Analysis: Foskey, Kiser top the list of Notre Dame spare parts poised to ascend
SOUTH BEND — Eight of the top 15 defensive performances of the 11-year Brian Kelly Era have come during the 30 games on coordinator Clark Lea’s watch.
One of those, holding Louisville to 233 total yards Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium in a 12-7 Irish victory, had Kelly smiling at that aspect but hungry for more.
He jotted the names down of two defensive players in his postgame review who combined for a mere nine defensive snaps in that game but who the ND head coach will push for larger and more defined roles moving forward.
Sophomores Jack Kiser and Isaiah Foskey.
“They’re both guys that have missed chunks of playing (and practice) time,” Kelly said Monday during his Zoom session with the media. “But they have to get on the field for us.”
The next opportunity to do so comes Saturday against Pittsburgh (3-3, 2-3 ACC) at Heinz Field, where the third-ranked Irish (4-0, 3-0) play the latest road opener in program history since 1940. That year, the Irish visited Illinois on Oct. 26.
It’s not unusual for players with limited roles at the start of the season, for whatever reason — injuries, suspensions, normal development cycles, latent practice surges — to emerge temporarily or sustainably and raise the team trajectory in a given season.
Count Kiser, a versatile linebacker who garnered the game ball Sept. 19 against USF in his only extended action, and Foskey, perhaps the best pure pass rusher of the roster, as potentially two of the most significant.
The team’s COVID-19 outbreak, that created a 21-day gap between games 2 and 3 and prompted a nine-day pause in practices, has added another layer of complexity in getting some of those players to emerge this season.
In other cases, it’s accelerated opportunities for those kinds of players. In Kiser’s case, it’s been a lot of both.
The 6-foot-2, 227-pound former Mr. Football in Indiana is listed this week as a three-way either/or starting option at buck linebacker along with junior Shayne Simon and sophomore Maris Liufau. All three have started at least one game at the position, and all three were recruited to ND as rovers.
The 6-5, 257-pound Foskey is tied for the team lead in sacks (2) and leads the Irish in quarterback hurries (4), despite having logged a total of only 18 snaps the past two games.
Here’s a look at the other most intriguing options who may emerge at key moments in the coming weeks.
• Brendon Clark, quarterback
This is purely a Plan B situation and not an alternative Kelly is considering to third-year starter Ian Book.
In Kelly’s 17th season coaching on the Division I level, he’s only once waited past game 2 of a given season to get his backup QB into the game (2005 at Central Michigan), and never has it been in game 4 or later.
Clark likely would have gotten the 15 snaps third-stringer Drew Pyne took Sept. 19 in the 52-0 rout of USF, but he was on the unavailable list that week, presumably for COVID-19 reasons.
Getting into a game between now and the Nov. 7 Notre Dame Stadium showdown with No. 1 Clemson won’t be easy, largely because Book needs every game rep he can get to get in sync with a revolving rotation at the wide receiver corps, prompted by injuries and COVID.
“Clark gets 40 percent of the (practice) reps,” Kelly said. “We give Drew Pyne reps as well. (Clark’s) preparedness is such that he’s like any backup quarterback that would be coming in and getting first-time action.
“There’s a lot of things he can do. There are some things we would have to modify for him. But he is fortified with a really good offensive line and a support cast around him where he doesn’t have to win the game. He just can’t lose it.”
• Joe Wilkins/Jordan Johnson, wide receivers
Wilkins, Kelly said Monday, is a priority to get more involved in the passing game soon. The junior was an afterthought Saturday (four snaps) against Louisville and has 61 snaps for the season. The freshman Johnson (0 snaps Saturday, 14 for the season) appears to be a priority to get involved in the passing game in 2021.
“Jordan’s a really good player,” Kelly said of the first Rivals.com five-star offensive prospect to sign with Notre Dame since eventual All-America offensive guard Quenton Nelson in 2014.
“The problem Jordan has is he’s got to climb over some veteran players and guys that are ascending late in their careers. I think in other years, he’s a guy who would have the chance to be on the field.”
The question Kelly, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander have to reconcile is whether pure talent trumps experience at some point.
Running backs coach Lance Taylor, for one, wasn’t afraid to turn his depth chart upside down at the start of the season and put a redshirt freshman and true freshman in as options 1 and 2.
Certainly chemistry with Book is a huge factor at wide receiver, and the challenge in introducing new options is that an unwieldy rotation doesn’t necessarily lend itself to that.
• Isaiah Pryor rover/Cam Hart cornerback
These two get paired, because they — like Clark at quarterback — could become important contingency players.
Starting boundary cornerback Nick McCloud, a grad transfer from NC State, has had to dodge COVID-19 and is still playing through some shoulder pain. At 6-3, 207, converted wide receiver Hart needs to be worked back into the cornerback rotation as does backup field cornerback freshman Clarence Lewis.
Some of the ACC’s top wide receivers are coming in bunches at the ND defense over the next several weeks.
Pryor is a bit more of a mystery in defining where his opportunity may come. He’s listed as both the primary backup to star rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and an either/or No. 2 with DJ Brown at free safety behind the defense’s other All-America candidate, Kyle Hamilton.
Given that the Ohio State transfer has played only 11 snaps period this season and zero in the two games since the USF rout on Sept. 19, makes one wonder if Notre Dame missed in its recruiting evaluations.
Based on Kelly’s recent comments, it appears it’s more about the 6-2, 199-pounder growing into the rover position after arriving billed as a possible starter at safety.
“His traits are outstanding,” Kelly said. “So he couldn’t be a better fit into our program. We were looking for a big, rangy, physical player at that (safety) position. Like most of our evaluations, we would then let the player take us to that ultimate position.
“We felt like he had the ability to play either on the hash or closer to the football. It seems as though his skill set is going to move him closer to the football, but he’s been a terrific fit for us and we’re super excited that he is with us.”
No. 3 NOTRE DAME (4-0) vs. PITTSBURGH (3-3)
Kickoff: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT
Where: Heinz Field; Pittsburgh
Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 10 1/2