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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Zaire ready to go back to battle

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Notre Dame made all three quarterbacks available to the media on Friday. And as you may have expected, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush all said the right things as they begin their battle for the starting quarterback job.

But mixed among the platitudes and Nook Laloosh-level cliches (Seriously, watch Zaire almost crack a smile in his first attempt to avoid the question) was some good old fashioned honesty from Zaire.

And man, was it refreshing.

Zaire’s candor isn’t new. And coming off a year where he opened the season with a nearly perfect statistical game against Texas only to break his angle the next weekend, Zaire’s comments felt a lot like—well, years’ past, when the Ohio-native spoke honestly about his self-belief and attitude during quarterback battles with Everett Golson.

“You just really wonder what it’s gonna take to finally convince people enough that I’m able to do the job, but like I said, I don’t make the decisions, so I just gotta keep balling and do what I gotta do. And that’s being the best in the country every time I gotta be out there and proving that to myself.

“I know I’m a championship quarterback and that’s something we’re working on. Every day is another process for me and my growth and development, and I know I’ve got to be at the best of shape at all times to help this team win football games.”

Credit ESPN’s Matt Fortuna for finally prying the answer out of Zaire. But also credit the rising senior quarterback for telling it like it is. A big reason why I’m not willing to count out Zaire from this battle is the attitude he displayed answering the question.

No, he’s not a guy running from the battle. He’s a quarterback doing the opposite, taking it into his own hands to make it impossible for his coaches not to give him the job. That’s all a staff can ask for, especially in a program that built competition into its DNA.

Of course, mental fortitude is a nice perk, but if you don’t have the physical goods than it really doesn’t matter. Kizer’s breakthrough season has many thinking the sky’s the limit for the rising junior. But we could be saying the same thing for Zaire, who in only 75 career passes has thrown five touchdowns and zero interceptions, completing over 62-percent of his throws while running for more than 5.5 yards-per-carry, all while beating LSU and Texas.

There’s over five months until Notre Dame heads to Austin to open 2016 against the Longhorns. Expect Zaire to battle all the way until he boards the plane.

 

Notre Dame going nationwide with Junior Day

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While most eyes are turned to Brooklyn where the Irish basketball team takes on Michigan in round one of the NCAA tournament, it’s a major weekend on campus for the football program. Notre Dame is hosting a Junior Day that’s the culmination of a lot of hard work, expected to be one of the biggest turnouts in the Kelly era, with a guest list from coast-to-coast.

The program’s official Twitter account pointed out that prospects from 16 different states will be on campus to watch Saturday’s practice and take a closer look at campus.

Multiple reports have up to 30 prospects setting foot on campus, a gigantic number that’s essentially turning the middle of March into a flagship weekend. With over two-thirds of those prospects already holding Irish offers, and a few more likely to earn them this weekend, this could be a jumpstart to a recruiting class that already counts four commitments in the class of 2017.

If you’re looking at a headliner for the class, you might want to consider Texas quarterback Avery Davis. The second high-profile signal-caller to visit this week (Hendon Hooker of North Carolina was in South Bend on Sunday and Monday), Davis and blue-chip teammate Charleston Rambo are in town, with many thinking that Davis could be the centerpiece of a class that has the potential for a highly-touted group.

There’s also a slew of talented defenders set to arrive. Four-star linebacker Davis Adams of Pittsburgh returns, and commits to other major programs—cornerback and USC verbal Thomas Graham as well as Ohio State commit DT Haskell Garrett—are giving Notre Dame a look as well.

We’ll keep you updated on any news breaking over the weekend.

 

Spring Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs for a 26-yard gain against the USC Trojans in the first half of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Have a question about spring practice? Drop it below or find me on Twitter @KeithArnold.

Irish plans for rebuilt offensive line coming along nicely

McGlinchey
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Brian Kelly may not have made any official decision on the move of Mike McGlinchey to left tackle. But if Harry Hiestand’s rebuilt front five looks the way the Irish staff wants, it’ll likely feature McGlinchey on the left side with Quenton Nelson and three new starters lined up next to each other.

With only one practice in the books, Kelly discussed what he thinks will be his starting five come September, and it appears that junior center Sam Mustipher is going to get first crack at the job. After serving as Nick Martin’s backup in 2015, Mustipher was all but penciled into the lineup, a potential building block as the search for the right side comes into focus.

“I think you’re going see at least with McGlinchey, Nelson and Mustipher, that’s going be a pretty consistent thing,” Kelly said Wednesday. “Then on the right side there’s really three guys that are competing for two positions, so we’re going to have some really good consistency there. So I think we’re going to come out of this with really a good rotation.”

Those three guys are senior Colin McGovern, senior Hunter Bivin and junior Alex Bars, with Bars still not all the way back from an ankle injury that ended his 2015 season in October against USC. That silver lining of that injury is that it has allowed the Irish staff to take a closer look at McGovern and Bivin, two seniors getting their first legitimate chance at playing time after three seasons as backups.

Bivin’s best home is tackle. After bouncing around the line he served as the primary backup to Ronnie Stanley last season and could be capable of moving into the starting lineup in McGlinchey’s old job. But Bars has the talent to play outside as well, though he might begin his spring at guard, where he started two games last season in place of Nelson. McGovern is another program body who has paid his dues and shown some versatility. He now has a chance to see the field, Steve Elmer’s retirement opening up a window.

It’s not just a veteran presence Kelly and Hiestand are looking for. Expect incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer to get a long look. Tristen Hoge, who impressed Kelly with a 30-inch vertical leap—the best Kelly has seen from an offensive lineman since former star Joe Staley. While Hoge doesn’t look like he’ll be the team’s center (the only natural center recruited by this staff), he’s getting plenty of reps at guard as well.

“I think you’re throwing Hoge in the mix there where he’s the new guy, but he’s not that new to the group,” Kelly said, acknowledging that this is the second spring in the rising sophomore’s career. “I feel pretty good that three out of the five guys know each other really well.”

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Kelly also discussed the move of former guard John Montelus to the defensive line, talking through some of the logic behind putting the rising senior in the trenches.

“He’s one of our most powerful players, and there wasn’t really light at the end of the tunnel for him on the offensive line,” Kelly said. “We just felt like he could be a guy who at least could play a shade and give us some strong play inside, he’s a mature kid. Just more depth for us as we continue to develop the younger players. An older guy who is mature, who we can count on to do some things for us,  specific things—we’re not going to ask him to do a lot—but we know the job can get done.”

Montelus’ move might be a direct response to some of the struggles Notre Dame had in the run game, specifically in short yardage and goal line situations. He could also be some nice protection to some undersized but athletic linebackers, much more capable of running down a ball carrier with a 310-pound boulder eating up blockers.

 

Spring Practice Video Breakdown: Day One

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 31: Torii Hunter Jr. #16 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass and is tackled by Avery Williams #2 of the Temple Owls on October 31, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Temple Owls 24-20. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Our friends at Fighting Irish Media had cameras rolling during day one of spring practice. They put together a highlight reel from the day’s work.

Let’s over-analyze it!

* Play one features Torii Hunter Jr. connecting with Malik Zaire, a pretty throw put perfectly between the underneath coverage from Nick Coleman and a late-arriving safety (Nicco Fertitta, maybe?).

Hunter’s emergence this spring will be interesting to watch. If you’re listening, it appears that he heads into the season as a presumed starter. That makes sense when you look at the departures, but it’s also a huge show of faith in a receiver who has yet to make an impact.

Things going for Hunter: His speed, for one. I certainly didn’t think the rising senior had 4.4 jets, but maybe that’s a product of not seeing him put in a position to use them.

* That’s Chris Finke welcoming Devin Studstill to college football. Even the walk-ons can burn you, Devin!

That’s not to say that Finke hasn’t been impressive. Hailing from the same high school that produced Malik Zaire, Finke caught Brian Kelly’s eye last fall, even earning some press conference mention as a guy who was sure-handed enough to be trusted in the punt return game.

Finke blows by Studstill, who was caught flat-footed, but then does a less-than spectacular job of transitioning from catch to run, hitting the ground instead of striding into the end zone.

Pete Sampson tweeted that he thinks Finke’s days as a walk-on aren’t for long. I’m in agreement, and maybe sooner than later if there’s an open spot or two in the 85 this fall.

* Everybody’s got their eyes on Nyles Morgan this spring. The heir apparent at middle linebacker shows some versatility, breaking up a DeShone Kizer pass to tight end Durham Smythe.

* Myles Boykin runs a hitch in front of fellow sophomore Ashton White. Both guys are intriguing young players who could start seeing some time on the field this season after redshirting. White was listed as a safety on the spring roster, but is playing cornerback here. That’s likely a sign that he’s got the type of positional flexibility that’ll help him find the field if needed.

* Pretty nifty play by cornerback Nick Watkins, who breaks on the ball from Kizer to sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown. Watkins gets a hand on the pass, tips it into the air where it’s intercepted by Drue Tranquill.

Yep, that’s right. Tranquill—a rehab freak—is out there running 7-on-7 less than six months after tearing his ACL, the second time in two seasons. The addition of Tranquill and Shaun Crawford back into the secondary is huge, two difference-makers who could immediately elevate the play of the unit.

Worth noting senior linebacker James Onwualu out there with Nyles Morgan and Asmar Bilal — the closest thing to the first string as we’ll get on Day One. That’s where most people want to see Watkins, running with the starters and making plays.

It’s 7-on-7, so nobody should blow their stack just yet, but it’s a nice benefit of getting a start in the Fiesta Bowl and going into spring ball with momentum.

* Another nice breakup by Morgan. It’s as if the people cutting this video knew Irish fans were worried about Morgan’s ability to play well in coverage. (Weird!)

* We just heard about Corey Holmes‘ 4.39 forty and 41-inch vertical. Seeing him hit the ground for a 4-yard gain on a quick slant from Malik Zaire does nothing to get us excited about that breakaway speed, but it might be the first pass we’ve seen Holmes catch.

After two seasons buried on the bench, it’ll be interesting to see how much Holmes can contribute. He’s always reminded me a little bit of TJ Jones, mostly because he’s a smooth athlete with nice speed, but also because physically there’s nothing overly intimidating about him. But as the personnel on this roster (especially among the skill players) has improved, it just takes time to break through, especially if you’re lacking a dominant trait.

* So THAT’s the Torii Hunter that has the coaching staff excited. Running under a beautiful deep ball from Kizer, Hunter torches rising sophomore Nick Coleman on a go-route.

Anybody worried that the vertical passing game was going to leave the offensive arsenal with Will Fuller gone can relax. There are plenty of guys who can get behind opponents, especially with the running game the Irish will likely feature.

* The president, Corey Robinson, makes a nice catch on a dig route. Another pretty ball by Kizer and nice concentration by Robinson, making a tough grab look smooth.

* That’s White stepping in and breaking up a pass to Finke, with Zaire throwing the deep flag route into man coverage.