (in four tries), 150-147 in the 2012 defeat, and 129-47 last season.

Kelly, meanwhile, is 40-5 when his ND teams outrush their opponents, 14-16 when they don’t.

The Irish head coach didn’t completely rule out 1,000-yard rusher C.J. Prosise for Saturday night’s game, but the senior is in a walking boot after suffering a high ankle sprain last Saturday night against Boston College.

“He's day to day, and we'll see where that takes us through the week,” Kelly said Tuesday.

Josh Adams, likely to get his second career start Saturday night, has 592 yards (on 84 carries), fourth-most by a freshman in Irish history, and 103 yards behind his position coach, Autry Denson, for third place.

Adams’ tag-team partner, Dexter Williams has 76 yards on 18 carries.

“We've brought him along slowly,” Kelly said of Williams. “We've added more reps to his practice each and every week. We'll add more again this week. So he's going to have to play and he's going to have to contribute this weekend.

“And we think he's ready to contribute and help the football team win this weekend.”

But can either contribute significantly in the passing game?

Even with Prosise missing the Wake Forest game and large chunks of two other games, he is Notre Dame’s fourth-leading receiver, with 26 receptions for 308 yards and a TD. Adams has five catches for 14 yards and a score. Williams is still looking for his first college reception.

“They're going to have to — and they know what to do and how to do it,” Kelly said of the freshmen in the passing game. “It's how we operate. We run the same plays with those guys. We don't change anything.

“And if they don't run it right, they hear from me. If they don't catch it, they hear from me. We just envision them stepping in and running the same plays.”

Corner by committee?

Kelly continues to insist junior Devin Butler, sophomore Nick Watkins and freshman Nick Coleman are all in the mix to take the place of injured starting cornerback KeiVarae Russell against Stanford.

“We think all three of them as a combination might be the best way to go,” he said, noting that Butler has starting experience.

What he didn’t point out was that those two starts, last season against Arizona State and USC, were games in which the Irish were outscored by a combined 104-45.

Butler, though, does know Stanford starting QB Kevin Hogan the best. The two were teammates at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., with Hogan a couple of years ahead of him.

Kelly said that wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., could be reintroduced into the defensive backfield mix at the nickel position after playing only offense last weekend against Boston College.

“We didn't feel like we were in that need and that position against Boston College,” he said. “It could be a bigger need this weekend. He's still taking reps and still working with our defense weekly relative to the nickel position.”

Russell, meanwhile, underwent successful surgery, per Kelly, with a rod and two screws inserted into his broken right tibia on Monday.

Kelly said Russell had been dealing with shin splints prior to suffering the injury, but Kelly didn’t think the two conditions were related.

“It was an explosive tackle that he made that caused the fracture,” Kelly said, who still was hopeful Russell could return to play in a bowl or playoff game.

Last man standing

A plethora of finalists for various individual national awards were unveiled Tuesday evening, with Notre Dame players failing to survive the cut to three finalists for the Outland (Ronnie Stanley), Maxwell (Will Fuller), Biletnikoff (Fuller), Wuerffel (Corey Robinson), Doak Walker (C.J. Prosise) and Bednarik (Jaylon Smith).

Smith, a junior linebacker, does remain in play for a couple of awards, though, and is the only Irish player in that position. He’s one of five finalists for the Butkus Award and one of nine semifinalists for the Lott Impact Trophy.

Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer (14) looks to pass during the first half of the Notre Dame-Boston College NCAA football game on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, inside Fenway Park in Boston, Mass. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN