End of Spring Break means return to business at hand


Notre Dame returns to practice next Wednesday, two weeks since it last took the field for practice. With the university on break this week, it’s been a nice calm before getting back to the business at hand of improving this football team before fall camp.

And there is work to be done.

Before we get back to actually talking about real football, consider this a weekend checklist of players I’m looking forward to tracking when the Irish get back on the field:

Malik Zaire: So that whole open competition thing at quarterback lasted around 15 minutes, which was about as long as anyone should’ve expected. But Zaire is a key cog to the Irish offense, and getting a look at him taking full field, full offensive system reps will be fascinating illuminating.

Heading into his senior season, Zaire was a run first, sub-50 percent passer. A big time summer on the national circuit, including a really impressive stint at Elite 11 camp, and a great senior season have many believing he’s a late blooming dual-threat quarterback that could be a very good one.

Interestingly enough, the Irish’s two quarterbacks feel like polar opposites. Golson was a prodigious high school talent, putting up record-breaking numbers in South Carolina. Zaire was relatively late on the scene, with basically one season of elite game tape.

Now working with Matt LaFleur, let’s see how Zaire is progressing.

Michael Deeb: I fully expected Deeb to be one of the early contributors of the freshman in 2013.

Boy, was I off.

Now there is literally nobody standing in the way of Deeb stepping into the starting lineup. Especially this spring, with only Deeb, former walk-on Joe Schmidt and fifth-year Kendall Moore available at inside linebacker.

Strategically, keeping Deeb’s eligibility clock from starting was smart, especially with veterans Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox playing alongside Jarrett Grace. But he’d better get a jump start on earning some playing time before he sees the reinforcements arrive this summer.

Ben Koyack: It wasn’t too long ago that Koyack was all but expected to be the next great Notre Dame tight end. As elite of a recruit as there was at the position, it’s taken three full seasons for the Oil City, PA native to reach his potential.

With Troy Niklas gone, the door is open for Koyack to take charge of the position. He’s got the size to play attached to the line, enough athleticism and speed to be productive in the open field, and one season to establish himself as an NFL prospect.

This is an important spring for Koyack. Nobody else at his position has seen the field. He’s the standard bearer for how things should be done. And if there’s a guy that’s likely to catch Brian Kelly’s attention as taking “the leap” forward, expect it to be Koyack.

Joe Schmidt: Count me as one of those fascinated intrigued by Schmidt getting his chance to be a starting inside linebacker at Notre Dame. While his size almost immediately disqualified him from playing for Bob Diaco, Schmidt is the type of athlete that could be effective playing sideline to sideline in Brian VanGorder’s system. But it’s just too soon to tell how good Schmidt.

Almost just as important as Schmidt’s contributions on the field is what his success means on the recruiting trail. A recruited walk-on turning into a successful starter at one of the most high profile programs in the country is music to the ears of bubble recruits that may be weighing non-BCS scholarship offers with a chance to play for the Irish.

As Kelly and his staff look to optimize numbers and play as close to the 85-man scholarship roster limit as possible, having a success story among their recent recruited walk-ons will help bring other potential contributors to campus.

It’s certainly not a risk many can afford, but it’s already the type of opportunity that has fellow Mater Dei football prospect Sam Bush doing the same thing. Our friends over at Irish Illustrated caught up with the 6-foot-4, 285-pound offensive lineman and he relayed the message the Irish coaching staff sent to him.

“They said there’s no better guy that you could have in that situation,” Bush told Irish Illustrated. “He came in as a preferred walk-on, put his heart and mind to it. It’s sort of a cliché, but it’s like Rudy, be the first guy in, last guy out, work up the food chain. Now he’s getting substantial playing time and on scholarship.”

If the Irish get key snaps from players like Schmidt every couple years, it could be contagious.

Max Redfield: If you were to believe the coaching decision in the Pinstripe Bowl, Brian Kelly was telling the truth when he felt like Redfield needed to get an opportunity to play. The freshman started the final game of the 2013 season after being largely anonymous in 2013, leading to him entering spring as the presumed starter at free safety for the Irish.

While we know the verbiage and responsibilities are changing for the linebackers, we have yet to hear what’s going to happen in the secondary. (I expect things to simplify significantly.) But whatever it is, expect Redfield to play a large part in those plans. The move of Matthias Farley likely signified some self-scouting and a change in priorities for the back end of the defense.

If we’re to believe that Redfield will hold down one job, what happens at the other safety position will be fascinating. You could make an argument for Eilar Hardy, Elijah Shumate or Austin Collinsworth to start along side of Redfield. And James Onwualu is too good of a football player to be shifted to defense and shelved for the season.

Whether it’s sub-packages or new coverage schemes, the spring developments at safety, and Redfield’s development into a key starter, are worth watching.

Kelly thinks simplicity might aid offensive production

Notre Dame quarterback Kizer DeShone makes a throw during the Blue-Gold spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. (Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
South Bend Tribune via AP

Back to the basics. If there’s a refrain we’ve heard—or one that’s made its way through the echo chamber these past few weeks—it’s that Brian Kelly and his coaching staff are drilling down, looking for any way to pull this team out of their slump.

We saw the changes defensively, a gigantic detour away from the scheme and philosophies of Brian VanGorder. And while that’s helped jump-start the defense, the impact of the move may have hit the offense’s productivity.

Kelly talked about some of those aftereffects this week, the changes on one side of the ball leaking over to the other.

“We’re keeping the points down, but we’re limiting possessions,” Kelly explained. “We went from 15 possessions earlier in the season to this past game we had four possessions in the first half. That’s like playing an option team. We’re going to keep the points down, we’re probably not going to get off the field quite as quick as we did earlier in the season.”

Those lack of opportunities have shown up in the box score. Throw away the game played in hurricane conditions and it’s still clear that the Irish offense didn’t capitalize on their chances against Stanford. And whether it was DeShone Kizer’s interceptions, Malik Zaire’s three short-circuited series or a general lack of running game, Kelly is taking a similar approach with his offense that he did with the opposite side of the ball—though not running anybody out of town.

“We have fallen into a similar trap that we were dealing with earlier defensively. We’re probably doing a little too much,” Kelly said. “When you do the things that you practice every single day, it becomes second nature. You can play free, you can play fast.

“I think from an offensive standpoint, we can just be who we are. Let’s practice what we’re good at and let’s be better at execution in this kind of game.”

Do what you do, but do it better. It’s an approach that’s worked under Greg Hudson’s direction, with a defense mastering the bare essentials as they try to stop the bleeding. Offensively, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen this unit struggle. And while pointing in one direction usually takes the focus off of a multi-faceted problem, cutting down the inventory and letting the Irish talent play fast and loose could be a big help for a group that’s still really young.

“I think there’s an understanding now that we have to figure out what we are doing well and put emphasis on that,” Kizer said. “In the first half of the season there were some specific looks that are more successful than others, and we have to put emphasis on those looks.”

Behind the Irish: Leaders eat last


Leaders eat last. As the 2016 season continues to be a struggle for the Irish, holding firm to leadership mottos like the above is more than just lip service or an empty slogan.

In our latest Behind the Irish feature, several Notre Dame players talk about this season’s slogan and how it helps guide the team as they look to stay united through this stretch run.

And in that corner… The Miami Hurricanes


Sure, the high-wattage match-up might have lost some of its preseason luster. But even with both Notre Dame and Miami entering the weekend limping, bringing the Hurricanes and the Irish together—two of college football’s premier programs with quite a bit of history together—is always a game worth watching.

As the Irish return from an off week healthy and looking to rebound after two-straight losses, Mark Richt’s Miami team poses quite a challenge. Especially as the Hurricanes do what they can to stop a three game slide. They’ve got the ammo to do it, with junior quarterback Brad Kaaya one of the best Notre Dame will face this season and a defense that’s done a 180 under new coordinator Manny Diaz.

To get us ready for a very big weekend, Isaiah Kim-Martinez joins us. A sophomore studying broadcast journalism who also writes for the student-run Hurricane (in circulation since 1929!), Isaiah took time away from his busy schedule to answer some questions from on the ground in Coral Gables.

Hope you enjoy.


This season started with a four-game winning streak and gave way to a three-game losing streak—all ACC opponents. What do you make of the season so far, and how do you evaluate a Hurricanes team that has just one win against a Power Five opponent?

I would say that this season has brought what most fans were expecting – inconsistency. The team is just not quite there yet. This season isn’t a failure, nor is it really a success. There was supposed to be growing pains with a new coach and a new system, and we are seeing it now as the Hurricanes have played tougher opponents.


Before we get to the play on the field specifically, what’s the transition to Mark Richt been like? Getting a tenured head coach with connections to the university looked like a coup from a far. Is that the reaction amongst Canes faithful? What’s surprised you so far through seven games?

The transition has been great. The school and the fans have welcomed him with open arms. There is a general understanding that bringing the U back to national prominence would take some time, even with someone of Richt’s track record. So, Canes faithful is generally being patient with the head coach, understanding that this is a process.

What’s surprised me most has been the ups and downs of the offense. Miami averaged over 40 points through the first four games, and that quickly dropped to under 20 for the next three. I understand that the difficulty of the opponent was higher over the last three weeks, but that is more of a drop off in offensive production than I expected.


When we looked at the 2016 Notre Dame season in August, Brad Kaaya looked like the best quarterback the Irish would face. The junior has a big-time national profile and has nice numbers so far, 12 TDs, 5 INTs, completing almost 62 percent of his throws. Evaluate Kaaya’s junior season.

Kaaya has played well, but has clearly not met the expectations that most fans had set for him prior to the season. The numbers look fine on paper, but what is misleading about stats is that they don’t tell you when the touchdowns and interceptions happened. In the biggest games of the season, Kaaya’s touchdowns have mainly come with the team being down, which to me, negates some of the luster of them. Many of the touchdowns have not been that impactful. Kaaya hasn’t buried any team over the past few weeks with a series of plays he has made. He has also already thrown more interceptions this season than he had thrown all of last season.

That being said, it is not all his fault. The offensive line has not been good, so Kaaya has not had the adequate time to consistently throw in the pocket. It seems that part of the reason for the struggle has been the adjustment to the new system and the play-calling of a new coach, which is perfectly understandable. Once again, it is not all on Kaaya, however I do not believe he has taken a legitimate step forward to this point in the season. He has been good, just not great.


Defensively, Manny Diaz has done a stellar job, the Hurricanes defense taking a huge step forward from 2015. What’s the strength of the unit? And how will they attack an Irish offense that looks in a bit of a slump?

The strength of the unit, especially early on, has been the defensive line. It is getting pressure to the quarterback. I expect the team to do the same against Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, thus forcing him to make errors.


On the other side of the ball, Kaaya’s struggled with protection and the ground game isn’t necessarily putting up great numbers. What are the keys for the Hurricane offense, especially with Notre Dame finding its footing on the defensive side of the ball?

The key is the offensive line giving Kaaya the time he needs in the pocket to be effective, and making holes for running backs Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby to rush in between the tackles, which they have not been able to do effectively since before playing Florida State.


This is a rivalry with some history, though not many games against each other. Neither team is playing particularly good football, but it still was a game Irish fans circled on the schedule. How big of a game is this for the Hurricanes and their fans?

Indeed, it can be agreed upon that both teams expected to be in better situations come this matchup, so the implications are quite different. However, this is a huge game for the moral of the Hurricanes’ team and fans. Miami may have lost three straight games, but all the losses have come to opponents with records over .500. UM as a whole is being patient with the program, but I doubt there will be much tolerance if the Canes lose to a team that is currently 2-5.


Any prediction on how this game goes? Any keys that’ll determine a victor in your mind?

The Hurricanes defense is dealing with the injury bug, but I expect it to come out with a vengeance after allowing Virginia Tech to drop 37 points on it. The defense will hold the Fighting Irish to fewer than 25 points, and the Canes run game will finally see some day light and have a big day.

Keys to the game:

· Establish offensive presence early (strike first blood)

· No big plays allowed on defense

· Offensive line must play strong

Score Prediction: Miami 31 – Notre Dame 21

Kelly stays in the moment

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Coming off a bye week, you could excuse Brian Kelly if he started looking ahead. To his impending hire at defensive coordinator, or his shifting focus to a recruiting class that suffered its first defection since Blake Barnett bolted for Alabama.

But the seventh-year head coach has his hands full fixing his current predicament, leaving any planning beyond Miami to the weeks after the regular season.

“My time is spent on the present right now. I don’t look too far ahead,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I think I’ve stayed with very similar thoughts about not mortgaging the future, not dwelling too much on the past, but living in the present right now.”

That commitment to right now hasn’t translated into wins yet. But it’s the best way to beat Miami, a talented football team with what might be the best quarterback the Irish will face, coming in on a three-game losing streak.

So while Irish fans wonder how this team will find a way to straighten out and win four of their next five to qualify for a bowl game, Kelly talked about the internal motivation this team has, playing for each other more than any postseason bonus.

“All these kids, they come to Notre Dame because they want to be challenged,” Kelly said. “They have incredible intrinsic motivation every day to get up, to go to class, to want to succeed. It’s why they come here. There’s an immense amount of pride. They want to freakin’ win. They want to win. They really don’t care whether they get a Visa gift card in the bowl game.

“They want to practice more. They want to be with their teammates. They want to be with their guys. They want to win football games. They want to be successful in the classroom. They want to be successful on the football field. That’s why they came here. That’s why I’m here. That’s all we talk about. That’s all we do every day, is think about how we can be more successful.”