My thanks to Al Lesar, columnist for the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune, for answering a few questions about the team he covers. You can read his stuff here.
Q: What’s your sense of how DeShone Kizer will be used?
A: Stepping in at quarterback for the injured Malik Zaire could be a daunting task, but the Irish offensive system will try to make the transition easy for the redshirt freshman. Heck, in June, he was No. 3 on the depth chart. Everett Golson was a graduate transfer to Florida State, and now Zaire is done.
At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Kizer is a power guy. Strong arm. His comfort zone is throwing to receiver Will Fuller, who caught the game-winner against Virginia last week. Look for him to be a popular target Saturday. Kizer will run, but likely not outside the tackles. He’s a power runner, who doesn’t have Zaire’s speed. He bulled his way up the middle for a first down on fourth-and-two on that game-winning drive. Takes some confidence to do that.
Q: ACC teams that play Tech annually typically don’t stray too far from their defensive game plan. Do you suspect Brian VanGorder will do likewise, or has the investment of time/energy in defending the spread option given coaches the ability to try something different?
A: Notre Dame has been studying the way it defends the triple-option all summer. Bob Elliott, a former secondary coach who is now a consultant, spent the entire summer researching different ways to defend it, comparing it to Notre Dame’s normal approach. The media was allowed into five preseason practices. Each one of those had at least a few periods (five minutes per period) devoted to defending the option. The Irish have made a concerted effort to be ready for what the Yellow Jackets will bring.
Q: How would you evaluate Brian Kelly’s strengths and weaknesses as a coach?
A: Consider Kelly’s background to understand his strength. He has had success at Grand Valley State (NCAA Division II) and Central Michigan (MAC). You don’t get blue-chippers at those places. That’s why player development is the most obvious asset he has. If the four- and five-star athletes Notre Dame can land are coachable, their development can be enhanced.
Probably his biggest weakness is that he’s stubborn — but he’s getting better. I think back to the Tulsa loss early in his ND career. All they needed was a short field goal to win the game, but he decided on fourth down he’d go for a TD to win the game. It didn’t work.
Late last season, when kicker Kyle Brindza was struggling, he replaced the holder (Hunter Smith), who was close to Brindza (there had been a couple holder malfunctions). Brindza was angry and he continued to struggle. When everyone around the program felt Golson needed to be replaced (he was responsible for 22 turnovers), Kelly stuck with him until he was so awful against Southern Cal it forced Kelly’s hand.
Q: Along the same lines, where is Notre Dame strongest and most vulnerable?
A: Notre Dame’s offensive line doesn’t have any holes (it was weak at right guard last season). It has given up three sacks in two games, while rushing for 233.5 yards against Texas and Virginia. That should give Kizer some added confidence. Last week’s escape from Virginia exposed problems in the Irish secondary. Corners KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke, and safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate, all are experienced and were expected to be a positive area of the defense. Virginia quarterback Matt Johns (26 of 38, 289 yards, 2 TDs) is hardly Justin Thomas, in terms of talent. The secondary will have quite a challenge Saturday.
Q: For Tech fans going to the game, where are some places on campus they might want to visit, and what are some eating/drinking recommendations before and after the game?
A: My No. 1 recommendation to visit is The Grotto. It’s just west of the Golden Dome, probably the most beautiful place on campus (light a candle for the Yellow Jackets; as Lou Holtz says, “God doesn’t mind, but his Mother might.”). Take a leisurely stroll around the lake across the street from The Grotto. After the game, immediately south of campus is an area called Eddy Street Commons, where fans can celebrate or drown their sorrows. Come early to the game, even if it’s raining, the pre-game experience is special.