C. J. Prosise, Nick Martin, Cam McDaniel

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. LSU

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On second viewing, Notre Dame’s victory over LSU still happened. After watching the Irish find ways not to get it done all November, Brian Kelly’s team handled adversity — and a leaky defense — and executed down the stretch, sending the Tiger faithful (not Notre Dame’s) into the offseason grumbling about the foundation of their program.

A two quarterback system work. So did a ball-control offense. The defense may have started taking on water, but it did enough to get things done. With players young and old making key contributions, let’s run through the final good, bad and ugly of the season.

 

THE GOOD

Malik Zaire. What a gutty performance by the young lefty in the first start of his career. As a ball career, Zaire is a load — a 235-pounder that may serve as the team’s power back. As a passer he was more than competent, showing nice accuracy in a still-developing, complementary part of his game.

But if there’s a reason to fall in love with Zaire after roughly six quarters of football, it’s the presence he cuts almost immediately as an offensive leader. There was no fear in Zaire when he took the stage. Not as a runner, nor as a passer.

That’s not to say it was all perfect. He made mistakes — a fourth-down keep that went for nothing, when Tarean Folston knifed easily through the line for what would’ve been a first down. The overthrown deep ball down the middle into double coverage that got him quickly pulled in the two-minute offense. But it’s tough to get mad at a kid for calling his own number in crunch time.

Zaire’s personality took over the offense, and the young sledge hammer seemed to drive the physicality of the offense.

 

The Offensive Line. Giving Zaire credit for the physicality is only partially fair. The play up front was outstanding, with Harry Hiestand’s maligned offensive line showing up and taking charge.

In his first start at right tackle, Mike McGlinchey held up just fine. Even better, we saw some nastiness from the young sophomore, unafraid to get into the face of LSU middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith after a run play.

Kelly credited left tackle Ronnie Stanley for getting the team fired up — the junior a vocal leader before the game, something that has yet to happen in his career. Stanley looked the part of a dominant blocker as well, with a stay-or-go decision that’ll likely determine just how good this group can be next season.

 

The Coaching Staff. You want fired up? Rewatch Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand jawing after LSU lands a big hit on Everett Golson. For those that thought Notre Dame’s bowl game was an exercise in futility, good thing the staff didn’t treat it that way.

As mentioned last night, Kelly flat outcoached Les Miles. An LSU staff with one of college football’s elite defensive coordinators and a Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator came up short to a staff that many fans wanted to see rebooted.

 

The Moxie. A team that came in as losers of five of six and four-straight had no business being as confident as they were. Yet this Notre Dame team found a way to live under a rock this month, not falling into the echo chamber that escalates from simmering discontent to four-alarm fire.

Do you want to see safeties Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield talking trash? Probably not. But it’s much better than seeing them play with their tails between their legs. Does it make sense for a first-time starter at right tackle to mix it up with one of the SEC’s best linebackers? Not really. But that’s the exact attitude needed to win and the Irish displayed the confidence of a champion.

 

Quick Hits: He didn’t play perfectly, but it was nice to see Max Redfield active and aggressive as a tackler. The pop pass that got behind the secondary may have been on Redfield, but mistakes of aggression are a lot better than late reactions.

* Converted wide receiver James Onwualu went head-up with Leonard Fournette and lived to tell about it. Making that tackle is all about attitude, and says quite a bit about Onwualu’s evolution as a linebacker. It’ll be fun to watch that position group evolve in Year 2 of BVG.

* Downhill running by Tarean Folston is a thing of beauty. His numbers may not have been that impressive, but everything Folston does is.

* An active game by Jaylon Smith reminds you that Smith falls second to no athlete, even the best of the SEC. Now he’s got to learn how to take on blockers against a downhill scheme.

* Good for Kyle Brindza. I probably would’ve given the game ball to Malik Zaire, but what a great honor to a senior leader who struggled mightily this year.

* The more I watch C.J. Prosise, the more I wish I ranked him even higher in my final rankings. He’s going to be a dynamic weapon next season.

* This should get Irish fans pumped up:

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THE BAD

Big Plays Given Up. It’s hard to poke at Brian VanGorder’s Scotch Tape defense, but the big plays very nearly sunk a really admirable effort.

The Irish defense played with a lot of heart, but a long touchdown run by Leonard Fournette and a broken coverage touchdown pass to open the second half could very well have been back-breakers.

(I’ll lump Fournette’s 100-yard kickoff return here as well. That might have counted in a two-hand touch league as well.)

As the Irish move into 2015 mode, finding a middle ground is a necessity for this group. Splashes of dominance won’t matter if the big plays continue to haunt. Playing on a tight rope and contesting everything will remain a part of this defense’s DNA. But situational awareness is a key to development.

It’s Over. We’ve got nine months until Notre Dame hosts… TEXAS!

 

THE UGLY

It’s hard to find anything to complain about after Notre Dame’s stunning victory. As mentioned in the Five Things, this is as much of a season-salvager as you could ask for.

Beating a name-brand opponent from the SEC West. Doing it by playing a physical brand of football that the SEC wants to monopolize. Watching a group of young players emerge as team leaders for 2015, adding to a strong veteran group.

Notre Dame started 13 true underclassmen in the victory. Kelly incorporated the future as well, getting in tight ends Durham Smythe and Tyler Luatua along with a non-stop rotation of young defenders.

Just as important, Kelly showed the blueprint for successfully mixing and matching quarterbacks Malik Zaire and Everett Golson, opening up the offensive inventory and giving opposing coordinators nine months of headaches in the meantime. While two quarterbacks seems to scare everybody else, the duo the Irish have brings you back to 2006, when Urban Meyer matched Chris Leak and Tim Tebow to win a national title.

 

Irish land blue-chip OL Aaron Banks

aaron-banks
Tom Loy, Irish 247
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Notre Dame received the commitment of 4-star offensive tackle Aaron Banks on Friday afternoon. Picking the Irish over a national offer list that included Michigan, Tennessee, and local programs USC and UCLA, the 6-foot-7, 335-pound Banks reminded all that even if the Irish only won four games this season, Harry Hiestand is still one of the premier offensive line coaches in the country.

Banks made the commitment from a ceremony at his high school in El Cerrito, California. And when he picked the Irish, he added to Notre Dame’s impressive offensive line haul, joining Dillan Gibbons, Joshua Lugg and Robert Hainsey — a key piece of the puzzle moving forward.

Banks is a consensus 4-star recruit and a Top 200 prospect. He took an official visit to Michigan in November, but has been a long-time target of Hiestand’s, visiting South Bend in September and welcoming Brian Kelly and Hiestand into his home after the USC game.

As a big recruiting weekend gets started at Notre Dame, the annual Echoes Awards will serve as the beginning of an important home stretch for a program without a bowl game. As Kelly still looks to lock in a defensive coordinator, not to mention other staff changes still in the air, Banks takes back some of the lost momentum, a key commitment heading into a holiday dead period before a furious finish leading into the first Wednesday in February.

Banks is No. 18 in the Irish recruiting class. He’s an early-enrollee, ready to hit campus within weeks and compete on the interior of the offensive line during spring ball.

Zaire says thank you to Notre Dame

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Malik Zaire #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes past defensive end Mike Moore #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the third quarter at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Getty
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Big week for The Observer. Not just for its advertising revenues, but for the classy gesture that outgoing senior quarterback Malik Zaire made this week.

Thursday’s edition included a letter to the editor from Zaire, who took to the student newspaper not to make headlines around the internet, but rather to thank the university for his experience in South Bend.

While Zaire’s time at Notre Dame is drawing to a close, he will leave as a proud alum. So while he’ll play football next season at another university, Zaire wrote the following in Thursday’s issue:

Dear Notre Dame students and staff,

My life changed for the better the moment I stepped onto the University of Notre Dame’s beautiful campus. The one goal I had set in my mind to achieve was to become a better man, a Notre Dame man. After growing through many trials and triumphs, the thing I’ve learned most from my experience was that if you don’t believe in yourself first, then no one else will. I believed in becoming a better man and succeeding through any circumstance, and I can say that I’ve truly accomplished that. I often refer to the famous quote from the movie “Catch Me If You Can” that was well put by Frank Abagnale:

“Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out.”

I’ve put my heart, soul and passion into the University, the football program, the South Bend community and the Irish community worldwide. I have the unbelievable honor to represent this University to the fullest as a student and soon-to-be alumni. Thank you to the amazing students and staff that I’ve met through the years for helping me grow into the person I’ve always wanted to be. I love the Irish and will always be an Irish alum no matter where I go! I look forward to keeping in touch. Let’s change the world!

Go Irish!

Malik Zaire

Senior
Dec. 7

Zaire is expected to compete for a starting quarterback job next year as a graduate transfer. He’s reportedly taken a visit to Wisconsin and plans to visit North Carolina as well, just two of several programs on the radar as Zaire looks to step in and win a starting Power 5 job.

 

 

 

ESPN’s Kiper & McShay: Kizer should return to Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 29: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish drops back to pass during the game against the Miami Hurricanes at Notre Dame Stadium on October 29, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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It’s evaluation season. With college football’s regular season over, the focus now turns to the stay-or-go decision that faces many of college football’s best players. Return for another season? Or head to the NFL?

That’s the big question facing DeShone Kizer. Viewed as a can’t-miss prospect by some earlier in the season, Kizer now awaits feedback from the NFL’s advisory board, who’ll give him either a first-round grade, a second-round grade, or none — essentially serving as a message to return to school.

That feedback is something Kizer’s requested, with Brian Kelly revealing that Kizer is one of four underclassmen requesting a review, joined by Mike McGlinchey, Nyles Morgan and Quenton Nelson. 

And while most still think it’s merely a formality before Kizer heads to the NFL, two of the media’s most well-established pundits, ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, are among those who actually think Kizer should stay in school.

In ESPN’s 25 questions about the 2017 NFL Draft, Kiper and McShay focus their attention on potential first-round quarterbacks:

There’s really only one guy right now, and he might not even enter the draft. That’s North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, a fourth-year junior who is in his first season as the starter. Trubisky has thrown 28 touchdown passes to only four interceptions, but he’s still green — with another year of seasoning, he could be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. He’s not ready to play right away in the NFL.

I don’t see any other first-rounders in the group. Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, a third-year sophomore, has to go back to school. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has taken a step back this season. Underclassmen Luke Falkand Patrick Mahomes could use another year in school, and they don’t project as first-rounders.

McShay echoed Kiper’s evaluation of Kizer, stating: “Kizer needs another year.” And if the Irish get that, it means they’ll have a 1-2 depth chart of a third-year starter in Kizer and junior Brandon Wimbush, who saved a year of eligibility in 2016 and has three remaining.

Kizer’s been clear that he hasn’t made up his mind, planning on talking with his family about the decision in the weeks following the season. And with the year-end banquet this weekend with Notre Dame hosting the “Echoes,” that decision might come sooner than later.

Last year, the NFL draft wasn’t kind to the Irish roster. Four key players gave up eligibility to head to the NFL, with Ronnie Stanley going in the Top 10 to the Baltimore Ravens and Will Fuller joining him as a first-round selection after going to the Houston Texans. Even injured, Jaylon Smith was taken near the top of the second round by Dallas and C.J. Prosise was a third-round selection of the Seattle Seahawks.

Underclassmen have until January 16th to declare.

 

Swarbrick discusses the state of Irish football program

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Jack Swarbrick spoke extensively about the state of the Notre Dame football program. Released last Friday and a part of Swarbrick’s weekly podcast, the Irish athletic director covered the laundry list of hot-button issues, including Brian Kelly’s status, the NCAA order to vacate wins that Notre Dame is appealing, and the challenge of winning football games in today’s environment.

The entire 25 minutes are worth a listen, as Swarbrick and Nolan cover just about every question and complaint that’s out there. And in case you don’t have that time, here’s a quick breakdown:

 

Swarbrick on the 2016 season. 

“It was an extremely disappointing year. Every player, every coach, myself, other administrators involved in the program, we all share the same view. There’s no way around that conclusion. It’s not bad breaks, it’s not a play here, a play there. We didn’t do what we need to do. So we do start from that perspective.

“I think there’s a danger in overreacting to any one piece of information that you get in the course of the evaluation of football programs. That begins with, it looks one way from a this-season perspective, but it feels a little different to me from a two-season perspective.”

 

Swarbrick on the evaluation process: 

“I’m looking at the program. Wins and losses are a huge indicia of where the program is, but it’s not the only one. More important to me, frankly, is the experience of our students. My interaction with them and what their interactions with the coaches, and the environment and are we meeting their expectations. Now, we clearly didn’t meet their expectations competitively this year, because they want to win, too. But on many of the other things, the program elements are in good shape.”

 

On the off-field issues, and the challenges that faced the football team this fall. 

“I don’t want to do anything to minimize the disappointments, whether they’re competitive or unacceptable behavior in the last game at USC by one of our players, obviously, which just isn’t acceptable, it isn’t okay. The disciplinary issues we had to deal with at the front of the year, none of those are acceptable, all of those go into the evaluation, but those are the only ones that sort of get the public scrutiny. I’m dealing with the other 120 young men who are for the most part like my co-host James (Onwualu), doing everything right, making every right decision, having a real positive experience. You’ve got to look at it all, not just isolated elements of it.

 

Discussing the disappointment of the NCAA’s ruling to vacate wins and why the university is appealing: 

“If you’d merely expelled the students, you wouldn’t get this penalty. But because you went though an educative process and kept them in school and adjusted credits and made those things, you subjected yourself to this penalty. That seems like a bad message to send, but that’s one that we’re continuing to advocate for down the road.”

 

On the challenges of winning in today’s college football, as opposed to 30 years ago. 

“I think undoubtedly it is harder. Now, people from that era may have a different view. But there are things that make it harder. But it doesn’t make any difference. It’s harder to win basketball games than it was back then. It’s harder to do a number of things.

“We don’t treat any of that as an excuse or a reason to have different goals. I sort of embrace that. Some of those things that you might view as obstacles are ultimately the things that we have to offer young people. It is the eliteness of the institution and the quality of the education. You can’t say it’s an obstacle and then talk about how great it is because it helps you. That’s the way it is. I wouldn’t trade anything for the circumstance we now compete in. I think it is exactly what it should be. We have to do a better job with it, that’s all.”