Analysis: Finding offensive identity tops Brian Kelly's to-do list

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer?

It’s the most provocative, though also the most hackneyed, question of Notre Dame spring football, the one that will eventually make the most headlines — though not until long after spring drills actually conclude on April 16.

Kizer or Zaire? … Does it matter?

In Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mind, the more pragmatic question that has emerged through 10 spring practices, though, and one that requires a more immediate and defined answer, is what will the offensive identity look like around whomever surfaces as the depth-chart topper at QB?

In lessons learned from his own Everett Golson-Zaire QB-a-thon last spring as well as a peek over at Ohio State’s sometimes-clumsy sifting through three QBs with starting experience in an offseason process that dragged well into the 2015 season, Kelly gleaned his “aha” moment.

“It seemed to me that Ohio State found their identity after the Michigan State game,” Kelly said Wednesday after practice, “where I think in a lot of ways Ezekiel Elliott was credited with kind of waking up their entire coaching staff and saying, ‘Who are we?’"

The Buckeyes lost their grip on a playoff spot in that game, a 17-14 loss on Nov. 21 in which they amassed just five first downs and 132 total yards and went 4-of-14 on third down. Up until that point in the season, they’d run hot and cold on offense.

After the Michigan State loss, star running back Elliott publicly criticized the offensive play-calling.

Ohio State responded the following Saturday with 482 yards, 25 first downs and 7-for-13 third-down efficiency against the nation’s No. 4 defense in Michigan, then overpowered ND’s defense with much of the same in the Fiesta Bowl — 496 total yards, 27 first downs, 10-of-18 on third down.

“They clearly decided who they were going to be after that game,” Kelly said of a game plan that included way more touches for Elliott and a distinct direction at QB. “They went with J.T. (Barrett) and said, ‘This is what we’re going to be.’ And that’s who they were against us.

“I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen to us — we’ll have an identity. We’ll know who we are. It doesn’t mean you can’t play two quarterbacks, but we’ll clearly need to know that (identity).

“You just can’t keep three quarterbacks happy. Somebody’s going to be disappointed. But they’re going to have to know their roles and accept their roles, moving forward.”

In the media viewing windows this spring, all three of the QBs getting meaningful reps — Kizer, Zaire and sophomore Brandon Wimbush — have been impressive. That’s apparently the same observation for those who have been able to take in entire practices.

For instance, Aaron Taylor, a former ND All-American offensive lineman and current analyst for CBS Sports, recently called ND’s QB situation, “an embarrassment of riches.”

As for what the personnel looks like around the QBs in forming the offensive identity, here’s a thumbnail view of how that’s shaping up:

• Tight ends are rising: Inexperience, injuries and a strong wide receiver corps all contributed to Tight End U getting the fewest catches in a season (20 in 2015), since Bob Davie’s final season as ND’s head coach (8 catches in 2001), and 46 fewer than in 2011 — the peak season in the 2000s.

Count on that trend to start reversing itself, and perhaps dramatically so in 2016.

The surprise this spring among the tight ends has been current fourth-stringer Jacob Matuska, a high school standout at the position before spending his first three seasons at ND as a back-up defensive lineman.

“He catches the ball better we thought, and (he’s) picking up the techniques as an in-line blocker,” Kelly said of the 6-foot-5, 275-pound senior, down 20 pounds from his nose guard weight.

Sophomore Alizé Jones, ND’s active career leader in receptions among the right ends (13), and junior Nic Weishar— catch-first, block-second types last season — have rounded out their blocking games, while also improving their already-strong route running.

Jones has even been taking some reps at ND’s boundary-outside receiver position, likely more portending a role as a flex tight end in two-tight end sets (think Tyler Eifert) than actually fighting for reps at that receiver position with the likes of Equanimeous St. Brown and others.

No. 1 tight end Durham Smythe, who missed all but the very start and very end of last season, is healthier, stronger and the complete package.

• Quality and quantity at running back: A true running back rotation never really materialized last season, as planned.

Tarean Folston’s ACL tear in the 2015 season opener put the notion on the back burner. And while the Irish ended up with two running backs — Josh Adams and since-departed C.J. Prosise — who each rushed for more than 800 yards and averaged at least 6.6 yards a carry, rarely did they excel in tandem.

Early in the season, the Irish coaches were reluctant to put then-freshman Adams in too many high-leverage situations. Late in the season, when they did trust him, Prosise was rarely 100 percent.

Look for Adams, Folston and rising sophomore Dexter Williams to coax ND’s running game to the strongest and most-relied-upon iteration of the Kelly Era.

The Irish open with Texas (111th nationally in rush defense out of 127 in 2015), followed by Nevada (89th) before facing Michigan State (11th), the only 2016 Irish opponent that finished among the top 25 rush defenses last season.

• Plenty of promise but also plenty of sorting out to do at wide receiver: The one absolute to emerge from the first 10 spring practices in this young and deep position group is that senior Torii Hunter Jr., is the alpha dog and has moved from slot receiver to Will Fuller’s old outside position to take advantage of that.

Hunter doesn’t play like someone with just one career start, nor does his moonlighting as an outfielder for the Irish baseball team seem to be diluting his progress.

There are only two players on the Irish roster with more starting experience at wide receiver than Hunter’s modest single start — James Onwualu with four starts at receiver in 2013 before moving to linebacker, and Corey Robinson (five career starts), who missed yet another practice while waiting to meet with a specialist this week to help him size up his situation with multiple concussions.

Junior Corey Holmes, sophomore St. Brown and early enrolled freshman Kevin Stepherson have shown the most and brightest glimpses among the new wave of receivers, but there will be a whole ’nother level of proving to do once they move out of the controlled cocoon of spring and into bright lights in the fall with persistent tests from opposing defensive coordinators.

Two other options arrive in June that shouldn’t be counted out — freshmen Chase Claypool (6-4, 215) and Javon McKinley (6-3, 205). Sophomore C.J. Sanders, who recently underwent hip surgery, could also push into the August mix in the slot.

• Answers and chemistry developing on the line: The alignment that took first-team reps Wednesday in practice is more and more likely to be the one that starts at Texas on Sept. 3. From left tackle to right, that’s Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher, Hunter Bivin and Alex Bars.

The left side has looked dominant in practice, as expected. The revelation has been junior Mustipher, who steps in for departed Nick Martin.

Mustipher’s athleticism and retention has helped him hold off surging sophomore Tristen Hoge, but he’ll be tested early and often by opposing fronts, starting with Texas — the nation’s No. 5 team in sacks last season (but just one against ND in the 2015 opener).

“We’re not giving him as much as we gave Nick in terms of flipping protections, right away,” Kelly said. “We’re asking the quarterback to do a little bit more of that.

“But he’ll gradually move into those shoes, so we’ve been pleased with what he’s been able to accomplish as a first-time center for us. There’s a lot going on there, but he’s going to be a solid player for us.”

Squibs

• Fourth-string QB Montgomery VanGorder got a chance to be Notre Dame’s first-team holder Wednesday in practice, something sophomore kicker Justin Yoon had been campaigning for, per Kelly.

Kizer, last year’s holder, was the No. 3 QB when he originally began to move into that holder role last spring and stayed with it as he climbed to the top of the quarterback depth chart.

“With DeShone and everything we’re asking him to do, we thought let’s take a look at Montgomery,” Kelly said. “There’s a pretty good connection there with that group. So we’ll continue to work it.”

Yoon was 3-of-6 on field goal tries with VanGorder holding in practice on Wednesday, while backup John Chereson nailed both of his attempts with Kizer holding.

Kelly said Yoon’s leg is noticeably more powerful this spring — and it certainly was Wednesday — and that the edge of Yoon’s comfort zone has expanded from 43 yards last season to 47 to 50 yards this spring.

• In the absence of a healthy C.J. Sanders at punt returner, Hunter, Stepherson and walk-on Chris Finke have all been getting auditions there. Williams has taken Sanders’ spot on kickoff returns, teaming with Adams, but Kelly said they’ll look at more options there in the team’s next few practices.

• Among the visitors at practice Wednesday was area standout Cedric Mitchell, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound wide receiver/defensive back from Concord High.

Also visiting were three sophomores from Thomson, Ga. — cornerback Christian Tutt, wide receiver Marcus Cade and defensive back Jacorey Crawford. Tutt transferred to IMG Academy at the start of the current semester, but has since transferred back to Thomson. 247Sports ranks him as the No. 4 cornerback in the 2018 class.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Irish head coach Brian Kelly chats with QB Malik Zaire while he stretches during a recent Notre Dame spring football practice. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)