With Notre Dame’s dominating 62-27 victory over Massachusetts the Fighting Irish finished September with an undefeated record for the third time in head coach Brian Kelly’s six year stint at Notre Dame, and the second year in a row. Now that one-third of the 2015 season is in the books – and with the critical portion of Notre Dame’s schedule just around the corner – what are a few things we have learned about the football program so far?
Notre Dame’s assistant coaches have been excellent hires
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford arrived in South Bend this offseason with the reputation as a coaching superstar-in-waiting, and Notre Dame has done everything it can to test such a moniker. The transfer of Everett Golson left Sanford with the challenge of developing a talented but raw quarterback in Malik Zaire, and an offseason of footwork offered glimpses of greatness when Zaire threw for over 300 yards and 3 touchdown passes in a blowout against Texas. Sanford’s challenge would morph into a crisis, however, when Zaire suffered a torn ACL against Virginia.
It was debatable whether Notre Dame was capable of defeating Georgia Tech even with Malik Zaire at the helm, but Mike Sanford was tasked with preparing redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer for such a feat. Kizer was ill-prepared to become Notre Dame’s starter this season after having most of his practice reps poached by the quarterback duel between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire prior to Golson’s transfer to Florida State. Despite the odds, Sanford had Kizer ready to play, and the inexperienced signal caller led Notre Dame to an upset victory over No. 14 Georgia Tech in his first career start, completing 70-percent of his passing attempts and racking up nearly 250 yards through the air.
Sanford even successfully prepared true freshman quarterback Brandon Wimbush – who was almost certainly going to redshirt in 2015 prior to Golson’s exit – for game action. The four-star New Jersey native showcased how bright the future is at quarterback for Notre Dame in limited game action against UMass. Wimbush tossed a beautiful deep pass to Will Fuller who nearly hauled in what would have been a spectacular catch, and also showcased his running ability with an impressive 58-yard touchdown run that saw him juke defenders as well as break tackles.
Similarly, Autry Denson, Notre Dame’s running backs coach, has also been successful in the face of adversity. The deck was stacked against Denson when former five-star running back Greg Bryant left the program and starting running back Tarean Folston tore his ACL early in game action against Texas. The unexpected turn of events elevated wide receiver-turned-running back C.J. Prosise from No. 3 on the depth chart to the starting position despite having never before played running back, even in high school. Developments that should have resulted in disaster have instead become ones of strength.
Prosise has been incredible to date, averaging 150 yards and one-and-one-half touchdowns on the ground per game. C.J., who is still listed as a wide receiver on the NCAA’s stat sheets, is No. 4 in the nation in rushing yardage and is on pace to gain 1,800 yards this season, a result that would smash the current school record. Complementing Prosise’s rushing accomplishments are the nuances of the position, an area where Denson has been equally impressive. An unsung component of DeShone Kizer’s miraculous game-winning touchdown pass against Virginia was Prosise in pass protection, picking up a critical blitz that allowed Kizer time to make the throw.
Will Fuller is one of the best wide receivers in the nation
Notre Dame fans felt slighted when Fuller failed to be named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list during his breakout sophomore campaign, a season in which he hauled in 76 receptions for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns. Any reservation the Biletnikoff watch list may have had about Fuller should now be erased given his production this season alongside Notre Dame’s tumultuous situation at quarterback.
Fuller is No. 8 nationally in receiving yards with 454 and tied for No. 3 with six touchdowns, and his performances have been the epitome of clutch, such as his game-winning touchdown grab against Virginia with only 12 seconds remaining on the clock. However, there is one piece of Fuller’s game preventing him from reaching the fullness of his potential: body-catching.
Notre Dame held a 14-6 lead against Massachusetts and, with the ball in their possession, had the opportunity to put the Minutemen in a bind with another score. Kizer threw a pass across the middle of the field to Will Fuller who, instead of using his hands to aggressively pursue the football, waited for the ball’s arrival, allowing Massachusetts cornerback Trey Dudley-Giles to make an interception off a deflection. The interception led to a UMass touchdown that made the score 14-13 and completely altered the game’s momentum.
Fuller’s penchant for body-catching has been a consistent point of emphasis from associate head coach and wide receivers coach, Mike Denbrock.
“Will [Fuller] has to continue to work on his consistency catching the football,” Denbrock said at Notre Dame’s media day back in August. “He really has a good pair of hands. And he has to use them. He gets himself in trouble when he tries to basket-catch a football instead of being aggressive to it. He’s got to get that out of his game.”
Notre Dame was able to overcome the error against an overmatched opponent, but it’s the type of mistake that could be the difference between a win and a loss moving forward.
Overall, head coach Brian Kelly has overcome many obstacles in a very short period to get Notre Dame to October undefeated. The next few weeks will likely determine whether the lessons learned are good enough to earn Notre Dame a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Scott Janssen is a blogger from the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.