Malik Zaire

Talking through the Blue-Gold game

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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.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)