Notre Dame

Notre Dame ready for the Malik Zaire era to begin


Notre Dame ready for the Malik Zaire era to begin

CULVER, Ind. — The Malik Zaire era is here.

When Notre Dame began preseason practice last week at Culver Academics 40 miles south of campus, it took the next step in handing the keys to its offense over to the left-handed junior quarterback. Expectations are high for the Irish this fall, with Sports Illustrated going so far as to put Jaylon Smith and Ronnie Stanley on its cover and predict Notre Dame will play in a College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year’s Eve.

If Notre Dame can reach its goal of securing a spot in the four-team tournament, it’ll need Zaire — who only has about six quarters of gameday experience — to engineer an offense that limits its turnovers and is lethal in the red zone.

“I’m not the new kid on the block any more,” Zaire said. “The expectations that are out there for me should be high because I have high expectations for myself.”

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The lofty expectations for Zaire in large part due to his breakout performance against LSU in December’s Music City Bowl. Making his first career start and switching in an out with Everett Golson, Zaire carried 22 times for 96 yards with a touchdown and completed 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and a score. The Irish offense battered a strong SEC West defense for 261 yards on 51 carries, didn’t turn the ball over and won the game on Kyle Brindza’s walk-off field goal. 

But Zaire’s impact went beyond his rushing and passing stats and ranged into the unquantifiable realm of leadership. For the first time since coming to campus a few weeks after Alabama blew out Notre Dame in the 2013 BCS Championship, Zaire had an opportunity to lead against LSU, and he took full advantage of it.

“He had energy, I feel like our team as a whole had energy,” wide receiver Chris Brown said. “And I feel like it trickles from the top. The quarterback trickles down to the receivers, the receivers talk to the running backs and I feel like that’s just a positive vibe that we’re feeling.”

Zaire’s ability to galvanize his teammates was a change from the reserved demeanor of Golson, who crumbled in November and would up transferring to Florida State over the summer. The quarterback competition between Zaire and Golson coach Brian Kelly may have wanted was never viable, not with Golson holding the ability to leave as a one-year graduate transfer for a powerhouse program with a clear opening at quarterback.

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So Zaire won the competition by default. But even with DeShone Kizer and Brandon Wimbush not in a position to push him for the No. 1 job, there’s still plenty on which Zaire needs to improve over the coming weeks of preseason camp.

Kelly said he and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford still need to clean up Zaire’s throwing technique — “He gets the ball lost behind him a little bit, overstrides a little bit,” Kelly said — as well as keeping him on message with his communication in the offense, both as a quarterback and a leader.

“He has a lot of thoughts going on,” Kelly said. “And sometimes a little bit too much going on. We really sometimes have to just get him focused on this simple phrase: Do it this way all the time. There is no other way to do it. Don't vary from this, and he's getting better at that.

“Not because he doesn't want to do it, he just has so much going on sometimes we just have to get him focused on just want you to do it this way, no other way, every single time. He has a little bit of some things that we work on technically and then just staying on track, and he's making that progress.”

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The goal is to get Zaire as polished as possible by the time he takes the field in primetime Sept. 5 against Texas. With so many weapons on offense — like running back Tarean Folston and wide receiver Will Fuller — and an experienced, skilled offensive line, Notre Dame believes it can be successful even if its quarterback is still a little rough around the edges.

"We like where he is," Kelly said. "He's developing and he's on track to do the things necessary to be the kind of leader that you need to be at Notre Dame at the quarterback position."

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.