Here come the Irish

Notre Dame is primed for a run at the Playoff, led by quarterback Malik Zaire and the makings of a stingy defense

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Jaylon Smith took a few steps toward a table teeming with reporters and TV cameras before noticing it wasn’t where he was supposed to be.

Smith, a linebacker and probably Notre Dame’s best player, saw the name card on the table set out to identify which player would sit there and answer questions for about an hour during media day in August. It was Malik Zaire. Smith’s table only had a handful of people at it.

“Quarterbacks, man,” Smith said, smiling and shaking his head.

Welcome to Notre Dame, where a quarterback who’s only played about six quarters is the focus of preseason attention and even had his name pop up in a few Heisman Trophy watch lists. After a 2014 season in which Notre Dame’s quarterback turned the ball over far too frequently, the attention — and pressure — is on Zaire, a left-handed redshirt sophomore from Kettering, Ohio.

Surrounding Zaire are the players and coaching staff Notre Dame believes can propel it to a spot in the College Football Playoff. But Zaire is the most important part of the equation. Without a fruitful season from its quarterback, Notre Dame won’t reach its lofty goal.

“I’m not the new kid on the block any more,” Zaire said. “The expectations that are out there for me should be high because I have high expectations for myself.”

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Notre Dame’s 2014 collapse wasn’t all on Everett Golson’s shoulders, but his 22 turnovers had plenty to do with it. Zaire, in a sense, represents the safer option as a running-oriented quarterback who completed an efficient 12 of 15 passes against LSU in the Music City Bowl last December.

Zaire is a hard-nosed, emotional player who galvanized the Irish offense in that season-ending upset of a top-25 SEC West powerhouse. His throwing mechanics need work — both Kelly and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford said Zaire tends to throw with too wide a base, leading to some inaccurate passes — and he’s yet to be tested in a hostile environment against a defense that sells out to stop the run.

“I think he throws it pretty good for a college football quarterback,” Kelly said. “He throws it pretty good. He could throw it better. He’s a (redshirt) sophomore. He’s going to be around here a few more years. I think he could be a top, elite thrower of the football because his mechanics are not far off.”

It’s unfair to say throwing will be secondary for Zaire this year, but it is fair to say his ability to succeed in Notre Dame’s ground game is his most important trait. Each of college football’s last seven champions have averaged at least five yards per carry; Notre Dame hasn’t hit that mark since 1996. The closest it came was 2012 (4.87 YPC), which not coincidentally stands as Kelly’s best year since coming to South Bend in 2010.

Joining Zaire in the backfield are junior Tarean Folston (889 yards, 5.1 YPC, 6 TD in 2014) and converted slot receiver C.J. Prosise (who averaged 16.5 yards per play from scrimmage in 2014). Folston is the steady, durable running back who can grind for necessary yards and work in pass protection. Prosise is the home run hitter and matchup nightmare who could find himself on plenty of highlight reels this fall.

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Most importantly for Irish ball carriers, though, is offensive-line-coach Harry Hiestand’s strong unit, anchored by redshirt junior Ronnie Stanley, who passed on entering the NFL draft in January to play one more season in South Bend. Keeping Stanley, a left tackle with the potential to be a top-10 pick in the 2016 NFL draft, on campus was Kelly’s biggest recruiting coup in years.

Along with Stanley is center and returning captain Nick Martin — whose brother, Zack, was also a two-time Irish captain and 2014 first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys — and third-year starter Steve Elmer, who’s settled at right guard. Athletic redshirt sophomore Mike McGlinchey started the Music City Bowl and is entrenched at right tackle, while hulking redshirt freshman Quenton Nelson will take over at left guard.

Though two of this unit’s members are largely lacking experience, Hiestand has earned the benefit of the doubt since joining Kelly’s staff in 2012. While other position groups have had off-and-on issues over the last few years, Hiestand’s offensive lines have been among the most consistent features of Kelly’s tenure.

“The offensive line is the engine of the car, I’m just the nice shiny paint on it,” Zaire said. “We don’t move without them.”

With all this focus on Notre Dame’s rushing attack, though, it’s easy to forget every single wide receiver from 2014 returns this fall. That’s a group headlined by breakout star Will Fuller (76 catches, 1,094 yards, 15 TDs) and the boundary-side tandem of Chris Brown and Corey Robinson, which combined for 79 receptions, 1,087 yards and six touchdowns last year.

And it’s a group that has plenty of players pushing for playing time, like redshirt sophomore Torii Hunter Jr. (“Torii’s got to get on the field,” Kelly said) and freshman Equanimeous St. Brown (“He just keeps running by people,” Sanford said). When Zaire is tasked with throwing the ball, he won’t lack for skilled targets.

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Notre Dame’s defense last year was lousy.

Opponents averaged 5.6 yards per play, frequently ripped off big-chunk runs and passes and converted over 40 percent of their third downs. For the Irish defense, trips to the red zone went about as well as Ned Stark’s trip to King’s Landing. After middle linebacker Joe Schmidt suffered a season-ending ankle injury Nov. 1 against Navy, the Irish defense allowed 43 points per game during the rest of a month in which they lost four games in a row.

So why are expectations so high — Notre Dame wouldn’t be ranked No. 11 in the AP and Coaches’ preseason polls without hopes for a good defense — for this group?

The discussion starts with the nine returning starters from 2014, plus KeiVarae Russell, a cornerback with 26 career starts who was academically suspended last season. Had nose guard Jarron Jones not suffered a season-ending knee injury during practice in August, every starter on the Irish would have had at least eight career starts.

That experience matters, especially entering Year 2 of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme.

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“Last year, a lot of the times it was maybe you just do it because he said to do it or that’s what’s written on paper, this assignment,” said Smith, the team’s star linebacker. “But now, guys have an understanding of why this needs to be done and in what situations should this be called and things like that. It’s not like he didn’t teach this to us last year, we just didn’t grasp it how we should have. But with any young defense there’s going to be those flaws.”

Smith was a Butkus Award finalist last year, but Notre Dame thinks his junior year can be even better. The plan this fall is to move Smith around the field — he’ll play both inside and outside, swapping in for James Onwualu at the SAM — to get him into more pass-rushing situations and to prevent opposing offenses from game-planning against him to effectively take him out of certain plays.

This team doesn’t have a guy who will be on any national sack leaderboards, but it does have a group VanGorder & Co. believe can collectively improve off last year’s middling average of two sacks per game. Russell and junior Cole Luke are a formidable cornerback duo — arguably one of the best in the country — and junior safety Max Redfield has earned positive reviews during spring and preseason camp after a dismal sophomore season.

Notre Dame’s defense shouldn’t be expected to be as good as the group Manti Te’o led in 2012, but with so much experience and talent returning, VanGorder’s guys should be sharper than last year.

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That 2012 Irish team remains the gold standard not only for Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, but for the program since Lou Holtz left in the late 1990s.

But here’s the thing about the 2015 Irish: Kelly and plenty of the players who were on that 2012 team think this year’s version is better.

“It’s a faster team, it’s a more athletic team,” Kelly said. “We’re deeper at virtually all positions across the board, both on the offensive line and the defensive line. Maybe we don’t have singularly one superstar here or there, but the depth of the group is a whole different football team than that group.

“That was a unique group in that they knew how to win, had great leadership. Look, winning teams have a special group of guys that find ways to win, and that group did. But this is, from an athletic standpoint and from a physical prowess standpoint, a deeper football team.”

The 2012 Irish reached the BCS Championship with a 12-0 record, but won five games by seven points or fewer. Their depth was fragile — the same five offensive linemen started all 13 games, which was good, because by December the team only had six healthy scholarship linemen — and “knowing how to win” was exposed by an Alabama team far stronger and faster in the title game.

But 2012 was a crowing achievement for more than what happened on Saturdays. Kelly & Co. brought in their strongest recruiting class that next February, one Rivals ranked as the third-best nationally. Members of that recruiting class have been in the program for three years and form the core of the team; Zaire, Folston, Fuller, Robinson, Hunter, Elmer, McGlinchey, Rochell, Onwualu, Smith, Luke and Redfield have built to this point since the fall of 2013.

Not only does Kelly have a blossoming junior class at his disposal, he has a much better understanding of Notre Dame entering his sixth year on campus. He knows the program and university — he’s lost, due to academics, Golson, Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels and running back Greg Bryant in the last three years — and feels better prepared to navigate the path to championship contention.

“I don’t know if you ever get comfortable in the seat at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “Comfortable wouldn’t be a word that I would use. I think what I would probably say is that the picture is a lot clearer in the sense that I really know where our strengths and weaknesses are as a program, what we need to continue to work on and develop and know the direction that we need to continue to push the group in. So I think it’s just a more clear understanding of the program and what we need every single day more than a comfort level.

“Like I said, I don’t think you ever feel comfortable here at Notre Dame. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. I just think you’ve always got to be looking at how to get better every day.”