Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

Practice Report: Offense – Aug. 13

Tony Jones Jr. continues to impress and the right guard battle took a turn. Meanwhile, the red zone offense struggled but the Irish have a potentially All-American offensive line pair.

Notre Dame went full pads outside on Saturday morning despite rain moving through the second half of practice, which meant the scrimmage was soaked. We’ll break down the offense here, position-by-position.

Before jumping into the breakdown, some superlatives:

Play of the Day: Malik Zaire spins away from Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini to hit Tony Jones Jr. wide open for a 20-yard touchdown. It was the best of Zaire, the free-lancing, eyes-down-the-field version of the senior. The throw was good. The spin and look to set it up were outstanding. Not a play DeShone Kizer can make, but one that comes natural to Zaire.

Hit of the Day: Mike McGlinchey on Nyles Morgan during a 3-on-3 run period early in practice. Two offensive linemen and a tight end would match up with two defensive linemen and a linebacker. McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson got to work together in this drill, which is a bit ridiculous. On one rep McGlinchey drilled Morgan, sending the linebacker to the ground. Morgan dinged his shoulder on the play but quickly returned.

Hit of the Day II: Less of a hit and more of a demoralizing block, but Quenton Nelson turned Asmar Bilal into a blocking sled in this same run game period. At the end of the play Bilal was basically standing with the media on the sidelines.

Route(s) of the Day: C.J. Sanders in 1-on-1 against Max Redfield. Sanders absolutely torched the safety in a match-up that’s not set up to be fair to the safety. Yet Sanders just needed one cut to get about five yards of separation. Again, there’s no pass rush, no help, just 1-on-1 coverage in this drill. But man, Sanders burned him.

Quarterback

Brian Kelly has been reluctant to engage questions about separation between the quarterbacks for good reason. There really isn’t any. Both Zaire and Kizer rotated through the first team and both had their moments.

In terms scrimmage totals, my unofficial stats for Zaire were 4-of-4 for 62 yards and a touchdown to Tony Jones Jr. He also had a push pass to Jones that went for 27 yards around Daelin Hayes that could have been scored a pass or a run. Difficult to tell from my vantage point. Kizer went 4-of-6 for 57 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions. He also took a bad sack from Pete Mokwuah after holding the ball too long in the pocket. He didn’t lead a touchdown drive. Kizer did nearly hit Torii Hunter Jr. for a long score but couldn’t connect in the rain.

More concerning about the quarterback play was the red zone miscues earlier in the practice when neither could get the ball moving. In 7-on-7 in the red zone, the quarterbacks combined to go 0-of-8 with the only positive a pass interference drawn by Tyler Luatua. In an 11-on-11 period in the red zone the quarterbacks went 3-of-7 but managed just one touchdown from the 10-yard line. Corey Holmes was the lucky recipient of that score.

Both quarterbacks were full contact during the scrimmage. And both got drilled a few times. Zaire got plowed after a fumbled shotgun snap as Drue Tranquill dropped him. Max Redfield and Isaac Rochell were right there too. Kizer took that hit from Mokwuah as well as a sack by Jerry Tillery and Rochell. Clearly, little fear from the coaching staff about needing to “protect” either quarterback.

Kelly again called Kizer and Zaire two of the offense’s top five playmakers. Agreed. Not even a debate.

Brandon Wimbush didn’t get a lot of work and got picked off by Jonathan Jones for a pick-six after staring down Chris Finke. The media can relate to that, Brandon.

Based on workload, Ian Book is behind Montgomery VanGorder. VanGorder got two live reps, Book got zero. It’s hard to imagine Book not working the scout team all year, even with the intention to red-shirt Wimbush.

Overall, his wasn’t the secondary torching Kizer and Zaire earlier this week. But both quarterbacks still looked like the real deal.

Running Back

Difficult evaluation because Tarean Folston was limited (common sense), Josh Adams was out (hamstring) and Dexter Williams was in a non-contact red jersey (unknown). Williams got dinged at the end of Thursday’s practice and Brian Kelly called it a “boo-boo” at the time. Doesn’t appear all that serious as Williams looks like a million bucks in uniform, even a red one. Carries himself like a starting running back despite being No. 3 on the depth chart.

Folston did convert a 4th-and-short during the scrimmage. It wasn’t like the staff bubble wrapped him. They just didn’t use him a ton.

As for the Tony Jones Jr., the freshman looks like a contributor right now if Notre Dame needs it, which Brian Kelly hopes the Irish do not. Interesting to hear Kelly say after practice that the plan is to red-shirt Jones barring a mess of injuries at the position. Considering the nature of playing running back, it’s hard to imagine Notre Dame not losing some combination of Folston, Adams or Williams this season. Two of them are hurt (minor) right now. Two have suffered ACL tears in their careers. The prediction here is Jones gets real carries this season.

We’ve already talked a lot about Jones’ hands on Irish Illustrated (they’re good), but I was impressed with his straight-line speed today during the scrimmage when he took that push pass from Zaire. The quarterback suckered Daelin Hayes in close, then set Jones up for a clean run lane with the delivery. Jones bolted up field for a 27-yard gain. Also notable to hear how much support Jones gets from the rest of the offense. After a nine-yard carry on the first play of the scrimmage, the bench was all over Jones with praise. That continued the rest of the scrimmage.

Justin Brent was in a jersey but without pads as he’s still a month away from returning after rehab from foot surgery. Curious to see if the staff goes with him over Jones when healthy.

Wide Receiver/Tight End

It’s Torii Hunter Jr. and everybody else. No big surprise there. The next group remains Kevin Stepherson, Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders, maybe not in that order. Corey Holmes, Javon McKinley, Chris Finke and Chase Claypool make up the third tier of receivers for now.

Much better day from Equanimeous St. Brown after fading during Thursday’s practice in the heat. He didn’t make every play, but he didn’t drop passes either. Kelly did get on him in red zone for not being more aggressive and stronger in his cuts toward the goal line. St. Brown caught a pass in the flat and instead of turning hard up the field he let Shaun Crawford tag him down well short of the goal line. St. Brown does have a wrap on his left thumb, something Kelly referenced earlier in the week.

I’m not sure I can remember a receiver who looks like less while producing more than Kevin Stepherson. Before the snap, the freshman still looks like a walk-on. Yet the Florida product is productive as heck in scrimmage situations. You know how Kelly has described some receivers in the past as too finesse, too bothered by minor injuries or too distracted? Put money on Stepherson never getting those descriptions. He catches almost everything and that included two grabs for 30 yards during a soaking scrimmage. He’s picked up where he left off during spring practice.

In terms of depth charts, the starters remain Hunter (X), Sanders (Z-slot) and St. Brown (W). The second-team remains Holmes (Z-slot), Stepherson (X) and Miles Boykin (W). The third team was a mix, although Finke is clearly the No. 3 slot. Deon McIntosh, Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley seemed to move around more, although Claypool is built like a W.

Really liked what I saw from Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar during the 7-on-7 portion of practice in terms of how much Kizer and Zaire looked for them. Notre Dame’s linebackers had a very hard time keeping up with them. Could this be more of a No. 1 and No. 1-A instead of starter and back-up? Feels that way.

Alizé Jones actually got a rep (and catch) in 7-on-7. He remains a cheerleader.

Offensive Line

The starting lineup (left-to-right): Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher, Tristen Hoge, Alex Bars. The second-team (left-to-right): Hunter Bivin, Trevor Ruhland, Mark Harrell, Colin McGovern, Tommy Kraemer. The third-team (left-to-right): Liam Eichenberg, Parker Boudreaux, Sam Bush, Jimmy Byrne, John Montelus.

After Kelly’s commentary following Saturday’s practice, I’d be surprised if there’s any movement here beyond Hoge and McGovern. Kraemer clearly has dropped down in the race based on Kelly’s comments, although he was over the top with his praise too, calling Kraemer just as good as the starters. He also called Bars the best freshman offensive linemen he’d coached in 20 years during his red-shirt year, so go figure.

Curious if Bivin might have seen his shot slip in the past week. He false started on the first play of a scrimmage series. The first play! Kelly was none too pleased.

Didn’t spend a lot of time watching Hoge or McGovern individually, although Jerry Tillery seemed to make a few plays up the middle. So did Pete Mokwuah. And Jarron Jones. Sort of a zero sum game. Every good play for the offensive line is a mark against the defense, and vice versa.

I still think the smart bet is on Hoge winning the job. He’s the best athlete of the group and the one Harry Hiestand seems to ride hardest, which is actually a good thing. Notre Dame is going to be a left-handed run team this fall anyway, so perhaps Hoge’s lack of brute strength won’t be a big mark against him. His ability to pull is certainly a plus.

Not sure there’s a position group on the team where the functional drop is bigger between the starters and the reserves more than the offensive line. But that’s the story every August.

Highlights from today's practice:

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