Offensive coaches discuss players’ growth and depth chart
Zach Klonsinski | Tuesday, March 22, 2016
Mike Sanford acknowledged next season’s Notre Dame squad will have the talent and depth to make another championship run in the fall when he and the other offensive assistant coaches met with the media Monday morning following practice.
“If we play championship caliber football at the quarterback position, we know we can win one,” the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach said.
The big question the Irish need to answer is just who that quarterback will be when Notre Dame takes the field against Texas on Sept. 3 in Austin, Texas: senior Malik Zaire, junior DeShone Kizer or sophomore Brandon Wimbush.
Sanford had an answer to that question Monday: there won’t be an answer anytime soon.
“Every single year you should come in and think about reinventing yourself or that next guy is going to catch you,” Sanford said. “Or the next guy behind him is going to catch him, and surpass him and get you. We really wanted to make that evident from day one that this is like every quarterback group in the country, and I think it’s shown up.”
Of course, Sanford also admitted Notre Dame’s predicament at the quarterback position is far different from those almost everywhere else across the country.
“I don’t believe I have,” Sanford said when asked if he had ever been in this situation before. “And the thing that’s probably different about it is the fact that all three of them have played in real games. All three of them have had significant reps in practice with the ones or twos, and then they all do have some great physical attributes.”
Still, Sanford said he and Irish head coach Brian Kelly want to keep everyone focused on their individual improvement and away from drifting toward the bigger picture looming in the fall.
“The biggest challenge is just constantly keeping everybody process-oriented,” Sanford said. “If we can stay on the process and really not worry about the big picture — because it’s going to be proven out over the course of time, we’re going to figure out the best way to given our team the best chance to win a championship and that’s what we’re going to do with that group — but we have to individually, me as a coach and Coach Kelly as the head coach, we have to work with that group about just being focused on that next step.
“Each and every day there’s another door that you have to bust through, and then once you bust through that door hypothetically there’s another door waiting for you. You have to bust through that door. So we have to be process-oriented and not worry too much about the big picture.”
Last year, when Zaire and former-Irish quarterback Everett Golson were trading reps with the first team in the spring, Zaire said the coaching staff was tracking how each player performed in different situations. This year, Sanford said Monday, they’ve “expanded upon” that system, keeping offensive intern Matt Mitchell busy all spring.
“We’re charting third-down completions, everything that has to do with third downs, red zone, when we get into backed-up situations, two-minute situations,” Sanford said. “All those situations really are what separate the great ones from the guys who are a 10-win quarterback, and we want to be above and beyond that.”
Denson excited about running back competition, Williams’ progression
Quarterback isn’t the only position on the field that resembles a three-headed monster, though. Running backs, senior Tarean Folston and sophomores Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, are all viable options out of the backfield, according to Irish running backs coach Autry Denson.
“Right now everybody’s out there taking reps so we don’t necessarily have a pecking order,” Denson said. “Just out there playing football, trying to get better.”
Denson bestowed particular praise on Williams, who has seen the smallest amount of playing time, but has made large strides already this spring.
“Obviously we know [Williams is] special with the ball in his hands, but the next step for any running back is the things you do without the ball in your hands,” Denson said. “Play-faking, making sure you’re carrying out fakes. Make sure you can block. Make sure you’re contributing in the pass game via route running. … He’s a year in now, so you’re just starting to see the signs of his athleticism because he’s so much more comfortable and now he’s reacting as opposed to thinking.”
Denson also gave an update on Folston, who missed almost all of last year after tearing his ACL during the season-opening win over Texas.
“He looks really good. Picked up a blitzing [defensive end] today and really laid into him,” Denson said. “Tarean is Tarean. Nobody worries about him. He’s a tough kid, and just a really good football player, so he wants to be out there just as much as we want him out there. He’s looking really good.”
Denbrock believes receiving corps as deep as ever
Despite the departures of Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise, Irish associate head coach and receivers coach Mike Denbrock said he’s excited about this year’s receiver group.
“What we do have is a tremendous combination at the position of some guys who are longer, some guys who are faster, some guys — the shorter guys might be a little faster than the longer guys — but all of the guys have the ability to make plays down the field,” Denbrock said. “Now, they might not be running 10 yards away from the corner who was trying to cover them like Will did at times, but they still have the ability to create explosive plays.”
One player Denbrock talked at length about was sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who didn’t see the field much last year due to a shoulder injury but figures to play a sizable role in Notre Dame’s offense this year.
“He’s always been a kid who really is smart and understands our offense,” Denbrock said. “He’s picked it up very well, so knowledge hasn’t been the issue, it’s been more experience and gaining experience as he goes. … He hasn’t played a lot of football because when he got here in the fall he obviously was in a position to play but then he got injured, and maybe it’s taken the first couple practices to shake the rust off, but he’s looked better the last couple days, so he’ll be a big piece of the puzzle.”
Senior Torii Hunter Jr. will return as Notre Dame’s leading receiver, and Denbrock said he believes Hunter has the ability to fill a large chunk of Fuller’s role down the field, saying he runs better than former-Irish receiver T.J. Jones.
“I think [Hunter Jr.] is smoother and his gait’s a little looser [than Jones’], and he appears to be running pretty fast down the field when he’s out there route running,” Denbrock said. “He can give us — maybe not exactly the same things we got from the overall electric speed of a Will Fuller, but he can give us down-the-field opportunities.”