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Captain’s Corner with Ned Bolcar

As a former linebacker, Ned Bolcar appreciates the physicality of a good defense. Notre Dame’s defensive front seven impressed by holding Texas to 163 yards total offense.

After each Notre Dame game, Irish Illustrated speaks with a former Irish captain/star who has watched and analyzed the game right along with us.

Two-time Notre Dame captain Ned Bolcar helped us launch this feature several years ago, and we’ve now expanded to include several other former Irish players in the analysis.

We start the 2015 season with captain Bolcar calling the shots.

Taking everything into consideration – first game, Texas and their troubles, the state of Notre Dame’s offense, defense and special teams – this looks to me like a team with great potential to build upon what they started last December when they bounced back so well against LSU in the bowl game.

We’ve only had a snapshot of two-and-a-half games, but Malik Zaire looks like he’s cool under pressure and is the leader this offense needs. He moves his feet well in the pocket. He feels where pressure is coming from and he uses his offensive linemen properly. He’s got a strong arm and puts the ball in a good position for the receiver to make a play on the ball, and so far, he’s really protected the football well.

He had a run where he stepped out of bounds, and I really like that. Not every time, of course. There are times when you put your head down, protect the ball and run physically, which he can do. But there are other times when it’s just not worth taking that punishment. Don’t take the hit unless you have to take a hit. It’s a long season. Protect the football and live to fight another day. Malik’s body of work in games is limited, but it’s all been very, very positive.

I met Malik two summers ago at Notre Dame. He was a freshman at the time and he sat at the table where I was eating. He was a polite young man. He had an air of confidence about him that told me he knew he came to the right place.

There were two or three quarterbacks in front of him and now Everett Golson has decided to transfer away. Malik always knew from the beginning that if you gave him a chance, he would get the job done, and so far, he’s delivered.

His confidence shows on the field. His self-control is there. He doesn’t seem to get shaken. He showed touch as well as a cannon to get it down the field. What’s your stat? Ninety-nine combined passes and runs without a turnover? That’s not happening accidentally because young quarterbacks usually turn the ball over. The key to this offense is don’t turn the ball over.

I liked the offensive line. They came off the ball well. We ran the ball consistently well behind some big, strong guys that got push up front. They move their feet very well. In pass protection, they formed the pocket well and kept the heat off Zaire for the most part.

Give Zaire credit, he moves well in the pocket. He stepped out of harm’s way a couple times to make those short dump-off passes or passes down the middle. Texas got to him once or twice and that’s going to happen. But I thought in general the offensive line played physical football. I liked the fact that we came out and ran the ball.

C.J. Prosise is a big running back. He’s strong and he has some quickness to him. I agree with the thought that he could be a 1,000-yard rusher. I like his physicality. It’s a shame about Tarean Folston because he looked great on that last run in the first quarter. It’s tough to lose a player like that in the first quarter of the first game. That’s going to be a tough loss to absorb and overcome, but thank goodness there is some talent there.

I was really impressed with the freshman, Josh Adams. He hit the holes, he did it with confidence, and he was physical. Anytime you step up to the collegiate level, especially as a freshman in your first game, there will be times when you have that ‘welcome to college football’ moment, and his came when he got drilled in the backfield by Malik Jefferson. Adams landed on his head. He got belted. But he came back a couple series later and ran the ball with the same physicality and confidence. He bounced back strong. It’s great to see a freshman play like that.

Will Fuller is such an exciting football player. He knows how to run routes, he almost always gets separation from the defender, he’s got speed, he’s got good hands -- most of the time -- and he’s an excellent football player.

Fuller has great football/receiver instincts. He knows where the defenders are. He knows how to make his breaks. He’s got a little bit of everything, including the dependability that you can count on him to emerge at some point in every game.

Quarterbacks feel confident throwing it to Fuller because they know if it’s in his vicinity, he can make a play on the ball. He has great speed, but I think he’s improved as a route runner. He’s become a complete receiver. He came onto the scene last year as a weapon and he was very impressive against Texas.

I like the whole receiving corps. Chris Brown, Corey Robinson played well last year and made a difficult catch against Texas. Amir Carlisle is a veteran guy and his quickness on those swing passes is impressive. He’s battled through some injuries, as has Torii Hunter, who I think can be another weapon for them.

I think our offensive line, receiving corps and Malik Zaire are the strengths of the offense, and before Folston was injured, I would have said running backs, too. We didn’t see much of the tight end corps against Texas, but I know there’s talent and depth there.

I was impressed with the way the defense ran to the ball. Joe Schmidt, Jaylon Smith, James Onwualu, Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell…I like the way those guys play. They get to the football.

Sheldon Day has been a consistently good defensive lineman for three years. He looks like he’s in terrific shape, quick off the ball, tenacious pass rusher and strong against the run. Rochell is a big body that they can move around a little bit, just like Day, and I think he’s a better player than he was last year. Seeing Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery play well in the middle was very encouraging. They have big shoes to fill with the loss of Jarron Jones, but that was a very important first step.

That group up front can hold the line of scrimmage. The linebackers flowed to the ball quickly. I didn’t see a lot of guys come open when they came out of the backfield or when Texas sent receivers on crossing routes underneath. The linebackers were flying to the running backs, particularly Jaylon Smith.

I don’t know how good Texas is. In fact, I’d say they aren’t a very good football team right now. But it’s still a big-time program and anytime you can play that well against Texas, it’s a real positive sign.

We dominated them defensively. The pursuit to the ball when we brought pressure on the quarterback was excellent. Most of the time, there was no place for Tyrone Swoopes to even dump off the ball. They connected on that tunnel screen for some big yardage, and KeiVarae Russell was beaten on a deep ball. But over the course of a game, they’re going to connect on at least a few things. By and large, Notre Dame’s defense looked like it knew what Texas was going to try to do offensively, and that’s the sign of a well-prepared defense. Credit to Brian VanGorder for having the defense ready for an offense that Texas hadn’t shown on film.

There’s talent in the secondary, especially at cornerback, but the safeties – although they’re talented – still have much to prove. As a whole, I think they break on the ball well and tackle well. They seem to be in position to prevent the big play, except for that deep ball over Russell. I really thought Max Redfield broke on the ball well the whole game.

I wondered during the game if our defense was playing that well or if Texas just isn’t that good offensively, and I think it’s a combination of the two. Texas is not dialed in and we have a lot of experience with some veteran guys, so I take it with a grain of salt. Regardless where Texas is in their development, Notre Dame played very well defensively and clearly has the personnel to excel.

I saw a lot of veterans on special teams and I like that. They struggled in some areas with their decision-making on returns, but in terms of coverage, Matthias Farley made a tackle, and then the next time, it was KeiVarae Russell.

To see veteran players playing on special teams is very important because our special teams have been fairly ineffective over the last couple of years, and if you can’t get it from the underclassmen, you’ve got to put guys out there who can make plays. If you want to compete with the schedule we have, you’ve got to put quality people on the unit.

I love seeing the young kicker out there, Justin Yoon, make his first field goal. He missed one later, but by hitting that first one, that’s a big load off his shoulders. His concentration, the way he lined up, the focus on his face for a freshman and the cool and calm demeanor makes me think this kid is going to be pretty darn good.  (Tyler) Newsome punted the ball consistently well and had a couple that landed inside the 20.

Looking ahead, one of the things that concerns me is Notre Dame’s inability to get pressure from their base front. To play in the big game against good teams, the front four has to put pressure on the quarterback because you can’t continuously depend on the blitz for it. You can’t bring your strong safety or inside linebacker all the time because they’re going to get picked up, and that’s going to leave guys open and give the quarterback time to get them the ball.

The front four looks stout on the run, but they have to put pressure on the quarterback and the fact of the matter is they may not get that this year. That could be one of the weaknesses of the defense. But the overall performance against Texas was extremely positive, about as positive as it could be against a long-time great program like the one the Longhorns’ have.


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