Notre Dame finished up spring practice on Saturday afternoon as the Blue squad defeated the Gold squad 17-7 underneath a scorching spring South Bend sun. Let us not waste one more moment and get right to the quarterback battle.
We've seen Zaire play in a few spring games throughout his career and for whatever it's worth this was his most inconsistent effort of the bunch. He would put together one impressive scoring drive with a few explosive plays but the rest of the (short) audition left something to be desired. Credit to him, even with inconsistency he's able to produce.
Zaire opened the game with a sideline fade to Miles Boykin that was a good throw into tight coverage but fell incomplete. He also tried to find Durham Smythe on a 3rd down quick out that was covered well by Asmar Bilal.
Zaire's second series began with a QB power and a 1-yard gain after a nice tackle from Devin Studstill. A couple tailback runs brought on another punt.
His first completion came to open the third series with a quick rollout to the left to find Hunter who tip-toed for a few more yards and first down. Zaire then threw a catchable deep ball that was flagged for defensive pass interference. He escaped a sack to gain 1-yard which was followed by a dropped snap. Third down saw Zaire escape turn nicely away from a Shaun Crawford blitz and fire a great ball across his body but ultimately fall incomplete.
Series four saw Zaire flushed out of the pocket for a 2-yard run then over-shoot Hunter down the sideline on third down. Into the second quarter and not a great start for Zaire even with a few very nice throws: 1 of 5 for 11 yards and 3 runs for 4 yards.
The fifth series by Zaire saved his spring game beginning with this 50-yard beautiful bomb and terrific catch by Hunter.
The drive looked like it might stall again after a 1-yard screen to Finke and an overthrow by Zaire towards the sideline in the face of pressure.
Yet, Zaire mirrored an earlier play and escaped turned out of a blitz from Bilal and tossed a jump ball down the sideline that was won by Justin Brent for a crucial 28-yards.
Taking advantage of the momentum, Zaire finally got going with his legs and weaved his way through some traffic to score a touchdown for his gold team.
Before Zaire took a seat after halftime he was provided the opportunity to produce some more.
On the sixth series he began by throwing behind Miles Boykin and then throwing a good sideline throw into tight coverage that fell incomplete. On third down he rolled out of the pocket and lightly tossed the ball to Boykin for an easy first down. With little time left, Zaire stepped up into the pocket, double-clutched, and found Hunter open on the sideline. He finished the day with an incomplete Hail Mary.
Kizer didn't waste any time finding a groove during the spring game. His opening series--which finished with a 16-yard Dexter Williams touchdown run--featured a 16-yard swing pass to the aforementioned Williams, a crossing route for 13 yards to St. Brown, a long drag route to Kevin Stepherson for 25 yards, and a screen pass to Equanimeous St. Brown for 6 yards.
The 25-yard pick-up to Stepherson is a good example of Kizer's maturity as a passer. He drifts out of the pocket but uses his size to his advantage to deliver a good hard and accurate throw into a tight window.
Kizer's second series saw a swing pass to Williams for just 1-yard and an 11-yard third down conversion off a quarterback draw. A second down throw then featured a brutal drop by Stepherson that would have picked up close to 50 yards.
Third down saw Kizer pressured in the pocket and fire an incomplete pass to a covered Folston cutting across the field.
Series No. 3 featured two incompletions. First, an over-throw of Stepherson down the sideline and a slant to St. Brown with safety Max Redfield grabbing a healthy amount of jersey along the way.
The fourth series saw Kizer pick up a third down conversion on a 6-yard draw and later find St. Brown for 3 yards on an inside screen.
Series five began with an incomplete pass over the middle to Alize Jones which probably should have been caught. Kizer then found St. Brown on a stop route for 14 yards and found Jones for 7 yards off play-action. Later in the drive Kizer was flushed out of the pocket for 3 yards and had his next pass tipped at the line to fall incomplete.
Brian Kelly left the offense out there on 4th down and Kizer made a nice throw to Stepherson for the conversion while Johnathan Bonner was barreling down on him.
The drive would end with an incomplete rollout throw to the corner of the end zone and 1-yard run from Kizer but not before he completed a 15-yard pass to Alize Jones using a resourceful arm angle.
It wouldn't be fair if we didn't bring up the obvious issue that Zaire is the player coming back from a serious injury. I thought he didn't look quite as explosive, quick-twitched, and athletic when we last saw him early in 2015 so let's hope the summer gets him back to complete health.
That said, I thought Kizer played a fair amount better in the spring game and inched closer to winning the quarterback job. Before spring practice I thought it was something in the neighborhood of 60/40 in Kizer's favor and it might be up into the 68/32 area now.
Zaire Stats: 6 of 15 (40%), 120 passing yards, 8 YPA, 5 rushes, 12 rushing yards, 1 touchdown
Kizer Stats: 10 of 17 (58.8%), 113 passing yards, 6.64 YPA, 4 rushes, 21 rushing yards
Still, I thought Zaire played well while both quarterbacks threw a couple passes that on another day would have been completed with better efforts from receivers. My two biggest issues for Zaire were that he was very big play reliant (78 passing yards on 2 passes, only 1 good run, and 41 yards on his other 17 touches) and I don't see the same consistency and ability to throw all over the field like Kizer. For example, Zaire had 4 of his 6 completions down the sidelines--there were no completions in the middle of the field.
In contrast, Kizer showed how he's comfortable making throws in tough spots over the middle of the field. In general, he provides the ability to force defenses to cover a much larger portion of the field. With Zaire, I'm a little worried the offense could get a bit too reliant on copious amounts of deep balls and scrambling with lots of inconsistency in between. He's just never shown an ability to get into a groove with timing passes the way we've seen from Kizer in much more playing time.
Even with Zaire's nice touchdown run if he's not ultra-dynamic as a runner it's tough to see how he'll unseat Kizer. The younger Kizer's size and calmness making throws from anywhere look like such a huge growing asset for the offense. How much better can Kizer get versus Zaire? It would seem Zaire will need to show he still has a higher ceiling throwing the ball in the summer and through fall camp.
Zaire did face more pressure, especially from free blitzers, but after the game Kelly referenced having to spend more time on protections and calls. I don't know how much of this can be attributed to rust (Kelly also mentioned Zaire was rusty earlier in the spring with "communication") and it appears Kizer has a decent advantage in command/control of the offense.
The red zone was brought up again by Kelly after the game when talking about Kizer. Even with his school-record 10 rushing touchdowns you can tell they really want to boost Kizer's decision-making in the shortened field.
That 5th drive from Kizer is a good example. He moves the offense 65 yards down to the 5-yard line but finishes with a low percentage incomplete pass to Stepherson (Kelly mentioned he should had rolled the opposite way) and an inefficient 1-yard run on third down. Even though Kizer may still win the job--and I don't expect a true two quarterback system--it seems like the door is being left open to use Zaire's agility, vision, and running skills in the red zone.
I've been saying this for years but I'd vote 100% hell yes if Notre Dame decided to switch to a kelly green version of their home jersey. Even the no-contact Under Armour practice jersey looks so sharp matched up with the gold.
Dexter Williams is getting a lot of love following the game but I thought he was just okay. His accolades were more about playing more than anyone else as he had 60 yards on 15 overall touches but 10 of his 13 carries went for 3 yards or less. His burst is great (and he looks to have improved his strength on his touchdown run) and I'm curious to see how fast is he is in the open-field.
Nyles Morgan had a quiet afternoon (no tackles) but I noticed one snap where we may see the difference with him at middle linebacker.
Nothing too crazy but Morgan stays patient, and attacks down-hill with aggressiveness. He puts the running back on skates for a brief moment which allowed Rochell, who pushed Harrell to the side, to make a stop for minimal gain.
Equanimeous St. Brown is so interesting to me. He finished with a solid 53 yards on 5 receptions but I'm still trying to figure out what kind of receiver he'll be at Notre Dame. At 6-4 and 205 pounds he looks pretty lean and not particularly speedy. Right now, he looks like much more of a steady underneath possession receiver than potential breakout star No. 1 receiver.
There's no doubt that Kevin Stepherson passed his first spring game audition. If he had caught that deep Kizer throw he would've finished with 5 receptions for around 120 yards. Even without it, Stepherson averaged 17.5 yards per reception in his first Blue-Gold Game.
When (then) true freshman Shaun Crawford went down for the season with a knee injury in fall camp there was talk that it was a huge blow to the Irish defense. Even though Crawford wore a no-contact jersey in the spring game we were able to see a few examples of how disruptive the cornerback can be on the field. Like this:
This is the nickel defense that could really help the 2016 defense. We have Bilal at linebacker covering a receiver on the boundary and backpedaling into the middle next to Nyles Morgan. Check out Crawford lined up inside the right tackle and shuffle briefly with the jet sweep. An instant later, he's already blown past the lead blocker and is right in Josh Adams' face.
For the most part, I thought the secondary looked very solid in the game. There weren't any major blown coverages and nearly every ball was contested, including 6 pass breakups. Hopefully that's a good sign. I also liked that there were some tough throws attempted but really no near-turnovers from the quarterbacks.
It was difficult to gauge the play of both lines with so much shuffling going on but one player who caught my eye a few times was Jerry Tillery. On Zaire's second-to-last series he pushed Quenton Nelson back 4 yards from the line of scrimmage. If Zaire's arm doesn't hit Nelson it at least looked like his lack of height didn't allow him to follow through properly as the ball flew over the receiver's head.
What about Brandon Wimbush? He finished the day 7 of 11 for 61 yards and 14 rushing yards on 4 carries. He didn't look very calm to me while watching live but upon a re-watch he seemed less raw and more in control. With his lack of reps and playing with a bunch of backups it's tough to judge his progress.
Your 2016 Blue-Gold Game MVP was punter Tyler Newsome, and with every right. He smashed the ball high and far finishing with a 52.7 AVERAGE on 7 total punts. If Newsome is 25% better than last year it could be a godsend to the defense. Or, maybe we'll continue to give up way too many long scoring drives.