North Carolina v Notre Dame

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

 

Butler makes surprise ascent to third cornerback role

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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.”