Keith Arnold

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

Last looks: Running back

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After two seasons of trying to find carries for a handful of emerging running backs, Notre Dame has the opposite problem: Trying to spread out a growing workload among a smaller, highly-differentiated position group.

For the first time since Darius Walker returned after a dominant 2005 season, the Irish have a trustworthy returning starter in Tarean Folston. But behind that? It’s a big question mark.

Sure, C.J. Prosise was the team’s breakout offensive star this spring and will be counted on to step into the rotation. But he was a wide receiver this time last year, still learning the nuances of that position after starting his career at safety. And while Greg Bryant’s departure mostly made headlines because of his five-star recruiting pedigree, the Irish weren’t in a position to lose a returning contributor, especially one three years into the offensive system. But that’s where the running backs find themselves. Strong at the top, intriguing in the middle and backed up by two true freshmen and a recently promoted walk-on.

So let’s take our last looks at the running back position before the Longhorns come to town next weekend.

 

RUNNING BACK
Position Coach: Autry Denson

 

PROJECTED DEPTH CHART

RB1: Tarean Folston, Jr.
RB2: C.J. Prosise, Sr.*
RB3: Josh Adams, Fr.
RB4: Dexter Williams, Fr.
RB5: Justin Brent, Soph.
RB6: Josh Anderson, Sr*

*Denotes additional year of eligibility available. 

 

LEADING MAN

Tarean Folston. Make no mistake, Folston has a chance to be Notre Dame’s most productive back since Walker ran behind two veteran offensive lines in 2005-06. And he’s also quick enough to break some plays downfield, a limitation in Walker’s game that made him rely more on savvy than speed.

But Folston hasn’t emerged as an alpha dog in three seasons, even when it looked like he had that opportunity at the tail end of the last two campaigns. So while Prosise’s big spring is an obvious positive, it also raises questions about Folston’s ability to step forward, something he’ll be needed to do this year.

 

NEED A BIG SEASON

C.J. Prosise. I’m buying into Prosise’s ability as a home-run hitter, and I think there’s a place for him to get 10 to 15 carries a game. But there’s still got to be a learning curve for an athlete who is seeing things for the first time. You can bust loose on a couple big jet sweeps as a slot receiver and have a nice 15 spring practices. But there are still going to be some rough patches, especially in the subtler arts like pass protection and other recognition-based responsibilities.

Brian Kelly talked positively about Prosise’s return from a balky hip flexor. But that’s hardly what you want, a speed guy battling a nagging injury as he enters the season. Prosise very well could be one of Notre Dame’s most dynamic playmakers. Or he could be another spring sensation. Let’s hope the former is true.

 

THREE BIGGEST FACTORS…

Can they stay healthy? There’s not a lot of margin for error here. Freshman Josh Adams will likely be activated from the start and Dexter Williams can’t be far behind. From a top-end talent point of view, Folston and Prosise have the ability to be dynamic. But this could go 60-to-zero pretty quickly with a rolled ankle and a tweaked hip flexor.

 

How will the run game mesh with Zaire? Notre Dame can’t follow the formula they utilized against LSU. Malik Zaire is a big-time runner with plenty of power, but Kelly, new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and associate head coach Mike Denbrock would be crazy to have Zaire running more than 20 times a game… and then expect him to do it the next Saturday.

But after years of having ill-equipped personnel (Golson included), Zaire is a perfect triggerman for the read option. But making sure he and his backs are on the same page is crucial, especially in red zone situations.

 

Will someone dominate already? Notre Dame’s last 1,000 yard rusher was Cierre Wood in 2011. If no back steps forward and does that in 2015, I’ll be both surprised and disappointed. There’s no reason the Irish shouldn’t have three top-rate runners. Zaire, Folston and Prosise look like the type of three-headed monster that could’ve been at the tip of the spear for a Lou Holtz offense. But someone needs to emerge as a dominant player.

 

THREE RANDOM THOUGHTS

Will the Irish control the clock with the running game? Brian Kelly talked early in his tenure about not caring about time of possession. But then in 2012, his team changed it’s tune, finishing in the Top 25, averaging nearly 32 minutes a game.

Zaire is a first-year starter with essentially six quarters of playing experience. Taking your time and controlling things is an option. (Then again, so is going hyper-speed, with a quarterback finally capable of doing it.) In enemy territory—or if the defense needs a breather—this could be a good idea.

 

I’m interested to see how the running backs are used in the passing game. Folston is smooth as a receiver. Prosise just got done being one. While the actual depth chart at wideout is stacked, incorporating the backs into the passing game could open up more options and be a quarterback’s best friend.

Last year, we heard a lot about the backs playing that role, but it never really materialized. I hope that changes in 2015.

 

What will Autry Denson’s impact on this position group be? Tony Alford was a great part of Notre Dame’s program, especially on the recruiting trail. But a new voice in the room isn’t a bad thing and Denson’s imprint on this position group could be a new attention to detail.

We can worry about the young assistant holding his own in Florida another time. Right now, he needs to make sure Prosise knows what he’s doing, Justin Brent makes a somewhat successful transition to running back and two young freshmen are ready if their numbers are called.

 

*This article was amended to include former wide receiver Justin Brent in the depth chart. 

Last looks: Defensive line

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With the season right around the corner and preseason camp finished, it’s time to get our final preparations done before the games start counting and the journey begins. We spent the summer pumping out tens of thousands of words on Notre Dame’s evolving roster, so if you’re looking for 50 hours of easy reading, check out the Irish A-to-Z series.

But with cameras ready to roll on one of the most highly anticipated seasons in recent memory, let’s take our last looks at each position group.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE
Position Coach: Keith Gilmore

 

PROJECTED TWO-DEEP DEPTH CHART

DE: Romeo Okwara, Sr.
DT: Sheldon Day, Sr.
DT: Jerry Tillery, Fr.
DE: Isaac Rochell, Jr.

DE: Andrew Trumbetti, Soph.
DT: Jay Hayes, Soph.
DT: Daniel Cage, Soph.
DE: Jonathan Bonner, Soph.

Additional Depth:

DE: Grant Blankenship, Soph.
DT: Elijah Taylor, Fr.
DT: Jacob Matuska, Jr.
DE: Doug Randolph, Jr.
DT: Pete Mokwuah, Soph.
DT: Brandon Tiassum, Fr.
DT: Micah Dew-Treadway, Fr.

Key Injury:

DT: Jarron Jones, Sr.

 

LEADING MEN

Sheldon Day & Isaac Rochell. While Day is the returning captain, Rochell might be the one to watch this season, anchoring the strongside defensive end position, with the ability to slide inside if the unit needs him to do it. He played large last year when Ishaq Williams went down. Expect that to be the tip of the iceberg.

Day’s career at Notre Dame has been plagued by injuries, making it difficult for him to be as productive as many believe he can be. But the senior has had a strong fall camp, comes into the season healthy and will be more disruptive in his second season working with Brian VanGorder and paired with 4-3 expert Keith Gilmore.

 

NEED BIG SEASONS

Jerry Tillery Romeo Okwara/Andrew Trumbetti. Notre Dame’s asking a freshman to step into the starting lineup at defensive tackle. And the craziest part? Nobody seems that worried. That’s a huge compliment to Tillery and tells you quite a bit about the talent the Irish staff believes they have in their 6-foot-6.5, 305-pound defensive tackle.

The other big spot that absolutely needs to produce is the weakside defensive end. Coordinator Brian VanGorder has all sorts of ways to bring pressure. But the best way to succeed? Get Okwara or Trumbetti to get after the quarterback. Nobody expects this group to produce a double-digit sack master. But getting to that number in a platoon would be a great start.

 

THREE BIGGEST FACTORS…

Win against the run. It sounds simple, but early in the season Notre Dame’s front seven was remarkably stout against the run. Losing Jones is a difficult blow to the point of attack. But there’s a lot of depth here, and hopefully this group is up to the task, destroying blocks, getting in the backfield and letting the Irish’s fleet linebackers get to the football.

 

Combatting tempo. Nobody wanted to talk about it, but this defense feels good about their adjustments against uptempo offenses. Last year, the Irish were exploited starting with North Carolina and then against pretty much anybody else who wanted to go fast.

Sprinting massive defensive tackle Daniel Cage off the field isn’t the answer. We’ll see if they figured one out, likely in week three against Georgia Tech.

 

Stopping the option. With Georgia Tech and Navy both on the schedule, stopping the triple-option will be critical. Notre Dame’s brought in a recruited walk-on to better simulate the scout team. They’ve also added a defensive line coach that teaches the attacking style of play that Brian VanGorder prefers.

VanGorder likely went horse on media day repeating the talking points that nobody truly stops an option attack, with 350 yards on the ground an average day at the office for the Yellow Jackets and the Midshipmen. But here’s hoping that Bobby Elliott’s recon work helped the defensive staff shove a few tricks up their sleeve.

 

THREE RANDOM THOUGHTS

No better time than now, Sheldon Day. Rarely has Notre Dame’s staff been bullish on a player who’s performance has been decidedly… eh. Sure injuries get in the way and a scheme shift likely disrupted some of Day’s development, but we’ve been talking about Aaron Donald when discussing Day. It’s up to the senior defender to make that comparison even in the same ballpark.

 

Is Rochell’s slide inside inevitable? I’m not saying that it is, but if Jerry Tillery gets knicked up even in the slightest, I think it has to be. Rochell played on the inside against LSU. He’ll likely do it on third downs. So while Kelly and BVG have been quick to say that Rochell isn’t going anywhere, he’ll be surrounded by defensive linemen on quite a few snaps already, so this might just be holding the cards close in the preseason, especially in a system that’ll likely be more multiple this year.

 

Can the other kids be alright? I don’t know anybody who isn’t buying into Tillery’s skill set. But if this group is going to be a CFB Playoff level unit, they’re going to need to get big contributions from some of the other first and second-year players.

Key pieces: Jay Hayes, Jonathan Bonner, Grant Blankenship and Daniel Cage. I’m almost discounting Andrew Trumbetti from this group, but he counts, too. And it’ll be interesting to see what this unit gets out of Elijah Taylor. He’s a thick, barrel-chested stocky guy who can eat some space.

These are young, developmental prospects who are desperately needed to step up and play a supporting role. If they can do it, this defense can achieve its goals.

 

 

 

 

 

Now Open: Final preseason mailbag

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Have a final question before we have actual football to talk about? Today’s the day. Drop them below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.

Brevity wins.

It’s here: Video board going into south end zone at Notre Dame

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Notre Dame announced a number of enhancements to Notre Dame Stadium on Tuesday. Most notable among them, a video board that’ll go atop the south end zone.

That’s right. Notre Dame Stadium is getting a “Jumbotron.”

Joining Purcell Pavilion and the Compton Family Ice Arena with video screens, Notre Dame fans will be able to watch replays of game action and other highlights from their seats. Also like the basketball and hockey venues, a commitment to no advertisements and commercials have been made.

In a statement released by the university, athletic director Jack Swarbrick explained the upgrades.

“Campus Crossroads planning from the very beginning has involved a commitment to ensuring that our fans enjoy a top-quality in-stadium experience,” Swarbrick said in the statement. “That commitment involves everything from technology to amenities such as restrooms and concessions. When completed the Crossroads Project will improve the experience of every fan who attends our games.”

While the video board will garner most of the attention, the wooden bench seats are also being replaced with vinyl upgrades. An 18-inch standard width will also be part of the retrofitting, making one of the tightest squeezes in college football a little less snug.

For those who have tried to communicate on campus during a football Saturday, there will be improved wifi networks within the stadium. The sound system inside the stadium has also been upgraded, while renovations to restrooms and concession stands are among the other, long-overdue enhancements.

All are part of the Campus Crossroads project, an ambitious $400 million project that plans to turn Notre Dame Stadium into a campus hub, with academic and student life buildings attached to the east and west sides of the stadium.

“Notre Dame Stadium is one of the most tradition-rich facilities in all of college football,” Swarbrick said. “The Campus Crossroads Project is indicative of our commitment to making even greater use of it in the decades to come.”

In addition to the video board on the south side of the stadium, ribbon boards will be on the east and west sides of the stadium (the sidelines), adding additional information boards where fans can see basic stats. Another big change will be the removal of the scoreboard above the north end zone, that has long blocked the view of Touchdown Jesus.

For all the cries that’ll certainly come from traditionalists who enjoyed the “old-school” experience, it’s worth pointing out the success Notre Dame’s athletic department has had using the video boards not just for the hockey and basketball teams, but also at Shamrock Series games. Introducing the video boards will also help the in-game experience, getting rid of some of the cumbersome on-field introductions and keeping fans engaged during commercial breaks.

Irish A-to-Z: Malik Zaire

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Our final installment of the A-to-Z series is perhaps our most important one. Because Notre Dame’s fate is in the hands of quarterback Malik Zaire.

After pushing his way onto the field after Everett Golson faltered late last season, Zaire battled with the incumbent during spring practice, and ended up the default winner when Golson decided to transfer out after graduation.

While the on-field battle didn’t seem to warrant Golson walking away, the off-field intangibles are a first-round TKO. For as uncomfortable and quiet as Golson seemed in the spotlight, Zaire almost appears to grab it—forcing his way to leading man status.

Now given his shot, it’s time for the third-year quarterback to deliver. After sitting out his freshman season and making the most of his opportunities late last year, 2015 will be defined by Zaire’s ability to lead the Irish to victory.

 

MALIK ZAIRE
6’0″, 222 lbs.
Junior, No. 8, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

An option quarterback at Archbishop Alter, Zaire’s ascent in the recruiting world happened after an impressive showing at the Elite 11 camp. Mostly a regional prospect, Zaire’s accuracy and arm strength, combined with his talents as a triple-option trigger man, made him a four-star prospect.

Zaire picked Notre Dame relatively early, and by the time he early-enrolled in South Bend, he had offers from Alabama, Arizona and Ohio State among others.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Saw brief action early in the season before relieving Golson against USC in the second quarter and starting the Music City Bowl. Zaire was named the bowl’s MVP after winning his first ever start, running for 96 yards and a score while completing 12 of 15 passes.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Well, I nailed the fact that Zaire would have to win one game, though I didn’t necessarily see it coming in the fashion that it did.

The odds are in favor of Zaire having to win at least one game this season. Golson spent much of 2012 dinged up, forced to sit out the BYU game after a nasty concussion. He also missed chunks of other games as well, meaning that Zaire better have his chin strap up and a complete command of the game plan.

Still, it’s hard to see a situation outside of injury that gets Zaire a true opportunity to make noise on the field. Outside of mop-up time or Golson playing abnormally awful (or playing so well that he heads to the NFL after this season), Malik’s going to have to wait his turn until the 2016 season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Heading into the USC game last season, I was skeptical that Zaire would ever be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame. But after watching him rally the offense in all-but meaningless garbage time (sadly, garbage time started in the second quarter), and then hearing him talk after the loss, my belief in Zaire the quarterback—and the team leader—changed almost immediately.

Golson’s departure sets the stage for Zaire to be a three-year starter for the Irish. And while I still have worries about his accuracy in the intermediate passing game, Zaire’s elite running skills and innate option capabilities put so much pressure on opposing defenses.

There is no question that Zaire desperately wants to be a great quarterback. Kelly’s talked multiple times about Zaire’s thirst for knowledge, and he’s reportedly been reaching out to past Irish quarterback greats, something it’s safe to assume Golson never did.

That’s not going to help when a defense drops eight or sends an overload blitz, but it’s certainly a good datapoint.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

With an excellent set of skill players and an offensive line among the best in the country, Zaire won’t need to be the best player on the Irish offense, but simply make sure he allows this unit to prosper. Whether that makes him a game manager or point guard will be determined by how well the offense produces.

The Irish will need Zaire to be a capable runner. He showed more than enough ability to do that against LSU and also with big runs in limited snaps before then. The Irish will also need him to play smart. It’s long forgotten now, but late against LSU, Zaire made an ill-advised deep throw down the middle of the field that could’ve been intercepted. Golson took over in the passing game from that moment forward.

Zaire is going to make some mistakes. He’s seeing defenses and adjustments for basically the first time. But he also needs to show the confidence that allows him to run the football, adding a needed dimension to this offense that just didn’t exist, even with Golson behind center.

Ultimately, it’s probably unfair to say it, but Zaire will be the main factor in the Irish’s ability to make it to the four-team playoff. If he’s able to limit mistakes and trigger the running game, this team will be hard to stop. But if he plays like a first-year starter and struggles to get the passing attack started, it’ll be an opportunity lost.

 

I think this offense is ready to dominate and Zaire is prepared for his moment in the spotlight. Now he’s got to go out and prove it.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB
Tarean Folston, RB
Will Fuller, WR
Jarrett Grace, LB
Jalen Guyton, WR
Mark Harrell, OL
Jay Hayes, DL
Mike Heuerman, TE
Kolin Hill, DE
Tristen Hoge, C
Corey Holmes, WR
Chase Hounshell, TE
Torii Hunter, Jr. WR
Alizé Jones, TE
Jarron Jones, DL
DeShone Kizer, QB
Tyler Luatua, TE
Cole Luke, CB
Nick Martin, C
Greer Martini, LB
Jacob Matuska, DL
Mike McGlinchey, OT
Colin McGovern, OL
Peter Mokwuah, DL
John Montelus, OL
Nyles Morgan, LB
Sam Mustipher, OL
Quenton Nelson, OL
Tyler Newsome, P
Romeo Okwara, DE
James Onwualu, LB
C.J. Prosise, WR/RB
Doug Randolph, LB/DE
Max Redfield, S
Corey Robinson, WR
Trevor Ruhland, OL
CJ Sanders, WR
Joe Schmidt, LB
Avery Sebastian, S
Elijah Shumate, S
Jaylon Smith, LB
Durham Smythe, TE
Equanimeous St. Brown, WR
Ronnie Stanley, LT
Elijah Taylor, DL
Brandon Tiassum, DL
Jerry Tillery, DL
Drue Tranquill, S
Andrew Trumbetti, DE
John Turner, S
Nick Watkins, CB
Nic Weishar, TE
Ashton White, CB
Dexter Williams, RB
Brandon Wimbush, QB
Justin Yoon, K