Chicago Colleges: Malik Zaire

Notre Dame mailblog

June, 6, 2014
6/06/14
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What's happening, gang?

Mike S. from Chicago writes: Hi again Matt! Lots of people doing season W/L predictions already, and looking at the schedule there seem to be some expected tough games. Is there a team on the schedule that is especially underrated and could be a *surprisingly* tough game for the Irish? Michigan, Stanford, FSU and one or two others we know will be tough. Curious if you think there's an under-the-radar team though. Thanks!

[+] EnlargeVenric Mark
Dave Stephenson/Icon SMIVenric Mark and Northwestern could be a challenge for Notre Dame in November.
Matt Fortuna: Hey Mike, I'm not ready to make a win-loss prediction this early in the game, but I think you can make a case for really any team on the Fighting Irish's schedule this season to be surprisingly good, outside of the obvious ones that you mentioned (plus USC). North Carolina is a popular pick to win the ACC's Coastal Division. Louisville has had a lot of recent success but is stepping up in competition with a new staff and new quarterback. Arizona State is always a tough out. Syracuse will be better in Year 2 of the Scott Shafer era and has a quarterback to build around in Terrel Hunt. But the one opponent that I think is really getting overlooked is Northwestern. The Wildcats have been consistently strong in recent years under Pat Fitzgerald and definitely enter this season with a chip on their shoulder after the way things ended last year. (A year that was riddled by key injuries, too.) I covered Northwestern's game against Ohio State last season and the Cats were a play away from giving the Buckeyes their first loss of the Urban Meyer era. They are good, and they travel to South Bend, Ind., at what could be a vulnerable time for the Irish, given the tough November stretch they finish with (Navy, at ASU, Northwestern, Louisville, at USC). Purdue usually plays the Irish tough, too. (And heck, even Rice is coming off a 10-win season.)

Chris from Canada writes: Outside of the experience, what are the key differences between Zaire and Golson? They seem very similar in what they have to offer. Is it realistic to think that Zaire can beat out Golson this year or is the "QB competition" just for show?

Matt Fortuna: Chris, they are of a similar build and skill-set, though I think Everett Golson probably has the better arm and is more mobile. Whether that translates into a big gap on the field remains to be seen. As you said, Golson has the experience factor, but Malik Zaire is sure to give him a push, enough so that I think the Irish will be comfortable putting him in a game at any point, something that we know Brian Kelly is not afraid to do with his quarterbacks. Zaire certainly carries himself publicly like a guy who is not afraid of a challenge, and like a guy who expects to win the job if he plays the way he thinks he's capable of playing. My guy Adam Kramer thinks the Irish have the best depth at the position in the country. I'm not sure I'm ready to go that far just yet, but the quarterback position is certainly a luxury for Notre Dame at this point, something that has not been said before in the Kelly era.

Chris Kosiak (via Twitter): (Who is) the under-the-radar guy that everyone will love by seasons end?

Matt Fortuna: What, Cam McDaniel last year wasn't enough for you guys? (I kid, I kid.) I'd say Joe Schmidt, but his value has been pretty well-documented this spring. I'll go with Jarron Jones. It took him some time, but he really came around down the stretch last season. After being demoted to the scout team during USC week because of his academic and football shortcomings, Jones stepped up when the defense became decimated by injuries, blocking a kick on Senior Day against BYU and tallying seven tackles before getting the start at Stanford a week later. He spoke openly about how much more comfortable he is in Brian VanGorder's system, and the opportunities will be there for Jones to make a name for himself on a thin defensive line.

Irish lunch links

May, 20, 2014
5/20/14
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The Spurs will win it all this year, won't they?

Notre Dame spring wrap

April, 29, 2014
4/29/14
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Three things we learned in the spring
  • The QB rotation is stable: Everett Golson is back from his 2013 suspension, hardened and bigger than ever. And Malik Zaire has taken full advantage of the opportunity Brian Kelly has given him, after Kelly declared the job open. (Notre Dame had just two scholarship quarterbacks this spring.) While few expect Golson to relinquish his hold on the starting role, the prospect of a hungry, capable backup has to make new QBs coach Matt LaFleur happy.
  • Greg Bryant looks like a playmaker: A rough start to Bryant's career last year might have been a blessing in disguise, as knee tendinitis allowed him to redshirt and essentially get a do-over in 2014. The returns this spring have been phenomenal, with the No. 2 running back prospect from the Class of 2013 bringing a burst to the run game that was absent last season. He turned heads in the spring game and says he is carrying a more mature head on his shoulders after last season, as he's hungry to get back on the field and make plays.
  • The secondary is primed to breakout: Notre Dame does not lack for bodies among its defensive backs. KeiVarae Russell enters his third year of starting ready to be one of the nation's top corners, and the Irish return four safeties with starting experience -- one of whom, Matthias Farley, moved to nickelback this spring. Throw in Florida transfer Cody Riggs at corner this summer -- as well as the aggressive approach of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who will bring more press coverage -- and the secondary has all of the ingredients to be very good in 2014.
Three questions for the fall
  • Where will the pass-rush come from? The Irish said goodbye to Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, two linemen who made their living in opposing backfields. There are simply no big, athletic bodies like them on this year's roster. With a revamped front-seven, VanGorder will be tasked with finding new ways to generate pressure on the quarterback. Perhaps senior Ishaq Williams, now primarily at end, can add a boost to the line.
  • Which receivers will step up? With DaVaris Daniels (academics) gone this spring, it was essentially an open audition for Irish receivers, only two of whom had ever caught balls from Golson before (Chris Brown and tight end Ben Koyack). Corey Robinson has continued his growth after a promising freshman campaign, and Koyack will have to emerge as a bigger receiving threat after handling mostly blocking duties next to the departed Troy Niklas. Daniels' expected return this summer will provide a major boost to this group.
  • Will special teams play finally improve? Few areas have given Notre Dame trouble in recent years the way special teams has, particularly the punt return game. Awful weather this spring limited outdoor work, which limited ideal return opportunities. Bryant could emerge as the guy at punt return, though Tarean Folston and Torii Hunter Jr. may contend for chances as well.
One way-too-early prediction

Notre Dame will average better than 30 points per game for the first time in the Kelly era. In Golson, the Irish have the ideal quarterback in place to run the Kelly offense. And with the defense taking massive personnel hits up front while adjusting to a new scheme, the offense will be relied on more than ever to stretch the field, carry the load and put points on the board.

Zaire's emergence a good step for ND

April, 12, 2014
4/12/14
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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."

Notre Dame mailblog

April, 4, 2014
4/04/14
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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
4/03/14
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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
3/25/14
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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."

Irish lunch links

March, 24, 2014
3/24/14
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Bracket hanging in there ... barely.

Notre Dame spring predictions: No. 1

February, 28, 2014
2/28/14
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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
2/26/14
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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.

Position battles to watch: No. 5

February, 17, 2014
2/17/14
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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.

Does Zaire have a chance to start?

February, 3, 2014
2/03/14
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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."

Kelly: Williams to miss Navy game

October, 29, 2013
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Two days between speaking engagements with the media offered little in the way of clarity about Notre Dame's injured players this week, other than the fact that linebacker Ishaq Williams was ruled out for Saturday's game with a knee injury.

Coach Brian Kelly also said that left guard Chris Watt and defensive end Sheldon Day remain "probable" for the game against Navy, while Louis Nix is questionable.

"We got an MRI on that ankle and we wanted to rule out any further high-ankle damage to the ligaments, and it was a bone bruise," Kelly said Tuesday. "So it was totally different, so we feel pretty good about that. He'll practice today."

Right tackle Ronnie Stanley will also practice after leaving last Saturday's game against Air Force, with Kelly joking that he might face discipline for tweeting about being in the infirmary.

"I heard he had a tweet about being at St. Liam's or something. He gets the same — we call it the Zaire treatment today; that's a new standard in our books," Kelly said, referencing Malik Zaire tweeting in September about being cleared to return after having mononucleosis.

Kelly: No alma mater after home losses

September, 29, 2013
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No alma mater after a loss.

That's Notre Dame's new home-game policy, instituted two years ago and cleared up Sunday by coach Brian Kelly during his teleconference, a day after some postgame confusion ensued following the Irish's 35-21 home loss to Oklahoma, with some players leaving immediately before most bee-lined toward the student section to engage in song.

The Irish's 10-game home winning streak was snapped by the Sooners so the players were not exactly versed in this exercise.

"A lot of our players were confused because they hadn't lost, a lot of them had never lost at home, and they weren't sure what to do," Kelly said. "I didn't communicate it to them clearly, what the protocol was, but we changed that protocol two years ago after a loss.

"We don't stay out on the field to sing the alma mater. We come in. And that wasn't communicated clearly. I wasn't thinking about losing a football game; it wasn't on my to-do list to go over with my team. It's a protocol we changed a couple years ago that we do not stay out on the field after the alma mater to sing after a loss."

Former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis had started the routine in the 2006 season, his second with the Irish.

"I just don't think it's appropriate to put your players after a defeat in a situation where they're exposed," Kelly said Sunday. "I want to get them in the locker room. It's important to talk to them, and I just felt like in those situations, after a loss, there's a lot of emotions. It's important to get the team back into the locker room and get them under my guidance."

Notes: Kelly will talk to ACC officials about Ben Councell's second-half ejection Saturday for targeting. Councell, by rule, has to sit the first half this coming Saturday against Arizona State. Romeo Okwara will likely take his spot as the No. 2 Dog linebacker. … Sheldon Day "tweaked" his ankle during warmups against Oklahoma, causing Kelly to sit him after he missed last week with an ankle sprain. TJ Jones "rolled" his ankle Saturday but should be fine moving forward. … Greg Bryant did not play because of a knee injury suffered this past week. … Tommy Rees is "certainly" Notre Dame's starting quarterback, with Andrew Hendrix serving as a complementary piece. Kelly said that, barring an injury situation to either signal-caller, he'd prefer not to play freshman Malik Zaire this season.

Notre Dame first-year players to watch

June, 12, 2013
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Notre Dame has landed consecutive top-10 recruiting classes. Which players from those groups have the best chances of making an impact as first-year players this fall?

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's C.J. Prosise
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsC.J. Prosise had a 35-yard touchdown reception during the Blue-Gold Game this spring.
C.J. Prosise, WR: The 6-foot-2, 208-pound Prosise redshirted a safety last season. He switched to the offensive side of the ball before spring practices this year, and the early returns have been positive. The Petersburg, Va., native had a long touchdown catch in the open field during an open scrimmage this spring, and his 35-yard touchdown reception in the Blue-Gold game marked the only time the Irish offense reached the end zone in the spring contest. With the spring transfers of second-year receivers Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson, the opportunity is wide open for Prosise to seize the vacant slot position. He will likely enter camp as the leading candidate to bolster Notre Dame's struggling punt return unit, too.

Greg Bryant, RB: Bryant will not officially enroll at Notre Dame until June 17, but he has the potential to become an immediate contributor to the Irish offense. The ESPN150 prospect form Delray Beach, Fla., was ranked second nationally among running backs, making him one of the top running back recruits Notre Dame has landed in recent memory. The 5-foot-11, 197-pound Oklahoma de-commit should get a chance to compete in a deep but untested backfield after the departures of Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood.

Malik Zaire, QB: The early enrollee drew rave reviews from the staff this spring and figures to have a shot to play this fall after the suspension of Everett Golson. The southpaw is a dual-threat signal caller from Archbishop Alter in Kettering, Ohio. ESPN rated Zaire No. 6 among quarterbacks from the Class of 2013, and coach Brian Kelly said that he will get an opportunity to compete like everyone else in camp for the starting spot.

Corey Robinson/James Onwualu, WR: Both players enrolled this spring and found themselves getting plenty of time all over the field after Neal and Ferguson left the program. The 6-foot-4.5, 197-pound Robinson, the son of hoops Hall of Famer David, has the size and speed to go up and get anything in sight on the outside, as evidenced by a deep, diving, juggling catch he made during an open scrimmage. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Onwualu should also get a chance to contribute inside immediately after displaying flashes of athleticism early.

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