Chicago Colleges: Everett Golson

Zaire's emergence a good step for ND

April, 12, 2014
Apr 12
10:02
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly moved swiftly up to the post-game podium, joking with the assembled media members that everyone better hurry up so they could get back to watching the Masters. Kelly played the famed course at Augusta National last month as part of a foursome with Tom Brady, Josh McDaniels and Notre Dame alumnus Jimmy Dunne, who put the group together.

Saturday's Blue-Gold spring game -- otherwise known as "Natural Grass: The Finale" -- could not have been farther away from the Peach State. But it probably served a somewhat therapeutic purpose for the Fighting Irish head coach for the first time since he arrived here in 2010.

[+] EnlargeMalik Zaire
AP Photo/Joe RaymondMalik Zaire showed poise and big-play ability in Saturday's spring game, showing that there's more than one capable Notre Dame quarterback.
Yes, there were questions about the quarterback play, because there always are at Notre Dame. No, Kelly said he has no plans on naming a starter sometime before camp. And while anyone but Everett Golson being named the main man would qualify among the biggest shocks of Kelly's tenure, Kelly can rest easy knowing that he likely has a capable and confident second arm to turn to in the event he needs one. And, let's face it, he has almost always needed one.

Golson looked uneven at times but is slowly easing his way back into the offense. Malik Zaire, meanwhile, backed up all of his bold spring talk and made all of the big plays in the "Blue" team's (offense) 63-58 win over the "Gold" team (defense).

The redshirt freshman completed 18 of 27 passes for 292 yards and two scores. Golson completed 13 of 23 passes for 160 yards. Both players seem more than capable of running the offense Kelly would like, which explains why he made it clear afterward that he prefers just one man atop the depth chart.

"We should be as coaches and myself, personally, I should be able to figure this thing out, and we should be able to get our players in a position where we can have a starting quarterback," Kelly said.

"So I've been doing it long enough that I would hope that I can figure it out come time to play Rice."

Kelly had said earlier in the week that he threw everything at the quarterbacks this spring -- in part to see what they could handle, in part to accelerate the growth of a young defense under a new coordinator.

The learning curve, though, will be quicker for the offense this season, with the low-scoring games of recent years likely becoming as ancient as the natural grass his stadium is leaving behind. And that's a byproduct of more dynamic play under center.

"We have to be more proficient offensively," Kelly said. "We have to put points on the board that we have not been able to consistently do against the best teams in the country. So that's certainly been the focus, and it will have to be this fall again playing the kind of schedule we do. We can't go down to Florida State and hope to win 10 to 7. We're going to have to put some points on board."

Much of that will depend on Golson's acclimation with a new supporting cast. He is 15 pounds heavier, more mature after returning from suspension and, presumably, a smarter signal caller after spending the fall with George Whitfield Jr.

Having someone with the talent and attitude of Zaire behind him should only make him better -- which, indirectly, is exactly what the lefty wants to hear.

"My mindset doesn't change at all: Whether I'm declared the starter or whether I'm the backup or whatever the situation is," Zaire said. "Because in my mind, I'm always looking just to get better every day and whatever it takes for this team to win a lot of games, I'm willing to do that. So I'm always working as if nobody's giving me a chance. I think that's what's really my backing in it.

"I feel like not enough people are giving me that chance and that opportunity, that's my personal belief. So as long as I keep believing that and working my butt off and try to be the best I can be for this team, then that's all I can ask for."

That might be all the Irish can ask for after 15 spring practices, as they are better off at the game's most important position moving forward.

"It's competition," Golson said. "There's no animosity toward him, but there's definitely competition, and I'm open to it and ready for it."

Denbrock in contact with WR Daniels

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
12:50
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock coached outside receivers the past two seasons, so he dealt with DaVaris Daniels more than most. With Daniels exiled for a semester because of academic reasons, Denbrock remains in touch with the receiver on a near daily basis, and he hopes the redshirt junior sports a new and improved mindset if and when he returns to school this summer.

"I'd rather not DaVaris make too many decisions on his own," Denbrock said. "I've been very close to that situation. We're in touch at least three or four times a week, if not every day, just to make sure he knows we're thinking about him and we're keeping an eye on him and what our expectations while he's away from here are, including what our expectations for him are going to be when he comes back."

[+] EnlargeDaVaris Daniels
AP Photo/Michael ConroyDaVaris Daniels caught 31 passes from Everett Golson in 2012.
Denbrock wouldn't get into specifics about expectations for Daniels upon his return, but Daniels' role in the offense should be fairly clear.

The Vernon Hills, Ill., native would be the Irish's leading returning receiver, having made 49 catches last season for 745 yards and seven touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Daniels would also be the only pass-catcher holding any semblance of chemistry with returning quarterback Everett Golson, as Daniels caught 31 passes for 490 yards during both players' redshirt freshman campaigns in 2012.

Like Golson, Daniels was suspended from school for a semester because of academic reasons, though Daniels had told CBSSports.com that his gaffe was simply failing to keep his grades up. (Golson had referred to his own violation as an integrity issue.)

Daniels is expected to return to school and to the team this summer. He has been training at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park, Ill.

"I would hope it would be," Denbrock said of the light now clicking on for Daniels. "I guess I won't know the answer to that exactly until he's really back here in the middle of it and it's the fourth double session and he's still going as hard as he was the first time he set foot back on the field after -- good Lord willing -- being reinstated. I think time will tell. Right now, I think his mind's in the right place, I think he's excited about getting back with his teammates whenever that's possible to do and get this thing going."

Notre Dame mailblog

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
9:00
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Thanks for chiming in. As always, feel free to tweet any more questions you have here or drop 'em in the mailbag.

Away we go ...

Brendan Shaw from Raleigh, N.C. writes: Hi Matt, doing a great job as usual! This is a long shot, but is there any chance Kelly puts in a two-QB package to mess with the opposing defense? If you think about it, having two dual-threat QBs on the field simultaneously gives you a minimum of a quadruple threat in the backfield. Opposing d-coordinators may just quit football after trying to figure that out for a quarter or two. Regards, Brendan.

Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Brendan. Having both quarterbacks on the field at the same time? That would be news to me, especially since I haven't seen either of these guys try their hands at something other than quarterback. That being said, I'd be surprised if Malik Zaire didn't see some meaningful action during the season, as I am sure Brian Kelly and the staff will do everything they can to keep him engaged. He seems to have another gear as a runner, and he could certainly be useful in some red-zone packages as well, as the Fighting Irish have struggled to punch it in down there so much in recent years. I wonder if throwing a lefty in in the middle of a game could prove to be a nice little wrinkle, too.

Mike S. from Chicago writes: Hi Matt, great work as always. Question: how is the schedule for ACC games determined each year? We know it's a rotation with up to five games, but how are the opponents determined each season and how are home-and-aways done?

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Mike. It is, by all accounts, a collaborative effort. And the ACC has shown some flexibility so far to accommodate the Irish, allowing them to play four conference games in 2014 and six in 2015 because of previous schedule arrangements. Both parties plan on keeping things that way, hoping to blend a balance so that a) Notre Dame isn't facing a death row of Florida State/Clemson/Miami in a given season (just using those teams as an example) b) the Irish can fill their 6-5-1 scheduling arrangement (six at home, five on road, one Shamrock Series) and c) so that they play all 14 ACC teams over a three-year span. As you can see, it takes a lot of legwork from all sides, which explains why we didn't know the Irish's 2014 schedule until December of this year (and why the school released three years of schedules at once).

Michael Fry writes: Hi Matt, I have 3 questions for you: 1. Since he arrived on campus last year, und.com has made a point of showing spectacular catches from No. 88. Having seen some live practice, can you comment on how he is doing overall in terms of route-running and consistency in catching the ball? Right now, he is presented as a catch-everything kind of guy 2. Footage of Zaire looks great but, coming back to the theme of No. 1, what kind of a QB competition would this be if Brian Kelly had not called it already in Golson's favor? Would it be close or are we talking different stratospheres? 3. Defense -- just looking for some thoughts on who was off the radar last year but who fits well into the new DC's system well. Thanks for the great blog -- keeps the off-season interesting.

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Michael. Corey Robinson seems to dominate every time us media folks are at practice, too. He has natural size and athletic ability, giving the quarterback a wider margin of error when matching up with smaller corners. Part of that, of course, is also because Notre Dame's corners are relatively green outside of KeiVarae Russell. That said, Robinson needs to put on more strength so he can win some battles along the line of scrimmage and gain some more separation downfield. But last spring's transfers, and this spring's absence of DaVaris Daniels, has given Robinson more opportunities to make an impression. Kelly has stated that he absolutely loves coaching him because of his willingness to accept coaching and not make the same mistake twice. As for the quarterback question, I'm not sure it's still close, but that shouldn't negate from the progress that Zaire has made this spring.

I don't think anyone seriously expects someone other than Everett Golson to be starting come Week 1, but I do think Zaire will see meaningful snaps this season, and the fact there are only two scholarship quarterbacks this spring will prove to be beneficial for the lefty in the long run. Kelly was right to publicly open things up.

Lastly, everyone has been raving about Sheldon Day, who is not exactly off the radar but who was limited last season because of an ankle injury. I'd expect to see a breakout campaign from him along the line, and I wouldn't be surprised if Jarron Jones took his game up another level as well, as the redshirt sophomore has said to us how much more fun he is having in the new system.

Thomas Witty from Northbrook, Ill. writes: Hey Matt! Thanks for answering all of these questions. I know I enjoy reading your answers. My question today is focused on the linebackers. It seems like they are set at outside, but who's going to play middle? Will Nyles Morgan come in and make an impact right away? Could they move Jaylon Smith? Thanks!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Thomas. I'd say the only sure things at linebacker across the board right now are Joe Schmidt and Smith. Brian VanGorder absolutely raved about Schmidt when asked last week, and we all know what kind of potential Smith flashed during his strong rookie campaign in 2013. Smith has described his position as sort of a hybrid between the Mike and Sam. I'm curious to see the fallout of Jarrett Grace's second operation. He seemed to come along better than anyone over the first half of last season before breaking his leg, and Kelly said the Irish won't know his exact prognosis now until about six weeks after the operation, which took place March 28. If he can come back to camp in full-force, I think that will be huge. If not, I think Morgan could certainly make an impact upon his arrival this summer, probably not unlike the one we saw last year from Smith before he started every game in the fall.

Irish in no rush to name starting QB

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
8:00
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Just because the relationship between Notre Dame's top quarterbacks is different this time around doesn't necessarily mean Everett Golson and Malik Zaire are stealing each other's playbooks.

"They are competitive, but they do help each other, believe it or not," quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur said Wednesday. "Just the other day at practice Malik made a mistake and Everett was trying to explain to him why he made that mistake. Yeah, there is a competitiveness but those guys also help each other at game time."

Golson-Tommy Rees, this is not, as coach Brian Kelly made pretty clear earlier this spring. And the frontrunner to be the Irish's starter will likely have to wait four-plus months to be officially declared the No. 1 guy.

LaFleur, the first-year Irish assistant, said he has been more focused this spring on getting everyone on the same page before drawing any comparisons between the two signal callers, be it through stats or other tangible measurements.

"Honestly, I don't think it makes a difference right now," LaFleur said of knowing a starter this early. "I think each guy, whether you're an offensive lineman, receiver, running back -- you're kind of focused on your job. And No. 1, I tell the quarterbacks, do your job. You've got to do your job before you can even worry about anyone else or any other situation. I think from an offensive standpoint, I think everybody's just focused on improving their own skills and improving each day."

Both quarterbacks have heeded that advice, stressing that their concerns have lied inward, not on what the other was doing.

"It's definitely put me in another level of capability in terms of just being comfortable within the offense," Zaire said. "I think this year and this spring specifically it's gotten better for me because I'm in there a lot more than last year."

Notes: LaFleur, a Mt. Pleasant, Mich., native, said he will recruit Michigan locally while having responsibilities on the West Coast, from the Los Angeles area up through Washington. He has Hawaii, as well. … Notre Dame was finally able to practice outside Monday and Wednesday, making conditions more ideal for the always-intriguing punt return unit. Running backs coach Tony Alford mentioned Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle, Torii Hunter Jr. and Josh Atkinson as players who have gotten looks in the return game.

Zaire embracing opportunity head-on

March, 25, 2014
Mar 25
9:00
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All that talk about Everett Golson this spring must have gotten lost between the time Notre Dame's former starter returned to school and the time the redshirt was unofficially taken off the Fighting Irish's other returning quarterback.

No, Malik Zaire is not bowing down to anybody this spring, even if the man he is splitting reps with has a résumé that includes national title game experience.

"I don't see it as a competition at all -- I see it, I'm competing with myself to get better every day and competing with myself to be the best quarterback in the country, because I hope that's why a lot of guys come to college football, especially Notre Dame," Zaire said. "I'm not here to make this a one-on-one match with the next guy as me being the most prepared to lead this team to 12 victories and a national championship."

[+] EnlargeMalik Zaire
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsDespite the pedigree that Everett Golson provides, Malik Zaire won't concede the Notre Dame starting job without a fight.
It's been there, nearly-done-that for Golson, which is why Brian Kelly raised a few eyebrows last month when he declared the starting job an open competition. What Golson's opponent lacks in experience he just might make up for in potential, as Zaire entered Notre Dame a year ago as ESPN's No. 6 signal-caller from the Class of 2013.

But with Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix now out of the picture -- and with incoming signee DeShone Kizer three months away from enrolling -- the burden is on Zaire to be more than window-dressing, to emerge as a viable in-game option for the Irish and perhaps even more.

"It's definitely put me in another level of capability in terms of just being comfortable within the offense," he said. "I think this year and this spring specifically it's got better for me because I'm in there a lot more than last year. Dealing with that, I'm feeling better as the days progress, I'm getting better as the days progress, I'm enjoying it as the days progress, so I'm just getting a lot better each day."

The southpaw gets the benefit of a clean slate with a new position coach in Matt LaFleur, and, by statistical measure, hardly trails Golson in the chemistry department with the current crop of receivers.

Only Ben Koyack and Chris Brown have caught passes from current Irish signal-callers, accounting for two receptions from Golson totaling 55 yards during that charmed run of 2012. Both the experience gap and the skill-set between Notre Dame's current quarterbacks are not what they were during Golson's ascension around this time two years ago, when he fought off the incumbent, football-savvy Rees -- who was never hesitant to share all that he knew with the underclassman.

"They're good together, they like each other," Kelly said. "Everett's not going to sit down and teach him the playbook, though. But they like each other, they get along very well, but it's not a Tommy Rees (situation), where Tommy Rees would sit down and teach Everett the offense; we don't have that kind of situation. These are two competitive kids. Malik wants to beat out Everett. But it's a very positive kind of atmosphere.

"(Zaire's) just a highly competitive kid, and he's extremely confident in his ability. Extremely. Sometimes I have to settle him down a bit. But that's a good thing. I'd rather have that than somebody who doesn't think he can do it. So the dynamic is very positive. They're very good with each other. They help each other. But it's not one where they're going to share notes and sit down and, 'Hey, how can I help you beat me out?' That's not happening."

Zaire treaded a path similar to Golson upon his arrival to Notre Dame last spring before coming down with mononucleosis during his first preseason camp. Kelly conceded that the 6-foot, 208-pounder probably got a little lost mentally as the reality of redshirting settled in, but he had come full-circle by season's end.

"When December rolled around, being in there and being at least kind of involved definitely impacted me in a way where I felt a lot more comfortable and I felt like myself," Zaire said. "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.' In December, I was able to come right back and do what I've been doing since Day 1, and that's playing and being involved and being the quarterback that I am."

Whether that will be enough to pull off a monumental upset on the depth chart remains to be seen, but for now the only person Zaire is concerned with is Zaire, the name he thinks can take the first snap for the Irish come Aug. 30.

"This competition is more me getting better and finding whatever it takes to do and whatever it takes to get to that next level, so they don't have a choice but to play me," he said. "There are things that I can't control as well -- it's definitely an uphill battle on fighting in terms of what people believe to be a quarterback competition because of the guy that's been there and done that.

"So I can't concern myself with something I can't control. More of it is just like, whatever it takes for me to be on the field, and doing what it takes to be on the field and knowing that I got what it takes, that's all that really matters."

Notre Dame mailblog

March, 21, 2014
Mar 21
4:10
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Enjoy your weekends, everyone. Any other questions? Drop 'em here in the mailbag or tweet 'em.

Carter from LaPorte, Ind., writes: Hi, Matt. I love reading your blogs, and I've been a Notre Dame football fan since I can remember. I've gone to at least one game a year since I was 3 weeks old. I'm curious as to how you see the team shaping up this year. Our final record (who we'll beat/hopefully not lose to), offensive production, defensive production (will our new defensive coordinator produce the defense we had two years ago?), the "Golson effect"(Heisman?), and how, if at all, will the new playoff system determine who we'll play postseason? Thanks!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Carter. Three weeks old? Please tell me you didn't have to pay for a ticket back then. As for your questions … well, I know much better than to make season predictions this early, especially with just four spring practices in the books. I look at the schedule now and seem to think the closest thing to a sure bet either way is a loss at Florida State, but I (and everyone else) have been guilty of making a similar mistake before, back in 2012.

[+] EnlargeCody Riggs
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFormer Florida defensive back Cody Riggs should make an instant impact in the Notre Dame secondary.
I think a Heisman run by Everett Golson is asking a lot, though the offense should be much more dynamic while looking more like the kind of attacks Brian Kelly ran during his Cincinnati days. I'm not sure the talent is there yet for the defense to be as good as the 2012 unit was, but I think the secondary, especially with the summer arrival of Florida transfer Cody Riggs, will be really, really good, and I'm interested to see what kind of changes new coordinator Brian VanGorder implements with the unit.

Notre Dame's postseason destination will depend on a lot of things, though, if the Irish don't qualify for the playoffs, they do have a nice fallback plan thanks to their new ACC alignment: They can leap an ACC team for a spot in a non-access bowl if their record is better than, equal to or within one win of said team, or if they are ranked higher. The Orange Bowl will also select the highest-ranked available team from Notre Dame, the Big Ten or the SEC to face the ACC champion, though the Irish can appear in the game a maximum of two times during the 12-year agreement.


Thomas Witty from Northbrook, Ill., writes: Hey, Matt! I envy your job! My question is about Brian VanGorder. How different do you think our defense will be under him than it was with Bob Diaco? How will our defensive coverages and just overall defensive format change under the new leadership? Great work as always!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Thomas. I think the experience back in the secondary will allow VanGorder to be much more creative and aggressive up front. In fact, I'm not sure he wouldn't be that way regardless of who his defensive backs were. Kelly has said the defense will still be a 3-4 base that switches things up on roughly a 50-50 basis, but the unit has run mostly four-man fronts in our limited time viewing practice this spring. One bulletin-board quote that will likely stick with VanGorder this fall? "I'm built to stop the run" -- something he said during his introductory news conference in January.


Chad from Woodlawn, Tenn., writes: Matt, I know recruiting is never easy, but it seems as of the last few classes, ND has had a large number of defections or decommits. Is there a problem with coach Kelly and his staff when it comes to recruiting or is this a product of the recruiting times?

Matt Fortuna: Chad, I think it's a bit overblown and more a product of the times. I also think it's about identifying the right fits for Notre Dame, as there are obvious differences between Notre Dame and several of the other college football powers that most four- and five-star prospects are interested in. It's something that Kelly and his staff have become better at managing over time. Were there still decommits this year? Sure, as Elijah Hood, Richard Yeargin and Isaiah McKenzie showed. But I think the staff has become more risk-averse. They know what they are selling, they have tangible evidence of the heights that the program is capable of reaching, and they have learned who is and is not a great fit for what they are about.


Joe Meyer from Indianapolis writes: Hi, Matt, just sharing the "must sees" at Notre Dame. No visit is complete without a trip inside the Basilica and the Administration Buildings. There are many great things to see in each, but no tour guide is required. Total time, 45 minutes.On game days, it's a treat to listen to the trumpets inside the Admin Building, about 90 minutes before kickoff. They play the fight song and alma mater from two levels of the rotunda beneath the dome. It's awesome. For the adventuresome, taking a walk around the lakes will provide a unique view of the notable buildings, including the Golden Dome.

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Joe. This is in response to Matt from Pittsburgh's question in last week's mailblog. Have at it, Matt.

Golson can relate to Daniels' situation

March, 6, 2014
Mar 6
2:00
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Everett Golson has a pretty good idea of what DaVaris Daniels is going through. Together, the redshirt juniors have been cast aside from Notre Dame in consecutive semesters because of academic shortcomings, with the quarterback missing the 2013 season and the receiver gone for this spring.

So in a sense, Golson has provided a blueprint for Daniels to return this summer and be ready to go when fall camp opens in August.

[+] EnlargeDaVaris Daniels
AP Photo/Michael ConroyDaVaris Daniels finds himself in the position that Everett Golson did -- having been kicked out of Notre Dame due to academic shortcomings.
"He was actually up here last weekend, so he came over and we were talking," Golson said. "I rapped with him a little bit, just going through kind of the same situation, encouraging him, letting him know everything is going to be fine. He's good. He's working out and doing his thing. I just can't wait to get him back."

Daniels' suspension became public in January, as he released a statement saying he planned to work his way back after a few months away. He spoke last week with CBSSports.com, detailing the pressures of mounting injuries and academic probation eventually leading to his GPA slipping below 2.0 in the fall.

The Vernon Hills, Ill., native is now working out at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park, and he will be immediately counted on if and when he returns to the Fighting Irish, who said goodbye to other top targets TJ Jones (graduation) and Troy Niklas (draft) after last season.

Daniels' 49 catches for 745 yards and seven touchdowns last season all were good for second on the team. He grabbed 31 passes for 490 yards in his first season of action in 2012, with Golson as the primary signal-caller.

The two connected six times for 115 yards in the BCS title game loss to Alabama, one of the few bright spots in the 42-14 defeat.

For now, Golson is left to work with a new cast of receivers this spring, with Ben Koyack (one catch, 5 yards) and Chris Brown (one catch, 50 yards) being the only active players who have recorded receptions from him in the past.

"As long as [Daniels] takes care of the admissions process and getting back and he's readmitted, he'll be back here this summer," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "Now, he's got to take summer school when he gets back here and he's got to get his classes taken care of, and as long as he takes care of his classes this summer, he'll be eligible for all the games next year."

Notre Dame spring preview

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
8:30
AM CT
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The keys to Notre Dame's future arrived Monday, when Everett Golson took the field for the first time in nearly a year as the Irish opened their fifth spring practice under Brian Kelly.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesThe Irish offense hopes to benefit from the return of quarterback Everett Golson.
This spring will probably not look all that different from last spring, when Golson, coming off a redshirt freshman season that ended in the BCS title game, was officially handed complete control of the vehicle that was Kelly's offense before being exiled the following fall for an academic mishap. Yet the Irish may be shorter on all-around playmakers this spring than they were last year.

But with Golson back -- 15 pounds heavier and seemingly much more mature after spending two months with well-known quarterback coach George Whitfield Jr. in San Diego -- it is finally all in for Notre Dame. Its fan base has been anxiously awaiting the offensive theatrics that a Kelly team last displayed five years ago at Cincinnati, and the most important component to that is Golson.

"Absolutely," Kelly said, speaking about the quarterback position, specifically. "Your offensive line has to play well; it has to protect the quarterback. We've got to run the ball effectively, take care of it. But I think we all know college football and where it is: The quarterback is really going to be the centerpiece of this offense and the way we run it. It's going to fall on him.

"We all live in the same world when it comes to the Notre Dame quarterback. We're going to heap a lot on this kid's shoulders. And he knows that. That's why he came back to Notre Dame, because he wants that. Clearly, he's going to be the one that drives this for us."

Replacing the top protectors of Golson (and every other QB of the Kelly era) is paramount, as stalwarts Zack Martin and Chris Watt are gone after manning the left side of the line so well together for more than three years.

Finding reliable weapons in a passing game down its top three pass-catchers from last season is important, too. (One of those targets, DaVaris Daniels, is expected back this summer after making a Golson-like academic gaffe.)

Defensively, potential first-round picks Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix are gone, as are three of the four starting linebackers. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco -- along with offensive playcaller Chuck Martin -- are gone, and longtime college and NFL veteran Brian VanGorder brings aboard the potential for a more aggressive defense, which should complement a much more aggressive offense.

A running game that lacked punch at times last year will be greatly strengthened by the dimension presented by Golson's legs, which he says got quicker despite the added weight.

It is weight his body and mind are ready to carry as he looks to bring Notre Dame's offense to a place it has longed for.

"I think if leadership ability is in you, it'll show eventually when you're called on," Golson said. "I think only being a freshman, I was still leading to a certain extent. I think now it's more heightened, I would say, because our team is so young this year. But it's been great. That's the spot that I want to be at and I was kind of born to be at, I would say, in a sense. So when it happens, leadership steps to the front."

Notre Dame spring predictions: No. 1

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
9:00
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Our series predicting spring happenings concludes today with No. 1.

Prediction No. 1: Everett Golson looks like a new quarterback

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsHow quickly can Everett Golson reclaim his starting quarterback spot?
If it's been said once, it's been said a million times: Everett Golson reportedly improved a ton last fall with George Whitfield Jr., from adding weight to tightening his mechanics to, yes, learning to throw the football with the actual laces.

Now Golson is back as the face of Notre Dame's offense. And while coach Brian Kelly insisted that Malik Zaire is very much a factor in the quarterback race, the fact that there are just two scholarship faces in those position meetings this spring should benefit both signal callers.

We all know Golson's credentials: As a redshirt freshman in 2012, the Myrtle Beach, S.C., native completed better than 58 percent of his passes for 2,405 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions, in addition to running for 298 yards and another six scores. He improved down the stretch, helping lift the Irish a 12-0 record and to the national title game, where they were routed by Alabama. Even then, Golson was one of the lone bright spots of the offense. He was handed complete control of the offense last spring and looked ready to take the Irish offense to the next level before his academic mishap cost him the fall semester.

Still, the 2013 semester was, in many ways, a win-win for Notre Dame, which got to tout its academic standards by booting its star while he got professional-style training out in San Diego before his return. Golson was listed at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds in 2012, and he could be closer to 200 pounds by the time spring ball begins. His determination to work his way back to Notre Dame instead of heading elsewhere likely won over whatever remaining doubters there had been in the program. And he still has two seasons left in a Notre Dame uniform.

There will probably be some smoothing out points, as Golson likely hasn't seen anything close to a live college scrimmage in a year. And he won't have the same familiar faces he was throwing to two years ago, especially not this spring, with DaVaris Daniels also stuck in academic purgatory. Kelly has warned Golson about overcoming the bigger spotlight that will certainly accompany him during his comeback tour, and now it is up to the redshirt junior to ease back into the program, refine his skills within the framework of the team and take the next step as one of the leaders of an offense that is seeking new faces to look up to as it enters 2014.

Golson is the perfect candidate to assume that role, and, frankly, it would be surprising if he wasn't a better all-around football player overall by the time this summer rolls around.

Notre Dame spring predictions: No. 3

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
8:00
AM CT
Our series predicting spring happenings continues today with No. 3.

Prediction No. 3: Malik Zaire takes the next step

Brian Kelly had gone out of his way in January to say that Everett Golson wouldn't simply be handed the starting quarterback job upon his return, and that Zaire would be a very real factor moving forward. New position coach Matt LaFleur echoed those comments, saying that he has no experience with either, so he can only judge both players on their future production.

[+] EnlargeMalik Zaire
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsAfter redshirting his freshman season, Malik Zaire has a chance to win the Irish starting QB job despite the return of Everett Golson.
We'll see this spring just how much Zaire can turn this into a real competition. He is coming off a redshirt season during his first year on campus, much like Golson was before the 2012 season. They both had enrolled early. They are the only two scholarship quarterbacks on the spring roster, meaning there will be more reps to go around for both of them. And neither has much experience throwing to Notre Dame's current crop of pass-catchers, especially with Golson favorite DaVaris Daniels suspended for the spring semester after an academic violation.

The main difference between the two? Golson spent last fall exiled in San Diego, working with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr., who reportedly reworked the quarterback's mechanics and helped him add plenty of weight. He still has two years (and three springs) with Kelly under his belt, too. Zaire, whom Kelly eventually said he had planned to redshirt all along last season, missed plenty of valuable practice time late in camp and early in the season as he battled mononucleosis.

Still, Kelly and former position coach Chuck Martin were very high on Zaire last season, lauding his arm strength and assertiveness in live situations. The southpaw was ESPN's No. 6 quarterback prospect from the Class of 2013, and he certainly has the talent to, at the very least, quell the Irish's concerns should Golson need to miss any action.

But with many more snaps to work with, and with a position coach who has the same amount of experience with both quarterbacks, Zaire will have every chance in the world this spring to take the next step and prove to be a valuable quarterback for Notre Dame moving forward. We all know how crucial No. 2 quarterbacks have been for the Irish in the Kelly era so far, and now that the fifth-year head coach finally has a cupboard full of like-minded signal callers who can make plays with their feet, it stands to reason that Zaire can win over plenty of eyeballs here in the next month or so.

Irish lunch links

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
12:30
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If you had Nate McLouth as the first athlete to get a cameo in "House of Cards," congratulations.

Position battles to watch: No. 5

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
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With Notre Dame opening spring practice in just two weeks, we're looking ahead to a few items to keep an eye on when things commence on March 3. We looked at players to watch last week, and this week we will follow with positions battles to watch, starting Monday with No. 5.

Quarterback

[+] EnlargeMalik Zaire
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsWhile Everett Golson might be the favorite to win the QB job, Malik Zaire (pictured) will need to develop.
We know, we know -- it is highly unlikelyEverett Golson can lose the starting job he held down two years ago. He led the Irish to the national title game as a redshirt freshman, got suspended for an academic violation, spent the fall training with George Whitfield Jr. and returned this past January. He is reportedly bigger, stronger and more refined. And with two years of eligibility remaining, well, he gives Brian Kelly plenty to work with as Notre Dame strives to look more like a Kelly offense.

Still, there are only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster this spring. And Kelly has said that Golson won't simply be handed the job. Kelly was effusive in his praise of Malik Zaire, who redshirted last season after enrolling early and now is essentially the team's only option if something were to happen to Golson.

So you can see why Zaire -- ESPN's No. 6 quarterback in the Class of 2013 -- is so important this spring. He'll get more reps than he would have had there been a more full cupboard at signal-caller. He will likely take the field in some capacity for the first time in 2014, whether it's as a replacement or at the end of a blowout victory. With that, his development is crucial to the Irish, regardless of how much better Golson looks, because Zaire will always be just one play away from becoming the Irish's top option.

This spring Zaire is the Irish's only other option, making this time all the more important for him to prove he belongs, quell any fears about what might happen if Golson goes down and, well, maybe become something more. He has a new position coach in Matt LaFleur, and it's not like Golson's memorable 2012 campaign was without its rough points.

Golson might be the runaway favorite, and he probably should be. But if we've learned anything in college football the last couple of years, it is the importance of the next man in, something Zaire at the very least has a chance to become this spring.

Kelly, Irish get class they need

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
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Brian Kelly spoke like Brian Kelly for much of his Wednesday press conference, touting the distinctions of his program by stressing 40-year life decisions (not four) and by mentioning the different (though not necessarily better) shopping aisle that is Notre Dame football.

For the first time in what felt like a long time, the fifth-year Irish coach enjoyed a relatively drama-free signing day. His 22 verbal commitments going into the day all delivered on their word without any extracurriculars, and he even added an early-morning surprise from four-star defensive tackle Daniel Cage, giving the Irish their second win over Michigan State since September and further beefing up a class that finished with more linemen (12) than every other position combined (11).

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsThis may not have been Notre Dame's highest-ranked recruiting class, but fifth-year coach Brian Kelly has developed a recruiting identity for the Irish.
But Kelly hit on another theme rather decisively early on, one that struck his program fairly hard in the weeks following last season's 9-4 campaign: the pros, and where they fit into the plans of his program.

"When we were having this opportunity to recruit a young man, they had to have a passion for wanting to get a degree from Notre Dame and winning a national championship," he said. "If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players because I don't want guys to come here and not finish their degree. I want guys to come to Notre Dame, get their degree, help us win a national championship and be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. That's what I want, if that's what they want."

No, this is likely not a coincidence in light of the early NFL departures of Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III, the first Irish underclassmen in the Kelly era to leave school without their degrees since Kyle Rudolph back in Year 1. And this does not exactly vibe smoothly with the program's "Pot of Gold" initiative that made headlines recently when Notre Dame sent packages to recruits containing 477 letters -- one for every draft pick to come out of Notre Dame.

But Kelly was deliberate from the get-go. He was cocksure. His was a seasoned voice speaking after four years at one place, having weathered the sleeplessness that accompanies a national title game appearance, four underclassman departures, and a number of defections and suspensions in what is quickly turning into a long Irish tenure.

And on a day when positivity and hyperbole reigned across the college football world, Kelly allowed for some genuine self-evaluation. He said he had to do a better job of educating his players on the NFL. He conceded that he had not initially cast a wide enough net when evaluating prospects on the defensive line, the unit that took the biggest hit after the 2013 season. He might have cut the sales job short for the sake of simply coaching his football team, comfortable and confident in what he wants and what it takes to win big at Notre Dame.

This Irish recruiting class, ranked 11th by ESPN RecruitingNation, is not his best. It's not nearly as good as last year's, which was ranked fourth before losing a top-10 player in the country. Nor is it as good as consecutive ninth-ranked classes in 2012 and 2011, which ended up seeing five of its top players move on to different schools.

The ranking mattered little to Kelly or his staff. They had already taken their third Irish team to a perfect regular season two years ago with somewhat of a hodgepodge cast of characters still finding their way on their respective sides of the ball. They likely believe that, if not for a gross academic oversight by Everett Golson, they could have been bound for potentially bigger and better things this past fall.

So what if this year's haul lacks a five-star phenom. So what if it features eight three-star prospects.

"I just was a little bit too narrow-focused on where we were with our defensive line, and I needed to just be a little bit more -- I needed to change my view of how we recruited defensive linemen and open it up a little bit more," Kelly said. "It was strictly a decision that I needed to make. We did it a little late, and we were fortunate that we were able to get two very quality defensive linemen late in the cycle here, but we've made that adjustment in our profile."

The adjustment paid dividends through the signing day fax from Cage and through a trio of three-star newcomers who committed in the previous three months: Jhonathon Williams (November), Kolin Hill (December) and Peter Mokwuah (January).

These were hardly highly sought-after prospects, at least by Notre Dame's usual standards. There probably isn't a Tuitt walking through that door. But Kelly has learned better than to allow a departure like that one change a season's outlook, showing enough faith in his player-development process -- and in an oh-so-close-to-being-filled roster, now at 84 scholarships -- to secure a foundation for years to come.

"I think if you really boil it down, it's about the front seven and the offensive line," he said. "Yeah, there's some great skill players that I'll talk about, but you're winning up front, and building that depth in the front seven and the offensive line really stands out in this class, and then having some really good players across the board for us."

If that's not going to jump out on brochures, so be it. Notre Dame has an identity, and its leaders show enough resolve to push the envelope with a class that's smaller in stars but tailored in fit.

Does Zaire have a chance to start?

February, 3, 2014
Feb 3
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Brian Kelly was asked a question about Everett Golson, and so he talked about Golson, albeit for 16 seconds. Then he shifted attention to the other dual-threat quarterback on Notre Dame's roster, applying the brakes for the next minute-plus as he discussed another signal-caller who redshirted during his first year in the program.

"I know we're always in this rush to move to Everett, but I just want to caution everybody that we have I think a very good quarterback in Malik Zaire as well," the fifth-year Notre Dame coach said. "And I'm not ready to hand everything over to Everett. I love Everett. He played in the national championship game; I'm like everybody here. But I'm also somebody that wants to make sure that the quarterback position is such, especially with [quarterbacks coach] Matt [LaFleur] now with us, that we give everybody an opportunity to compete for that position, and Malik's going to get that chance as well.

[+] EnlargeMalik Zaire
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsMalik Zaire, who redshirted in 2013, continues to receive raves from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.
"Everett's doing great. He looks physically like he should be at this time, and the reports have been great and we're very, very excited. But I do want to caution everybody, including anybody that's around the program, and our players in particular -- I'll use this opportunity to do that -- this is a pretty good quarterback that we didn't play this year, Malik Zaire, that's going to get a chance, too."

Few could blame Kelly for reining in the hype machine, especially with a talent like Zaire waiting in the wings. And few could blame those who let said the hype machine mushroom. Golson did, after all, help lead Notre Dame to the national title game in his only season. His name was brought up at seemingly every other media availability with Kelly during the 2013 season despite his semester-long exile.

There was a reason for that, of course. As Kelly said Friday when describing what he wants the 2014 offense to look like, the Irish have lacked the dynamic playmaker best-suited to run his show.

"We have been driven behind the tackles for the last couple of years," he said. "We would like to be a little bit more dynamic outside the pocket."

Golson's lone season certainly suggests those capabilities, with 298 rushing yards and six scores on the ground. And he had been given more control last spring, pre-suspension, with the Irish further tailoring the offense to his talents.

Yet he spent his first year at Notre Dame in much the same fashion that Zaire did, running the scout team while admittedly struggling in the classroom. Both players enrolled early and both showed flashes of promise in the spring game, with Kelly hesitant to use either any more than he had to during the following falls -- which is to say not at all.

"From my standpoint, both these guys are coming in with a blank slate as far as I'm concerned," LaFleur said. "I don't have history with either one of these guys, so I'm just excited to see what these guys are all about and watch them work and see how they compete, just kind of learn along the way."

Zaire was just recovering from a late-summer battle with mononucleosis as Golson was departing for San Diego last September. And it is safe to assume that the Irish are getting back a refined version of their former starter after two months of work with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr.

"The reports have been good," Kelly said of Golson. "Physically he's put on a lot of weight, stronger, more mature, something that we would expect. But it's Jan. 31, so there is a long way to go."

New offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, having coached the outside receivers last season, said his old group felt very comfortable with Zaire last year during practice, respecting his downfield passing ability. No one from Notre Dame can comment until Wednesday on incoming prospect DeShone Kizer, who, like Zaire, is a four-star quarterback from Ohio.

And while Kizer will look to make it a three-man race, signs still point to the pair of Buckeye State natives chasing the one-time starter Golson when all is said and done, with Notre Dame advancing its push to look like the Brian Kelly offense many envisioned upon his move from Cincinnati five years ago.

"If you've watched coach Kelly's offenses in the past, I think they encompass an offense that's more in an attacking style," Denbrock said. "He likes to go fast, he likes to keep the defense on their heels, he likes to be very aggressive with what he does, and I think that's the direction we're certainly moving into. With the athletes that we have, we feel like we're in a position offensively to push the tempo more and to put our playmakers in positions where they can make big plays and do the things that all of us hope our offense looks like, one that's dynamic and can score more points and move the football consistently."

Irish lunch links

January, 28, 2014
Jan 28
11:00
AM CT
Congrats on the snow day.

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