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.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”