Spring Solutions: Linebackers

If there’s a reason to be optimistic about a defense that imploded last season, it’s the change to a 3-4 system. The switch allowed a defense that had personnel under-sized and out-of-position in an attacking, downhill, 4-3 scheme, to shift the balance of power back to the linebacking corps, the best collection of skilled defensive players on the roster.

Making the transition even easier is the fact that many of the players on the Irish roster were recruited to play in the very system the Irish return to under defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. They’ll also return three starters at linebacker as well as key reserves like Kerry Neal and Steve Filer, who was a force during the Blue-Gold game.

While the Irish need to find a starting Will linebacker to play alongside Manti Te’o in the middle, there seem to be two capable starters in Anthony McDonald and David Posluszny, with Carlo Calabrese and Steve Paskorz also fighting for time.

Here’s a look at the Irish depth chart as we head into the fall, broken down by eligibility:

        LINEBACKERS DEPTH CHART
        2010: Brian Smith, Kerry Neal
        2011: Darius Fleming, Steve Filer, Steve Paskorz
        2012: David Posluszny, Anthony McDonald, Manti Te’o
        2013: Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox
        2014: Prince Shembo, Justin Utupo, Kendall Moore, Danny Spond

The senior class of linebackers is led by Brian Smith, who moves back to his natural outside linebacker position for his final season in South Bend. It’s been clear from comments made by both Diaco and head coach Brian Kelly that Smith is a great fit at the drop position, meaning he’ll spend more time out in space or in coverage than rushing the quarterback. For as much grief as Smith took for his play on the inside, not all linebackers have the versatility to play both inside and outside. (Plus, even the best inside linebackers can look pretty bad if their defensive front doesn’t protect them.) A position change might also benefit Kerry Neal, who had been playing out of position at defensive end after he was recruited to play outside backer in a 3-4 scheme. Neal battled a calf injury throughout spring, but was credited for his resiliency by Kelly.

Junior linebackers Darius Fleming and Steve Filer headline the 2011 class, with both Chicago products primed to make a leap into the headlines for the Irish defense. For Fleming, he’ll likely do most of his damage coming off the edge, as his 12 tackles for loss are the third most by an Irish underclassmen since 1976. (Credit: Lou Somogyi) Fleming was nicked for most of the Spring, but he’ll likely excel in a defensive system that produced a lot of sacks and big plays behind the line of scrimmage, already Fleming’s specialty. Filer has long dazzled with his athleticism, but the Blue-Gold game might have been a breakout performance, his 12 tackles and physicality something that coaches and fans have waited to witness since his arrival under the Dome. Filer will been a key rotational player with Smith and Fleming, and his ability to stay on the field for all three downs will only make it harder to get him off the field. Steve Paskorz rejoins the linebacking corp after spending the past two seasons at fullback. Paskorz was recruited to play inside linebacker and has the size and bulk needed to play on the inside, but he’ll be learning on the job. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Paskorz get some playing time in goal-line or short yardage sets, where the battering ram can contribute.

All three linebackers with sophomore eligibility play on the inside. Manti Te’o will step on the field with the best chance to be an elite player of any defender on the Irish roster. Te’o’s football IQ is quickly growing to match his physical abilities and his rare blend of size and speed make him a weapon at Mike linebacker. David Posluszny and Anthony McDonald will battle to play the spot next to Te’o, with both taking snaps at the Will this spring. McDonald has impressed Kelly with his physical play, and looks to finally be healthy after two star-crossed seasons. Poz, the younger brother of former Penn State star Paul Posluszny, is still a bit undersized to play in the middle, but has great instincts and used this offseason to make his way up the depth chart. McDonald or Posluszny’s ability to excel inside will be a key to the Irish having a stout run defense.

While both Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox sat out last season, they’ve both made great impressions on the new coaching staff. Calabrese impressed during drills and made a great interception in coverage during the Blue-Gold game. Fox was mentioned by Kelly and Diaco as one of the five true options the Irish have at outside backer, which is a testament to the Ohio native’s ability. Both might need another season in strength trainer Paul Longo’s weight program, but these two have four good years ahead of them in the program, and at the very least could make a big difference on special teams.

It’ll be hard for any incoming freshman to push their way into the two-deep, but if I had to place a bet on one, it’d be Justin Utupo. Utupo has the size, athleticism, and pedigree to fit the mold of a play-early freshman, and has the potential to play a number of different positions, inside or out. The same could be said for Kendall Moore, who might profile better as an inside backer, but looks like he could have the athleticism to play out in space as well. We won’t know anything about Shembo, who also spent time playing with his hand on the ground as a defensive end in high school, until he arrives for summer camp. Keep your eye out for developmental project Danny Spond as well, who I’m profiling as a linebacker for now, but might end up on the offensive side of the ball.

 

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    Notre Dame’s Opponents: Michigan State

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    It was a disappointing 2016 season for Notre Dame followed by a long offseason spent thinking about said disappointment. Compared to Michigan State, though, the going has been smooth. Not only did the Spartans finish a game worse than the Irish last year, even with the victory in their head-to-head matchup, but this offseason has been a tumultuous one for the Michigan State program. Four players have been dismissed from the team amid sexual assault allegations.

    2016 REVIEW
    The Spartans started last year ranked No. 11 in the Coaches Poll and No. 12 in the AP’s. A year earlier, they had won the Big Ten and made it into the first College Football Playoff. Expectations were high for the 2016 season, higher than a No. 11/12 preseason ranking would belie.

    A cruise-control win over Furman followed by a game of two halves victory over Notre Dame lifted Michigan State to No. 8 in both polls, starting to fit more in line with those best-laid plans. Then it all came tumbling down.

    The first indications of that collapse came in the final 17 minutes of the 36-28 win over the Irish. Leading 36-7, the Spartans gave up three touchdowns on three consecutive possessions. With all the momentum on the Notre Dame sideline, Michigan State finally managed a defensive stop with 3:30 remaining in the game, draining the clock from there.

    A week later, the Spartans could not manage to find the end zone in a 30-6 loss vs. Wisconsin, starting a spiral of nine losses in 10 games, the only bright spot being a victory over Rutgers.

    Unlike the Irish, Michigan State did not let opportunity after opportunity slip past. Instead, the Spartans were on the wrong end of one-possession games only three times.

    WHAT MICHIGAN STATE LOST

    Former Michigan State defensive end Malik McDowell (Getty Images)

    For a program coming off a 3-9 season, the length of this list illustrates just how much of a letdown 2016 was in East Lansing. Defensive end Malik McDowell and safety Montae Nicholson both heard their names in the NFL Draft, in the second and fourth rounds, respectively. That is just a start, though.

    With sophomore receiver Donnie Corley (33 catches for 453 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman) among those dismissed this offseason, the Spartans said farewell to their top four receivers. Quarterback Tyler O’Connor graduated, as well, though his 58.8 completion percentage and 16-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio hardly pushed the offense forward.

    Including McDowell and Nicholson, Michigan State also lost five of its top eight tacklers. McDowell managed 5.5 tackles for loss while linebacker and No. 3 tackler Riley Bullough added 6.5 more. Cornerbacks Demetrious Cox and Darian Hicks both make that top-eight cutoff, but more notably contributed a combined 13 pass breakups, too.

    WHAT MICHIGAN STATE GAINED
    The Spartans signed 24 recruits to finish with the country’s No. 33 class, per rivals.com. That class included 4 four-star prospects, most notably receiver Hunter Rison. Given the exodus of receivers, Rison may be called upon for contributions early in his career, perhaps by his third game in a primetime matchup against a longtime rival.

    HEAD COACH
    Mark Dantonio enters his 11th season in East Lansing, and a 3-9 season did nothing to the temperature of his figurative seat, especially not a season after coming within one game of appearing in the national championship.

    Discounting last season, Dantonio amassed 87 wins in the previous nine years. Rough math obviously indicates that is nearly 10 wins annually. Suffice it to say he had established a high-level program with the Spartans and will look to trend back toward that par this season.

    OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
    Without a returning receiver who recorded more than a dozen catches last season, and without a quarterback who competed in more than two games, it makes sense to think Michigan State will turn to its running game in 2017. That makes even more sense when considering the Spartans return sophomore left guard Tyler Higby (six starts in 10 games before an ankle injury) and junior left tackle Cole Chewins (three starts in 12 games) to pave the way for running back LJ Scott. The junior gained steam as last season progressed, finishing with 994 yards on 184 rushes, good for an average carry of 5.4 yards.

    Running back LJ Scott (Getty Images)

    Once Scott establishes the Spartan running game and a theoretical play-action threat, the eyes will turn to sophomore Brian Lewerke. Earlier it was said 2016 starter Tyler O’Connor left room for improvement. That was recognized five games into last season, when Lewerke was given the chance to start despite being only a freshman. A week later, he broke his leg, ending his season and seemingly cementing Michigan State’s struggles. In that brief action, Lewerke did not exactly dazzle, completing 31-of-57 passes (54.4 percent) for 381 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

    But he earned enough coaching faith to be given the chance. He will have it again this year.

    DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
    This seems hard to fathom for a Dantonio-coached team, but the defense might be a Spartan weakness for the second consecutive year. For context, Michigan State allowed 27.75 points and 395 yards per game last season. Now Dantonio looks to replace most of a secondary, possibly relying on a true freshman to start at cornerback in Josiah Scott.

    If the Spartan defense does buckle down, it will be on the backs of its defensive line’s interior and its veteran linebacker core. Sophomore tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk saw action early in their debut campaigns, combining for 42 tackles with Williams also chipping in two sacks of the defense’s 11 total sacks. Yes, Michigan State managed three fewer sacks than Notre Dame’s paltry pass rush a season ago.

    A level behind them, senior Chris Frey led the team with 96 tackles last year and is flanked by junior Andrew Dowell (fourth with 67) and sophomore Joe Bachle.

    SEASON OUTLOOK
    Michigan State faces a tough schedule this season, certainly one more difficult than a program looking to rebound would prefer. The Spartans will have to travel to Michigan, to Minnesota and to Ohio State, as well as host Penn State, not to mention Notre Dame.

    To top a win total over/under of 6.5, they may need to convert two chances for wins at the end of the season, vs. Maryland and at Rutgers. Naturally, slipping past that season-long metric would set up Michigan State to return to a bowl game. It may not be a return to the College Football Playoff, but capitalizing on extra practice time and then entering an offseason with a win — and much better vibes than was the case this past year — would be the first step to the Spartans returning to Dantonio’s standard.

    Monday: Temple
    Tuesday: Georgia
    Yesterday: Boston College
    Tomorrow: Miami (OH)
    Saturday: North Carolina
    Sunday: Bye Week
    Monday, the 21st: USC
    Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
    Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
    Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
    Friday, 25th: Navy
    Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)
    Sunday, 27th: Six days until Notre Dame kicks off. You can make it that far, right?

    Notre Dame’s opponents: Boston College

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    Notre Dame fans likely remember the last time the Irish visited Boston College’s campus. John Goodman caught a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone to put Notre Dame up three possessions early in the third quarter, setting up the Irish to move past Alabama in the polls thanks to the Tide’s loss earlier that evening.

    A week-three matchup will not provide such an opportunity for dramatics this season, but a loss would certainly diminish the trajectory of Notre Dame’s season.

    2016 REVIEW
    Boston College finished 7-6 last season and 2-6 in the ACC. That overall record was greatly aided by a three-game winning streak to close the season, including a 30-0 drubbing of Bob Diaco-led Connecticut, arguably sealing Diaco’s ouster at the end of the season. The Eagles also topped Wake Forest 17-14 before beating Maryland 36-30 in the Quick Lane Bowl, the program’s first bowl game victory since 2007.

    Before that closing burst, Boston College not only lost games, it lost them by egregious margins. The Eagles faced three ranked foes last year, losing to Clemson, Louisville and Florida State by a combined score of 153-24, yet that does not even include their ugliest loss of the season, falling 49-0 at Virignia Tech in the season’s third week.

    As was the case with Temple, taking a look at how Boston College’s offense fared against Wake Forest seems applicable, considering then-Deacons defensive coordinator Mike Elko now leads the Irish defense. None of the Eagles’ offensive numbers last season came close to stellar, but the overall performance against Wake Forest marks something of a nadir.

    Ten of Boston College’s 17 points came on two drives totaling 32 yards, the short fields provided by an interception and a recovered fumble. Nonetheless, the 17 points fell short of the Eagles’ otherwise average of 20.7 points per game. Boston College rushed for 93 yards (on 39 attempts) and threw for 74 more (on 23 attempts), both drastically below the averages against all other opponents of 153.8 rushing yards and 149.6 passing yards. The Eagles typically managed 4.55 yards per play. Against Wake Forest, that figure fell to 2.69 yards.

    All those single-game figures are significantly lower than what the Deacons usually allowed, with an emphasis on significantly.

    WHAT BOSTON COLLEGE LOST

    Former Boston College safety John Johnson rises for an interception. (Getty Images)

    The Eagles lost notable pieces on all three levels of their defense, perhaps none more vital than safety John Johnson (a third-round NFL Draft pick). Johnson finished second on the team last year with 77 tackles and notched nine pass breakups, all while manning the role of defensive playcaller.

    Matt Milano (a fifth-round NFL Draft pick) led the way for Boston College’s linebackers, finishing fourth on the team with 58 tackles while making 6.5 sacks. Rising junior Sharrieff Grice was expected to step in for Milano until he unexpectedly retired earlier this month citing medical concerns.

    Furthermore, the Eagles lost two dominant defensive linemen in end Kevin Kavalec and tackle Truman Gutapfel, combining for 99 tackles, six sacks and 15 tackles for loss.

    On the offensive side of the ball, one would usually note when a team loses its starting quarterback as Boston College did with Patrick Towles, a graduate transfer from Kentucky. Then again, in his one season in Chestnut Hill, Towles managed a 50.5 percent completion rate and threw 12 touchdowns against seven interceptions. His departure should not much further limit the offense.

    WHAT BOSTON COLLEGE GAINED
    Signing 21 recruits to the No. 66 class, per rivals.com, the Eagles may need a number of those to be immediate contributors. Two running backs stand at the head of the line in four-star AJ Dillon and three-star Travis Levy. While Boston College returns its top two rushers from 2016, it did lose Myles Willis, who finished with 301 yards on 49 carries. It seems rather likely either Dillon or Levy picks up that slack.

    HEAD COACH
    Steve Addazio enters his fifth season with the Eagles. Not much else needs to be said here, aside from the coach has long favored a physical style of play, focusing on a rushing attack as often as not.

    Addazio was a Notre Dame assistant coach from 1999 to 2001.

    OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
    In a twist, Boston College may consider its offense its strength this season. That would seem to imply a leap from its averages of 20.4 points and 293 yards per game last season, but it is also a bit of an indictment of how the aforementioned losses could affect the upcoming “Defensive Summary.”

    Jon Hillman led Eagle rushers last season with 542 yards and six touchdowns on 194 carries. (Getty Images)

    The offensive line returns four starters, adding West Virginia graduate transfer Marcell Lazard to round off the unit. With two experienced running backs carrying the ball behind that line, the Eagles may be able to ease in whomever starts at quarterback. Senior Darius Wade and sophomore Anthony Brown continue to compete for that gig. A year ago, Towles’ transfer likely saved a year of Brown’s eligibility, while Wade finished the season 9-of-19 for 100 yards and one interception.

    To be repetitive, though, either quarterback option will not need to clear a high bar to exceed Towles’ contributions. Add in a receiving corps returning its top-six options and perhaps Addazio will be tempted to stray from his power running game trademark.

    That may not be the worst idea for Addazio. The offense has sputtered for two seasons now, averaging 17.2 points and 276 yards per game in 2015.

    DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
    Setting aside the team awaiting Addazio upon his arrival at Boston College in 2013, last year’s defense allowed the most points of his tenure, 25.0 per game. Frankly, that is a rather low total to include the descriptor of most in front of it, and that is a credit to Addazio as much as anyone else.

    Continuing that trend will be only more difficult this season after losing Johnson, Milano, Grice, Kavalec and Gutapfel.

    Somewhere it should be noted how strong of a pass rush Addazio has had in each of his seasons with the Eagles. Beginning in 2013, they have totaled 36, 33 and 34 sacks before topping out last season at 47.

    SEASON OUTLOOK
    Boston College will struggle to reach the win total over/under of 4. In order to get that to even a push, the Eagles may need to win their season finale at Syracuse. If they do cruise past that figure, it will likely trace to the defensive not losing a step AND the quarterback starter exceeding expectations.

    Even if Boston College goes 4-8 this season, Addazio has a contract through 2020 and last year’s bowl game victory likely earned him a bit of a cushion.

    Monday: Temple
    Yesterday: Georgia
    Tomorrow: Michigan State
    Friday: Miami (OH)
    Saturday: North Carolina
    Sunday: Bye Week
    Monday, the 21st: USC
    Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
    Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
    Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
    Friday, 25th: Navy
    Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)
    Sunday, 27th: Six days until Notre Dame kicks off. You can make it that far, right?

    Notre Dame’s Opponents: Georgia

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    Notre Dame’s season will get an early litmus test when the Irish host Georgia. Undoubtedly, plenty of commenters here will rush to say Notre Dame does not stand a chance against the Bulldogs’ rushing attack, and while that ground game does warrant a heap of respect, implying Georgia will cruise through South Bend on Sept. 9 is too simple of a summary.

    2016 REVIEW
    The Bulldogs went 8-5 last year, including 4-4 in the SEC. In nearly every respect, it was a disappointing debut season for head coach Kirby Smart given the expectations for what was supposedly a team ready to break through. Even that .500 conference record paints a prettier picture than the reality, as Georgia was outscored by 25 points in conference play.

    The Bulldogs started 3-0, but that record was built on a house of cards. They needed to come from behind in the second half to win each of those games, including squeezing by Football Championship Subdivision-team Nicholls State 26-24.

    Ole Miss handed Georgia its first loss in the form of a 45-14 walloping, leading 31-0 at halftime. There would be no second-half rally, to say the least. The defeat started a five-game stretch in which the Bulldogs fell four times, including a 17-16 loss at home against Vanderbilt. No matter how well Derek Mason may be doing with a slow Commodores rebuild, that was a bad look for Smart.

    Few teams could have two prospective NFL starting running backs and a highly-touted quarterback, yet manage only 24.5 points per game.

    WHAT GEORGIA LOST

    Former Georgia receiver Isaiah McKenzie (Getty Images)

    Remember discussing Temple and its three NFL Draft picks? That was three times as many as Georgia managed last season, that lone honoree being receiver Isaiah McKenzie in the fifth round. He totaled 633 yards and seven touchdowns last year, as well as a punt return for a touchdown.

    More notably, the Bulldogs saw 60 percent of their offensive line graduate, and the remaining 40 percent does not make up one side of the line to create a reliable half of the field. (Think of Notre Dame’s offensive line and its trust in its left side with fifth-year senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey and senior left guard Quenton Nelson.)

    Rather, Georgia is looking to replace both its offensive tackles as well as its center.

    WHAT GEORGIA GAINED
    Speaking of replacing offensive linemen, Georgia’s top 2017 recruit could fit the bill. Isaiah Wilson, all 6-foot-7 and 350 pounds of him, has reportedly seen some first-team action in preseason practice. He was the centerpiece of the No. 3 recruiting class in the country, per rivals.com. That rating was boosted by sheer numbers: Of the Bulldogs’ 26 signees, two were five-stars and 14 ranked as four-stars. Yes, that 26 figure exceeds the NCAA maximum, but that mandate kicks in only upon enrollment.

    Receiver Mark Webb was among those four-stars and could quickly find himself playing time amid a deep but unproven receiver corps. (Sound familiar, Irish fans?)

    HEAD COACH
    Kirby Smart enters his second season away from Nick Saban’s watchful eye with one primary goal: Meet Saban in December. The former Alabama defensive coordinator will need to get past Florida to reach the SEC Championship game.

    The encounter against Notre Dame could serve a genuine role in that task: Aside from last year’s loss in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, the Sept. 9 contest will be the truest test yet of Smart’s head-coaching tenure, partly due to it being on the road as it is. Suffice it to say, Georgia rarely travels north, let alone within range of the Great Lakes’ winds. Obviously, the weather should not matter in early September, but it is not absurd to think the time in flight could alter some routines.

    As will be discussed below in the “Season Outlook,” the Bulldogs will need to win on the road this season if they have hopes of reclaiming some SEC glory. Notching an away victory in the season’s second week could lay a foundation for that pursuit.

    OFFENSIVE SUMMARY

    Georgia running back Sony Michel (Getty Images)

    The entire week leading into Georgia facing the Irish, expect to hear repeated mentions of senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel (pronounced like Michelle). It is hard to overstate how good each is. To have both defies typical collegiate comprehension.

    Yet, the Bulldogs attack will go beyond the rushing game. Sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason has arm strength to rival Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s, and Eason will have a number of receivers to target, ones he is certainly more familiar with than he was as a freshman.

    DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
    Georgia returns its top-five tacklers. Eh, maybe that is not as impressive as it first seems.

    Georgia returns 14 of its top-15 tacklers, losing only No. 6 in that count, cornerback Maurice Smith and his 50 takedowns.

    With 10 returning starters, including its entire front-seven, having now spent an additional year learning Smart’s 3-4 system, this should be a dominant defense led by linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorezno Carter. The duo combined for 10 sacks and 30 quarterback hurries last year. No matter how generously that latter statistic is tracked, Bellamy’s 17 hurries is a number to notice.

    SEASON OUTLOOK
    Vegas pegs Georgia’s win total over/under at 8.5. Despite the heralded running duo and threatening defense, that number is quite well-placed. Given their struggles a year ago, putting too much faith in the Bulldogs may be a reach. In order to best that win total, they would need to not slip up in any game likely favored in (such as at Vanderbilt), as well as win at least two of five games away from home at Notre Dame, at Tennessee, at a neutral site vs. Florida, at Auburn and at Georgia Tech.

    The SEC East will presumably come down to Georgia and Florida again. Speaking of the Gators, do not be surprised to see semi-frequent Florida updates in this space this fall. The Malik Zaire experiment’s intrigue increases with each update from Gainesville.

    Yesterday: Temple
    Tomorrow: Boston College
    Thursday: Michigan State
    Friday: Miami (OH)
    Saturday: North Carolina
    Sunday: Bye Week
    Monday, the 21st: USC
    Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
    Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
    Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
    Friday, 25th: Navy
    Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)
    Sunday, 27th: Enjoy the sun once more before the season commences in earnest.

    Tirico replaces Hicks in Notre Dame booth

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    Let the changes keep coming. In an offseason filled with three new coordinators and the conclusion of a $400-million construction project including a video board towering over the south end zone, Notre Dame fans will need to adjust to another departure from the Irish norm, though this one is far-from consequential when it comes to how the team plays.

    Mike Tirico will replace Dan Hicks as the play-by-play man for Notre Dame games in 2017, NBC Sports announced Monday morning. Tirico joined NBC just more than a year ago and called three Irish games in 2016 while Hicks tended to golf broadcast duties.

    “Mike has been an elite play-by-play voice in both professional and collegiate football for more than a decade,” said Sam Flood, executive producer and president of production at NBC Sports. “He is the latest in a line of distinguished broadcasters to call Notre Dame Football on NBC. … We look forward to hearing Mike call the first-ever game at the newly-renovated Notre Dame Stadium.” (more…)