Malik Zaire, John Turner, Jarrett Grace
AP

Pregame Six Pack: Green Irish roster prepares for Blue-Gold game

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For the 87th time, Notre Dame will play the Blue-Gold game. And for Irish fans tuning in for the first time this spring, they’ll likely need a new program.

As Brian Kelly’s seventh team in South Bend takes shape, it’ll look drastically different from the core of the previous two teams. Gone are standouts like Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller, Sheldon Day, Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin. Captain Joe Schmidt no longer stands in the middle of the defense.

Offensively, the Irish are expected to retain their firepower, but they’ll do so without their leading rusher and three leading receivers. They’ll also need to replace three starters along the offensive line, the Irish without a Martin on the offensive line for the first time since Kelly took over.

For the second time in as many springs, the Blue-Gold game will give a national audience a look at one of the country’s most compelling quarterback battle. Only this time one quarterback isn’t likely to flee town.

With a picture perfect weather forecast and a good crowd expected, a new generation of Irish football players will step into the spotlight, their turn to build on the legacy of the group before them. With a senior class that set a record for winning games in Notre Dame Stadium, the bar has been raised.

Brian Kelly will be wired for sound. Friend of the program Jac Collinsworth will be holding it down on the sidelines in place of Kathryn Tappen who is on NHL duty. So let’s crack open a pregame six pack that ends in the perfect fashion: A 100-percent guaranteed Irish victory, televised live on NBCSN on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET.

 

Kizer versus Zaire will be the closest thing we see to a quarterback showdown. Blink and you might miss it. 

Brian Kelly raised some eyebrows when he confirmed that both quarterbacks would be live during the Blue-Gold game. (For how long? That’s the big question.) But as Kelly, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and associate head coach Mike Denbrock try to get a better grasp on who’ll pilot the offense next fall, seeing both Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer in a natural environment is a necessary evil.

Both Zaire and Kizer will be aiming to impress on Saturday, each trying to make a final lasting impression before the long offseason months. For Zaire, he’ll once again remind people he’s a “lights-on” kind of quarterback, the type of player who elevates his play once he gets off the practice field and into a game situation. For Kizer, Saturday will be about dictating terms as a quarterback, showcasing the assets that made him one of the most impressive redshirt freshmen in the nation.

Kelly talked about having Zaire and Kizer both captain a team, pitting them against each other. He also talked about making both live—understanding that the zone read game will be a critical component of the offense. But don’t expect that to last.

Brandon Wimbush will eat up some of the snaps. So will fellow backups Montgomery VanGorder and walk-on Nolan Henry. The real goal is getting both Kizer and Zaire out of spring healthy, knowing that any final decision on playing time will be decided in the fall.

In the meantime, cherish our only great look at the battle all spring, because the next time you’ll see them is in August.

 

Will Jerry Tillery and Jarron Jones finally step forward in the last practice of spring? 

Brian VanGorder declared both defensive tackle jobs available heading into fall camp. And while just about everybody who follows the Irish have fifth-year senior Jarron Jones penciled in alongside sophomore Jerry Tillery, when VanGorder talks you’d be wise to listen.

While neither Tillery nor Jones were around yesterday to hear the third-year defensive coordinators comments, you can guess the message has been sent.

“If we started tomorrow, I am not sure who the starters would be,” VanGorder said. “I have an idea, but it’s going to be competitive going into training camp. No one has established themselves as a starter at the defensive tackle position. We will keep it competitive and see if we can grow and develop some young players.”

While we’ll get to see some of the young talent VanGorder referenced on the ascending defensive line, with Pete Mokwuah, Jonathan Bonner, Micah Dew-Treadway, Jay Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Elijah Taylor and Brandon Tiassum a strong core who could pick up some of the slack.

But these jobs needed to be seized by both Jones and Tillery, two mountainous men who could both wreak havoc against opposing offenses. Let’s see if the live action brings out the best in them.

 

For Folston, Crawford and Tranquill, getting onto the field for the Blue-Gold Game is gravy. 

That Tarean Folston, Shaun Crawford and Drue Tranquill have all rebounded and reasserted their position on the depth chart is impressive. Because in year’s past, they’d likely have spent 15 practices rehabilitating their knees and sitting in the cold tub.

The Irish’s trio of bad luck, season-ruining knees have all had ahead-of-schedule recoveries. Folston has reasserted himself at the top of the running back depth chart. Crawford has played his way into the conversation to start opposite Cole Luke when he’s not anchored into the all important job working in the slot. And Tranquill—two ACL tears in two seasons—is ready to go from the cold tub to the starting strong safety job.

How this trio is used on Saturday is anybody’s guess. But it’s already been a successful spring for three key contributors who worked hard to make it back to spring ball ahead of schedule.

 

With the depth chart open in front of him, Saturday could be a preview of Torii Hunter’s 2016 coming out party. 

After entering Notre Dame recovering from a horrific leg injury suffered at the Army All-American All-Star game, wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr.‘s career got off to a slow start. But after a redshirt and two years working his way into the rotation, don’t be shocked if Hunter tries making up for lost time on Saturday.

Expected to become Notre Dame’s next No. 1 receiver with Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle all gone, Hunter may have punched his own ticket to a monster statistical season. That’s what should happen when you run a 4.42 40-yard dash and have the ability to play anywhere on the field (even defense—Hunter was the staff’s choice to cross-train as a defensive back when the Irish went searching for a nickel back.)

Finally at the top of the food chain and also tasked with teaching a young group of talent with Corey Robinson still out with lingering concussion symptoms, don’t be surprised if Hunter decides leading by example is the best course of action, getting vertical on Saturday and running by every defensive back at least once.

Hunter’s a below-the-radar player who is primed for a breakthrough in 2016. Coming off of a 28-catch, 363-yard season, not too many people will see it coming.

So maybe Kelly is happy to let him stay off the grid, leaving spring to some impressive youth and Hunter to announce his presence once he arrives in Austin on Labor Day Weekend.

 

The kids are going to be all right. 

Keep an eye out for some of the quick studies earning a lot of kudos from the coaching staff. Early enrollee freshmen Devin Studstill (No. 13) and Kevin Stepherson (No. 29) may have numbers that look like they should belong to walk-ons, but both have been dynamic this spring. Studstill is challenging Max Redfield for playing time at free safety. Stepherson has already found his way into the two-deep, a three-star receiver who already looks the part of an ankle-breaking playmaker.

After preserving a year of eligibility last season, linebackers Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas will get more playing time than they can handle on Saturday. Both Indiana natives have had to learn through the firehouse as Mike Elston’s had just four healthy scholarship linebackers during spring ball. Both could take that momentum onto the field next spring, with Bilal in the conversation for the starting Will linebacker job.

While a new load of reinforcements will be on campus in June, a few defensive backs who spent 2015 watching now have a chance to charge into battle. We already talked about Crawford. But Ashton White also looks like a physical corner who has crossover abilities at safety. Redshirt freshman Miles Boykin could be another matchup problem as a receiver, the beneficiary of Corey Robinson’s missed practice time at the boundary wide receiver.

We’ve seen glimpses from emerging contributors like Equanimeous St. Brown, Dexter Williams, Alizé Jones (likely to spend some time with Boykin at W receiver), while Tristen Hoge fights for time at guard. All have essentially taken this spring as a chance to fight for a significant in the rotation.

Expect one (or more) of these names to have a big Saturday.

 

Take it from Junior Jabbie. Not all spring game performances are created equal. 

A clutch touchdown catch from Justin Brent and Corey Holmes sharing the team lead with three catches. Jhonny Williams and Grant Blankenship notching sacks. Max Redfield running an interception back for a touchdown. None of those occurrences in last year’s Blue-Gold game were signs of big things to come in 2015.

Of course, the flip-side is also true. Before he shattered most first-year quarterback records in South Bend, DeShone Kizer was getting outplayed by Montgomery VanGorder, hitting rock bottom with a 1-of-5 performance for three total yards, taking a safety and sack in a game where he wasn’t even full contact.

Spring games reveal themselves in different ways. Junior Jabbie will go down in Irish lore for a spring game performance that netted him an MVP trophy. He was never heard from again. John Owens was unblockable in the 2000 Blue-Gold game, notching three sacks. That was triple his career total. Chris Olsen went from MVP to quarterback transfer, a dozen years before Everett Golson pulled the same chute.

Last year, we saw clues of the team that emerged in the fall.  Notre Dame’s offensive line was a strength, C.J. Prosise‘s switch to running back looked natural. But this is also just 1/15th of spring drills—and the only ones broadcast to fans (and opposing coaches) trying to glean anything from an Irish team filled with unknowns.

I’m often reminded of comments former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco made when he discussed his first defense’s performance in his inaugural Blue-Gold game in South Bend. He was pleased with their effort, happy they executed the gameplan he delivered. Then he revealed they’ll never play that scheme again.

Happy Blue-Gold game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”