Author: Keith Arnold

Last looks: Secondary


The pieces are in place for Notre Dame’s secondary to be great. Led by returning cornerback KeiVarae Russell and armed with depth at every starting position, first-year position coach Todd Lyght has considerable talent to work with.

But the Irish secondary remains a question mark, especially at the safety position where returning veterans Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate are still doing their best to play up to expectations. In a system where there’s nowhere to hide and aggression can expose sometimes critical mistakes, the secondary is better equipped to handle the flames, even if we aren’t exactly sure how they’ll do until we put their feet to the fire.

In our final section of last looks, Notre Dame’s secondary is under the microscope.


Position Coach: Todd Lyght



CB: KeiVarae Russell, Sr.*
S: Max Redfield, Jr.
S: Elijah Shumate, Sr.
CB: Cole Luke

CB: Devin Butler, Jr.
S: Matthias Farley, GS
S: Drue Tranquill, Soph.
CB: Nick Coleman, Fr.

Additional Depth:
Avery Sebastian, GS
Nick Watkins, Soph.
Mykelti Williams, Fr.
Nicco Fertitta, Fr.
Shaun Crawford, Fr.*

*Additional year of eligibility available. 



KeiVarae Russell. Russell will lead this group, dragging along every member of the secondary to compete at his level. That’s a good thing, especially after late last season when a confidence boost was needed in November and nobody was there to provide it.

Yet Russell needs to bring more than just pompoms to work. He needs to prove he’s worth all the headlines he’s garnered—not just for the mistakes that led to him missing the 2014 season, but the lofty projections people have made for him after a solid-but-not-quite-spectacular sophomore season.

Russell is playing in a new system, a challenge he craves. He’ll be bouncing inside and out, allowing him to make an impact in both the run and pass game. But in an aggressive scheme that’ll challenge the Irish secondary on a play-to-play basis, Russell not only needs to make sure he’s getting the best out of his teammates, but that he’s delivering the All-American caliber production that we all expect.



Max Redfield & Elijah Shumate. Put simply, this defense will be as good as its safety play. And with little depth behind Redfield and Shumate, it’s on the shoulders of this duo to do the job and do it well.

Last year, both ended up in the dog house, and only a MASH unit allowed either to emerge. But after a year of learning and a commitment to communication, Redfield and Shumate appear poised to play up to their blue-chip expectations.


Of course, that’s what everybody says this time of year. And while Kelly, VanGorder and Lyght have all been saying the right things, this is a put-up or shut-up time for two critical pieces to the puzzle.



Can this group eliminate the big play? Bob Diaco’s secondary wasn’t the most exciting group in America. But it understood that you can win a lot of football games and keep the points down by not giving up the big play. Late last year when things started going wrong, the secondary was getting beat and giving up yards—and points—by the bushel.

With the talent that Notre Dame has, a repeat of that would be immensely disappointing. But with some talented quarterbacks and receivers on this schedule, it’s a key factor, especially if VanGorder wants to continue to play aggressive.


Can Redfield turn into a playmaker? Notre Dame hasn’t had a playmaking safety since Harrison Smith roamed centerfield. But Redfield has all the attributes you want from a free safety, and he’s literally the only guy on this roster who can physically do what this defense needs.

Redfield has a fresh start with Todd Lyght. He’s been filled with confidence by Brian Kelly. And he appears committed to football. Asking Redfield to be Smith—a first-rounder with elite talent as well—might be too much. But can he be at least above average, making some plays on the football that he was a step or two slow to last season?

Before Smith was ball-hawking he was getting kicked around for two seasons. And that’s reason for hope that the light can turn on for Redfield, too.


How versatile can this group be? Notre Dame will face teams that’ll spread the Irish out and also triple-option teams that’ll want to bully them. And with the depth chart still a little bit thinner than you want, how VanGorder and Lyght decide to use some of the key complementary pieces to this unit will be very important.

Matthias Farley won’t be asked to be a man-cover corner in the slot, but he’ll play a big role in other packages. Drue Tranquill might not be capable of being a half-field safety, but he certainly can attack off the edge, or hold-up against the pitch man versus an option attack. Beyond that, Notre Dame getting something out of Nick Watkins can only help, and if one of the freshmen safety can play it’d be a bonus, too. (Then again, so would keeping a redshirt on both.)

The loss of Shaun Crawford robbed the Irish of a little versatility, but seeing how this group mixes and matches will be fun.



Can Russell and Luke take their place among the dynamic cornerbacking duos? We’ve undersold Cole Luke’s 2014 season. He was really, really solid against a slate of wide receivers that looked like a murderer’s row. On the other hand, we’ve all bought in to KeiVarae Russell’s return to greatness, and the confident senior is deadset on making up for lost time.

There’s enough talent here for this duo to make the outside a no-fly zone. Just as important, this staff could have enough confidence in Luke and Russell to stay outside on islands against the option, allowing the Irish to put eight and nine men in the box as they aggressively attack the option, relying on their two corners to not get lost in the shuffle and get beat over the top.

It’s been since Vontez Duff and Shane Walton since the Irish had a duo that the college football world viewed as elite. If Russell and Luke can play up to that level, this defense will be in great shape.


Is Devin Butler really ready to be an outside cornerback? Want proof that Todd Lyght gave everybody a blank slate? Check out Butler’s ascent into the starting nickel corner role.

Last November, Butler had a two-way miss—giving up the underneath throws and still getting beat over the top. That’s a fatal flaw for a cornerback that some thought was a mismatch for this scheme to begin with, especially since he was recruited for Bob Diaco’s Cover 2.

But give credit to Butler for a big summer and preseason camp, earning his way into the lineup over a talented young cornerback like Nick Watkins. But also hold your breath, because you’ve got to expect offensive coordinators to throw at Butler early and often, especially after the game tape he put together last November.


Can Todd Lyght bring consistency to this group? Kerry Cooks is gone, off to Oklahoma after Signing Day, a calendar year after being passed up for the defensive coordinator job. So Kelly decided to bring Todd Lyght back to his alma mater, a decision that looks great on paper, with the former Irish All-American able to also point to a Super Bowl championship and a Pro Bowl NFL career as well.

But the move isn’t without risks. Lyght has barely begun his coaching career, serving as an intern at Oregon for two seasons under Chip Kelly before joining him in Philadelphia for parts of two seasons as an assistant defensive backs coach. And after just agreeing to join Vanderbilt’s staff to coach cornerbacks, Lyght took some convincing to turn around and head back to South Bend to coach the Irish secondary, a decision not without risk for either side.

The early returns say the decision was a good one, with Lyght quick to find his footing running the secondary while also hitting his stride on the recruiting trail. But in the past, Kelly has used two coaches to deal with the secondary, splitting jobs between cornerbacks and safeties. Lyght is handling it all, in his first full-fledged assistant job.



Last looks: Quarterbacks

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

When Everett Golson pulled the chute and headed south to Tallahassee, Notre Dame’s quarterback competition quickly cleared up. This is Malik Zaire’s football team.

Depending on how you look at it, that could be a very good thing or a very bad thing. Those in favor of having Golson stick around liked the idea of a three-year starter and a quarterback with an elite throwing arm. Those ready to see him go were sick and tired of watching him cough up the football, each mistake erasing a highlight that would’ve looked great on YouTube, but was erased as it derailed a football team that couldn’t withstand critical mistakes, especially with a second-half, swiss cheese defense.

The Irish move forward, with Zaire implanted as the unofficial leader of the offense, a quarterback with no fear being the face of a unit with great expectations. But with zero experience behind Zaire’s own limited snap count, it’ll be a bit of a tight rope walk.

So let’s take our last looks at the quarterback position, always the most critical spot on the field.


Position Coach: Mike Sanford



QB1: Malik Zaire, Jr.*
QB2: DeShone Kizer, Soph.*
QB3: Brandon Wimbush, Fr.
QB4: Montgomery VanGorder, Soph.*

*Denotes additional year of eligibility available. 



Malik Zaire. No kidding, right? Zaire now steps into focus, allowed to let his confidence and off-field leadership abilities mesh with the opportunity afforded to him. We’ve spent a few thousand words talking about Zaire this offseason. But I’ll be interested to see if they treat Zaire like Golson in 2012 or give him a full menu.



DeShone Kizer. In a perfect world, Kizer is the world’s most boring kick-holder. But in case of injury—or if Zaire’s helmet pops off—Kizer’s number is going to be called, and it’ll be up to the sophomore to be ready to take over.

Watching the spring game, it sure looked like there was an ocean between Kizer and being ready to take over the quarterbacking duties. But with Golson gone and Kizer having a great offseason (I’ll choose to believe what Brian Kelly and Mike Sanford have said about him) and fall camp, there’s nobody this staff wants more as No. 2, especially with the preference to keep a redshirt on Wimbush.



Can Zaire keep the turnovers under control? There’s nothing more important to Notre Dame’s offense than limiting game-changing mistakes. So finding a way to run this offense in both an explosive way, but also one that limits potential mistakes, will be one of the critical balancing acts of the season.

There is too much talent on this offense to be overly vanilla. But all the talent in the world won’t help you win if you’re giving the football away. This is one of the largest big-picture questions I have for this season.


Can Zaire be a weapon in the running game… without getting hurt? Zaire is an elite option quarterback, based on a high school career that was almost exclusively triple-option until his senior season’s offense opened up. And add to that a rugged 230-pound frame that might make Zaire the most powerful runner in the stable, and you’ve got to wonder how the quarterback can be both a critical piece of the ground game, while also not getting hurt.

Early in Kelly’s time in South Bend, he seemed to put restrictions on Dayne Crist, knowing full well that he had nothing behind him. It didn’t matter, with Crist going down twice with season-ending (and career detouring) injuries. I expect Kelly has learned from that.

No, it’s not realistic for Zaire to run 22 times a game like he did against LSU. But finding a way to let Zaire impact the game on the ground while also limiting his “pitch count” makes sense.


What happens if things go wrong? Last season was ruined when Golson couldn’t pick himself up and revive his confidence. Zaire doesn’t look like he’ll have that problem, but it’s impossible to know how he’ll respond until he makes his first big mistake.

Building on this, things going wrong could also include losing the team’s starting quarterback. It’s a scenario that this staff has to be ready for, and if that happens, they need to be ready to not just take the redshirt off of Wimbush, but to potentially build him a package of plays that utilize his speed and big arm. This team is too good not to go all-in on salvaging the offense.



Does this offense need a game manager? Zaire is hardly a “game-manager” type, but is that what the Irish need?

I don’t think so, only because the Irish defense isn’t like the unit Notre Dame trotted out in 2012. But on a scale from “no-risks to full-throttle,” you’ve got to expect this staff to hand Zaire the reins slowly, keeping things as vanilla as they can until they need to outscore teams like Georgia Tech, Clemson and USC.


What will Mike Sanford’s impact on this position be? In Matt LaFleur’s single season in South Bend, he didn’t accomplish many of the things optimists expected, especially when it was clear that Golson was regressing down the stretch.

Sanford is a more polished offensive coach than LaFleur, who found himself a much better fit in the pro grame. And Kelly also likely looked hard at his arrangement last time around, where LaFleur focused on the guys behind Golson while the head coach seemed to work exclusively with the starter. Sanford wasn’t coming to South Bend to take a secondary role in this offense, especially after Urban Meyer offered him the keys to the Buckeyes offense.

But what changes should we expect at quarterback? We saw small tweaks—especially in the footwork in the zone read game—this spring. But expect Sanford’s DNA to be all over this offense (especially at quarterback), even as we wait to figure out how the offensive collaboration will work.


Can Zaire make progress in the red zone, especially near the goal line? While the Irish actually made great strides in converting opportunities to touchdowns (the Irish jumped from 100th to 45th in TD%), there’s still work to be done. And while Zaire’s decision-making in the passing game is still up for debate, his ability to run the ball near the goal line has to be a huge asset.

Stack the box and you leave guys like Will Fuller, Corey Robinson or Tight End X/Y/Z in single coverage. Respect the passing game and you’ve got a 230-pound quarterback barreling your way.

Even if we expect the special teams operation to get better, it’s still never good to rely on a freshman to get you three when you really want seven. The Irish can bury a lot of opponents by being opportunistic in the red zone, allowing Brian VanGorder’s defense to pin its ears back when an opponent gets down two scores. So cashing in on red zone opportunities is a key piece of the puzzle.


Kelly: Play-calling will be a collaboration

Brian Kelly, Malik Zaire

So who’s calling the plays? That was one of the main questions  still unanswered heading into the season’s opening game, and when head coach Brian Kelly was asked about it, he was staying mum.

With Mike Sanford (the offensive coordinator) taking his cues from Mike Denbrock (the associate head coach), you already knew that the org chart looked different than most. So maybe it makes sense that Kelly’s going relatively new-age with his philosophy on play-calling.

“We are going to collaborate,” Kelly said Tuesday. “There will be collaboration. Mike Sanford, myself, Coach Denbrock, there will be collaboration on Saturday.”

In theory, it makes sense, and likely shows just how much Kelly trusts the opinion of both Denbrock, an assistant coach Kelly’s know for the better part of 25 years, and Sanford, an assistant he’s worked with for roughly nine months.

With Kelly and Denbrock on the sidelines and Sanford upstairs in the box, game day operations will be worth watching. Especially the first time Zaire gets behind center only to notice that the playclock is moments from zero and a blown timeout earns the scorn of the Irish head coach. Collaboration? That’ll be the collective groan you hear emanating from Notre Dame Stadium.

Yet there’s a good chance that frustrating scenario might not ever happen. In fact, you could also argue that this collaboration could actually speed up an operation that sometimes struggled to move quickly, with both Tommy Rees and Everett Golson prone to evaluating what the defense showed and then counter-punching.

Building on this theory, you could also take the leap that the three-man effort could be to help speed up an operation that wants to move at significant pace this season. With Sanford above the action, he can better fill in Kelly and Denbrock on what he sees and what the defense is doing. With the game plan set and scripting in place, the Irish offense could finally dictate terms to the defense, after years of watching quarterbacks read and react.

Of course, we’ve spent five years talking about Kelly’s offense going up-tempo, a veritable white whale for some Irish diehards. And for all the clamoring and discussion about turning Kelly’s offense into Oregon’s, we’ve really only really seen it happen a handful of series. But with Zaire at quarterback and Notre Dame’s best running signal caller since Carlyle Holiday, the option to finally “call it and haul it” is available to this offense, if they choose to utilize it.

Kelly confirmed Tuesday that he holds veto rights on what play goes to the quarterback, pretty much what you’d expect from a head coach with a reputation for being one of the best play-callers in America. (Yes, Irish fans, that’s what people outside our little bubble think.) But with Zaire, a veteran of roughly six quarters of action and a new offensive coordinator, the Irish offense is finally an unknown, likely the head coach’s rational for playing this one very close to the vest.

“I’m just not going to give you much more than, you know, all three of us are collaborating,” Kelly said. “We’re all in unison as to how we want the game to unfold. So we are all going to be working off the same play sheet. We are going to all be working off the same openers. We are going to all be working off the same down and distance sheet.

“So whether it’s coming out of Mike or Mike or Brian’s lips, is really immaterial as far as I’m concerned. All I know is that we’ve got great collaboration between the three of us.”