Notre Dame

Malik Zaire could be a difference-maker as a graduate transfer


Malik Zaire could be a difference-maker as a graduate transfer

Malik Zaire always deserved to start at Notre Dame but was the victim of circumstance over the last two years.

The Kettering, Ohio, left-hander torched Texas’ secondary in Notre Dame’s season opener in 2015, throwing as many incompletions as touchdowns (three) for 313 yards in that game. His 86-percent completion rate was — and still is — the second-highest in program history. He made every throw asked of him, and while he wasn’t effective on the ground, his strong showing in the Music City Bowl a year earlier against LSU (96 yards and a touchdown) was proof that aspect of his game would come around, too.

“He clearly has the ability to throw the football as much as we would need him to throw it and throw it accurately, which he did tonight,” coach Brian Kelly said after that 2015 game against Texas. “Vertically, down the field, I thought he pushed the ball down the field accurately. He threw precision routes on dig routes. So we knew what he was capable of. I think he put it together tonight, and he's got room to grow.”

Kelly said Zaire’s running ability made him a ruthlessly effective play-action quarterback, likening those plays to “stealing at times.” By all accounts, Zaire look primed to be the next great quarterback in Notre Dame history.

Then he fractured and dislocated his ankle against Virginia, ending the season for which he’d been waiting two and a half years after just seven quarters. DeShone Kizer quickly went from an unknown backup to a transcendent talent who could be among the first players picked in the 2017 NFL Draft.

And so Zaire never started at quarterback again (he technically started against Duke as a wide receiver). Kelly’s gamble to have Kizer and Zaire split time to begin the 2016 season backfired, and Zaire was outwardly upset about the arrangement.

“I handle my job like a pro, I practice like a pro,” Zaire said in August shortly after Kelly announced his two-quarterback plan. “You get cards dealt to you that have not always been in your favor. The most important thing is continue to do the thing that you work on and be a pro in that aspect.”

After being benched early in the third quarter against Texas, Zaire’s remaining action was limited: Two bad snaps as a wide receiver against Duke, a few unsuccessful snaps in relief of Kizer against Stanford and garbage time here and there. Zaire threw his first touchdown of the 2016 season on Notre Dame’s last drive of the year, finding Equanimeous St. Brown for a 15-yard touchdown against USC.

When Zaire did enter games, he often appeared unprepared or disengaged. Against Virginia Tech, when he had to sub in for a banged-up Kizer for the final 15 or so seconds, he let the clock run down far too long before snapping, then didn’t throw a Hail Mary toward the end zone as time expired (to be fair, Kelly took the blame for that, saying he and his coaches didn’t adequately prepare Zaire for the situation).

But Zaire offered this quote in the spring of 2014 about how he struggled with redshirting during his freshman season: ”I always say, you take the lion out of the wild and put him in the zoo for a while, he forgets how to be a lion.”

It’s hard to blame Zaire if he felt wrong or had his focus on where to go after graduating in December and becoming a de facto college free agent. He probably should’ve played earlier in 2014 as Everett Golson’s tenure in South Bend came to an end with a rash of turnovers, and he likely would’ve been Notre Dame’s starting quarterback any year of Kelly’s seven-year tenure outside of 2015 and 2016. That’s how good Kizer is.

Zaire, as expected and as first reported by Irish Illustrated, is on his way out and will meet with Kelly on Wednesday to be granted his release to leave Notre Dame as a graduate transfer (Zaire, who enrolled early, is on track to graduate in December). Even with Kizer potentially bolting for the NFL, there was little chance Zaire was going to stick around — especially given he wouldn’t even have been guaranteed to get his old job back thanks to the presence of Brandon Wimbush.

But whatever program gets Zaire will likely get an intensely motivated explosive playmaker, the kind of guy who could step in to a program as a one-year solution at quarterback and lead a push for a New Year’s Six bowl bid or even a spot in the College Football Playoff. After all he’s been through, he doesn’t deserve to compete for another job, so expect him to land somewhere that has an obvious opening at quarterback.

While Zaire’s time at Notre Dame didn’t end the way he wanted it to, he’ll have a chance elsewhere to leave the college level on his own terms.

“It’s just a call of greatness,” Zaire said in August, his last time meeting with the media. “Anybody that can finish their story on a positive note is on some climb toward greatness. I think my love for the game is beyond Notre Dame, my vested interest in getting better as a quarterback is what’s really important for me, my vested interest in becoming a championship quarterback is what’s really important to me. So this is not the first time or the last time that you’re going to deal with situations that aren’t in your favor. So continuing for me to treat things like a professional and handle things as they come, I think that makes me a stronger persona and it plays out how it plays out.”

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.

I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.