Opponent Preview: Utah Utes

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The tenth edition of our opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2010 opponents. Check out the rest of them with Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Pitt, Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa.

The Overview:

It’s a sign of the times in college football when the toughest game on Notre Dame’s home schedule is a date with a non-BCS automatic qualifier team in the middle of November. But Utah is no ordinary opponent and the game with the Utes is no ordinary Saturday at Notre Dame. While Boise State seems to be stealing all the headlines recently, it’s the team from Salt Lake City that’s the gold standard of Cinderellas, a football program that’s been playing elite football for over a decade, winning nine bowl games in the last 12 seasons, including two BCS games. (The last bowl loss for Utah was in the 1996 Copper Bowl to Wisconsin.) Utah will officially join the big boys next season when they move to the Pac-10, but they’ve been a college football power for quite some time.

Last time against the Irish:

For the second week in a row, the Irish will be facing an opponent for the first time. Here’s a fun tidbit: College football equipment managers have a tradition of trading helmets with an opposing team when playing them for the first time, and Notre Dame’s new equipment guru Ryan Grooms will be finding room for two more helmets, adding Tulsa and Utah to the shelf (and likely Western Michigan unless they’ve got the old leatherhead stashed away somewhere.)

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents the Irish face this year, I rank Utah as the second-toughest game on the schedule.

      2. Utah Utes
      3. Boston College Eagles
      4. Michigan Wolverines
      5. Michigan State Spartans
      6. Pitt Panthers
      7. Stanford Cardinal
      8. Purdue Boilermakers
      9. Navy Midshipmen
      10. Tulsa Golden Hurricanes
      12. Western Michigan Broncos

Traditionalists might not realize it, but this could be the best ticket on the 2010 home schedule. The Irish will have the benefit of a week off before facing Utah, while the Utes will be coming off a gigantic showdown with T.C.U.

The Match-up:

Utah is 23-3 over the past two seasons, and during a transitional year head coach Kyle Whittingham still managed to win 10 games and beat Cal in the Poinsettia Bowl. In Whittingham, Kelly will face his toughest adversary, a head coach that’s gone 47-17 in his five seasons running the Utes. If Utah found its answer at quarterback in Jordan Wynn, the offense will be better for it. Wynn played his best during their bowl victory, throwing for 338 yards and three scores against Cal. He won’t need to be perfect, because he’s got a very strong running game and a veteran offensive line that returns four starters. The Irish defense better be capable stopping the run, because Utah has three guys that can run the football successfully.

Defensively, Utah’s front four will be its strength, but they have to replace all three starting linebackers and have relatively little experience to do it with. The secondary is largely untested as well, with only Brandon Burton returning as a starter. Utah might start freshman in both the secondary and among the linebackers, so the Irish have areas they may be able to target.

How the Irish will win:

If Notre Dame wins, they’ll do it at the expense of a Utah defense that struggles to find an identity after replacing nearly the entire back seven. Beaten up after a tough home battle against TCU, the Irish should spread the field, throw quickly and challenge a green group of defenders with quick strike passing and a solid mix of running and throwing. Defensively, the Irish are content stuffing the run, and the improved play of the secondary matches up well with an underwhelming corp of wide receivers for Utah.

How the Irish will lose:

Brian Kelly was hired for what his football teams do in November, and that’ll be put to the test early at Notre Dame. The Utes could very well be national championship contenders when they arrive in South Bend, and a victory at Notre Dame would be an impressive cherry on top of high-profile games against Pitt, TCU, the Irish, and their annual clash with BYU. If Utah wins, it’ll be because of the trenches, where on paper they’re much stronger than the Irish on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
 
Gut Feeling:

In year one of the last two eras of Notre Dame football, the Irish played some of their best football down the stretch under Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis. If the Irish get the ball rolling under Kelly, there won’t be a student body or fanbase more electric than Notre Dame’s. By mid-November the Irish will be a different team, maybe better, maybe worse, but Kelly’s track record for keeping his team’s strong through the end of the season gives me reason to think that the Irish could be heading into Yankee Stadium with some serious momentum.

Restocking the roster: Running Backs

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs for a 26-yard gain against the USC Trojans in the first half of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s running back depth chart was tested to its max less than 10 minutes into the season opener. The projected two-deep, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, were both lost for the year—Bryant out of school as an academic and disciplinary casualty by the start of fall camp and Folston because of a knee injury suffered on his third carry of the season.

Welcome back to Notre Dame, Autry Denson.

The school’s all-time leading rusher in his first season as a running back coach had to be feeling a little woozy. He had a converted wide receiver taking featured-back carries and a true freshman a little over a year removed from his own major knee injury serving as his primary backup.

That the Irish had their most prolific running season under Brian Kelly says quite a bit about the job that Denson did. It’s also a credit to the offensive line blocking, the adjusted scheme that also protected two new starting quarterbacks, and the talent that remained at the position.

Spring presents new challenges. Tarean Folston should be a little over seven months removed from ACL surgery, making him doubtful to do anything more than wear a red jersey. With C.J. Prosise‘s departure, Adams goes from record-setting rookie to spring starter, with Williams likely carrying a large load as well.

Tony Jones Jr. and Deon McIntosh arrive this summer, reinforcements on the way. But before we get there, let’s take a look at the pre-spring roster at running back.

 

DEPARTURES
C.J. Prosise (156 carries 1,032 yards, 11 TDs)
Greg Bryant (lost preseason 2015)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Josh Adams (117 carries, 835 yards, 6 TDs)
Dexter Williams (21 carries, 81 yards, 3 TDs)
Tony Jones Jr.
Deon McIntosh 

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Tarean Folston,* Sr.
Josh Adams, Soph.
Dexter Williams, Soph.
Justin Brent,* Junior

*Additional year of eligibility remaining.

 

ANALYSIS: This might be a position battle deferred to fall camp, especially if Folston is still in recovery mode. At this point, it doesn’t make sense to rush back from an ACL tear for 15 practices, so while the rising senior may be chomping at the bit to return, it’s better to save it until August.

Folston will likely be the team’s most versatile back, but keeping Adams off the field will be a hard chore. His breakaway speed was on display multiple times in 2015, with his record-setting run against Wake Forest the team’s longest play from scrimmage. Adams also likely added some mass and physicality to his game in the offseason weigh-training program, giving the Irish someone capable of hitting the big play and also moving the sticks in short yardage situations.

The staff believes that Dexter Williams is a talented back, so with three solid contributors on the roster before Jones or McIntosh hit campus, it’ll be fun to see how snaps get sorted. (From that perspective, you can only wonder how they’d have dealt with the champagne problem of having Prosise around…) Justin Brent remains an option as well, though the attrition from the receiving corps makes you think he’ll be back at receiver.

The wildcard in all of this is Folston. He’s a unique talent with natural ability you just can’t teach. If he’s fully recovered and ready to engage in a position battle, there won’t likely be a drop off even with the early departure of Prosise.

 

Notre Dame gets 10 invites to NFL Scouting Combine

2013 NFL Combine
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Notre Dame will send ten former players to the NFL Scouting Combine. The annual event in Indianapolis serves as the unofficial apex of draft season, a meat-market where the best professional prospects are poked, prodded, questioned and tested in a variety of on- and off-field drills.

Heading to the festivities from Notre Dame are:

Chris Brown, WR
Sheldon Day, DT
Will Fuller, WR
Nick Martin, C
Romeo Okwara, DE
C.J. Prosise, RB
KeiVarae Russell, CB
Elijah Shumate, S
Jaylon Smith, OLB
Ronnie Stanley, OT

For a prospect like Smith, it’ll be teams first opportunity to talk to the elite prospect and check his progress medically as he returns from a Fiesta Bowl knee injury. Russell will also be a non-participant in physical drills, waiting until Notre Dame’s Pro Day to go through testing.

Invites to Chris Brown, Romeo Okwara and Elijah Shumate are crucial in finding their way into the draft, as the three former Irish starters participated in the Shrine Bowl, where scouts had an early look at them. Likewise, Nick Martin and Sheldon Day continue their ascent, both coming off strong Senior Bowl weeks.

For Irish fans, it’ll be fun to watch early-enrollees Fuller and Prosise test. Both are expected to be some of the fastest players at their position. Brown may also have the ability to surprise teams, with his track background and leaping ability capable of earning him an extended look. Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley will look to impress as well, hoping to check out as one of the draft’s most impressive athletes at offensive tackle.

Ohio State led all schools with 14 invites. National Champion Alabama had nine former players invited.

 

WR Corey Robinson named Notre Dame student body president

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On Wednesday, wide receiver Corey Robinson added another impressive title to his resume as a student-athlete at Notre Dame: Student Body President.

The junior, paired with classmate Becca Blais as his vice presidential running mate, won a majority of the votes cast by his fellow students, a runaway winner with 59.4% of the votes, nearly triple the next highest vote getter.

Robinson posted the following on Twitter, thankful for the opportunity to serve his fellow students:

Robinson’s time at Notre Dame has been filled with accomplishments both on and off the field. He was named an Academic All-American as a sophomore. He’s a six-time Dean’s List member in the prestigious Program of Liberal Studies and is also pursuing a sustainability minor. He’s won the team’s Rockne Student-Athlete Award as well.

That’s quite a bit on the plate of Notre Dame’s lone senior wide receiver. But as you might expect, Robinson is well prepared for the next challenge ahead.

“I’ve planned ahead, gotten all of my hard work out of the way this semester, and I’m finishing up my senior thesis,” Robinson told The Observer. “I’m doing all the hard stuff now so in the fall and the spring, I just have to take two classes pretty much.”

Robinson’s other contributions as a student-athlete at Notre Dame include One Shirt one Body, an opportunity for college athletes to donate their athletic apparel to local communities. Robinson has presented the plan to the ACC as well as the NCAA, earning immediate support from both organizations.

 

Mailbag: Now Open (scheduling input requested)

UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JUNE 01:  Actors Mike Myers (L) and Dana Carvey as Wayne and Garth from "Wayne's World" onstage during the 17th annual MTV Movie Awards held at the Gibson Amphitheatre on June 1, 2008 in Universal City, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Okay folks, we’ve had enough semi-positive encouragement to keep the video mailbag going for another week. With that said, I’ll need some reader participation to keep this thing rolling on.

As always, submit your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold. You can also ask your questions live via Facebook. You’ll need to LIKE THIS PAGE first, and then at the appropriate time, head on over to watch and participate.

To that point, let’s pick a time that works for everyone. Right now, here are the options that work at Inside the Irish HQ.  Weigh in and the best time wins. (How’s that for a democracy?)

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