Irish enter season with experienced squad
Zach Klonsinski | Thursday, August 20, 2015
At Notre Dame’s media day last year, head coach Brian Kelly walked into the auditorium clad in a typical blue blazer. This year he went for something a little less traditional.
Dressed in a snazzy, plaid green sport coat, Kelly said his reasoning for donning the jacket was simple: “Well, I thought that I went blue last year, I thought I’d go green this year. Blue worked out pretty good. Hopefully green will have the same kind of effect. So just going to try to keep everybody guessing.”
It symbolized the day’s theme perfectly; last year’s team was full of talent, but now the Irish are brazen with experience, too — not that it’s made fall practices any less hectic for Notre Dame as it prepares to host Texas in its season opener Sept. 5.
“We’ve got a lot going on,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to prepare our football team for our opener, so we’re trying to create as many situations out there for our team. … We’ve got talented players, but, it’s about how they respond to situations in the game that determine how the outcome is ultimately going to be a win or a loss.”
Zaire in command
As junior quarterback Malik Zaire and junior linebacker Jaylon Smith emerged from the hallway at media day, a crowd gathered around Zaire’s designated table, microphones, recorders, cameras and reporters all vying for space. While Smith, featured on four preseason awards watch lists and a recent Sports Illustrated cover, attracted a sizable crowd of his own, the majority of heads turned towards the quarterback who nabbed the starting spot.
“I have 100 percent confidence in myself to be able to handle this job,” Zaire said. “That’s why I was able to be granted the ability to start and the support from my teammates and coaches to help this program win football games.
“It’s important that as the high-profile position that the quarterback is, not only for Notre Dame but also this offense, we have the command and the presence of running the show.”
Fall camp has been a little different than spring ball, when Zaire and Florida State transfer Everett Golson were still in a battle to lead the offense. Zaire is now the clear starter, which he said has allowed him to focus on things other than beating the player next to him.
“Camp has been great. It’s been a lot of learning,” Zaire said. “I think some of the situations we’ve been put in as an offense have been more than we’ve experienced the past couple of camps, which is good, not only for me, but also for the group to be able to become adjusted to some of the situations that will be in real live-game experiences.”
Stanley returns a leader in his final season
After the last campaign drew to end with the Music City Bowl win over LSU, Kelly and his staff had an important recruiting pitch to make — to one of their own. Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley was debating forgoing his senior season and declaring for the NFL Draft but ultimately decided to return to school for one last go-around.
“I think primarily [it was], You’re this close,” Kelly said of his pitch to Stanley. “You haven’t had a winter workout yet. You’ve had two injuries that have really not allowed you to get as strong as you can be physically. You’re close to finishing off your degree. Let’s get your degree. Then finally, let’s put you in a leadership position.
“I think all those three things were certainly in front of him, and we simply went there to reinforce that we’d provide those opportunities for him.”
Stanley described the choice to return to school as “a very difficult decision,” but ultimately it was his teammates he didn’t want to leave.
“One of things that got me to stay was my teammates, all those guys coming back that I built bonds with and I am really close with,” Stanley said. “It wouldn’t feel right leaving all those guys that I know.”
Stanley said he has put an emphasis on being a strong team leader, something that didn’t always come easy to him.
“I was always able to give my teammates good feedback and be able to influence them in some ways, but I was never too firm in my leadership role,” Stanley said. “Now I have taken hold of it and embraced it more than I ever have.”
Graduate student center Nick Martin said he was excited when Stanley finally made the decision to return to campus.
“I talked to him a lot about it,” Martin said. “We’re very close, and I told him, ‘Hey, I want to finish out my time here with you.’”
With the return of Stanley, the only piece missing from last season’s offensive line is the graduated Christian Lombard, a fact Stanley said has had the line “locked-in” since practices began.
“When we are in there, we are live. We are a very serious group out there,” he said.
Receiving corps ready for more breakthroughs
Despite a new face behind center, Zaire’s targets downfield have remained relatively stable, his largest departure being the graduated tight end Ben Koyack. While junior receiver Will Fuller was the breakout star of the 2014 campaign, Kelly was asked about the possibility of such breakthroughs from other receivers, like juniors Corey Robinson and Torii Hunter Jr.
“You’re going to see a lot of [Hunter] this year,” Kelly said. “He’ll play a lot. If he had to, he could play all the positions. … He’s probably our most versatile receiver in that he has the size and the speed and the ability to work inside out of the slot position because of his elusiveness. We probably don’t have another player that has that ability on the roster.”
Kelly said teams aren’t going to put a lot of one-on-one coverage on Robinson, but the lanky 6-foot-5 receiver has made strides in his ability to adjust to zone matchups, especially in the red zone.
“He’s going to get a lot of bracket coverage, a lot of seven, eight across, zone coverage, and he’s going to have to work the back end line,” Kelly said. “That’s where he’s going to have to live this year.
“He’s getting accustomed to understanding zone coverages, though he’s still developing his craft and learning more about the game every day.”
Fuller, for his part, said he knows he will be keyed on by every defense on the Irish schedule.
“I know that defensive backs want to go against me,” Fuller said. “I’m not a surprise this year. They’re going to be aware of what I did last year on screens.
“When the spotlight is on me, I think I do a great job handling all the pressures. I love big moments and being under the lights. If my number is called, I get excited.”
Sanford hits the ground running
First year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford was everything Kelly thought he’d be, Kelly said, praising the former Boise State offensive coordinator’s ability to clearly communicate the team’s progression-read offense.
“At times last year we were not clear sometimes on our movement key and our progression reads,” Kelly said. “We are 100 percent on our movement key progressions. Mike is a stickler for that, and I’ve always been a stickler for that. That’s one of the things that we have connected on and one of the things that we connected on in the interviewing process.”
Zaire also described Sanford’s attention to detail has enabled both himself and the offense as a whole to grow.
“Coach Sanford is a guy that’s been more specific than other coaches,” Zaire said. “We’ve been more keen on finding out how we are going to get better every day and the steps we’re going to take every day to get better. It’s helpful because the day-to-day work isn’t so broad. It’s much more specific and set out each day.”
However, Kelly said he and his coaches are still determining whether Sanford, associate head coach Mike Denbrock or Kelly himself will call the plays in the upcoming season.
Quote of the day
Brian Kelly, in response to a question asking if he feels more comfortable in his sixth year:
“I don’t know if you ever get comfortable in the seat at Notre Dame. Comfortable wouldn’t be a word that I would use.”