SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 06:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a tackle for a loss against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 6, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan 31-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

3-0: Assessing the Irish at the quarter-turn (Part II)


Part two. For more, see part one for a write-up on the offense


After one of the most difficult stretches of defensive football in Notre Dame history, season two of the Brian VanGorder era felt like a reboot. Forgotten were the impressive, early-season successes the Irish had, with VanGorder’s swarming, multiple defense confusing and befuddling opponents. Burned into the brains of all were the injury-ravaged, everything-is-broken units that gave up points by the bushel and struggled to do anything but make opposing offenses look like world-beaters.

At full strength, VanGorder’s defense looked every bit as talented as Bob Diaco’s best. But at it’s worst? It brought us back to the end of the Weis era. In the offseason, two major areas of concern were addressed: Defending the option and slowing down up-tempo attacked. Early returns and that work have been promising.

Against Texas, we saw very quickly what happened when the Longhorns tried to move quickly. Against Georgia Tech, VanGorder all but conquered Paul Johnson’s attack, likely giving a template to Yellow Jacket opponents everywhere and leading to optimism for the upcoming tilt against Navy.

One quarter into the season, it hasn’t been all good (the trip to Charlottesville was disappointing), but the stats look more than respectable. The defense is giving up 17.3 points a game, a number that surely would love much better had Georgia Tech not scored 14 points in the game’s final 90 seconds. And even with some shoddy play against Virginia, the Irish are on the brink of a Top 30 unit, especially impressive considering there hasn’t been a cupcake on the schedule to get fat against.

Let’s take a look at each position group and evaluate where this defense currently sits.



Led by the dynamic presence of Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell, the Irish front four has relied on the strength and disruptive nature of this duo to lead the way. At nose guard, Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery have been very good, with Tillery more than holding his own against Georgia Tech’s triple-option, an insane result considering he’s a true freshmen in the trenches.

Defensive end play is still sorting itself out. Romeo Okwara has started three times opposite Rochell, notching a sack among his six tackles. Andrew Trumbetti is still waiting to get started. Add to that Day’s fast start really hasn’t fully shown up on the stat sheet, with three TFLs far more indicative than his six total tackles. Six quarterback hurries show that Day’s been a step or two away from another handful of big plays.

Depth is a concern, especially if Brian Kelly and VanGorder are trying to redshirt Jay Hayes and Grant Blankenship. But if this group can stay healthy—and continue to hold its own at the point of attack—this team will get what it needs from the front.

Overall: When the Irish are only giving up 3.8 yards per carry, and have already played Georgia Tech, that says all you need about the run defense. Next step? Generating more disruption in the passing game. On the whole, this group is doing great things. But the margin for error without Jarron Jones is still slim.



ProFootballFocus says Jaylon Smith is college football’s best linebacker. Next to him, Joe Schmidt is playing great football. Swap in and out pieces like James Onwualu and Greer Martini, and there’s a reason why Nyles Morgan and Jarrett Grace haven’t been able to find the field.

Holding their own in a physical matchup with Georgia Tech was an impressive feat. And with top-flight athleticism and the ability to chase things down east and west, this position group really has dispelled any myths that the Irish are short elite athletes.

Nothing but positives so far.

Overall: Versatile (big with Martini, quick with Onwualu). Disruptive. Aggressive. It’s hard to find a better start by a linebacking corps than the early season this group has put together.

There’s little room for anything to go wrong, especially with either Smith or Schmidt. But as long as that duo is on the field, the Irish defense will be in the game.



If there’s been a disappointment this season, it’s been the early performance of Notre Dame’s secondary. And really, this is confined to one Saturday at the office (the dangers of evaluating a team after three games) in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The Cavaliers’ passing attack found a way to pick apart the Irish secondary. That wasn’t a result many people saw coming, though you could also put some of that on the pass rush.

Still, there are some areas for concern. Max Redfield started strong against Texas, but wasn’t able to deal with a broken thumb against Virginia. He tackled terribly and lost the aggression he showed against the Longhorns. Communication at the safety position might also have been a problem, as the Irish back-four got caught on a trick play that just about everybody in the stadium likely saw coming. But this group rallied and played great football against Georgia Tech, all but unnoticed in the passing game while safeties Elijah Shumate, Drue Tranquill and Matthias Farley tackled extremely well.

Without Tranquill, this group loses some versatility. And if Redfield isn’t able to rebound, this position gets thin in a hurry. So Todd Lyght has more work to do, especially as the Irish reconfigure their nickel and dime packages.

Overall: The slow start is understandable, considering Russell’s absence last season and one poor game. But safety play is still a worry, and asking the Irish to cover while the pass rush finds its way to the quarterback is something to monitor.

Funny enough, if the UMass game is a litmus test for any position group, it’ll be the secondary. The Irish will face one of the MAC’s best QB-WR tandems in Blake Frohnapfel and Tajae Sharpe. A quick passing game should be expected.

Stern tests are ahead before the Irish reach bye week. Heading to Clemson and then taking on USC should let us know if the Virginia game was a blip in the radar or a sign of things to come.


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)
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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

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)

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


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.”

Report: Corey Holmes set to transfer

Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated

Receiver Corey Holmes is transferring from Notre Dame. The junior, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, will look for a new program after earning his degree this summer, Tom Loy of Irish247 reports.

Holmes told Irish247:

“It’s just the best decision for me. I’m graduating this summer and I’m just going to find the best fit for me to finish things up.”

Even after a strong spring, Holmes saw little action this season, though he played extensively against USC in the season finale. He had four catches against the Trojans, a large part of his 11 on the year, also his career total.

That Holmes wasn’t able to find a consistent spot in the rotation is likely a big reason why he’s looking for a new opportunity. After opening eyes after posting a 4.42 40-yard dash during spring drills, the Irish coaching staff looked for a way to get Holmes onto the field. But after losing reps at the X receiver on the outside, Holmes bounced inside and out, never finding a regular spot in the rotation, playing behind Torii Hunter Jr. and Kevin Stepherson on the outside and CJ Sanders and Chris Finke in the slot.

Holmes has two seasons of eligibility remaining, redshirting his sophomore season. Because he’ll earn his degree this summer, he’ll be able to play immediately next year. Irish 247 reports that Holmes is looking at Miami, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and North Carolina, though he’ll have a semester to find other fits.