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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

 

Butler makes surprise ascent to third cornerback role

Purdue v Notre Dame
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With the injury to freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford, an unlikely candidate has emerged as the frontrunner for the No. 3 cornerback job: Devin Butler. The junior, who struggled mightily at times last season after he was forced into action, looked to have lost his grip on that spot this spring after strong work by sophomore Nick Watkins.

But Brian Kelly updated the local media on Friday with some preliminary plans after the loss of Crawford. And Butler’s impressive work during fall camp pushed him into the Irish’s third down plans, with KeiVarae Russell shifting inside to cover slot receivers.

If that move comes as a surprise, it should. It wasn’t what the coaching staff expected, either.

“If we were handicapping the corners, we would not have thought that he’d be our third corner,” Kelly said candidly. “He’s had a really good camp. He plays with so much more confidence. Speed. He’s a different player than he was last year.”

That a third-year player gets the nod over a freshman like Nick Coleman or Watkins shouldn’t be all that surprising, especially to open the season. But Butler’s late season struggles were tough to miss, especially taking some very bad snaps against USC.

But Butler’s ascent to the first-man-in at outside corner pushes Matthias Farley into a role likely similar to the one he played last season. It also keeps young players like Watkins and Coleman in a supplemental position—earned after solid camps by both corners.

But more importantly, the move of Butler to the outside on third down allows Russell to impact the game more from the inside, allowing him to do a variety of things from the inside.

“KeiVarae gives us the ability to play man coverage,” Kelly said, all but acknowledging some of the struggles that Farley might have with smaller speed receivers. “We can blitz him and we can do a lot more with him and we feel like we’re still solid at corner with the kind of camp that those corners have had.”

Irish A-to-Z: Justin Yoon

Yoon
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No freshman will be tossed into the deep end quicker than kicker Justin Yoon. Essentially Notre Dame’s sole option to kick field goals in 2015, Brian Kelly and the Irish coaching staff are putting a ton of the shoulders of a true freshman, who’ll be asked to fix a three-point operation that went haywire down the stretch after the Irish’s all-time field goal leader Kyle Brindza lost his mojo.

The good news? Early reports on Yoon are excellent. He’s got a consistent stroke with stress-free mechanics and has been remarkably accurate through all of fall camp. The bad news? None of that matters until Yoon trots onto the field against Texas and attempts a kick that counts for real.

Let’s take a look at the Irish freshman who holds the Irish’s special teams’ fate in his hands.

 

JUSTIN YOON
5’9.5″, 185 lbs.
Freshman, No. 19, K

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Yoon was an Under Armour All-American, the No. 1 kicker in the country, per 247 Sports and Kohl’s Kicking Camp.

In addition to the Notre Dame offer, Yoon had scholarship options from Texas A&M, Northwestern and Boston College.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Seeing Yoon kick (briefly) in person, I saw some of what Brian Kelly was talking about when he raved about Yoon’s leg strength and operation early in training camp. He made a 46-yarder that would’ve been good from the mid-50s and was consistently making everything we saw him attempt last Tuesday.

Of course, I’m not a kicking expert (I just play one on the internet), so any praise of a freshman specialist needs to be backed up on the field. But it’s clear that the Irish staff believes they landed a stud in Yoon, and if he’s capable of making the ordinary kicks (from 40-yards and in), this offense will be just fine.

Any time you’re projecting a guy to be a four-year starter, you’ve got to like his upside. That’s what Kelly and the Irish staff think they have in Yoon, who’ll spend the next four seasons connected with Tyler Newsome as the Irish’s post-Brindza specialists.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I’d love to reserve the right to pen this after the Texas game, but if Yoon gets off to a quick start against the Longhorns, I think he’ll ride that momentum to a solid first season. If nerves get to him early? It’s going to be a rocky road.

A few datapoints to suggest that the moment won’t be too big for Yoon: First, his ability to thrive under pressure at the Under Armour game. Secondly, his low-maintenance mechanics. When I watched him kick, I thought of a low-handicap, senior golfer. He has a simple swing that finds a lot of fairways. Lastly, I like that Yoon’s an athlete, not just a kicker. He was a high school hockey player, a sport that points to a variety of skills, so he’s not just some drone specialist with no versatility.

All in all, there’s no getting around the gamble the Irish are placing on Yoon. But you’d be hard pressed to find a better young prospect to put your hopes on.

 

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

Irish A-to-Z: Brandon Wimbush

St.Peter's Prep signing day ceremony
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When Brandon Wimbush enrolled in school this summer, he became the latest blue-chip quarterback to join the Notre Dame football program with the burden of great expectations. The New Jersey state player of the year, Wimbush would be wise to forget about the prep accolades, instead focusing his efforts on learning the playbook, with the third-string quarterback closer to the field than you’d ideally want.

Blessed with elite speed and a powerful throwing arm, Wimbush has all the tools you’d ask for in a dual-threat quarterback prospect. But Wimbush’s on-field education, with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford serving as his professor, is only just starting. Learning the ABCs of the position while trying to harness the talents that make him an incredibly intriguing prospect, Wimbush’s Notre Dame journey begins now.

 

BRANDON WIMBUSH
6’1″ 216 lbs.
Freshman, No. 12, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Wimbush was a Top 100 player by any measurement, an Under Armour All-American, New Jersey’s player of the year, a first-team MaxPreps All-American, the Tri-State Player of the Year and a New Jersey State Champion. 

Wimbush was committed to Penn State but flipped to the Irish later in the process. He had offers from Alabama, LSU, Ohio State and Stanford among others.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

I’m not sure you could ask for a better upside than the one Wimbush possesses. He’s got elite speed, fast enough to be a wideout. He’s got arm strength that makes every throw in the playbook possible. And all reports point to a kid that’s a natural leader, a perfect addition to a recruiting class that’s proving itself to be very good.

Wimbush is raw, he’s still learning proper footwork and has spent training camp drilling in things that could be second nature to some more experienced quarterbacks (especially those that have been regulars on the summer camp scene). But from a raw materials perspective, Wimbush is everything you want in a QB recruit, probably Notre Dame’s best since signing Gunner Kiel, with some arguing Wimbush is a better prospect than the former five-star quarterback.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

In a perfect world, Wimbush stays on the sideline this season, saving a year of eligibility while remaining incredibly involved in the process. While some wondered how long it’d take Wimbush to overtake DeShone Kizer in the depth chart, the reality of the situation is that Kizer’s accuracy and advanced knowledge base make way more sense as a No. 2 than a promising freshman.

Of course, one injury to Malik Zaire could change all of that. And if Kizer slides into the starting lineup, you’ve got to think that Wimbush will be activated as well. It’d be logical for him to immediately get an offensive package, something that utilizes his speed and (after a healthy dose of the running game) would also allow him to throw over the top of a defense.

Brian Kelly’s preference is to always keep a redshirt on a freshman quarterback. He acknowledged that in the past and while he hasn’t specifically laid out his plans for Wimbush, it makes sense here, too. With Zaire on track to be the Irish quarterback for the next three seasons, the battle for the next quarterback job should be a very interesting one, especially with Kizer showing well this camp and 2017 quarterback Hunter Johnson still in the crosshairs.

 

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

Even without Jones, expectations clear for Gilmore’s DL

Blue & Gold Illustrated
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Keith Gilmore‘s move to Notre Dame reunites him with Brian VanGorder, two football lifers who have known each other since they shared a huddle as players. After a long coaching career, Gilmore also reunites with Brian Kelly, a coach he’s worked for at Grand Valley, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and now Notre Dame.

After spending time at Illinois with Ron Zook and the past two seasons at North Carolina, Gilmore is not just getting reacquainted with Kelly and VanGorder, but also reuniting with Mike Denbrock (who Gilmore worked with at Grand Valley), Mike Elston (who was at Central Michigan and Cincinnati as well), and strength coach Paul Longo (who was also a college teammate). So while finding his way around South Bend might have been a challenge, it’s certainly been easy once he’s made it to The Gug.

On Tuesday, Gilmore gave us a look into the work he’s been doing with a young and emerging defensive line, and talked about some of the things we should expect from the group. As everybody else has done, Gilmore joined the chorus praising Jerry Tillery. While he skirted around any declarations or predictions, it’s clear that Tillery is no ordinary freshman.

“I’ve had some good freshman, but the combination of the size and flexibility that Jerry has is a little bit different than some of the guys I’ve had,” Gilmore said. “I have not had a freshman with that sort of length and that sort of athleticism like Jerry.”

Gilmore praised not just the physical traits of Tillery, but also the mental side of the game. And he thinks that the time Tillery spent as an offensive lineman in high school has helped him adjust more quickly to the college game.

“He understands football. Being an ex-offensive lineman he knows some of the blocking schemes and the things that are happening to him and he’s able to anticipate where he should go and what he should do,” Gilmore explained. “So it’s been a blessing for him and for me that he’s had that offensive line experience.”

Anchoring the unit is senior Sheldon Day. While expectations for the senior are sky high, Gilmore talked about putting an emphasis on rushing the passer, and how Day’s final season in South Bend could benefit from the offseason work they’ve done as they adjust not just techniques but the thought process of being a pass rusher.

“Part of it was a mindset. Just having a mindset that we’re going to rush the passer and putting a lot of attention and focus on that,” Gilmore said. “I think that he’s had the skill-set all along, but just refining it and making sure [pass rushing] is a priority for us, more than anything.”

Gilmore has worked with his share of talented defensive linemen, most recently North Carolina’s Kareem Martin, who put together a monster senior season (21.5 TFLs, including 11.5 sacks), propelling him to a third round selection. If Day wants to make noise at the next level, it’s clear that he’s going to have to find an added dimension in the pass rush, as well as make more plays behind the line of scrimmage. Gilmore understands that aspect of the game, especially as it equates to the next level.

“Especially those with pro aspirations, that’s what you have to do. If you can’t rush the passer and you can’t get vertical and be a penetrator and create havoc, it’s really hard to play at the next level,” Gilmore said.

That’s been a teaching emphasis this spring and fall, with Notre Dame’s defensive linemen having to continue to learn a different philosophy while playing in VanGorder’s system. And that type of technique has been a mainstay in Gilmore’s teaching arsenal, a big reason why he’s in South Bend working with VanGorder.

When asked about the change between the Irish defensive front in the previous scheme compared to what it was now, Gilmore helped explain the transition his personnel was working through.

“They were head up on guys and converting their pass rushes as opposed to getting in gaps and teeing it off and letting it fly,” Gilmore said, talking specifics about the difference between the two-gap philosophy deployed and the one now being utilized. “Coach VanGorder, having that ex-pro experience, that’s what he’s used to and that’s what he wanted. And I think in year two, guys have a better understanding of what the expectation is for what the defense is and what is involved.”