Malik Zaire

AP

Irish A-to-Z: Justin Brent

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Justin Brent enters the second half of his Notre Dame career, with just about everybody hoping that the Indianapolis native makes headlines these next few years for better reasons than the last two. A physically gifted and versatile offensive player, Brent’s struggled to break into the two-deep—and to break out from Brian Kelly’s doghouse.

But there’s hope for the future. Brent just completed a redshirt season, spending his sophomore year learning the craft while staying out of trouble. It’ll allow him to enter 2016 with what amounts to a fresh start, still trying to find a role in the offense, but capable of contributing on special teams and at multiple offensive positions.

 

JUSTIN BRENT
6’1.5″, 220 lbs.
Junior, No. 11 RB/WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, Brent didn’t have many offers, but that’s a product of committing to Notre Dame the summer before his junior season, a full calendar year before most early commitments. Brent’s performance at both The Opening and the Rivals Five-Star Challenge turned him into a borderline top prospect, understandable when you saw him workout or in non-football situations.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in nine games, mostly on special teams. Did not make a catch or record a carry.

Sophomore Season (2015): Did not see action, joining fellow sophomore Corey Holmes as a redshirt.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

I suppose this deserves some credit, if only because Brent is still on campus fighting for playing time, not transferring to a new school.

While I’ve been pretty hard on Brent, I actually think the thing that struck me the most was the celebratory hug he shared with his head coach after the Music City Bowl victory. That didn’t look like an embrace you got from an exiled freshman with one foot out the door, but rather the look of a kid who seemed ready, willing and engaged.

One thing that might actually help Brent is starting quarterback Malik Zaire. It’s unlikely that Brent caught too many passes from Everett Golson in practices last season. But Zaire? The duo’s chemistry was on display in the Blue-Gold game, and could also help Brent’s confidence come training camp.

While I mentioned physical play as a way for Miles Boykin to get on the field, Brent’s the perfect body type to mangle defensive backs as a blocker on the edge. That’s a thankless job that requires pinpoint technique and buy-in, something we’ll see if Brent possesses.

This career could go two ways—a transfer or a four-year career that puts in the rearview a bumpy debut season. Next season will go a long way towards determining that path.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

To be all-in on Brent the late bloomer feels a little bit pollyanna at this point. But it’s worth noting that in a career that feels like dog years right now, he’s still got three seasons of competition remaining.

Brent spent the spring working as a running back, showing a nice bit of playmaking in the Blue-Gold game with an improvised scramble drill that turned into a big play when Brent came back for the football and made a nice catch in traffic. He’ll likely start next season in the backfield, though he’ll be working behind Tarean Folston, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams.

If you think that stockpile at running back could turn Brent back into a wide receiver, you might be right. With the boundary position lacking bodies, perhaps Brent’s physicality could help him take a few snaps on the outside as well. (At this point, it’s not ridiculous to consider a move to the defensive side of the ball—especially as a group of young safeties get to campus and start swimming in the deep end.)

Watching Brent in person, you’re not spending your time worrying about the physique of a kid who stepped onto campus with an NFL body, but just wondering when he’s going to break through. But there’s also a lack of flexibility and limberness that stands out when you watch him, especially as he learns how to run the football as a taller back, susceptible to the big hit without the proper pad level.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Sign me up for Justin Brent on every special teams unit the Irish have, with the junior hopefully capable of making an impact as a blocker or tackler. From there, he’ll likely need to take advantage of some adversity to see the field.

If a running back goes down (and after seeing the past few years, we should be ready for one to go down), Brent will get his shot. The same goes on the outside, where redshirt preservation of a young freshman might make Brent—now three seasons into his college career—a better bet on quickly absorbing the job.

The hardest part of Brent’s career is over—making it through a redshirt season after finishing his freshman year in one of the more ridiculous off-field stories we’ve seen in a long, long time. With the tabloid fodder behind him, now all Brent has to do is find a way into the mix on offense, with hopes that taking advantage of some limited opportunities and turning them into regular playing time.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin

Irish A-to-Z: Miles Boykin

Rivals - Yahoo!
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With a redshirt season complete and a wide-open receiving depth chart in front of him, Miles Boykin enters his sophomore season with a road to the field. One of Illinois’ top recruits and a physically gifted athlete, the offseason months will be vital in providing Boykin with the time to impress Mike Denbrock and the rest of the offensive brain trust.

A prototype for what Brian Kelly and company want in a boundary wide receiver, Boykin still needs some polish. But on a team with young, unproven talent, Boykin could serve as one of the standard-bearers.

 

MILES BOYKIN
6’3.5″, 225 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 81, WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

The Chicago Tribune’s Athlete of the Year, Boykin was a Semper Fidelis All-American with offers from Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Florida and many others. He was a consensus four-star recruit. A first-team, All-State player. The Champaign News-Gazette’s Illinois Player of the Year.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Not too far off. It was better to save a year of eligibility than be used as a blocking wide receiver.

Physicality will likely dictate if Boykin sees the field this season, as it’s hard to see too many balls coming his way. But thinking back to how James Onwualu got on the field and how Daniel Smith was utilized, Boykin might not be the receiver with the biggest recruiting profile, but if the Irish plan on running with Malik Zaire and a talented offensive line and Boykin shows himself willing, he could be taking those snaps.

But to pin Boykin’s future as a blocker doesn’t do much service to his athletic traits. On Signing Day, Brian Kelly talked about the mismatches Boykin can creates. While it might take a season or two for the Irish to need Boykin to provide the offensive boost, it looks like Notre Dame has a good one in the Illinois native.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

I’m stepping back from the lofty comparison I made from last year (Michael Floyd) and appreciating the other one that I made—Maurice Stovall. Ultimately, that type of big-bodied receiver is more in line with what I think Boykin will do in South Bend.

That’s not to say Boykin won’t be a productive college player. (Stovall’s senior season is one of the more under appreciated in Irish history.) But with a lot of uncertainty at the outside receiver positions, we didn’t hear much from Boykin this spring. That’s certainly not a death blow to any future potential, but it’s an indicator nonetheless.

With Corey Robinson‘s future still cloudy and the Irish entertaining the move of Alizé Jones to the boundary wide receiver spot, Boykin is playing a position where there’s opportunity. He’s also got the type that’s perfect for the position, a big, strong, physical kid that Kelly has already complimented after seeing him as a raw freshman in training camp.

That’s a good definition for upside. And at a position that’s been very productive during Kelly’s tenure in South Bend, that’s all you can ask for.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I’ve got Boykin pegged for the 10 to 15 catch range, with outliers on either side being possible. The optimist in me sees the depth chart and his physical traits. The pessimist in me sees the other guys who have been given shots in front of him and the challenge of leaping someone like Jones or Robinson if he’s healthy and playing.

Ultimately, someone is going to step in and be a surprise at the position next year. We’ve assumed Torii Hunter Jr. will be the leading man. Kevin Stepherson was the freshman spring sensation. And Jones feels like the answer if Robinson isn’t going to be able to play after a series of concussions.

It’s easy to be a fan of Boykin if you watched him as a high schooler and saw his recruiting profile. Now it’ll be up to him to fight for a role at a position that’s one of the most unsettled on the roster.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner

No surprise, but Kelly confirms QB battle won’t end this spring

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Brian Kelly confirmed what many of us knew all along. No resolution to a spirited quarterback battle is coming soon.

On Wednesday, Kelly caught up with the media to talk about the progress made during the Irish’s first 10 spring practices. And with all eyes on the quarterback battle between Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer, Kelly acknowledged that they weren’t close to deciding anything.

“I don’t think we’ll make a decision after spring,” Kelly said.

And with that, a battle that we thought might go all the way up until Texas week just essentially got extended until at least fall camp—with Kelly explaining in one sentence why the decision is a difficult one.

“The two quarterbacks are really good players,” Kelly continued. “Each one of them has different things they need to work on.”

For Zaire, it’s learning some of the many things he missed during a regular season that ended after six quarters. That’s turned spring into an installation and learning period for the veteran of the depth chart, something that wasn’t necessarily unexpected.

“I think one thing we’re realizing is we did a lot of things offensively that we did not do with Malik in camp that we did as we evolved offensively during the year. There’s a lot of things he’s doing for the first time,” Kelly said.

Pair that with returning from a significant injury and shaking off the rust—things that impact basics like footwork and balance—and it makes it very difficult to measure these quarterbacks apples to apples.

“It’s hard to evaluate strictly who’s ahead of who because we’re installing for him,” Kelly said.

Kizer’s spring has a different flavor. After putting together one of the more impressive debut seasons in recent memory, the bar has been raised by the staff as they ask Kizer to be more than just a complementary part to the offense.

“For DeShone, it’s what I’ve talked about before. It’s across the board reads, it’s red zone efficiency. It’s consistency,” Kelly said.

With two quarterbacks and one football, Kelly knows that he faces a difficult decision. Even if the flavor of this battle is much different than the one that took place last season, it’ll still leave one quarterback on the sideline serving as a backup, hardly the expectation for two competitive kids.

“They’re both No. 1s. They both probably can’t play at the same time,” Kelly acknowledged. “One’s going to have to be the starter and somebody’s going to be unhappy, but I can’t keep them all happy. We’re not going to go into the season with a team that does not have an identity. We’re going to have an identity as to who we are and that doesn’t mean we can’t play more than one quarterback. But we’ll have a quarterback and we’ll get that established.”

Five things we’ll learn: Countdown to spring practice

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With the university’s spring break in its final days, football will return to South Bend next week. But before Brian Kelly addresses the media to discuss the state of the program as the Irish embark on spring practice, let’s dig into five things we’ll learn before the Blue-Gold game on April 16.

 

What’s the identity of Harry Hiestand’s new-look offensive line? 

Quenton Nelson seemed to spill the beans on one of the biggest questions heading into spring, tagging Mike McGlinchey as his partner on the left side of the offensive line. That leaves three vacancies across the line, with spring likely dedicated to finding the best men for the job.

The health of Alex Bars seems to be one of the first storylines to follow. If Bars is full-go for spring after suffering a broken ankle against USC, he’ll likely seize a starting job. Whether that’s at guard or tackle remains to be seen. Bars saw limited time at guard in 2015, though he certainly has the length and athleticism to take over at right tackle.

The center battle focuses on Sam Mustipher and Tristen Hoge. Mustipher filled in rather capably behind Nick Martin last year, another interior lineman developed into a center under Hiestand. Hoge is the only true center on the roster, a young player who earned kudos from Kelly throughout his redshirt campaign, largely for the work he put in developing his strength.

If Kelly and Hiestand believe both Mustipher and Hoge are among the five best offensive linemen on the roster, they’ll both play. We saw that with Matt Hegarty and Mike Golic, two versatile interior players who cross-trained. But that was before the Irish built up a treasure chest through recruiting, with former blue-chip recruits like Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin and John Montelus entering their fourth years in the program (Montelus is a candidate for cross-training, spotted with the defensive linemen in offseason workouts).

There’s no urgency to find a starting five this spring—especially with Tommy Kraemer getting to campus this summer and potentially throwing his hat in the ring for a job. But with an offense that might be best suited for a rough and tumble style of play, building that identity through the men up front starts now.

 

Will a simplified defense be rolled out this spring? 

Joe Schmidt? Gone. Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day? The NFL awaits. Take away long-time contributors Elijah Shumate, KeiVarae Russell and Romeo Okwara and the Irish defense will rely on a new group of young, talented and inexperienced players to fill the gaps.

Awaiting that group is defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense. A complex, multiple, attacking scheme, the third-year defensive coordinator’s system demands a level of preparation and understanding that—put kindly—wasn’t always met by his players.

Athletically, there were growing pains and legacy issues. A veteran roster built for Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme certainly wasn’t a good fit. But this spring will likely showcase players brought in by VanGorder, athletes capable of executing the vision that Kelly and his coordinator have for this unit.

But they can’t do that without proper comprehension.

With Schmidt gone, junior Nyles Morgan is the presumptive starter at middle linebacker. A productive player as a freshman (even through significant growing pains), grasping the plethora of responsibilities that come with the position is Job One this spring.

But that responsibility doesn’t fall on Morgan alone. The offseason was likely spent at 30,000 feet, with VanGorder and the defensive staff hopefully evaluating big picture items like communication and core philosophy. These fifteen practices give the staff a chance to implement some of their findings before the broken coverages and blown assignments start counting for real.

While he’s turning into a whipping boy in some circles, VanGorder deserves credit for fixing last offseason’s two major challenges: up-tempo offenses and the triple option. This offseason the focus should be strictly internal—how to optimize a defense that too often was its own worse enemy.

Don’t expect a lot of explanation from Kelly or VanGorder when asked for updates on their progress. But that doesn’t mean the wheels aren’t already in motion.

 

Can Max Redfield lead the secondary? 

Notre Dame’s senior safety ended last season on an immensely disappointing note—sent home from the Fiesta Bowl for a rules violation. Redfield’s response to the discipline was also a head-shaker, a tweet and extended explanation that looked inward, but delivered mostly empty words when action is what’s desperately needed.

It’s Redfield’s final season in South Bend, a journey that’s taken some twists and turns but still could end with the senior safety maximizing his talents and leading the secondary. He’s got all the tools necessary to succeed in the Irish defense. Now he needs to also take on leadership, a steadying voice as the last line of defense in Todd Lyght’s secondary.

Finding a starter next to Redfield is the next step. Avery Sebastian returns for a sixth year. Drue Tranquill recovers from another ACL tear. A slew of young and untested safeties will have their chance as well.

But it all starts with Redfield. The Irish desperately need a stabilizing force at safety, a struggle since Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta headed to the NFL.

 

What should we expect from the upcoming quarterback battle? 

The Irish have three quarterbacks capable of leading a major D-I program. In Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer and Brandon Wimbush, Mike Sanford’s position room is crowded with talent, a second consecutive offseason with a major position battle primed to become a national story.

That’s about where the similarities to last spring end.

In many ways, the Golson-Zaire spring battle gave the Irish coaching staff the blueprint on how not to handle this spring. Granted, Golson’s impending free agency added a wrinkle that this spring won’t have. Not to mention the buy-in of the candidates involved—all three quarterbacks, Wimbush included, seem happy to be in South Bend, at least through 2016.

For those looking for clarity leaving spring, they’ll likely be disappointed. Assuming Wimbush redshirts (a plan Kelly acknowledged), both Kizer and Zaire have room for improvement in their respective games. They’ll be getting to know a rebuilt offensive line and a wide receiving corps short three leading receivers, including one of the nation’s best in Will Fuller.

Expect to hear the term “skill development” from Kelly next Tuesday, taking the spotlight off any perceived position battle. It’s likely more than just lip service, as the bar has been raised for both starting candidates, with the internal expectations driving this battle all the way to fall camp.

 

Team 127 had an identity. What will Team 128 look like? 

There was no shortage of leadership on the 2015 football team. The Irish could’ve easily trotted out six captains (and would have, had Ronnie Stanley not run afoul with those pesky Notre Dame meter maids.)

Contrast that with this year’s football team. Finding and developing leadership on the current roster may be one of the most important parts of spring practice.

Senior wide receiver Corey Robinson won the right to lead the entire student body. You have to assume he’ll manage to get a ‘C’ on his chest. But to do that, Robinson’s buy-in as a football player needs to be absolute. Notre Dame’s renaissance man very well could be college football’s most impressive student-athlete, but he’ll need to lead from the front, finding his voice as one of the tenured members of this football team.

From there, looking at resumes won’t necessarily lead you to team leaders. The fifth-year options are limited. Role players like James Onwualu may be candidates to ascend, though Kelly has often talked about the benefit of having your best players also be your best leaders.

That could mean Isaac Rochell is ready. Same with Mike McGlinchey along the offensive line. While they lack the fanfare of former teammates like Sheldon Day and Ronnie Stanley, they will be frontline players on a very talented roster.  There’s no shortage of leadership at quarterback either, though navigating those tricky dynamics will test even the most capable coaching staff.

This is Kelly’s seventh spring practice since he took over a program in desperate need of a reboot. He’s done that, elevating not just the talent on the roster but the infrastructure that surrounds the program. That blueprint will come into play this spring as another team with great expectations begins to form its identity.