Practice Report: Irish Offense

A morning snowstorm again locked Brian Kelly’s sixth-edition Irish squad inside the Loftus Center for practice No. 12 of 15 in the “spring” session.

Today was the media’s first full viewing since last August and a rare treat was offered to the horde: eight full scrimmage sessions including six consecutive to end the 24-segment practice.

Observations abound as a result:

WIDE RECEIVERS

Sophomore Aliz’e Jones worked with the wide receivers for the vast majority of today’s practice. He was a natural, snaring a high (nearly 10-feet) bullet from Malik Zaire despite being pulled to the turf in the process early, then dragging across the field to beat man coverage two snaps later.

Throw in a 15-yard dig route from DeShone Kizer plus another stab of a hook route that came in with serious heat and it’s clear the 6’5” 240-pounder has the chops to be a playmaker in his second season.

Jones also beat Devin Butler for a 60-yard grab courtesy Kizer down the right sideline near the end of practice when the Irish were in Dime coverage.

-- Torii Hunter was clearly the best skill position weapon Saturday, taking Cole Luke deep for a 60-plus yard score (from Kizer), a comeback route from Zaire in which the senior target flashed his hands and used his body as a shield to secure the reception, and later in one-on-one drills, absolutely torching Devin Butler to reel in a touchdown toss from sophomore Brandon Wimbush.

Hunter added a deep corner route vs. Ashton White in later scrimmage action to round out his efforts.

-- Redshirt-sophomore Corey Holmes produced at least three highlights in competitive action, taking in a post touchdown toss from Kizer in which he ran past Max Redfield (one-on-one drills, and those favor the offense), then beating Redfield on short cross, using his hands to catch the bullet from Zaire at full speed and continue up field.

Holmes also concluded the practice with an across-the-hashes catch-and-run for a touchdown in which he ran past Nick Coleman, then waved at a hustling James Onwualu who could not close ground on the squad’s fastest player.

-- Equanimeous St. Brown was limited to individual work today. He was in pads but did not participate in the team-heavy practice due to a shoulder injury suffered earlier in the week. Kelly noted post-practice it was not the shoulder on which St. Brown was operated last October and that he was just a bit tender.

-- Massive redshirt-freshman target Miles Boykin fared well as a between the numbers, underneath receiver – exactly what the offense needs from him in 2016. Boykin snared a slant route with Shaun Crawford pinned to his him, getting his hands out in front of the well-thrown pass from Kizer. He later juggled but held onto a crossing route from Zaire and collected another slant route from Kizer.

Boykin lost a one-on-one battle with Drue Tranquill who hung with him on a crossing route and broke on a Zaire throw for a PD, much to the delight of Tranquill’s fellow defensive backs.

-- Walk-on Chris Finke continues to get open and make plays. In one-on-ones, Finke beat his defender on a dig route (Wimbush) on a corner route vs. Cole Luke (Kizer), another corner route vs. Spencer Perry, and from the slot in which he shook up the defender (I missed the number) down the seam. In scrimmage action Finke added a diving out route catch vs. Shaun Crawford and a tunnel screen in which he got popped after the catch.

Of note: Receivers coach Mike Denbrock noted he’s open to playing Finke in the rotation this season but the walk-on needed to show more consistency catching the ball. Looked good today…

-- Corey Robinson missed today’s practice as he has each since at least March 21 due to a concussion. Kelly noted today his senior will be evaluated Tuesday and make a decision regarding his football future thereafter.

-- Quiet day for Kevin Stepherson today but for you old-school types, take note: he’s the only skill position player that operates without gloves.

RUNNING BACK

Senior Tarean Folston was not involved in the final six scrimmage sessions but he did partake in 11-on-11 work early (in these two sessions, the defense did not tackle to the ground). Folston looked like his old self on a quick cut-back into space to elude Asmar Bilal. The Irish coaching staff is wisely keeping him out of contact this spring.

-- Starter 1B (or 1A), sophomore Josh Adams ceded most of the day’s reps to the younger tandem of Dexter Williams and Justin Brent. Both impressed, albeit for different reasons.

Brent produced the morning’s longest run, at least 40 yards through the heart of the Irish defense after running through a narrow gap at scrimmage, maintaining his balance and bursting through the second level. Only hustle by Ashton White presented a 75-yard touchdown. Brent added a 60-yard wheel route touchdown from Kizer after a busted coverage by Bilal on the weak side (he was totally uncovered).

Brent also snared an out route vs. Avery Sebastian who had tight coverage on the rep in a one-on-one drill.

Not sure if it’s relevant, but Zaire was the quarterback that executed the read-option on Brent’s 40-plus yard gain.

-- Williams was often strung out on outside zone carries and a telegraphed Jet Sweep but he showed great downfield speed in one-on-one’s twice beating the corner for would-be touchdowns that were overthrown by Kizer and Zaire, respectively. (He dropped a rocket shot check down pass from Zaire earlier in the session.)

Williams was pulled aside by both Kelly and running backs coach Autry Denson following a particularly tough inside zone rush in which he picked up first down yardage despite taking contact throughout the 6-7 yard gain.

QUARTERBACK

Kizer was the more impressive of the two starting candidates today but as noted in our Instant Analysis video, it’s likewise true that the sterilized situation (red jerseys negating contact) does not do the more explosive Zaire any favors.

Zaire ripped off what would have been at least a 20-yard gain in early scrimmage action, absolutely destroying a would-be tackler with a sharp cut at the second level.

His best throw of the session was a comeback route to Hunter with ideal ball placement, putting it high and inside when Hunter had his defender pinned to the outside.

Zaire was picked off by Shaun Crawford (intended for Holmes) as the Irish Nickel jumped a telegraphed slant route from the slot. He was later intercepted by Devin Studstill on an overthrown ball. The senior likewise teamed with Justin Brent for a pre-snap misalignment, much to Kelly’s chagrin.

Zaire at one point hit six out of eight passes with one intentional throwaway and one drop (Williams).

-- Kizer unleashed a number of pretty deep routes for scores and long gains as highlighted in the WR section above. While Zaire puts more zip on his mid-range and short throws (too much on the latter), Kizer excels on throwing to spots to the corners, down the post and sidelines and on slant routes.

Kizer missed a “crucial” throw late: a would-be touchdown to Aliz’e Jones in which the crossing receiver had just separated from his defender and would have scored easily on the red zone snap. Rolling left, Kizer threw a half-second too early and ultimately too far in front of Jones for an unfortunate incompletion.

He hit Holmes later for the aforementioned taunt and touchdown.

TIGHT ENDS

Junior Nic Weishar suffered a knee injury late in practice after being driven down following a short catch. Weishar’s knee was trapped under him as he was tackled to the turf. He spent a fair amount of time with the Irish training staff but eventually returned to watch the scrimmage with his teammates.

Weishar made a diving stab of a Zaire throw despite solid coverage early in practice but was overmatched on one blitz pickup. After first engaging then passing Rush End Jay Hayes off to right tackle Alex Bars, Weishar turned to the middle just in time to get a two-handed blow to the chest from Drue Tranquill on a delayed blitz – one that resulted in a de-cleated tight end on the floor of the pocket.

Weishar operated as the No. 1 tight end in both of our last two practice viewings.

Not much from Durham Smythe today, a player Kelly noted earlier in the week is still working his way back in terms of strength and explosiveness after last season’s “Groupon” surgeries (two-for-one). Smythe beat both Spencer Perry and Nicco Fertitta on deep corners but the passes sailed out of bounds.

Smythe was unable to come up with a Kizer throw over the middle after taking a shot from Tranquill. The former heard it from Kelly on a catchable pass.

Converted defensive end Jacob Matuska beat Perry down the seam during a “chase drill” (the defender lines up one yard behind the receiver and has to run him down on a pass thrown out in front of both of them. Matuska can move a little for 271 pounds though Perry struggles in coverage at this point in his development.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The team’s most impressive unit in Wednesday’s brief media viewing didn’t totally dominate today…but they were pretty darn good.

Mike McGlinchey rarely loses in head-to-head combat and that trend continued today, his best block on Jay Hayes (who I thought looked good at times today) on an outside zone run.

Nice block by Mark Harrell on the right side to seal Jonathan Bonner in 3-on-3 action…There’s Quenton Nelson doing what Quenton Nelson does best: burying someone in the box, in this case Jerry Tillery who’ll have to raise his game to match the purpose-driven Nelson in August Camp…

Alex Bars has the hardest job in the Midwest this spring: going one-on-one vs. Irish power broker Isaac Rochell on the edge. Rochell will be the best college football player on Notre Dame’s team in 2016. His bull rush is an impressive weapon and today the senior-to-be chased classmate Malik Zaire to the sidelines to force an incompletion…

Sam Mustipher was solid but unspectacular inside though I didn’t note many plays made by Irish interior defensive linemen against him, either. His shotgun snaps aren’t yet precise though he’s improved greatly in that realm after routinely executing the best bounce passes this side of John Stockton in the spring of 2015…

-- Walk-on Logan Plantz looked good planting Jarron Jones into the turf during early 3-on-3 drills (full contact). Jones came up lame as a result but returned at seemingly full strength after limping the length of the football field to join position drills thereafter…

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