Malik Zaire

Talking through the Blue-Gold game

59 Comments

With the Blue-Gold game set for Saturday afternoon on NBCSN, spring practice comes to an end with a rare opportunity to see Notre Dame faceoff against itself in a live scrimmage.

As Everett Golson and Malik Zaire go live against Brian VanGorder’s defense, we’ll get to see what 15 practices working with Mike Sanford looks like, as the offensive triumvirate of Sanford, Mike Denbrock and Brian Kelly figures itself out.

There’s so much to talk about as spring comes to a close. So I tracked down JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago and we talked a little spring game.

KA: What was your initial reaction to QBs being live? I’m trying to think back to the last time that’s happened. Ever?

JJ: I can’t remember QBs being live in a spring game, though my knowledge is limited to my time at Mizzou and the last four years with ND. They’ve been having Golson/Zaire be live during scrimmages this spring, and since this is a glorified scrimmage, it makes sense.

KA: Still, it’s a looong way removed from the hope-and-pray, don’t get within 10 feet of a red-jersey’d Dayne Crist. To that point — going live, and being televised. How vanilla do you expect the offense to be?

JJ: They usually go vanilla in these — no need to showcase anything Texas could pick up on. That being said, definitely watching for Golson’s ball security when he does take off and Zaire’s accuracy. Mike Sanford said earlier this week he’s worked with Zaire on tightening up his base when throwing, which should make him more accurate.

KA: After seeing Zaire out-play Golson last year in the spring game, what’s realistic to expect out of this game? Do you think their performance will weigh heavily on ultimately determining who the starter is versus Texas?

JJ: It’s just one practice, so no, I don’t think it’ll carry extra weight. Kelly made mention of it today — Golson hasn’t had a good spring game since he’s been here, while Zaire has had two good ones. Obviously, that hasn’t really changed either player’s standing.

KA: I also think this will be the first time where you can actually go apples to apples with Zaire and Golson. To be fair to Everett, he was facing blitzes and defensive schemes last year. Zaire’s big numbers came when he likely would’ve been sacked (on one throw) and against a really vanilla defense.

Moving away from QB — any position groups or battles interest you? I’ll throw one at you: The pass rushing DE spot, with a group led by Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti.

JJ: I’m interested to see just how much blitzing BVG’s group does given it’s just the spring game. But on the pass rush — it’s going to be a collective effort, and there isn’t going to be a Stephon Tuitt type racking up sack after sack. Okwara’s a great answer to the trivia question: Who led Notre Dame in sacks last year?

Easy to forget he led the team with 4. How about the safeties? What are you looking for from Redfield and Shumate?

KA: And it’s the lowest grand total for a sack leader since Ethan Johnson in the long-hoped forgotten Tenuta years. As for the safety duo, I’d just like to see some general competence. I’m being honest with what we’re going to see — I just don’t think it’s going to be anything close to what we’ll (hopefully) see in the fall, and I don’t know why Redfield or Shumate should get more than a cameo. You absolutely don’t want those two getting hurt, as they’re plan A, B and C at the position.

JJ: Yep. They’ve been the subjects of awfully high praise from Brian Kelly & Brian VanGorder this spring. We’ll get an extended look on Saturday to see how worthy of it they are.
KA: What do you make of that praise? Is it closer to “Kona Schwenke has pulled even with Louis Nix this spring” or is it legit — a la Joe Schmidt last spring?

JJ: I’d wager it’s somewhere in the middle. On one hand, BK & Co. don’t want to risk ruining their confidence by publicly challenging them (like he has with Justin Brent), but on the other hand…Redfield was a five-star recruit and Shumate a four-star. They’re talented players who, if they can ever figure out the communication aspect of the position, can be a strong duo. And according to the coaches, they’re figuring out that communication.

KA: I think they’re both going to be very good players. I just think the light comes on a little later for safeties, and luckily for this duo that they haven’t been pushed by any young talent, as it’s literally not on campus yet.

What do you expect to see out of C.J. Prosise this Saturday? A dark horse RB candidate continue to emerge?

JJ: He’s the guy I’m most interested in watching. He ripped off a 75-yard run during the scrimmage we watched last Saturday and Mike Denbrock said Monday he’s “as good a player as we’ve got on the offensive football team right now.” I’m not sure he’s quite up to the Theo Riddick comparisons, because Riddick was as tough a runner as you’ll find, but he could be a sneaky good weapon that’s awfully tough to cover this fall.

After all, Prosise did lead Notre Dame in explosive plays last year. (More trivia!)

KA: ND’s leading rusher (YPC) and receiver (YPC)!

I tend to think he’s going to be a lot more explosive than Theo, who basically just got Reggie Bush tossed from Detroit — take that Bush Push! But think about what Prosise’s numbers would’ve been if he hadn’t dropped that 60-yard TD against Rice early in the game?
Is Prosise the Percy Harvin this offense — or ND fans — have been coveting from this offense? If I’m patting myself on the back for my Will Fuller is going to explode call (had him going for 1,000 yards) then Prosise is my guy this year, though I feel like I’m not alone.

JJ: I don’t think we can crown him Percy Harvin — the former No. 1 recruit in the country — but he’s a guy who has really good vision and quickness with the ball in his hands. Should Notre Dame have thrown to him three times with the game on the line at FSU? Prooooobably not. But he’s a guy who can really be a factor between the 20’s.

KA: Good point. I had forgotten that happened.

So let’s stay on Red Zone to wrap this up.

If we’re being honest with ourselves — or are reading between the lines, especially from Mike Denbrock’s comments this spring — I feel like we can kind of guess how this offense is coming together. Golson will be the guy asked to carry the passing game. Zaire will be the guy asked to punch it in or keep the running/power game moving, with the option to hit the home run throw over the top. Are you on the same page?

JJ: If both quarterbacks are still here on Sept. 5, yeah. So in this scenario, Golson is the starter and Zaire subs in for goal line spots where he can read-option opposing defenses to death.

JJ: I do wonder if going with Golson carries more risk than Zaire, though. There’s gotta be the allure of “if we can cut his TOs in half, we have a Heisman candidate” with Golson, but with Zaire, you operate a run-based offense that doesn’t turn the ball over much but maybe isn’t as dynamic as one led by Golson. It’s not an easy call.

KA: Doesn’t that depend on what type of defense ND is going to field?

JJ: Absolutely.

KA: For all the credit Zaire got for the LSU win — and he deserved it — it was Golson on the field driving the Irish for the win at the end and the D on the field turning Leonard Fournette into Techmo Bowl Bo Jackson

JJ: Yep. Going conservative on offense would put a lot of pressure on a defense that was awfully flawed last year. The defense will be better with so many guys returning and better depth, but how much better?

KA: I think the D is going to be closer to the first-half unit than the second-half one, though. Personnel is just too talented.

KA: The best I saw this defense play was the first half of the Florida State game. Bottle that up and figure out how to get that on the field for 12 regular season games and it’s a great unit (plus, adding KeiVarae Russell will be a nice luxury).

KA: Okay, some quick ones about Saturday:

Offensive MVP?

JJ: Tarean Folston.

KA: I’m going with Everett Golson.

Defensive MVP?

JJ: Is it a cop-out if I say Jaylon Smith?

KA: If you think he’s playing for more than one series, no cop-out.

JJ: valid point.

KA: I’m at the same position — but going with Greer Martini.

JJ: I’ll go with Isaac Rochell then.

KA: Victor: Offense or Defense?

JJ: /flips coin…

Offense.

(The spring game is brought to you by Whose Line Is It Anyway, where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.)

KA: I agree — Offense it is, based mostly on the strength of the 2nd string OL, who dominate the second half.

We’ll close with this: Spring football is over, and it was one of the most highly anticipated since the 4-way QB battle leading up to the 2012 season. Did it live up to your expectations?

JJ: My expectation was that there wouldn’t be much clarity on the QB situation emanating from the Gug by Saturday…so yeah, it lived up to that. If I had to bet, Golson starts Sept. 5 against Texas, but get back to me in August on that one.

KA: Feeling the same way. But credit Mike Brey for helping BK keep the QBs off the national radar.

JJ: Who would’ve thought basketball could ever take precedence over football at Notre Dame, even if only for a week or two?

KA: It sure was fun. They managed to get me to watch college basketball. The surprise of the spring.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Getty
6 Comments

Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.

Clark Lea formally named Linebackers Coach

clark-lea
UND.com
17 Comments

Notre Dame formally introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday. The press release for the 35-year-old  included the following quote from the new assistant who has worked at Bowling Green, UCLA and Wake Forest, and rejoins Mike Elko in South Bend.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

That work has already begun, with Lea on the prowl as the recruiting dead period ended and the rebuilt Irish staff hit the road. Yesterday, Lea was with defensive coordinator Mike Elko visiting commit David Adams, a key piece of the Irish puzzle on the defensive side of the ball. That starts a mad rush that’ll keep Lea’s belongs in boxes until after the first Wednesday in February, as Elko and his reshuffled defensive staff open their recruiting board, finding replacements for a handful of de-commitments and pieces that’ll fit Elko’s scheme.

If there’s any reason for optimism after a tough few weeks in recruiting, it’s the young staff that Kelly has assembled. The youth movement includes not just Lea, but the 39-year-old Elko. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is just 33, moving to Notre Dame after one season at Memphis. Running backs coach Autry Denson just turned 40 while special teams coordinator Brian Polian is practically long in the tooth at 42. (All that comes before the expected announcement of 25-year-old Tommy Rees.)

Lea’s pedigree is rock solid, earning kudos in 2012 for his work as Linebackers coach at Bowling Green, Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year.

“Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” Kelly said in the release. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system — having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

 

 

 

Reports: Lea, Alexander added to Irish coaching staff

delvaughn
ASU Sports Information
22 Comments

Brian Kelly is adding to his rebuilt coaching staff, reportedly finalizing deals with Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea and Arizona State assistant DelVaughn Alexander. Lea will reunite with Mike Elko and coach linebackers and Alexander will coach wide receivers. While both hires are still going through formal university vetting, the Lea hire has long been rumored before being reported by SI’s Pete Thamel. FootballScoop.com broke the news on Alexander, before multiple outlets confirmed the report.

In Lea, Elko brings a piece of his coaching staff with him to South Bend. The 35-year-old spent last season working in Winston-Salem and spent three seasons at Syracuse before that. He worked with Elko and Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson at Bowling Green and has spent time as an assistant at UCLA as well. He earned three letters at Vanderbilt, a 2004 graduate.

Alexander is a veteran presence to help replace Mike Denbrock and fill his void coaching receivers. He’s also a coach with first-hand knowledge of new coordinator Chip Long, having worked alongside him in Tempe under Mike Norvell. The move also comes in time for the reopen of the recruiting season’s home stretch, bringing a capable West Coast recruiter to the staff at a time when Notre Dame’s 2017 class is leaking a bit of oil.

Alexander played wide receiver at USC, playing for Larry Smith and John Robinson, before breaking into the coaching ranks there as a graduate assistant. He’s also had stops at UNLV, coached for Jim Harbaugh at San Diego, and spent significant time at Wisconsin and Arizona State where he coached multiple positions, taking over tight ends after Long left for Memphis.

Chip Long in as Offensive Coordinator… and play-caller

chip-long
40 Comments

Notre Dame’s formal press release introducing Chip Long as the new offensive coordinator did more than confirm news that we’ve known for a few weeks. It let us in on Brian Kelly’s initial plans for his offense heading into a pivotal offseason.

After some struggles in 2016 with DeShone Kizer and an inexperienced wide receiving corps, most expected Kelly to rip back control of the offense after Mike Denbrock called the plays and Mike Sanford coordinated the offense. But Kelly is going to let Long call the plays next season, adding some intrigue to a press release that usually is vanilla.

“Chip will be given the full responsibility to call plays in 2017,” Kelly said in the release. “His offense at Memphis displayed a unique blend of physicality, athleticism, versatility and explosiveness. Chip’s play-calling created mismatches all over the field and did it in a number of different ways. He likes to use players who can fill numerous roles in an array of formations, whether that be two and three tight ends or multiple running backs.

“Chip has experience coaching at almost every position on the offensive side of the ball. He’s worked for and learned from some of the most respected offensive minds in college football — Bobby Petrino, Mike Norvell and Jeff Brohm — to name a few.”

That Kelly is handing over play-calling to Long, who called plays last year for Mike Norvell at Memphis, is a surprise on the surface. But if you listen to Kelly over the past few seasons, he’s always downplayed that responsibility. Most thought he was simply playing coy, though Kelly seems to value game plan and installation as something at least as important as calling the plays.

But after splitting the baby between Denbrock and Sanford these past two seasons (the three-man collaboration worked much better in 2015 than 2016–possibly explained by the personnel) perhaps Kelly sees a singular voice as a key to improving an Irish offense that’ll have to replace Kizer, but should welcome back the majority of offensive playmakers, as well as Alizé Jones. Giving that assignment to Long will also let Kelly dig in as a head coach, working with first-year starter Brandon Wimbush and staying connected to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko and his installation.

Long’s work on campus will likely take flight as soon as the recruiting dead period is over. Known for his tenacity on the trail, Notre Dame is in desperate need of getting back into living rooms, trying to get back some momentum as a few defections have spoiled the 2017 class, and a handful of spots are available in this upcoming signing class.

Long will also likely work with tight ends, a position he played as a D-II All-American and that he coached at Memphis last season. Scott Booker coached tight ends since 2012.

“It’s an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to serve as the offensive coordinator at the University of Notre Dame,” Long said in the statement. “The challenge to lead at a University with such high standards is incredibly motivating. I’m very grateful to Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for extending this opportunity.

“It’s Notre Dame: the values, the culture, and the leadership. My wife, Kari, and I are excited to move to South Bend and to join the Notre Dame family.”