Michigan v Notre Dame

Post-spring stock report: Secondary

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With the majority of Notre Dame’s starting lineup returning for 2015, the Irish spent spring practice knowing what their team would look like. But for Brian VanGorder and new secondary coach Todd Lyght, getting improvement out of the returning depth chart was critical.

At safety, there is no legitimate option behind Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate, as Nicky Baratti and Drue Tranquill return from surgery. Redfield and Shumate were highly-touted recruits, and both have spent multiple years in the program. While the system change made things tough on the back end of the defense, one full year in, both players are expected to take a big jump forward.

At cornerback, the Irish await KeiVarae Russell‘s return. Paired with Cole Luke, Notre Dame has two front-line covermen who will be asked to do more than drop and play zone. Once again, behind the starters is where the concern begins.

Sophomore Nick Watkins pulled even with Devin Butler, who struggled mightily down the stretch in place of Cody Riggs. Graduate transfer Avery Sebastian joins the program this June, hoping to infusing some athleticism and earn a role like Riggs did in 2014.

While some promising freshmen get to campus this summer, let’s take a look at the secondary with spring practice in the rearview mirror.

 

POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART

CB: Cole Luke, Jr. (5-11, 190)
S: Max Redfield, Jr. (6-1, 198)
S: Elijah Shumate, Sr. (6-0, 213)
CB: Nick Watkins, Soph. (6-0, 200)

CB: Devin Butler, Jr. (6-.5, 195)
CB: Matthias Farley, GS (5-11, 205)
S: Nicky Baratti, Sr.* (6-1, 205)
S: Drue Tranquill, Soph. (6-1.5, 225)
S: John Turner, Sr.* (6-.5, 225)

*Denotes fifth year available

 

STOCK UP

Max Redfield: That Redfield took last season’s demotion and struggles and came out the other side is a big victory. The Irish absolutely need one of their best athletes to play like one of their best defenders, and in many ways, Todd Lyght’s arrival was the perfect thing to happen to Redfield and Shumate.

A new voice will give each safety a fresh start, and early reports are that Redfield is thriving. There’s nothing stopping Redfield from being a standout player. With a year of knowledge and last season’s experience behind him, a big jump looks probable—or at least what many hope. Redfield could be the Irish’s best safety since Harrison Smith.

 

Nick Watkins: While he saw the field and played a role on special teams in 2014, Watkins didn’t find much playing time in the secondary. After Brian VanGorder acknowledged Watkins’ struggles fitting into the defense, Watkins took a step forward this spring when he began taking first-team reps across from Luke, continuing in that spot through the Blue-Gold game.

Sure, Watkins got beat long by Will Fuller for a 70-yard touchdown. But outside of that mistake (and Fuller can do it to anyone), he looked competitive and challenged opponents on every rep.

KeiVarae Russell will be back in the starting lineup soon enough. But a third corner is a key role, and Watkins proved himself capable for the job before a freshman like Shaun Crawford comes on campus to battle for it.

 

Drue Tranquill: After tearing his ACL against Louisville, that Tranquill was participating in spring practice and running and cutting on his surgically repaired knee was miraculous. Even more impressive? If the Blue-Gold game was against Texas, Brian Kelly said Tranquill would’ve been on the field and playing.

As a key piece of Notre Dame’s sub-packages, Tranquill fits into the defense perfectly. While he struggled as a half-field safety after Redfield and Shumate were relegated to the dog house, Tranquill’s speedy recovery is critical to the Irish defense, allowing VanGorder to mix and match on the back end.

 

STOCK NEUTRAL

Elijah Shumate: It was a quiet spring for the rising senior, who all of a sudden is out of eligibility after 2015. After serving as a key nickel cornerback during 2012 and struggling through injuries in 2013, Shumate needs to step forward as the Irish’s strong safety in 2015.

A physical freak and one of the team’s hardest hitters, Shumate has potential to play at the next level. But his game tape needs to match up with his skill set, and we’ll see if that happens come September.

 

Matthias Farley: The Irish’s best playmaker on the backend last year, Farley enters next season with no job carved out for him. And while he cross-trained at safety to help with depth issues, we’d be foolish to think that just because the lineup doesn’t have a spot for him that Farley won’t make one.

Farley’s best served in the slot, playing close to the line of scrimmage and using his physicality. And as we watch the Irish offense work to get the best 11 players on the field, at this point, Farley’s made a convincing argument that he fits in that group on defense.

 

STOCK DOWN

Devin Butler: Late last season, Butler struggled with what golfers call a two-way miss. Only instead of missing the fairway both left and right, Butler was letting receivers beat him short and also over the top. (That ain’t good.)

While Butler has shown some playmaking ability in limited action, finding a role in this secondary after sliding behind Watkins could be tough, provided everybody stays healthy.

Entering his junior season, Butler has played in 25 of 26 games the past two seasons. So thinking he’ll be relegated to the bench is rather stupid. But if this spring was an opportunity for Butler to shine, it appears that Watkins pulled even and past him, putting Butler’s place in the two-deep in trouble, as he’ll likely be behind Russell this fall—who won’t be coming off the field.

 

John Turner: What a difference a spring makes. After pushing his way into the starting lineup at outside linebacker last spring, Turner shifted back to safety to provide depth. While the veteran will likely play a key role on special teams, Turner doesn’t look like he’ll be in the mix for playing time in the secondary, as long as everybody stays healthy.

 

 

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.”