Notre Dame Football’s 11 Best: Offense

Deshone Kizer - Notre Dame QB
Photo: Mark J. Rebilas // USA TODAY Sports

The idea of playing the best 11 guys you have on either side of the ball would seem to be conventional and a matter of common sense. Of course every team wants to play their best guys, who wouldn’t? Yet, avid fans of the game know that is not always possible. Here I take a shot at ranking the top 11 players on the offensive side of the ball, and you’ll see that the Irish backfield makes it very difficult to get Notre Dame’s best on the field at once.

11.) Equanimeous St. Brown

The 6-5 sophomore that runs like a gazelle appears to have the inside track at the starting W position, even if senior Corey Robinson returns from his issues with a concussion. There has been buzz about St. Brown ever since he stepped on campus last fall, lauded by Brian Kelly many times for his play making ability in practice. The prevailing thought was had St. Brown not been playing behind first round pick Will Fuller at the X, he’d have seen the field as a freshman and made a real contribution.

His development was slowed by a shoulder injury late in the season, and he also missed time with a minor injury to the other shoulder during spring practices. It was somewhat of a tough transition over to the W for St. Brown; that is the boundary spot, with less room to operate, and requires more physicality. The young receiver is a competitor, but he isn’t the thickest of players and physical play isn’t yet a strong part of his game. He is mainly a projection heading into the season, but too much talent to not make the top 11.

10.) Sam Mustipher

Mustipher figured to enter into a fierce battle at center against sophomore Tristen Hoge, who like Equanimeous St. Brown, received a lot of praise from Brian Kelly in the lead up to spring practices. It turns out, for the junior out of Maryland, it wasn’t much of a competition at all. Mustipher seemed to take control of the center position from the start of the spring session and Kelly proclaimed early that Mustipher had solidified himself along the offensive line. At 6-2, 305 his strength is, naturally, his strength, especially in the run game. He handled 315 pound Daniel Cage in the spring game with little trouble, and picked up the line calls seamlessly, which is half the battle at center.

This fall will be his first foray into the starting lineup and it remains to be seen if his snapping issues creep up again, and how well he does in pass protection. But, given the success of offensive linemen under Harry Hiestand, and the fact that Mustipher was essentially groomed his first two years into this position, it’s easy to project that he’ll be ready to go.

9.) Aliz’e Jones

The former five star tight end out of Las Vegas had what some would term a disappointing freshman year, but that wouldn’t be totally fair. It was projected he would make an impact in the passing game, which he did, but the loss of Durham Smythe to injury pressed Jones into the starter role much sooner than even a talent like him was ready for. Consequently, he struggled some with the rigors of a long season and bigger defensive ends and linebackers as a blocker.

His sophomore season brings a full year in the weight room under Paul Longo and a better understanding of what is needed on a day to day, game to game basis as a major college player. He was lined up in the W position a fair amount this spring a la Tyler Eifert in 2011 and 2012; Notre Dame clearly wants to get him into favorable matchups and give them a more physical player blocking on the edge with the loss of Chris Brown who was excellent as a blocker last season. With the loss of Brown, Fuller and Amir Carlisle at receiver, anything less than a 40 catch season would be surprising.

8.) Alex Bars

If not for breaking his ankle in his first start against USC, Bars would likely be higher up on this list. Shaking off the rust has been somewhat difficult for Bars, who didn’t have the best spring of all time, but his talent and previous play is undeniable. Brian Kelly has been effusive in his praise of Bars pretty much since his arrival on campus and even with his injury, his spot on the offensive line’s top five was never in question. The expectation is Bars will regain his form over the summer with more leg work in the weight room.

7.) Tarean Folston

It’s easy to forget how good Tarean Folston had been during his first two seasons in South Bend due to his injury and the stellar play of CJ Prosise and Josh Adams who replaced Folston in the lineup. Yet, it was Folston who many projected to have the monster season in 2015, myself included, and it’s hard to disagree with that assertion given the success of his backups. Folston possesses a skill set that Adams does not bring to the table as an inside runner with quick feet and the necessary burst through a small hole. It’s not to say Adams can’t run inside or in short yardage, but this is an area where Folston excels (In 2014, Folston was 7 of 8 on third and three or less, 5.75 a carry. Adams and Prosise in 2015? 3 of 10, 0.8 yards a carry). Given Notre Dame’s struggles on third and short in 2016, Folston’s ability in that area, as well as his experience in big environments, will prove invaluable for the Irish offense.

6.) Torii Hunter Jr.

I’m not sure anyone’s stock rose in the spring on offense as much as Hunter Jr’s, who looked every bit the #1 receiver that Notre Dame seemed to be lacking when Will Fuller left to be the 21st pick in the draft. Never seen as much of a speed guy, Kelly announced Hunter Jr. ran a 4.42 in winter workouts, which had it been the NFL combine, would have tied for third fastest. He then backed that up with multiple toastings of Notre Dame defensive backs in one on one drills and it wasn’t limited to just one guy. Add that to his Sportscenter top 10 highlight reel reception in the spring game, and Notre Dame may have found a permanent solution to the X position.

5.) Josh Adams

While there are things that Folston does that Josh Adams, thus far, has not, Adams has the home run ability that every coach covets. Still an efficient runner in between the tackles, Adams has the size to go inside, and the speed to turn big holes into long touchdowns, something Folston hasn’t done in his first two years. Adams scored on runs of 98, 70, and 62 yards while averaging 7.2 yards per carry, and only figures to improve in all facets of the game as he enters his sophomore season. He and Folston figure to form a solid two back committee next year, but given Adams’ home run ability and developing game, he figures to be the better player between the two, overall.

4.) Quenton Nelson

Prior to the high ankle sprain that Nelson incurred prior to USC week, Nelson was often dominant at left guard next to first round pick Ronnie Stanley. The former five star linemen acquitted himself very nicely in his first game action in his career for team 127 and lived up to all the praise and expectations heaped upon him prior to his insertion into the lineup. He’s an absolute monster as a run blocker, as some unsuspecting linebacker from Texas discovered early in the opening game. He’s got some limitations as a pass blocker, but he’s got plenty of time to develop that part of his game, and he showed so much promise during his first year, there is a great chance he moves up this list following his second campaign.

3.) Malik Zaire

No matter who Brian Kelly decides the starter is going to be for the 2016 season, he’s got a problem on his hands. Malik Zaire is a good football player, I’m not sure anyone is denying that. Whenever the fans have seen him in live action, either in the regular season or the spring game, he has performed well. For his career, as mismashed as it has been, he hasn’t turned the ball over once. He’s completed 63% of his 75 passes. Notre Dame has won every game he has started. Sure, it’s a small sample size, but he hasn’t failed at Notre Dame yet. He’s got the skills to take over a game; he’s got a huge arm to hit the deep ball and the legs to bust open any play. Most importantly, his heart is as big as any of his offensive linemen. In his first home start, the first time the team was truly his, he delivered one of the best passing performances in school history, when his passing ability was his biggest question mark. Any other year, he’s the no-brainer starting QB. But, this isn’t any other year, and his role on the team is very much in question.

2.) Mike McGlinchey

Notre Dame’s last two starting left tackles enjoyed stellar careers in college and promptly moved on to be first round picks in the NFL draft; McGlinchey looks to make it three in a row. McGlinchey is an enormously big human being at 6-7, 310 pounds, which make it all the more amazing that he can move his feet as fluidly as he does in pass protection. He makes the move from right tackle over to the left, a la his predecessor Ronnie Stanley, and paired with Quenton Nelson figures to form one of the most dominating duos in college football, clearing out running lanes for whoever is toting the ball behind them. Any prognostication of the Notre Dame offense starts and ends with the play of McGlinchey.

1.) DeShone Kizer

The fact there is a possibility Kizer is not named the starting quarterback of this team come fall practice is frankly, unbelievable. He checks every box you want in a quarterback; size (6-4, 230), power, speed, a strong arm, and perhaps most importantly, he’s got the clutch gene. In the 4th quarter last season he achieved his highest passer rating, his highest completion percentage, and had his best touchdown to interception ratio 7:1. He engineered late drives to win or take the lead against Virginia, USC, Temple and Stanford, incidentally, with the exception of USC, all of which took place on the road (not included in that was his 19 unanswered 4th quarter points at national runner up Clemson that came up just short).

Incredibly, he seems to have expanded his skill set to become a much better passer while on the run, and with pressure in his face (Brett Favre anyone?). This guy has got the kind of skills that teams trade multiple picks to acquire. And yet, he may not be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. Whatever the case may be, he’s the best player on the Notre Dame offense.

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  1. If ND doesn’t start Zaire because they believe Kizer is better, I hope they’ll at least have the guts to let him transfer anywhere he wants if he chooses that route rather than playing games with the rest of his future. I think everyone knows I wasn’t a real Golson fan but I thought it was a chicken shit move to block him from schools on their schedule where he could have made some impact.
    By the way while Kizer had a decent season, the fact is he didn’t win the two most important games ND played. Clemson and Stanford along with a miserable performance against the Buckeyes. He was only so so in the red zone so I’m not quite sure about awarding him the clutch factor.

  2. Great article….looking forward to a healthy season. Coaches and players are doing a great job. Thank you!

    Woody ’76

  3. Greg , good key position players you mention on O here. Waiting for your best 11 on D. It’s a healthy debate on Kizer/Zaire as to who will get us to 11/12 wins and a playoff spot. To me Kizer get’s the nod starting against Texas. We posters all have our favorite QB–as to numerous pros/cons posted about each one. We’re loaded on O—an offense that can beat Michigan State , Stanford and USC. The 3 biggies on the schedule for 2016. Not that the others are patsies. But Michigan State , Stanford , USC need to be beat. If a shot at playoffs. The notion that these 3 teams will be “weak” or “rebuilding” cause they lost starting QB’s is pure bullshit. —— Bottom line , Irish need a Defense to beat these 3 team. Shoot , they need D from get-go versus Texas — and don’t stop there boys ! Go Irish !

  4. Back-in-the-day when ND had great depth, although probably not better depth than they now have, they’d occasionally bring in their entire second team with their third possession of the game, and then return the starters. I know Harry’d want his 5or 6 top OL in, but ND could easily play their ‘second-string’ QB, RB, and WRs and TEs and not miss a beat- and what a great way to keep everyone in focus, knowing their turn will come even without a key injury ahead of them. Maybe ‘next-man-in’ worked so well last year because there wasn’t a substantial difference at most positions (S,CB,MLB,DE,RB,QB,).
    That’d keep more players happier-and involved.
    Utilize and maximize your strength, and depth might be NDs wild card to success.

  5. HURLER,

    “Got Gypped” ??
    “Justice Demands” ??

    You make it sound like he got injured on purpose, then the coaching staff benched him and the university pulled his scholarship.

    Career stats:
    Malik Zaire
    Has Appeared in 9 games, rushed 42 times for 290 yards and 2 TD’s.
    He has Attempted 75 passes, completed 47 for 694 yards and 5 TD’s with 0 int’s.

    DeShone Kizer
    Has Appeared in 13 games, rushed 134 times for 520 yards and 10 TD’s.
    He has Attempted 335 passes, completed 211 for 2884 yards with 21 TD’s and 10 int’s.

    “Roughly Equal” ?

    I don’t think so.
    (at least not yet)

    Kizer has the clear advantage due to playing time, practice time, game experience, performance, stats, and wins.

    Logic would indicate that by the coaches not naming a starting QB at the conclusion of spring practice that Zaire is being given his chance.

    Life isn’t fair… I doubt few understand that better than you.

  6. Malik-da-Freak. DeShone may be DaMayon, but Malik got gypped. That’s not right; and whereas both candidates are roughly equal, I think justice demands Malik to be at least given a chance.

  7. Zaire or Kizer, Kizer or Zaire and oh we have another kid Wimbush who can play QB also and he’s very good. What a problem Kelly has! Wouldn’t want it any other way. If the ND offense is not successful this year then they will never be a success. Barring a major catastrophe how can they not be dynamic? Solid running game, receivers look good, can’t wait for opening day against Texas. It will not be an easy on like last year but it could set the tone for a very successful campaign or another decent but not great season. We can only hope for the best! Go ND!!

  8. Jeff, really? What about Zaire’s perfect bomb to Fuller right in stride? What about the fact that as Zaire was getting injured, he was moving the ball into Virginia territory? I’m pretty sure we would have been just fine with a healthy Zaire in pulling that one out. But a very good job done by Kizer stepping in that game and leading this team throughout the season.

    Nobody can really knock on either one of these QBs with what we have seen from them so far.

  9. Evidently Ray didn’t watch the Virginia game. Don’t think ND was going win that one with a healthy Zaire. Tough decision for Kelly choosing a starting QB. I think we will see both play a significant amount and hopefully that’s not a bad thing.

  10. There is an exception to every rule, and the rule that dual quarterback threats never work, may have just found its exception. Imagine having to guard one side of the field from a left handed QB, then having to guard the other side from a right handed QB. Without a very solid, lane specific defense this is a NIGHTMARE!

  11. Good point, SFR. Beyond sad! From all I’ve read, the outpouring of grief suggests GB#1 was loved by teammates and competitors alike.

    Interesting read, Greg. Thanks.

    As for QBs and RBs, seldom has ND recently had the depth of proven talent returning in the last twenty years. “Next-man-in” success is predicated on depth, and ND has seemingly arrived there. Formulating strategy and maximizing that talent and depth is on the staff now.

    I look forward to you finding which 11 players on the D’ could impact. You’ll have to rely on potential and, hopefully, one or more of this year’s Frosh will be in that mix as we look back next January.
    Re: St. Brown, Mustipher and Bars, the potential is obviously there. But until they produce vs. players other than at ND scrimmages and practices and excel in game situations, it’ll remain a wait-and-see situation. Too often Spring time stars never produced once Fall games start.
    But in Spring, hope springs eternal.

  12. Amen about Greg Bryant.
    I attended the 2015 Spring Game and afterward as the team was filing out of the practice field on their way back to the locker room I had a chance to watch Greg standing off by himself. It was a warm humid day and he had his jersey off and was quietly watching everyone visiting with family and fans. Because he had placed himself off to the side out of the flow of the crowd, I took him to be a little shy, and that my intruding upon him and participating in a little hero worship might be poorly timed.
    Now knowing that he will never finish his career I so wish I had been more courageous and had reached out to him when I had the chance. The audacious way he returned that punt against Louisville along with the accompanying roar of approval from his peers in the student section provides a glimpse of what might have been Once Irish always Irish. May God have mercy on Greg and welcome him into his rest.

  13. RIP Greg Bryant! Sadly this young man could’ve easily made this list if things had been different.

  14. I like Adams a lot, and I think he’ll have a great career if he stays healthy. That said, I think Folston is the best back on the team when healthy. A more powerful and faster Autry Denson.

  15. Zaire is the only QB that we can beat the Alabama type teams. It is because he is the perfect college QB with his escapability that will inevitably turn what looks to be a bad play into a difference making play. I truly believe he would have had us unbeaten last year.

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