Analysis: Sizing up Notre Dame's growth curve heading into showdown with MSU

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The mishmash of new faces and numbers collectively got stung for the most assertive puff of Nevada offense Saturday on an otherwise auspicious day for the Notre Dame defense.

A 69-yard pass play was part of an 86-yard scoring drive for the four-TD underdog Wolf Pack in the closing minutes of 18th-ranked Notre Dame’s 39-10 dispatching of former Irish assistant Brian Polian’s team at Notre Dame Stadium.

The most significant number in that seemingly inconsequential sequence, though, was 12.

With several college debuts fostered in that drive, 12 is now the number of freshmen that have seen the field for Irish head coach Brian Kelly, two games into the 2016 season.

And that’s already tied for the most he has ever played in an entire single season during his seven years at ND, with three of other players, among the 11 still incubating, strong possibilities to join the youth movement sooner, if not later.

Nine of the 12 for whom a redshirt year is no longer a possibility, without the misfortune of an injury, are defensive players. And a cluster of them — including linebacker Jamir Jones, defensive end Julian Okwara and cornerback Donte Vaughn — were trying to work through their growing pains all at the same time late in the game Saturday.

Garbage time?

More like audition time.

More natural roster churn than normal, coupled with a season-ending Achilles tendon tear to starting cornerback Shaun Crawford and the dismissal of safety Max Redfield, have pushed up the timeline for ND’s freshman class — ready or not.

“With the kind of schedule we play and the length of the year, this was a great opportunity for us to get a better glimpse and know who we need to continue to press and push to get better at their craft,” Kelly said Sunday of the late-game freshman-fest.

“So a real good evaluation day for us. And it's too early for me to point out one guy over the other, other than what we saw in camp, all these guys are capable of contributing this year.”

Michigan State (1-0), ranked 12th in the latest AP poll and coming off a bye week, will test their progress.

The Spartans, though, are seven-point underdogs for Saturday night’s clash at Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 .m. EDT; NBC-TV), 50 seasons after the two teams played to a 10-10 deadlock in East Lansing, Mich., in a Nos. 1 vs. 2 matchup considered one of the most famous ties in all of sports.

This meeting is more about figuring out who the Irish (1-1) are, obscured to this point by small statistical sample sizes, lots of moving parts and the unknown of how much and how soon the freshman class can impact the bottom line.

Here are the key points to keep an eye on moving toward Saturday’s showdown and beyond:

Kizer on a roll

The junior moved up seven spots in the national pass-efficiency ratings to No. 5 this week (195.9), and the four QBs ahead of him — including Michigan State’s Tyler O’Connor — have faced at least one FCS team or a program (Idaho) transitioning back to that level.

Last year, Kizer finished 24th nationally (150.0), the best ranking by an ND quarterback in the Kelly Era and the seventh-best single-season mark in Notre Dame history. With a 155.1 rating in 15 career games, Kizer trails Kevin McDougal by less than two points for the top spot in career passing-efficiency at ND.

His completion percentage (.714) through the first two games of the season ranks 15th nationally and his 54 points via TD passes and scoring runs, is tied for fifth. And this past week, as well as in the fourth quarter and OT periods of the Texas game, Kizer had to do it without the team’s most dynamic receiver, Torii Hunter Jr.

He’ll know midweek if Hunter can return from a concussion suffered Sept. 4 against Texas. Kelly said Sunday the plan is for the senior on Tuesday to go through a full controlled practice, which is the last stage of concussion protocol before receiving full medical clearance.

Where Kizer has shown the most compelling improvement so far in 2016 is in the red zone. As a team, the only whiff in 11 attempts this season has been a blocked field goal against Texas. Individually (hat tip to Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson) Kizer is 7-of-10 passing in the red zone for 52 yards and five TDs with zero interceptions. Last season, he was 17-of-40 for 150 yards with nine TDs and 5 picks.

“I think he was a little bit more patient in certain areas,” Kelly said. “He slides in the pocket well. Especially, I think you can see this more than anything else, in the red zone. (He) hit his third and fourth option down there (Saturday).

“I think that's showing itself to a higher completion percentage down there. I think the other thing is he's taking what's available to him instead of trying to do too much.”

Kizer faced nine of the nation’s top 43 teams in total defense last season, and Michigan State represents the first of only four teams on the 2016 schedule who finished that high last season. The Spartans are also the only team on the 2016 schedule that had a top 25 rush defense (11th) in 2015.

The Irish counter with a rushing attack that’s blipped past the 200-yard mark in each of its two games and is led by Josh Adams’ 7.1 yards per carry, 26th best in the FBS.

Secondary shuffle

Neither of the two experienced options that could eventually help a secondary thinned by Crawford’s season-ending injury appear anywhere close to being ready in the short term.

Kelly said Sunday junior Nick Watkins will be X-rayed this week to see if there’s significant bone growth in the forearm he fractured last spring. But even if there is, the coach framed a best-case scenario of “weeks away” from contributing.

If the X-rays aren’t encouraging, Watkins would sit out the rest of the season and apply for a medical redshirt year, Kelly said.

Senior Devin Butler, meanwhile, remains in both medical and legal limbo. Kelly confirmed Butler remains indefinitely suspended as a result of two felony charges he garnered after a mid-August arrest. The arresting officer, South Bend police office Aaron Knepper, has been removed from patrol duties as the department probes the arrest internally.

Even if the legal process eventually clears Butler or reduces the charges, his recovery from a rebreak of his left foot has October as the most optimistic recovery timeline. And since he’s sequestered from the team during his suspension, that could turn out to be even more elongated.

For now the top replacements for Crawford are sophomore Nick Coleman in base defense and freshman Julian Love in nickel.

“They're going to keep going at Nick Coleman,” Kelly said of how opponents are likely to respond to Crawford being out of the lineup. “And Nick knows that, and we're quite aware of that situation.

“But I think Nick has showed himself that he's up to the task and he's going to continue to work to get better at it. I think everybody knows that when you lose a player like Crawford and a new guy comes in, they're going to pick on him.

“But I like the fact that Nick has made the kind of corrections necessary to go out there and compete for the football.”

As far as safety play, strong safety Drue Tranquill’s second chance after a Sept. 4 midgame demotion and freshman free safety Devin Studstill’s first collegiate start had Kelly encouraged for the most part. Avery Sebastian, the free safety starter at Texas, rotated in at strong safety Saturday when Tranquill suffered a neck injury.

“We still have to tackle a little bit better,” Kelly said. “We were much better playing the ball in the air, obviously. And that's another facet of good safety play. But I think there was definitely improvement in all of those guys, probably Drue more than anything.

“He didn't have a concussion nor did he have concussion-like symptoms. More of a neck injury. He was clean and felt good this morning.”

Next step for the front seven

The number that betrays defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s schematic blueprint is zero, as in zero sacks from the Irish defense in two games, covering 53 pass attempts and a handful of scrambles for positive yardage.

In the two games this season the front seven has looked very different in approach, sitting in a three-man front for virtually the entire Texas game and playing a base 4-3 look for most of the Nevada game with much better results, especially against the run.

Texas and Nevada were both top 25 rushing attacks in 2015. Michigan State was uncharacteristically and decidedly not. In fact, at 93rd in rush offense, the Spartans concocted the second-worst running offense the Irish will face in 2016 (Miami was 117th).

Perhaps that opens the door for VanGorder to be a little more multiple in his looks Saturday night, with different personnel funneling in throughout a given drive.

Whatever it looks like from an X’s and O’s standpoint, Kelly is insistent about what the results need to look like.

“This is still about stopping the run on early downs,” he said. “It's going to still come back to basic tenets of football, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

“And that is tackling, being really solid against the run and keeping the ball in front of you and playing the ball in the air. If we get those four things down and we make good progress on it, that's what we're really looking to do at the end of the day.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Cornerback Donte Vaughn, here celebrating Saturday's Notre Dame victory over Nevada, is one of 13 freshmen to see the field so far for the Irish and whose roles could be expanding in the coming weeks. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)

Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT

Where: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 7