Malik Zaire, J.R. Tavai

Dilfer praises Malik Zaire at Elite 11

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Camp counselor or participant? Those watching Malik Zaire at The Opening were struggling to figure that out.

With some of the nation’s top recruits heading to Nike HQ this week for the Elite 11 quarterback camp and the prep combine The Opening, Zaire returned to his quarterbacking roots to serve as a camp counselor.

It wasn’t too long ago that Zaire was an option quarterback looking to make a name for himself as a camper. He did that—nearly winning the competition, and making quite an impression on Elite 11 head coach and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer.

Zaire was back working with Dilfer in Oregon, now serving as a counselor. And Irish Illustrated’s Anna Hickey caught up with Dilfer, who sung Zaire’s praises after watching him compete and coach during the first days of camp.

Dilfer wasn’t shy with his words, when talking about the quarterback’s work ethic.

“He’s a machine. He’ll go until he dies,” Dilfer said, before telling Hickey that he’s already spoken with Notre Dame quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford about the new starting quarterback.

Zaire’s holding his own as a thrower as well. First-round prospects like Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg and USC’s Cody Kessler at also in Beaverton. And according to Dilfer, Zaire’s capable of throwing the ball with those two pocket passers as well.

Here’s Dilfer when asked by Hickey about his evolution as a passer.

“He’s so much more advanced as a passer. Not that he wasn’t before, but I remember getting him from high school, and everybody was saying he’s just a runner who can throw a little bit. And anyone who’s still saying that, I think it’s crazy. He is going toe-to-toe with (Penn State quarterback) Christian Hackenberg, (USC quarterback) Cody Kessler, with all of these supposed passers, and he’s ripping it around as good as anybody. I think Malik has the curse like a lot of college quarterbacks these days that they’re so dynamic as runners that they get devalued as passers. But I think Malik is an exceptional passer.”

Zaire hasn’t had a chance to establish himself as a college quarterback like the other counselors working. But for those in Oregon watching Zaire give back to the camp that helped establish him as a rising senior in high school, Zaire’s leadership is apparent, as is his comfort level now that he’s ascended to Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Sheldon Day

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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One of the most important pieces of the offseason came when Sheldon Day decided to return to South Bend for his senior season. Day made the choice after a well-chronicled re-recruitment, with Notre Dame’s coaching staff and athletic director Jack Swarbrick laying out for Day the benefits of returning, including a school-supplied insurance policy.

From the outside, the benefits are obvious. For the Irish, they retain a team captain and their most versatile defensive lineman. For Day, he gets a chance to prove he can stay on the field and produce at the level expected of him—something the NFL still questions.

Notre Dame believes Day has the athleticism and ability to draw Aaron Donald comparisons—a lofty standard that Day hasn’t come close to reaching in his three seasons in South Bend. But with a year left and another strong offseason, Day will get a chance to elevate his draft status and enter the NFL prepared to succeed.

Let’s take a closer look at one of the Irish’s most experienced players.

 

SHELDON DAY
6’2″, 285 lbs.
Senior, No. 91, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Notre Dame won out on Day over schools like LSU and Michigan, something that doesn’t happen all that often when it comes to defensive linemen. He was a four-star recruit, a Top-100 player by various recruiting rankings, and early enrolled.

Day also renewed Notre Dame’s interest in Indianapolis public school athletes, something this Irish staff deserves credit for in reopening that pipeline.  While Day lacked prototype size or length a la an Aaron Lynch or Stephon Tuitt, he walked onto campus and contributed to one of Notre Dame’s best defenses in school history immediately.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2012): Played in all 13 games, making 23 tackles, two sacks and 3.5 TFLs. Collected his sacks against Michigan and Michigan State, both schools that offered Day. Had five tackles against Wake Forest.

Sophomore Season (2013): Played in 11 games, starting just eight after beginning in the opening day starting lineup. Made 33 tackles, with 21 of them being solo stops and 5.5 TFLs (0.5 of those were sacks). Had three TFLs against Pitt and seven tackles against BYU, closing the season on a high note after suffering an ankle sprain early against Purdue.

Junior Season (2014): Started 11 games before a knee injury limited him for the regular season’s final two games. Made 40 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, one sack and nine QB hurries. Named Notre Dame’s Moose Krause Lineman of the Year.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This projection went up in smoke when the bodies started dropping like flies, starting with the preseason retirement of Tony Springmann.

I expect a dominant season from Day, who might be one of the Irish’s best five players. Without fully understanding how Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder plan to attack opponents, projecting stats could be tough. But after two-gapping and holding the line of attack, expect Day to use his elite block destruction skills and quickness to put up stats in a defense that’ll find ways to pressure quarterbacks.

From a leadership perspective, Day’s experience necessitates him stepping to the forefront on a defensive line that’s filled with mostly potential and hypothetical fits. And while the experience behind he and Jones at defensive tackle is very dicey (only Tony Springmann, coming off a major knee injury, has any), he’ll be asked to play three downs and help rush the passer.

Still, I tend to think Day will be the best player on a surprising defensive line. A unit that will find a way to be more productive than the group some thought could be the best starting group in school history.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

You’ve got to think that it’s only a matter of time before Day breaks out. He’s a player who consistently has been talked up by this coaching staff—a group that isn’t known for pom poms when the player isn’t deserving.

But it’s Day’s senior season. For all his ability and explosiveness he’s coming off a junior season with just one sack. So while 7.5 tackles-for-loss and nine quarterback hurries are nice, they’re hardly elite numbers that go along with a national awards watchlist player.

But lined up next to Jarron Jones, Day will have his chances. And with some leaky offensive lines on the Irish schedule, it’s time for the Irish captain to put down some game tape that shows what the Irish staff has been seeing in practice.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

For two seasons, Day played in a system that wasn’t great for an undersized defensive end asked to hold the point of attack. Last year, Day shifted inside to a position that better suited him physically, but he was a step slow on a dozen plays that likely would change the way we view him as a player.

When Notre Dame’s staff visited with Day before he made his decision to return, they talked about the little things that Day would need to do to be viewed as a top-level NFL prospect. They included measureables—explosive training numbers that Day will likely hit when he goes to Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine. But they also likely included stats and big plays that come with that ability, something Day’s still working to achieve.

Ultimately, I’m having a hard time saying with certainty that Day’s breakout is inevitable. Health is a tricky thing and Day’s struggled to stay on two feet. But if Notre Dame’s defensive line surrounding Day plays up to their ability, there’s no reason to think Day can’t turn in a double-digit TFL season, and do a better job of getting after the quarterback. If he does, the Irish defense will be the group we saw in the first half of last season, not the MASH unit filled with leak from last November.

 

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

Offseason Q&A: Navy

Keenan Reynolds, Joe Nauert, James Kelly
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As it does annually, Notre Dame’s game with Navy is a terrifying proposition. While the Irish haven’t lost to Ken Niumatalolo’s team since 2010, the Midshipmen have pushed the Irish to the max—and the Navy hangover is beginning to be a thing.

Last year, the Irish beat Navy by 10, but lost the following week. The year before Notre Dame beat the Midshipmen by a touchdown, but lost the next Saturday to Pitt. “The body blow theory,” coined by Bruce Feldman, is picking up steam, and it’s not just a Notre Dame thing, but rather the collateral damage of playing Navy, a very difficult game that garners little national respect.

Gene Wang of the Washington Post gets us up to speed on the Midshipmen and what Notre Dame fans can expect from their annual battle.

 

Let’s start here: Even though Notre Dame has won four-straight against Navy, it’s still a game that terrifies Irish fans, and likely the coaching staff as well.

Do most Navy opponents feel this way? Or is this some kind of Notre Dame thing?

Navy scares the heck out of most opponents because the triple option is nearly impossible to prepare for during the course of a season. With the athletes Navy has executing the offense flawlessly, the triple option is almost impossible to stop too. Just ask Urban Meyer, who said as much following a game in which the Midshipmen played Ohio State toe-to-toe in the first half last season.

 

To stop Navy you need to stop Keenan Reynolds, now a senior and a long, long, long way from the kid who looked a little lost in Ireland to kick off the 2012 season.

We’ve seen some very good Navy option quarterbacks. But is it hyperbole to put Reynolds at the top of this group? What’s the ceiling on his 2015 senior season? Dark-horse Heisman contender?

Keenan Reynolds is without question the best triple option quarterback in Navy history. He holds every meaningful scoring record and could have been a dark-horse Heisman contender last year had he not suffered a series of ailments that were nagging all season. Still, he posted record-setting numbers and is poised to be even better this season assuming he stays healthy, so a dark-horse Heisman run isn’t out of the question.

 

This seems like an evergreen question. But for as good as the Navy offense should be, what’s the state of Buddy Green’s defense? If Navy’s blueprint for victory needs to include a few stops and a forced turnover, does this group look like one that can make that happen?

With Notre Dame likely bringing a heavy dose of ground game and a veteran offensive line, will Navy’s rebuilt from seven be able to hold up?

There’s frequently turnover along Navy’s front seven, but this year it’s especially pronounced at linebacker with three starters gone, including both outside positions. Buddy Green always seems to find a way to patch together a defense that most often bends but doesn’t break. This year will be another test for certain, and at this point, it doesn’t seem as if Notre Dame would encounter much resistance running the ball.

 

Notre Dame’s defense imploded after the Navy game, with Joe Schmidt lost for the year with a serious ankle injury and the blocking scheme of the Midshipmen taking a toll on an already beaten up defensive line.

Ask an Irish fan about Navy football and it takes about 10 seconds to hear about the cut blocks. As we watch the sport try everything to make it a safer game, do you see this fundamental component of the triple-option offense ever being eliminated?

Cut blocking is a vital part of triple option because Navy isn’t going to beat teams with size and strength, and it’s not going away anytime soon. The Midshipmen win at the line of scrimmage using leverage, not brute force. I found it interesting last season when Brian Kelly was asked about cut blocking, and his response was basically to stop crying and deal with it. Very well put.

 

Ken Niumatalolo feels like he’s been at Navy forever. He’s shown some great coaching chops, and has built on the impressive foundation Paul Johnson laid. Is he a lifer at Navy? Do you think there’s a job that could entice him to leave?

Niumatalolo is a Navy lifer simply because there are very few other places where he’d be able to implement the triple option as well as it runs at the academy. He has said repeatedly how much he enjoys living in Annapolis and that once he leaves Navy, he’ll retire to Hawaii. He already is the school’s all-time victories leader and has a blueprint for winning that would be difficult if not impossible to replicate elsewhere. It would be shocking if he accepted a position at another school.

 

It’s still too soon to know how a team will be next year. But for Irish fans used to seeing Navy each season, can you ballpark the expectations for the 2015 Midshipmen?

The offense has potential to be even more explosive than usual given a healthy Reynolds and what could be a more wide-open passing game. As difficult as it may be to envision, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Navy tries to stretch the field with more throws to WR Jamir Tillman, who is 6-feet-4, 206 pounds and can separate downfield. The defense remains a question, but the Midshipmen can win shootouts if necessary. Nine wins is a realistic expectation.

Irish A-to-Z: Scott Daly

Purdue v Notre Dame
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Anonymous long-snappers are the best kind of long snappers. And for the better part of two seasons, Scott Daly was exactly that.

But when Notre Dame’s field goal battery started to go up in smoke, Daly’s role in the machine started to get a second look, definitely not the ideal for a guy who makes a living making no major mistakes.

After a rocky 2014, the Irish hope to have stabilized their battery with the move of DeShone Kizer to holder. But with rookie kicker Justin Yoon about the take over the placekicking duties and second-year punter Tyler Newsome getting his first experience, the special teams won’t lack interest.

Let’s take a closer look at the guy who starts the process.

 

SCOTT DALY
6’1.5″, 250 lbs.
Senior, No. 61, LS

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Daly received multiple scholarship offers before choosing Notre Dame, telling you pretty much all you need to know about a roster position that is often handled by walk-ons or cross-training offensive linemen.

Daly was national long snapper of the year according to Chris Rubio and 247 had him ranked second. He chose the Irish over Northwestern and a handful of other schools that offered scholarships.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2011): Did not see action. Redshirted.

Sophomore Season (2012): Played in all 13 games, snapping for field goals and punts. Made two special teams tackles as well.

Junior Season: Played in all 13 games, snapping for punts, field goals and extra points.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

There was no skating under the radar in 2014, though we’ll get to why we don’t think the issue was Daly’s.

The only time you’ll notice Daly is when he’s not doing his job. So for Daly’s sake, here’s hoping he’s a guy that skates below the radar for the next three seasons. It may be redundant, but making sure your scholarship long snapper can serve as your long snapper in every phase is important.

That wasn’t always the case with Cowart, who lost some snaps as a junior when he served only as a short-snapper, and also suffered a self-inflicted hand injury that cost him four games. It takes a unique guy to make it as a specialist in major college or NFL football. You’d be hard-pressed to say you have an idea what Daly’s ceiling is. But the stability the Irish have now feels like a long way from Notre Dame’s coaches pulling Johnny Crowther out of the dorm leagues to snap.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Daly has proven himself worthy of a scholarship, especially if he spends four seasons snapping cleanly. And the fact Notre Dame’s recruiting machine includes a long-snapper in the 2016 class, they still clearly believe in Daly.

But outside of that, it’s too hard to predict if Daly will be one of the lucky few niche players who turn snapping into a long NFL career.

(Other than that, we’re talking about a long snapper. This is outside of my area of expertise, minus “good snap, bad snap,” though serving as a part-time holder in high school makes it sound like I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

It’s worth noting that on Daly’s official UND.com profile, they take great pains to point out that Daly “executed quality snaps on all 52 of his point after attempts, 24 field goal attempts and 51 punts.” (Doing the math, that’s every snap.)

It’s hard to interpret that in any way other than, “NOT HIS FAULT.”

Daly will need to continue that consistency, especially when every other piece of the special teams puzzle will be a new one. So while there’ll likely be a few rocky periods to 2015, expect the battery not to be the problem.

 

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

OL Parker Boudreaux commits to Notre Dame

Rivals
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Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class added a big commitment from Florida offensive lineman Parker Boudreaux today. One of the country’s top interior linemen chose Notre Dame in a online video done in collaboration with Bleacher Report.

Boudreaux, out of Bishop Moore high school in Orlando, chose Notre Dame over Clemson, Oklahoma, and Florida. He had offers from programs like Alabama, Auburn, Miami and Ohio State — and in the B/R video claimed the most offers in the nation for an offensive lineman.

At 6-foot-4, 290 pounds, Boudreaux already looks the part of a college football player. And after choosing to pull a school bus in his commitment video, it’s pretty clear he takes lifting weights seriously (along with mugging for the camera).

Feelings about the hype video aside, it’s a big catch for the Irish. Harry Hiestand has added another outstanding offensive lineman to the fold, reloading an interior that’ll lose Nick Martin after 2015 and Steve Elmer after 2016.

Boudreaux is Notre Dame’s 11th commitment, a move that came quickly after Boudreaux and his family visited South Bend. He joins Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer up front.