Notre Dame’s 2015-16 campaign began with two bittersweet wins that felt more like losses to Irish fans.
In week one, starting running back Tarean Folston suffered a torn ACL, ending his season on his third carry of the game. In week two, starting quarterback Malik Zaire went down with a fractured ankle, also putting an end to his first season as the Irish leader.
The Notre Dame faithful would be lying if they said they still had much faith in the team’s chances to make the College Football Playoff after losing two of their best offensive weapons. With a redshirt freshman in DeShone Kizer next in line at quarterback, and a converted wide receiver in C.J. Prosise taking over the workload in the backfield, it was impossible to tell if the offense would be able to recover.
Yet, through their first seven games, the Fighting Irirsh are 6-1, ranking in the top 20 in the country on offense with 38.3 points and 498.9 yards per game. Their only loss came against Clemson, ranked third in the nation in the latest AP Top 25 Poll, on a rainy night in Death Valley that saw both teams struggle to score. Behind the unexpected success of Kizer and Prosise, and the playmaking ability of junior wide receiver Will Fuller, Notre Dame has been able to keep their playoff hopes alive.
The Surprise: DeShone Kizer
Kizer’s play has been one of the most surprising storylines in all of college football. When Zaire left the Virginia game, Kizer was able to orchestrate a drive in which he threw a perfect deep ball to Fuller for the game-winning touchdown with just seconds left on the clock. It was clear to Irish fans that he had plenty of talent and potential, but Kizer has improved each and every week.
Oct 17, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer (14) throws a pass against the Southern California Trojans at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame defeats Southern California 41-31. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Kizer has thrown for 1,370 yards, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions, while completing just over 65 percent of his passes. Even against Clemson, when receivers on both teams were struggling to catch the ball in the wet conditions, he was able to lead the Irish to a comeback that nearly sent the game to overtime.
Then, against Notre Dame’s hated rivals from Southern California, Kizer had his defining moment of the season thus far. In the week leading up to the game, he told reporters in South Bend that he knew he could throw his weight around more in the running game, acknowledging the fact that a running quarterback adds another threat to the offense. Through his first four starts, Kizer only had 25 more rushing yards than Zaire had in less than two full games. So on third-and-five from his own 15 yard line, with the Irish trailing USC by a touchdown late in the third quarter, Kizer broke off a 23-yard run right up the middle to extend the eventual game-tying drive.
He went on to lead the Irish on touchdown drives of 90 and 91 yards in the fourth quarter to seal the win. Kizer is fearless, eager to learn and clutch when the game is on the line. If he is able to keep up this gutsy play the rest of the year, he may even find himself in the middle of a quarterback controversy. After all, Zaire was able to oust Everett Golson last season, so who’s to say Kizer couldn’t do the same?
The Playmaker: Will Fuller
Coming off a breakout season in which he had more than 1,000 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns, Fuller was Notre Dame’s big-play threat that opposing defenses would look to eliminate. But even with that target on his back, Fuller has continued to run by every defensive back who lines up against him.
Sep 19, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Will Fuller (7) makes a diving catch against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets during the first half at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
At first, it appeared as though defenses were somehow forgetting about Fuller, especially when he was wide open down the sideline for the winning touchdown against Virginia. Although ecstatic about the play, Irish fans were left to wonder how the one deep-play threat they have was able to get that much space. Surely, the Virginia defense must have fallen apart.
However, Fuller has continued to run deep down the field for long touchdowns game after game. Through seven games, Fuller has racked up 702 yards and eight touchdowns on 32 catches, averaging 21.9 yards per catch. He is on pace to score more touchdowns than he did last season on about 17 fewer receptions.
Fuller’s biggest moment of the season to this point came against USC as well, where he disproved all notions that he was only reaping the benefits of playing against mediocre defenses. USC cornerback Adoree Jackson, widely regarded as one of the fastest players in the country, was assigned to defend Fuller. On Notre Dame’s opening drive, Fuller blew right past Jackson for a 75 yard touchdown, leaving him a few strides behind.
The MVP: C.J. Prosise
Prosise was first recruited by Notre Dame as a safety out of high school. The 6-foot-tall, 220-pounder did not play during his freshman year, and then converted into a wide receiver in 2013 where he had a minimal impact. He finally made his presence known in 2014, when he caught 29 balls for more than 500 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but nobody could have seen what was coming in his senior year.
Sep 19, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back C.J. Prosise (20) carrie stye ball for a 91 yard touchdown run against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports
Prosise made another switch this year due to a lack of depth in the backfield, transitioning to running back during spring practice. After Folston was injured against Texas, Prosise carried the ball 20 times for 98 yards, and he never looked back.
It’s safe to say the all-around athlete finally found his comfort zone in the Irish system. Prosise has gained 922 yards on the ground with 11 touchdowns, averaging 7.1 yards per carry. He also has 18 pass receptions for 219 yards and a touchdown. Heading into Notre Dame’s bye week, Prosise was the only running back in the country with more than 900 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards. He has ran for at least 129 yards five times on the season, and he has averaged at least 9 yards per carry in three of those games.
That’s a lot of numbers to digest, but none of them can fully explain the way Prosise has actually been running. Sometimes he can have a little trouble getting through the tackles on the offensive line, but he is dangerously explosive once he gets an opening. He has broken countless tackles in the open field for a bunch of long runs, including a 91 yard touchdown against Georgia Tech. Prosise has elite speed to go along with his unexpected power, and his ability to be a factor in the passing game has many Irish fans arguing that he is the best dual-threat back in the nation.