Malik Zaire

The good, the bad and the ugly: The 86th annual Blue-Gold game

61 Comments

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And spring games are always a double-edged sword.

A great run by a running back? (What kind of tackling was that?) Dominant play by the offensive line? (Start the worries about the defensive front.)

Watching the Blue-Gold game from 30,000 feet, it’s hard not to see a football team that’s among the deepest and most talented of the last 20-plus years. We saw two quarterbacks that can move the offense by various modes of transportation. We saw Will Fuller look like an All-American. Three running backs with skill to burn running behind a rugged offensive front.

Defensively, the depth and speed of the unit looks much different than the one that couldn’t stop Northwestern. Jaylon Smith and Nyles Morgan ran sideline to sideline while the young talent along the defensive line looked far from the group that spent last November on roller skates.

Sure, there are worries. When Brian VanGorder’s defensive front put just one linebacker in the box the results weren’t much better than the last time we saw this defense without Joe Schmidt. And when the Irish offense wanted to run the ball early in the scrimmage they faced little opposition, marching down the field to open the game twice without much trouble.

Let’s go back through the Blue-Gold game, as we run through the defense’s (somewhat manipulated) 36-34 victory.

 

THE GOOD

 

Nobody got hurt. That Brian Kelly made both of his quarterbacks live in the first half and lived to tell about it is a very good thing. Because if anything happened to either Everett Golson or Malik Zaire during the spring game, Kelly would’ve had to answer some very difficult—and fair—questions.

Keeping both quarterbacks in play for the first half made sense, especially if they were both going to be running heavy doses of zone read. But talk to people outside the Notre Dame bubble and watch the eyebrows raise when you explain that the Irish head coach was going to let his defense hit, tackle and sack his two-headed quarterback monster.

Make no mistake, Kelly was gambling. And it paid off. The closest thing to an injury looked to come when Nyles Morgan tweaked his ankle early in the game’s opening drive. But he was back on the field chasing offensive players in no time.

Notre Dame fans are prepared for the worst, perhaps still cringing from Ron Powlus’ broken collarbone in the practices leading up to the 1993 season. But avoiding any major injury this spring is by far the best news of the offseason.

 

C.J. Prosise. If you’re looking for the best example of Brian Kelly recharging his program with competition, look no further than Prosise’s performance this spring. We spent so much time talking about the quarterbacks that the two-headed running back position just took a charge from the team’s starting slot receiver, solidifying Kelly’s mantra that the best eleven players will play.

“I think as we continue to move forward, he’ll get every opportunity to take over a starting position, whether it’s at wide receiver or whether it’s at running back,” Kelly said. “So I’m going to play the eleven best players, and whoever the eleven best players are are going to be on the field. So I’m not going to paint him into any particular position or category. If he’s the best running back, he’s going to start. If he’s the best wide receiver, he’s going to start.”

All three backs played well. But Prosise’s speed was a difference-maker and the type of spark you want to see from the Irish offense.

 

The Offensive Line. Notre Dame’s starting five bullied the Irish defensive front early in the game, converting a 3rd-and-4 after Steve Elmer started the game with a false start and not stopping until they scored multiple touchdowns.

While there were some struggles on the edge with Hunter Bivin at left tackle and some rough snaps from second-team center John Montelus, Kelly was complimentary of the position group that’ll be the heart of the 2015 team.

“I think for me it was pretty clear that we’ve got a very good offensive line,” Kelly said. “They’re going to be able to control the line of scrimmage in most instances and we’ll continue to go to our strength, which we believe is up front.”

Ronnie Stanley looked the part. Nick Martin was at home at center. Mike McGlinchey and Steve Elmer paired with Quenton Nelson (and Alex Bars) to form a great nucleus, backed up by a strong group that Kelly believes is as talented as any he’s coached.

“I think it’s the deepest,” Kelly said, when asked to compare this line to others he’s coached. “So I think you probably go 7, 8 is really the difference here. And I thought what was really revealing to me today is that when the quarterbacks flipped, it was hard to tell whether it was the first offensive line or the second offensive line. Usually you know when the second offensive line is in there.”

 

The Young Receivers. Justin Brent got noticed for something he did on the field, a much different start to his second season in the program than last year. And Corey Holmes showed off a pair of hands that’ll show themselves to be quite useful in 2015 if he can get on the field.

Torii Hunter Jr. took a big hit after snaring a great throw from Everett Golson. Putting that trio with the established group of Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle gives the Irish plenty of depth, before getting to C.J. Prosise… and a talented group of incoming freshmen.

Kelly talked about the plays made by the young receivers as being a big piece of Saturday’s success.

“I was pleased that some of the younger receivers caught the ball. Corey Holmes caught the ball when he needed to. Justin Brent caught the ball when he needed to. I was pleased there,” Kelly said.

 

Max Redfield & Elijah Shumate. Sure, Brian Kelly tipped off Redfield that “The Inebriated Irishman” was coming, giving the safety a jump-start on Golson’s long heave to Zaire that Redfield turned into a momentum changer. But Redfield looked like a coach running the back of the Irish defense, a change from the confused kid on the backend doing his best not to get lost.

Paired with Elijah Shumate, the starting safety duo was rock solid, with Shumate looking strong tackling inside the box and at home in space. Kelly went out of his way to tip his cap to the work Redfield did this spring, one of the main defensive objectives heading into the offseason work.

“I thought Max Redfield continues to show why he’s going to be a big player for us defensively,” Kelly said.

 

Quick Hits:

* Quarterback Mechanics: Score a big point for Mike Sanford, as he’s cleaned up the mechanics of the zone-read footwork that we saw clearly during the broadcast. Golson kept his depth in the backfield much better, and the drop-step he used seemed to keep his eyes looking at the defense much better.

* Greg Bryant: He didn’t steal headlines like he did last spring with a big play, but Bryant ran decisively and downhill, moving the pile early and catching the ball as well. Don’t forget about him this fall.

* James Onwualu: Another guy you might be counting out, Onwualu made a nice TFL and fit in just fine inside the Irish’s starting defense.

* Jerry Tillery: At the point of attack on 3rd-and-Goal, Tillery made a nice play keeping the Irish offense out of the backfield.

* Really liked the hands by Corey Holmes and Justin Brent. Good to see them both make big plays.

* Don’t feel bad, Nick Watkins. You won’t be the only DB to get beat 1-on-1 by Will Fuller this season. I think Watkins is Notre Dame’s No. 3 cornerback, with Shaun Crawford at No. 4 and Devin Butler a very good option at No. 5.

But that assumes KeiVarae Russell returns as Batman and Cole Luke plays Robin.

* Greer Martini continues to be a productive football player. I like when he’s on the field—especially when he planted Prosise on the zone-read fake.

* So it only took DeShone Kizer to solve the holder issues. Kudos to Tyler Newsome for making the extra points, too. Now about that punting…

* It’s tough to look much better running the football as a quarterback than Malik Zaire. The combination of natural running skills and sheer power are a handful.

* Saying that about Zaire, I really thought Everett Golson looked more in control of the offense. I want to see them both play a lot next year.

* A tip of the cap to the NBC Production Team and Notre Dame’s Game Day Operations crew. That was no small feat making this game happen—and televising it no less—and it was hardly noticeable that anything was out of the ordinary on Saturday.

 

THE BAD

Consider this one big cop-out, but I just didn’t see anything that had me overly worried. So let’s just lump these together and run through it.

* What happens at left tackle if Ronnie Stanley goes down? I’m not sure Hunter Bivin is the answer, so you might see Alex Bars as the sixth man along the offensive line.

* If Malik Zaire wants to win the starting QB job, he can’t make the throw he did to open the scrimmage. That’ll get him standing on the sideline mighty quick. Bad, bad decision there.

* I’m not convinced that Notre Dame’s defensive line is ready for primetime. Mostly at defensive end, though the early push up front was lacking as well. But I’m reserving judgment until I see Jarron Jones lineup up next to Sheldon Day. Then depth players like Tillery, Daniel CageJay Hayes and a healthy Jon Bonner will be able to serve as reinforcements, not leading men.

Put the duo of Jones and Day between Isaac Rochell and either Andrew Trumbetti or Romeo Okwara and I’ll likely say something different. But will somebody rush the passer from this group?

* When I see people whose opinion on Notre Dame football start to discuss Joe Schmidt‘s place in this defense, I start to wonder if they’ve been eating paint chips.

Schmidt is a starter on this defense. Period. Whether that’s at Will or Mike, that’s still up for debate. But I just don’t see Jaylon Smith coming off the field, especially as the Irish look for a pass rusher. That could be Smith’s job moving forward.

From there, I’m not 100 percent sure that Nyles Morgan can captain the ship without a sturdy co-pilot like Schmidt. And Jarrett Grace‘s recovery doesn’t sound fully complete, making him more likely to play a role like Ben Councell did last season rather than a true starting spot.

Here’s Kelly talking about the linebackers after the spring game, specifically where Smith lines up.

“The different sub-packages will determine where [Smith’s] playing, and we feel like we’re in a position now when we’re in our base defense, he’ll be inside. When we get into some of our sub-packages, we can choose where he plays. He can be on the outside, he can be on the inside depending on what we want to do. I think we’ve firmly established that we can move him around. He becomes a player now after this spring that within our sub-packages we can move him inside or outside, that’s pretty clear.

“Jarrett Grace has established himself as a middle linebacker that can come in and help us in a number of different situations. He’s smart, he gets guys lined up, he gets himself lined up and he can play. Nyles Morgan continues to get better and better, and Joe Schmidt now is going to get a chance now to probably play both Mike and Will. So just gives us more depth at those positions where at times you know last year we were really thin.”

Kelly talked about opponents being able to take Smith out of the game last year by running away from him. By the end of the season, they were taking his speed away by running right at him, not necessarily the traits you want from a Will linebacker.

 

THE UGLY

When we’re taking the time to talk about Brian Kelly’s facial hair, you know we’re out of things to talk about. But BK’s a better candidate for the clean-shaven look, especially as he goes out on the talking tour these next few months.

Adios, goatee.

 

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

Justin Brent twitter
4 Comments

Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Getty Images
11 Comments

Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.

And in that corner… Introducing Douglas Farmer

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Getty
30 Comments

It’s time to turn over the keys. On a day where our great nation makes a peaceful transition, so does our humble blog.

I’d love to say I was smart enough to time my departure for the same day as inauguration, but as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. And I was lucky to get the gig, and happy to turn it over to someone who I believe is a better-than-good writer: Douglas Farmer.

Douglas was Editor-in-Chief of The Observer when he was a student at Notre Dame. He’s worked for old media—earning a byline at the Los Angeles Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He’s worked the ND beat, not just at the school paper, but at Blue & Gold. And now, I’m very happy to say, he’s taking over Inside the Irish, a transition that I think will go wonderfully.

To give you an idea of who Douglas is, I milked one last column gave him the And in this Corner treatment.

Hope you enjoy. And, one last request—Be Nice.

 

Douglas, you graduated from Notre Dame in 2012, and last covered the Irish on a day-to-day basis in the 2014 season. What has you excited to come back to the beat?

Douglas Farmer: Given Notre Dame’s past season, I would say I am most excited to take an in-depth look at how the Irish respond — and perhaps rebound — in 2017. It has been awhile (nearly a decade, more accurately) since Notre Dame has needed to do that, so it is one area of football there is not much institutional knowledge to rely upon.

Aside from that, the general engagement with a fan base so devotedly-interested in its topic is always something to look forward to. Even during a 4-8 season, that fan base does not waver in its curiosity and thirst for information.

 

A nice perk is also getting paid for the addiction that is Notre Dame Football, no?

DF: I prefer to subscribe to Hurricane Carter’s opinion on addictions: Do not be addicted to anything “they” can take away from you.

 

Well put. As I thought about the decision to move on, I came to the conclusion that there’s no perfect time to ever do so. That said, other than the head coach, this is as close to a reboot as you can ask for. Do these next few months get you excited, especially as an almost entirely new staff take charge?

DF: Just had to slip in a reference to removing the head coach, didn’t you?

Bouncing back from a rough season is the most appealing story line in sports, in anything really. Take a look at any movie you have ever watched (or, in your case, perhaps even been involved in). The hero experiences conflict just before redemption. Now, I am not saying Notre Dame is the hero. I am saying watching the team, the program, try to rebound has me very interested.

The staff turnover is an added wrinkle, and will only increase the work ahead for the program. Before the players can learn the plays, they have to learn the staff. Before that, the staff has to learn about each other.

 

So what’s the plan with the blog? You plan on getting to know the characters below the fold in the comments? Keep the A-to-Z series rolling? Do a better job proof-reading?

DF: I do not intend to outright abandon any institution or established series you have devoted years to. Thus, I would expect A-to-Z to continue in some form. But we will see. That is an easy thing to say when I have not yet reached the misery that must be “Q, R, S, …”

I would like to engage with the readers, but only so far as logic and rational conversation will allow. I have no interest in devolving to who knows what depths. Proof-reading, well, I want to say I will excel at that, but that just sets me up to eat a lot of crow when I miss a letter in April.

 

Smart. Will tell you about the A-to-Z… This roster is a front-loaded one, alphabetically, at least.

DF: All of high school I had a locker next to a Favre. (Not really related.) I understand the luxuries the alphabet can provide.

 

Let’s go rapid fire for a second: Favorite game you saw in person at Notre Dame?

DF: Either the 2012 Stanford game or the 2011 South Florida game. I realize how absurd that latter answer sounds, but that is part of why it stands the test of time. It was such a unique experience. Plus, being allowed to go back to the dorm for an hour at halftime made the whole day more entertaining.

 

Best road game experience?

DF: 2010 Army in Yankee Stadium jumps to the top of the heap, though I suppose technically not a road game. Go ahead and score against me for this, but I am a lifelong Yankees fan. That was a big one for me.

(KA note: The Observer must not have had the $$ to send the editor to Dublin…)

(DF note to KA’s note: I graduated in May 2012. The Observer did manage to send four staffers to Dublin the following September. Sometimes I wonder if I would not have been better off if I had taken two years to get through fifth grade.)

 

Favorite player to watch during your time as a student?

DF: Golden Tate could have walked around the football field as Maximus, for all I’m concerned, given how entertaining he often was. Though Lou Nix also holds a lofty place in my regard.
I lived a door down from Lou for two years, part of the reasoning there.

 

Favorite villain of the Irish from your time watching/following Notre Dame football?

DF: Pete Carroll runs away with the award. His candidacy is enhanced by my Wisconsin-bred Packer fandom.I do not like disliking Pete Carroll. I very much wish I could be indifferent toward him. The Falcons granted me that luxury for nine months.

 

Part of what has me excited about this transition is that I actually thought you’d be a good person to turn the keys over to, as I enjoyed reading your stuff when you were at The Observer and covering the Irish in your post-graduation years. What’s the most exciting part for you about taking over the blog? And what do you look forward to doing with it?

DF: I am most excited for the chance to write, and the chance to write about something on which I consider myself relatively knowledgeable. I look forward to seeing where the blog environment takes me. The open-ended aspect of it presents all sorts of possibilities.

Theoretically, I can be more freewheeling than elsewhere, get in-and-out quicker of some pieces, spend more time on others. I know Notre Dame fans of all varieties — the obsessed, the apathetic, pessimistic, optimistic, etc. — including some who have yet to decide how they feel about Tommy Rees. (Feel positively about him. It’s that simple.)

My sample size is certainly representative of the fan base as a whole. That wide swath is what makes covering Notre Dame enjoyable, and very well may provide the blog some direction and material on its own.

Oh, and I appreciate those kind words, Keith. I’ll Venmo you $20 later tonight.

 

Sliding a final question into my lightning round. What’s your handle on NDNation? (Kidding!)

DF: I will take my right to not incriminate myself, otherwise known as the Fifth.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

balis
4 Comments

Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”