Notre Dame

With Malik Zaire in the spotlight, Notre Dame begins push for playoff


With Malik Zaire in the spotlight, Notre Dame begins push for playoff

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In a lot of ways, Malik Zaire is what Everett Golson wasn’t at Notre Dame.

That’s both a positive and a negative. Zaire doesn’t have the clean, precise throwing mechanics of Golson, who could drop 20-yard fades into the hands of receivers with ease. Having only played about six quarters at the college level, Zaire doesn’t have the experience Golson will bring into his first start for Florida State on Saturday.

But Zaire brings a certain intensity and toughness to the position Golson never did. The Kettering, Ohio left-hander is a read option whiz and a physical runner. But most importantly, he hasn’t shown anything that would indicate he’ll be prone to turning the ball over 22 times, as Golson did in 2014.

“Malik is as strong a quarterback as I’ve had in a long time,” strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo said. “He is one strong guy. He’s 199 (pounds) when he came in and he’s in the 221 area. He’ll probably play around there and he doesn’t have a whole lot of fat on him either. But he is a strong kid. He could probably play linebacker if he weren’t a quarterback.”

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Zaire is still somewhat of an unknown, though. Saturday’s season opener against Texas not only will be his first start at Notre Dame Stadium, but it’ll be his first game in which he won’t be looking over his shoulder to see if coach Brian Kelly is ready to put Golson in the game, as he did against LSU.

Still, Zaire — who’s a redshirt sophomore entering Year 3 on campus — doesn’t feel like a greenhorn.

“You can only really feel like a rookie in my opinion if you aren’t prepared, if you’re not confident in what you’re doing,” Zaire said. “That’s kind of, in my mind, a rookie mentality, where you’re unsure of things.”

Zaire has always been confident, but he’s a lot more sure of his knowledge of Notre Dame’s offense now than he was nine months ago as he prepared to start the Music City Bowl. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley said Zaire’s communication and actions are much more clear now, especially after having the entire month of August to prepare as Notre Dame’s unquestioned starter (Golson was still around in spring practice splitting first-team reps).

But not only does Zaire have a better idea of what he’s doing, Irish coaches have a better idea of his skillset and how they can use him against Texas and beyond.

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“It's a totally different Malik Zaire,” Kelly said. “A lot of it (against LSU) was first start, not sure what to expect from him. We knew that he was a young man that had the ability to do some things in the run game. Weren't sure what he could do in the passing game. We saw that certainly he was capable.”

Zaire completed 12 of 15 passes against LSU for 96 yards, showing he can be accurate and efficient largely working off an established run game. He finished the first drive of the Music City Bowl with a screen pass to Will Fuller, who darted 12 yards into the end zone (don’t be surprised if the same play leads to the same result sometime Saturday against Texas). Heading into Notre Dame’s primetime opener, Kelly said Zaire is much more in tune with his receivers now than he was in December, during spring practice or even when preseason camp opened last month.

For all the positive vibes around Zaire, though, he remains a work in progress. Kelly said Thursday he told Zaire he doesn’t have to be the reason why Notre Dame beats Texas, but he can be the reason why Notre Dame loses to Texas. That’s somewhat of a nod to Golson’s issues last year — especially against Arizona State — and also a nod to an offense that features loads of talent (Fuller, Tarean Folston, C.J. Prosise, Corey Robinson, Chris Brown, Torii Hunter Jr., etc.) and an offensive line anchored by Stanley and returning captain Nick Martin.

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It’s unfair to say Notre Dame wants Zaire to be a game manager — that’s about as backhanded a compliment as a quarterback can receive — but if he carries the ball 10-20 times and completes a good percentage of his passes, he can marry solid tangibles with perhaps his most important trait: An intensity that trickles down throughout the team. It showed up during scrimmage portions of Notre Dame’s practices in August, which offensive coordiantor/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford said had a positive impact.

“That’s when you really see the dynamic of a personality with the quarterback position and how they can galvanize the unit,” Sanford said. “And not just the offense, but that bleeds into the the team. That bleeds into the fabric of the team. Since I’ve been around this program, even if Malik might struggle in drill work, when you cut him loose and let him play 11-on-11 football and be around his guys and let him lead and let him go operate, that’s when you truly see the gravity of what his personality can bring.”

Zaire, his teammates and his coaches have built to this point for months. The Irish have the kind of talent and depth that could blossom into a playoff run this fall. And Zaire will welcome the spotlight with confidence as he embarks on his first full season as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.

“We’ve done a lot to get ready for this,” Zaire said. “Now it’s time to go out there and play.” 

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.