ARMED AND READY
Malik Zaire has thrown 35 passes as a Notre Dame quarterback. He nevertheless has a catchphrase: Third and long—not long enough. He first recited it in the huddle during a 35-point loss at USC last November, the Irish's fourth straight defeat to end 2014. The meaning: There is no amount of yardage the offense can't gain. "Whenever it's an opportunity for us to take that next step," Zaire says, "we can do that."
The 18 returning starters learned a lot from last year's nosedive, and they're eager to put that hard-earned knowledge to use. Says fifth-year linebacker Joe Schmidt, "I've maybe never been on a team where I've been as excited as I am about this season."
A line anchored by 6'6", 315-pound senior left tackle Ronnie Stanley—a potential No. 1 pick in the NFL draft—brings 68 combined starts to the field. Stanley & Co. helped rack up 263 rushing yards in December's Music City Bowl win over LSU. That far outpaced the team's season average (159.5) and doubled as an epiphany. "It happened because everyone really wanted it to happen," Stanley says. "You see all the yards you get when everyone does their job right. And it becomes an addiction."
A banged-up defense surrendered 31.7 points per game over the last seven, but young backups gained experience, and now coordinator Brian VanGorder's aggressive system can go deeper. "It gives us options and the ability to move guys around," says Schmidt, who broke his left ankle on Nov. 1 but is fully recovered. One of the most versatile pieces is junior All-America linebacker Jaylon Smith (112 tackles), another potential first-rounder. It would help if at least one of the seven returning defensive linemen, who combined for only 12 sacks last year, joined the group of playmakers.
Everett Golson's transfer to Florida State cinched the ascension of Zaire, who's a read-option threat as well as a skilled passer; he tossed a 68-yard touchdown in the spring game. Should it all come together, the Irish will be good enough to take the words out of their quarterback's mouth.
The slate features nine Power Five opponents and is designed to appeal to the selection committee, but it appears more strenuous than it is. Only four dates—home to Georgia Tech (Sept. 19), at Clemson (Oct. 3), home to USC (Oct. 17) and a season-ending trip to Stanford (Nov. 28)—are against true Top 25 foes. One potential trap: a home game against Navy's triple option that comes between the Tigers and the Trojans.
Is C.J. Prosise a receiver? Is the 6-foot, 220-pound senior a tailback? Notre Dame's answer: Yes and yes. Prosise averaged a team-best 17.8 yards on 29 catches as a slot receiver in 2014. He then ran for a 50-yard touchdown in the Music City Bowl, one of his four plays of 50-plus yards last year, and he had more spring game carries (12 for 64 yards) than any other running back. Prosise will work primarily as a complement to starter Tarean Folston, a 5'9", 214-pound junior, but Prosise's flexibility and explosiveness can vex any defense that thinks it knows what's coming.
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
If quarterback Malik Zaire is accepted by teammates, and there isn't any lingering effect from Everett Golson's leaving, that will be key. Golson was probably a better runner, but Malik is a better passer.... Ronnie Stanley is a legitimate pass protector at left tackle. He's a long-armed guy, he's got good knee bend, and he's the best athlete on that front group.... At some points running back Tarean Folston was able to get his pads down and become a difficult target at the second and third level. I don't know that he's a home run hitter, but he should be a 1,000-yard rusher.... Receiver Will Fuller runs good routes; he's got good hands. He will attempt to block.... Cornerback KeiVarae Russell has good hips, good feet. He's got explosive movement and good body control. My biggest concern would be the safeties. They played a good amount, but they weren't particularly good.
RICK SCUTERI/AP (SMITH)
ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES (PROSISE)
GREG MCWILLIAMS/ICON SPORTSWIRE (ZAIRE)