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Kelly examines quarterback situation, injuries

| Thursday, April 7, 2016

Notre Dame will not be like Ohio State last season when it comes to the quarterback position, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday morning’s practice.

Instead, Kelly said the Irish will have one clear starter and leader on the field in the fall.

“It seemed to me that Ohio State found their identity after the Michigan State game, where I think in a lot of ways Ezekiel Elliott can be credited with waking up their entire coaching staff and saying, ‘Who are we?’” Kelly said. “So I think the lessons learned there are, ‘What’s your identity going to be?’ And they clearly decided who they were going to be after that game. They went with [J.T. Barrett] and said, ‘This is what we’re going to be,’ and that’s who they were against us [in the Fiesta Bowl].

“So I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen to us.”

However, who that identity will be based around — whether it’s senior signal caller Malik Zaire or junior quarterback DeShone Kizer — isn’t a question that will be answered anytime soon, Kelly reiterated.

Senior quarterback Malik Zaire drops back to pass during a practice on Tuesday morning at Loftus Sports Center.Kathleen Donahue | The Observer
Senior quarterback Malik Zaire drops back to pass during a practice on Tuesday morning at Loftus Sports Center.

“I don’t think we’ll make a decision after spring,” Kelly said. “I will say this, I mean the two quarterbacks are really good players. … They’re both No. 1s. They both probably can’t play at the same time. So one’s going to have to be the starter, and somebody is going to be unhappy.

“But I can’t keep them all happy, and we’re not going to go into the season with a team that does not have an identity. We’re going to have an identity as to who we are, and it doesn’t mean we can’t play more than one quarterback, but we’ll have a quarterback and we’ll get that established.”

Kelly said Zaire has some catching up to do after being sidelined most of last season, but also added both Zaire and Kizer have plenty of improvement to do before the Irish kick off their season Sept. 5 in Austin, Texas against the Longhorns.

“I think one thing that we’re realizing is we did a lot of things offensively [last season] that we did not do with Malik in camp that we did as we evolved offensively during the year,” he said. “So there’s a lot of things he’s doing for the first time, so knowledge base for Malik has been important in terms of the spring. He’s needed this spring to pick up things we did offensively during the year.

“With DeShone, it’s across the board reads. It’s red-zone efficiency. It’s consistency.

“ … So it’s hard to evaluate who’s ahead of who.”

Hold on a second

Just to throw another wrinkle into the quarterback position this spring, junior quarterback Montgomery VanGorder took first-team reps holding for the field goal unit at the beginning of practice Wednesday morning.

Kizer held for sophomore kicker Justin Yoon all last season and had continued that role throughout spring ball, but Kelly said Yoon made a personal appeal for VanGorder to get a shot.

“With DeShone and everything we’re asking him to do, we felt like, ‘Let’s take a look at Montgomery,’” Kelly said. “Look, I’ll be honest with you … We had a conversation with our kickers and he [Yoon] had been lobbying a bit for VanGorder, and so we said we’d give it a shot. And there’s a pretty good connection there, with that group.

“So we’ll continue to work it. He obviously has a little bit more free time in terms of being able to get over there and spend a little bit more time with [Yoon], so we’re going to move in that direction right now and Montgomery will be with that battery right now.”

Kizer still took snaps with the second specialty unit, holding for senior kicker John Chereson.

As for Yoon himself, Kelly said the sophomore has added a few yards to his comfort range, going from 43 yards to somewhere between 47 and 50 yards.

“It looks like he’s got a little bit more pop in his leg,” Kelly said.


Crawford shining at nickelback

Shaun Crawford took first-team reps at the nickelback position Wednesday morning and the sophomore defensive back has impressed the coaching staff so far this spring, Kelly said.

“We like his ability to play man [coverage],” Kelly said. “Very smart player, instinctive player. I think you have to have a real good sense of the field [to play nickel]. Corners play out by the numbers, and they have a friend with them: It’s called the sideline.

“[A] guy that plays inside has got to understand the field a lot better. He’s got to have an instinct that can play inside, and [Crawford] just has a natural instinct to play inside a lot better.”

Crawford, who was on track to earn playing time at the nickel as a true freshman last season before tearing his ACL in fall camp, has moved up to fill the void left by an arm injury to junior cornerback Nick Watkins. Watkins fractured his left humerus in practice last week and underwent successful surgery Saturday night, Kelly said.

Watkins was at practice today with his arm in a sling and is expected to be out of action for six weeks, though there should be no longer term worries, Kelly said.

Watkins and senior defensive back Cole Luke had been splitting time at the nickel throughout spring so in case one of them gets injured, the Irish won’t be limited in their packages and play-calling abilities on defense, Kelly said.


Jones still seeking confidence in return to field

The first-team defensive line Wednesday morning consisted of senior Isaac Rochell, sophomore Jerry Tillery and juniors Daniel Cage and Jay Hayes while graduate student Jarron Jones saw time with the second string.

Jones, who missed all of the 2015 regular season after tearing his MCL in fall camp, is physically 100 percent, Kelly said, but he added the interior lineman is still dealing with confidence issues.

“Jarron is still playing a bit tentative,” Kelly said. “And I think he understands that he’s got to play with more confidence. And I’m confident that he will when the lights go on.

“But having said that, he’s going to be challenged. There’s a lot of good players in there, and he’s going to have to really bear down and make that concerted effort to really challenge himself, because we know he’s got real unique qualities: his size, his ability to push the pocket. Those things are still there. I think a little bit of his confidence is going to come back and when it does, I think he’ll definitely be able to help us.”

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About Zach Klonsinski

A History graduate, Zach spent all four of his years on campus as a resident of Knott Hall. Hailing from Belgrade, Montana, he covered a wide variety of sports in his time at Notre Dame, including Football, Hockey, Men's Basketball, Men's Soccer, Women's Tennis, Fencing, Rowing, Women's Lacrosse and other events around campus. You can contact him in his post-graduation travels and job search at [email protected]

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