Irish Notes: Readying For Texas

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly met with the media Tuesday afternoon to discuss the state of his Irish squad entering Saturday’s home opener against Texas.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF LIVE
Inspired. Focused. Competitive. Emotional.

Each could be used to categorize Malik Zaire in his first career start last December, Notre Dame’s oft-reference 31-28 victory over LSU.

Here’s another word that applies: protected.

By design, head coach Brian Kelly’s offense that afternoon in the Music City utilized Zaire’s strengths and mitigated his weaknesses by occasionally relying on the right arm of since-departed triggerman Everett Golson in a relief role.

Saturday against Texas, it’s Zaire’s ship. Sink or swim.

“It’s a totally different Malik Zaire,” said Kelly. “A lot of it was first start, not sure what to expect from him. We knew that he was a young man that had the ability to do some things in the run game. Weren't sure what he could do in the passing game. We saw that certainly he was capable.
But his development has been so much more since that game through the spring, through the summer and now in pregame, he's much more developed in all phases of the game, a lot more confident and certainly a lot more in tune with all of the receivers and the offensive line and just much more comfortable.”

In addition to the desire and ability to knock Zaire around for 60 minutes, the Longhorns’ defense will bring the rookie passer a new set of challenges not seen this August:

“He's going to see some things that he has not seen before,” Kelly admitted. “So default back to the foundation and the base that you have and that we have given you. And if he does the ordinary things extraordinarily well, he's going to succeed at a high, high level. It's when you go outside that and start to do things on your own and kind of, well, I'll use this for that, and it's taking kind of the round peg and putting it in the square hole, is where we have issues.

“So as I've said before, if he does exactly what I tell him to do, we should be in really good shape,’ Kelly added jokingly.”

THE VIEW FROM ABOVE, BELOW
Irish head coach Brian Kelly noted Tuesday that the offense’s play-calling efforts would be “collaborative,” Saturday against the Longhorns, a topic with which our Tim Prister will delve more deeply today.

Notre Dame’s game day booth/field breakdown is as follows:

Booth – Mike Sanford (Offensive coordinator/QBs), Mike Elston (linebackers), Bob Elliott (Special Assistant), Jeff Quinn (Offensive Analyst)

Sidelines – Mike Denbrock (associate head coach/wide receivers), Autry Denson (running backs), Harry Hiestand (offensive line), Scott Booker (tight ends/special teams), Todd Lyght (defensive backs), Keith Gilmore (defensive line), Brian VanGorder (defensive coordinator).

Kelly clarified the roles of Elliott and Quinn, both considered “advisors” rather than official assistant coaches in 2015.

“They are allowed to work as analysts, so they will be doing statistical analytical work,” said Kelly. “They will be (evaluating) tendencies, numbers, they will be checking personnel groupings, things of that nature.

“Coach Elliot will keep track of game management types of situations, video replay, things of that nature. He'll have more of a game management role where Coach Quinn will have more of an analytical and statistical role in the box, as well as some over sight as it relates to special teams.”

Asked about the level of communication he’s allowed with the pair, Kelly offered that both Elliott and Quinn could communicate with him and the others coaches during the game and at halftime, but not with the players.

“They cannot coach the players,” he said.

SOLIDIFYING THE SLOT
A handful of depth chart items populated Tuesday’s news conference, most notably the ascension of sophomore Daniel Cage to the starting nose tackle role, one he’ll share with freshman Jerry Tillery (an unforeseen occurrence to be featured by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson in an article today).

Also rising to the top of the charts is junior slot receiver Torii Hunter, listed as the co-starter with fifth-year senior and 2014 starter Amir Carlisle.

“Working from the inside-out, from (the slot), he's got size and great hands,” said Kelly of Hunter. “He can use his hands and size against generally players that he matches up quite well with. He's not matched up very much at all with a corner. He's always working off of backers and safeties, and that's a formidable match-up. That's a positive one for us. Very rarely has he got to beat a corner, so he becomes a very, very good match up for us.”

Notre Dame’s slot combination of Carlisle and C.J. Prosise combined for 825 yards on 52 receptions including five scores while adding 172 rushing yards and a (50-yard) touchdown on 17 carries.

THREE SPECIAL FRESHMEN
Earning a starting assignment in Notre Dame’s return game is freshman five-foot-eight-inch, 185-pounder C.J. Sanders, the hiccup-quick rookie that edged out junior star Will Fuller for the lead punt returner role.

“I think we have two real good ones, two really good options,” said Kelly. “We are splitting hairs probably with both of them. And I could see us going back and forth with both of them playing. I just think C.J. just has kind of a unique knack of breaking some tackles and it’s hard to find sometimes -- he kind of pops out of there. That's why we went with him.”

-- Notre Dame will feature a trio of kickoff return competitors in Carlisle, Sanders, and Prosise. It is (logically) assumed Carlisle and Sanders will share/alternate in the lead role with Prosise serving in the oxymoronically dubbed “up-back” role previously manned by graduated senior Cam McDaniel (2012-2014).

-- Though a freshman is at the forefront of both return units it’s unlikely many rookies will work as starters on the remainder of the Irish “Run Teams” (kick and punt return; kickoff and punt coverage). A preponderance of veterans such as Matthias Farley, Jarrett Grace, Drue Tranquill, James Onwualu, Nyles Morgan, Devin Butler and others will hold down the fort among them, but at least two more newcomers will start in the game’s all-important third phase:

Kicker Justin Yoon and (redshirt-freshman) punter Tyler Newsome.

“Extremely consistent in the 40 to 49-yard range – last year we dipped into the 60s, I think we were like 62 percent,” said Kelly of Yoon’s practice accuracy to date. “We dipped low into that range. He's been high 70s, in that range, so in that deep range between 40 and 49, he's been really good. We've hit him with a lot of different situations. He's responded quite well to all of them.

“I think the thing that stands out with me as it relates to (Yoon) is he is so focused on just doing his job,” Kelly continued. “There are not a lot of things that kind of distract him. He's extremely focused. He's a very unique kicker in that he has very little spin on his ball, very little. So you're not dealing with adjustments…he doesn't have to make a lot of adjustments. So his accuracy is pretty darned good.”

Backup quarterback DeShone Kizer is the team’s new holder while senior Scott Daly returns as the long and short-snapper. Three of Notre Dame’s last four contests of the 2014 season were decided by a made or missed field goal from the foot of graduated kicker Kyle Brindza and his snapper/holder battery.


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