Malik Zaire

Five things we learned: 85th annual Blue-Gold game

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What a difference a year makes. As the Irish offense sprinted out to a gigantic lead before holding off the defense in a 63-58 victory, Brian Kelly’s promise of a new look offensive attack seems right on track for 2014.

Just months after Notre Dame took the field with Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix atop the depth chart, Notre Dame’s offense looks completely transformed. That’s what happens when you have the right quarterbacks for your system.

With Everett Golson and Malik Zaire now the stewards of the Irish attack, Kelly’s prized possession looks to be poised for a breakout season, finally resembling the unit that Kelly rode to prominence when outscoring opponents at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

 

Things were far from perfect. And a vanilla defense and favorable rules made it feel like the defense was playing with one arm tied behind its back at times. But heading into the offseason, a successful spring practice was capped off with an impressive offensive performance.

Let’s find out what else we learned during the Blue’s 63-58 victory.

***

It’s still Everett Golson’s offense, but Malik Zaire is ready to compete. 

If you were looking at this Notre Dame football team for the first time, you’d have likely lost a friendly wager if guessing which quarterback was the veteran with starting experience. Right out of the gate it was Malik Zaire that looked composed and fully comfortable running the offense, not Everett Golson.

Zaire played an exceptional first half, completing 15 of 19 throws for 259 yards and two touchdowns. He completed a nice vertical route to Will Fuller that set up a touchdown. He showed the ability to throw on the run. He even showed off an excellent fastball as he forced a slant into a tight window to Amir Carlisle for a short yardage touchdown.

Unable to properly show off his athleticism and foot speed, Zaire still was capable of making defenders miss, and then punish them by completing passes outside the pocket. Those skills make him far more capable as a No. 2 quarterback than Hendrix was last year, while armed with athleticism that makes for a defensive nightmare.

There’s still work to be done by the young quarterback, who caught many by surprise when he declared himself ready and willing to win the starting quarterback job. But after seeing Zaire in action on Saturday, many Irish fans finally understand what makes the rising sophomore so confident.

***

After a lost 2013 season, Greg Bryant plans on making the most of his second freshman season. 

Saturday afternoon didn’t start all that smoothly for Greg Bryant. The third running back to take the field after Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston, Bryant struggled to break loose on his first few carries, stuffed in the backfield and held at bay by the Irish defense. But Bryant just kept chipping away, showing patience before breaking a nine yard run and gaining 11 yards on a pass reception before halftime.

But the Bryant Irish fans have waited to see broke loose in the second half, when his 51-yard run became the biggest play of the game. Bryant’s long run featured just about everything Irish fans wanted to see: A great cut to get north and south, power accelerating through the hole, open field vision that turned a nice gain into a big run, and havoc wreaked in the open field.

 

Bryant finished the day as the Irish’s leading rusher, carrying 12 times for 101 yards. After hearing Kelly and Tony Alford talk about the power and vision Bryant had showed the coaching staff this spring, Irish fans saw it for themselves. And while Cam McDaniel looked reliable and Tarean Folston still looks to be the most comfortable back on the depth chart, Bryant will be a difference maker in this offense in 2014, even if it’s a year later than most expected.

***

It’s hard to take much from the defensive performance. But the pass rush certainly showed promise. 

When Alex Flanagan asked Brian Kelly how much new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was showing his offense, the Irish head coach chuckled. That was probably as telling as anything we saw on the field Saturday afternoon. And while the Irish passing attack racked up 388 yards in the first half, the defense showed glimmers of hope, especially in the second half.

But for all the worries expressed this spring, the one place where things seemed better than expected was the pass rush. While the official statistics for sacks should be taken with a huge grain of salt considering quarterbacks were untouchable, defensive end Romeo Okwara played a very nice game. The converted outside linebacker had three sacks in the box score, and brought excellent pressure off the edge of the Irish defense.

Okwara wasn’t the only one. Ishaq Williams started the game with an impressive pass rush that likely would’ve resulted in a sack. Andrew Trumbetti and Isaac Rochell, two young players who could play a factor in the Irish pass rush also notched sacks, joined by Chase Hounshell and Jacob Matuska.

While schemes stayed very vanilla, a few big plays by the offense also likely would’ve been erased had the quarterback been live. An overload blitz by Michael Deeb had quarterback Malik Zaire dead to rights. Joe Schmidt came off the edge to notch a sack that wasn’t counted. And if those blitzes landed, imagine what some of the more exotic looks would have done.

Of course, all of this is pretty fuzzy. Harry Hiestand’s offensive line was split into two units, with Golson taking some sketchy snaps from Mark Harrell, while being protected by reserves like John Montelus and Hunter Bivin.

So while the question marks will exist well into fall camp, seeing Golson and Zaire break from the pocket so often means the pass rush did its job.

***

After years of fighting to keep a natural surface in Notre Dame Stadium, Jack Swarbrick announced that a synthetic surface is being installed inside the house that Rock built. 

Far too often, the natural grass inside Notre Dame Stadium became part of the story. Whether it was overgrown to slow down a USC team, or a leading tackler thanks to faulty footing, the playing surface inside the stadium has been too much of a factor in recent years.

That will no longer be the case.

During the first half of the Blue-Gold game, athletic director Jack Swarbrick told NBC’s Alex Flanagan that a synthetic surface was being installed in Notre Dame Stadium. That process will begin after graduation weekend, with the installation complete by mid-August.

In a formalized release prepared by the university, Swarbrick explained the school’s rationale:

“We had a strong predisposition to stay with a natural grass field,” Swarbrick said in the statement. “However, the reality is that in two of the last three seasons since we moved Commencement to the Stadium we have been unable to produce an acceptable playing surface. That, combined with the likely impacts of future construction at the Stadium, led me to conclude that we would continue to struggle to maintain a grass field that meets the expectations of our student-athletes and fans as it relates to appearance, performance and safety.

“Synthetic turf will assist our game preparation because our team will be able to play and practice on the same surface. We will also be able to utilize the Notre Dame Stadium field for practices on home football Fridays and other occasions, whereas that is currently unrealistic. Additionally, this change allows us to eliminate the risk to players posed by the asphalt perimeter that has to be maintained around our current field.”

While some traditionalists will balk at the decision, putting the Irish on a playing surface that’s already being utilized on their indoor and outdoor practice facilities makes too much sense. After running feasibility studies and consulting with the Green Bay Packers and Michigan State, the decision to put in an artificial surface — likely FieldTurf — makes too much sense.

After upgrading the athleticism across the roster, too often the Irish were the team penalized by a slow and sloppy track. Expect that to change next season.

***

How Brian Kelly decides to distribute the football is anybody’s guess. But the Irish skill positions are filled with weapons. 

Suspended wide receiver DaVaris Daniels watched his teammates from the sideline. What he saw was a depth chart that’s much more competitive than the one he left. Notre Dame’s depth at wide receiver and running back was on display Saturday afternoon, with Golson and Zaire connecting with 14 different receivers. After struggling to find personnel to support four wideouts last season, 10 different players caught two passes or more.

Brian Kelly has made it clear that he still believes Daniels is his No. 1 wide receiver. But the competition to see the field behind him will be fierce. Junior Chris Brown completed an impressive spring with five catches for 105 yards. Corey Robinson added to his personal highlight reel with another long catch. On what looked like an off-day for Will Fuller, he still averaged more than 20 yards a catch.

Probably the most promising development this spring was the work accomplished at the slot receiver position. CJ Prosise showed impressive athleticism and speed when he accelerated away from Austin Collinsworth and broke open for a 39-yard touchdown. Sprinter speed at 220-pounds makes for an intriguing option. Amir Carlisle also looked at home in the slot, catching a tough touchdown throw from Zaire, and streaking wide open on a vertical route that Everett Golson missed on.

Tight end Ben Koyack dropped an easy catch, but paced the position with three catches. Our first look at Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe showed promise, with both youngsters catching two balls.

With the running backs catching eight balls, including five from Tarean Folston, it was clear that the emphasis on improving the screen game paid dividends. After all but disappearing in the passing game last year, Folston, McDaniel and Bryant all looked smooth catching the football.

Finding a replacement for TJ Jones is still one of the offseason’s main objectives. But if the Blue-Gold game is any indication, a group effort might be more than successful.

Irish A-to-Z: Javon McKinley

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If it’s possible to fly under the radar as an elite incoming recruit, Javon McKinley is doing it. One of California’s most prolific receivers in history—putting up monster numbers in one of the state’s most competitive conferences—McKinley now steps onto campus at Notre Dame with a depth chart filled with uncertainty.

McKinley’s big, strong and polished. That’s usually a good thing for a young skill player. While freshmen have come along slowly under Brian Kelly at receiver, the head coach has a trio of freshman newcomers who will test that theory immediately.

 

JAVON MCKINLEY
6’3″, 205 lbs.
Freshman, WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A consensus 4-star recruit, McKinley was a U.S. Army All-American, a multi-season selection on the LA Times’ All-Area first-team, the 2014 All-Area Back of the Year, and 2014 Southern Section 5 Player of the Year.

He had offers from USC, UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, Arizona State, and Ohio State before picking Notre Dame.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Until we see him, let’s just call McKinley’s potential incredibly intriguing. I made the physical comparison around Signing Day to Michael Floyd, and that might be setting McKinley up for failure. (Especially with people knowing how I feel about MMF as a player.) But as a ready-made physical specimen, McKinley can do just about everything, and we’ve already seen him do it against high end high school competition.

That said, dominating at the high school level with his size is different than understanding how to do that in the college game. And we’ll need to see just how good McKinley’s speed is—Floyd ended up being Notre Dame’s most prolific receiver in history because of his physicality and because he had sneaky-good speed that allowed him to run behind defensive backs.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think McKinley’s too good to keep off the field. But I also think his freshman ceiling will be in line with the better of Brian Kelly’s young receivers, so I’m still going to put a cap on his season totals around 15-20 catches. (True freshman TJ Jones had 23 grabs, when Notre Dame’s receiving depth chart was essentially empty.)

What does that mean for the future? Nothing. We saw Will Fuller go from zero-to-sixty when he went from freshman to sophomore season. We saw Kelly feed the football to Michael Floyd when his offense needed it. Kelly will do what the offense needs to score points.

If McKinley were the early enrollee, I think all of us would’ve been buzzing about him instead of Stepherson. And those 15 practices might be enough to give Stepherson the nod over McKinley, though the latter is far more game-ready from a physicality standpoint.

Regardless, Notre Dame’s young receivers—Stepherson, McKinley and Chase Claypool—might be the most exciting incoming class at a position that I’ve seen in my time covering the Irish. so while it’s still too early to say it, McKinley could be the best of the bunch.

 

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh

 

Irish A-to-Z: Deon McIntosh

Deon McIntosh
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As part of Notre Dame’s two running back recruiting haul, freshman Deon McIntosh arrives on campus with a skill-set fairly unique to the runners in Autry Denson’s backfield. A prolific junior in Florida football hotbed Broward County, McIntosh is the closest thing to a scatback Brian Kelly has recruited.

Dubbed the “lightning” to classmate Tony Jones’s “thunder,” now McIntosh needs to find a role in the Irish offense, capable of playing in the slot or being utilized on special teams. While we won’t see what the Irish have in McIntosh until he’s given a shot to compete with Tarean Folston, Josh Adams and a very talented position group, McIntosh is another skill player brought in by this coaching staff with zero intention of waiting his turn.

 

DEON MCINTOSH
5’11”, 180 lbs.
Freshman, RB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A three-star recruit, McIntosh was the second all-time leading scorer at Cardinal Gibbons. He was ranked the No. 18 player in Broward County by the Miami Herald and had offers from Miami, Tennessee, North Carolina, and West Virginia.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

A 180-pound running back needs to do a few things that are extraordinary to survive at that size and we’ll find out if that’s what McIntosh can do when we finally see him in action at the college level. But until then, you can probably put his ceiling somewhere below elite, unless the Irish have pulled in another hidden gem.

Versatility will also be key for McIntosh. If he’s able to play in the slot, there’s less of a backup there than behind a very competitive three-deep at running back.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I’m struggling to find a way for McIntosh to see the field this season unless he turns some heads during fall camp. Finding carries for Dexter Williams is hard enough. How someone behind Williams, Folston and Adams gets touches is beyond me.

That said, McIntosh’s time at Notre Dame will be defined by his patience and what he does when he finally gets a chance. Pulling talented football players out of Fort Lauderdale isn’t easy. Neither is keeping them in South Bend if they aren’t seeing the field.

Denson raved about McIntosh’s game on and off the field during Signing Day festivities. We’ll see how the young coach’s first crop of backs perform once they’re on campus.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern

2018 LB Ovie Oghoufo commits to Notre Dame

Oghoufo Rivals
Rivals / Yahoo Sports
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Notre Dame’s recruiting momentum continues to build as linebacker Ovie Oghoufo is the latest commitment to the Irish program. An incredible fifth member of the 2018 class, Oghoufo made the news official on Friday, picking the Irish over Michigan, Michigan State, Boston College, Kentucky and a handful of other early offers.

The Farmington, Michigan native made the news official via Twitter and also spoke with Irish247’s Tom Loy about the decision. Oghoufo was offered earlier in the summer and was on campus again this week.

 

Give current freshman Khalid Kareem an assist for landing the 6-foot-3, 210-pound linebacker, who spent his visit in South Bend hearing from the fellow Michigander about the virtues of attending Notre Dame.

Irish247’s Tom Loy has the scoop.

“He’s practically my brother,” Oghoufo told Irish 247 of his relationship with Kareem. “I spent basically the whole day with him when I went up there for camp. We reunited. It was a great time with him. When we talked, he told me that if I go to Notre Dame, it’s a 40-year decision, not just a four-year decision. He says the caches are the best and the opportunities are great.”

That Oghoufo worked out for coaches says quite a bit about the early offer and commitment. This is a linebacker who hasn’t played his junior season of high school football yet, but was incredibly productive as a sophomore at Harrison High School.

Oghoufo joins quarterback Phil Jurkovec, running back Markese Stepp, and front seven defenders Jayson and Justin Ademilola in the 2018 class.

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Colin McGovern

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Irish247
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Senior lineman Colin McGovern provides the type of experience that’ll come in handy on an offensive line that some believe is the finest in college football, but still has some depth concerns. McGovern’s versatility—he’s in the conversation at right guard while likely providing depth behind Alex Bars at right tackle—is something we’ve seen in flashes since the Illinois native first came to campus. But finding a path to the field has been difficult, especially as poorly timed injuries struck.

Injuries or not, McGovern’s personnel battles made winning any job a herculean task. With Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and now Mike McGlinchey all profiling to be first round tackles, a shift inside was probably the most prudent to seeing playing time. Now as a fourth-year veteran preparing for his third season of eligibility, McGovern will enter fall camp hoping to win a starting guard job, but ready to fill in where needed.

 

COLIN MCGOVERN
6’4.5″, 315 lbs.
Senior, No. 62, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

McGovern picked Notre Dame over offers from Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, and a ton of other elite programs, a national recruit from the Chicago suburbs. He was better liked by some recruiting services than others, and his position was somewhat a question mark, too. Listed as a tackle, Notre Dame saw him as a guard prospect.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Played in two games as a reserve guard, seeing action against both Rice and Michigan.

Junior Season (2015): Made eight appearances, playing mostly on special teams. Played 16 snaps at right guard against UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Notre Dame’s tackles stayed upright last season and when Quenton Nelson went down it was Alex Bars who filled in.

Right now, the weak spot on Notre Dame’s offensive line is the depth at tackle and center. I’m not convinced that Hunter Bivin is the best option if someone goes down on the outside, and that’s a place where McGovern might be able to thrive.

Brian Kelly went out of his way to discuss McGovern this spring, praising both his size and ability, and talking about his opportunity to cross-train across the guard and tackle depth chart.

It’ll likely take someone going down for McGovern to get his chance, but if he has a strong camp, I get the feeling that he and Alex Bars will ascend to the key backups at tackle, while McGovern could also make a case for being a candidate to be sixth-or-seventh man.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

The road to the field seems very limited for McGovern if he can’t win the right guard job. That’ll likely come into focus in August, especially after the staff gets a look at Tommy Kraemer and the progress made by fellow candidates Hunter Bivin and Tristen Hoge.

McGovern has the feet and athleticism to survive at tackle, something that’ll keep him in the mix behind Alex Bars. A fifth year is likely if he’s able to provide some stability on the edge, knowing that McGlinchey isn’t likely coming back for a fifth year if he’s as good as we all think he is.

That’s not flashy upside. But serving as an understudy on one of the best offensive lines in the country is no small feat.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I’ve always thought McGovern was a solid football player, but he just hasn’t been able to break through. Last spring’s concussion really seemed to set him back in a position battle that seemed up for grabs—we’ll see if that’s still the case entering fall camp.

A veteran without much experience is likely going to take over for Steve Elmer. It’s just tough to say it’ll be McGovern, when it looked like Hunter Bivin had emerged at the end of spring practice. McGovern’s experience and versatility will be where his value is established.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey