Five things we'll learn: Keys to the Irish season

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In the nine months that have passed since the Notre Dame Fighting Irish last played a meaningful football game, Irish fans have done a lot of heavy thinking.

They just watched one of their own fail. A coach that dazzled the Irish faithful with his Super Bowl wins and unprecedented offensive fireworks. He found early success with recruits from a regime long thought mediocre at procuring high-level talent, but then failed when he brought in his own players, blue-chippers that competed annually for mythical national recruiting titles.

This one stung. Notre Dame Nation had just done all it could to get the last guy run out of town after three years. Even he started with a bang, riding an opportunistic defense and a recharged fanbase to a top-five ranking and eight consecutive wins to start his tenure, the Coach of the Year trophies and Sports Illustrated covers now sit covered in dust next to an old set of golf clubs.

(Let’s not even get into the guy before him. He never made it to his first practice, learning first-hand that while Student Affairs may be tough on students who are caught turning in a paper that’s less than truthful, the administration has even less leeway for coaches that may play a little loose with their CV.)

And so Irish fans sit, 13 years since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines, having played in only eight bowl games and three BCS bowls, walking away with a lone victory against Hawaii on Christmas Eve, 2008. It’s been 17 years since Irish fans could even complain about getting truly worked over, when the Irish beat the eventual national champs head-to-head in November. (But even then they had themselves to blame after giving away the title to Boston College a week after ascending to No. 1.)

Fast forward to today. The New Guy. Brian Kelly. Named head coach of the Irish on Dec. 10, he’s gone undefeated since then, navigating effortlessly through the media obligations, his first recruiting class, some 180 speaking engagements, fifteen spring practices, and his first fall camp. He’s everything the last few guys haven’t been. Unfortunately, on Saturday against Purdue, there’s a good chance he could turn into the rest of them.

He’ll actually have to coach a game.

Heading into Saturday’s season opener against the visiting Boilermakers on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, here’s five things we’ll learn about the Irish, Kelly, and the state of Notre Dame football:

1. Brian Kelly has the experience needed to succeed at Notre Dame.

As we’ve learned from the Charlie Weis and Tryone Willingham, starting fast doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on the road to greatness. Nor does starting slow — Lou Holtz was only 13-10 after two seasons, including a 5-6 season that matched the final year of Gerry Faust. But Holtz had the experience needed to succeed at Notre Dame, he had already made stops at major college programs like Arkansas and Minnesota. In the last 50 years, the only Notre Dame head coaches to have had multiple D-I jobs are Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz. All three won national championships.

Kelly himself conceded he wouldn’t be ready if Notre Dame was his first stop.

“I could not do it. I could not do it. I learn something every day,” Kelly said last week. “I learn about press conferences and what I should say and what I shouldn’t say. It’s a learning experience. To have 20 years just to be able to function, I could not have done the job without that experience.”

One final tidbit that should have Irish fans feeling confident: Kelly’s 23-3 mark in the last two seasons at Cincinnati is the best two-year run by an incoming head coach since Frank Leahy came from Boston College in 1941.

None of this guarantees he’ll wake up the echoes, but at the very least he’ll know what to do if he finds them.

2. The defense will determine whether the Irish make a BCS run.

Charlie Weis likely sealed his own fate when he replaced Corwin Brown’s 3-4 system with the blitzing attack of Jon Tenuta. While Brown’s troops only played average football, under Tenuta the defense fell apart, giving up back-breaking big plays and blowing critical assignments.

Now defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is tasked with turning a defense returning most of the same players into an outfit worthy of its rallying cry: B.I.A. Best in America.  The talent is there to back up the seemingly preposterous statement. Notre Dame’s two-deep depth chart is littered with top-notch talent, every bit as strong as the units at Alabama, TCU or Texas.

Nearly every player in the depth chart was a four-star recruit, and as the Wall Street Journal pointed out last week, Notre Dame’s projected starters have the third-highest recruiting rankings in the country, trailing only USC and Florida. Better yet, most were recruited to play in the same 3-4 scheme that Diaco employs. Part of the offseason was spent rebuilding the psyches of some players that were left gun-shy after a terrible season. If Diaco can turn this group of talented players around, expect him to be running his own program soon.

3. The Notre Dame offense depends on the health of Dayne Crist.

While the “Next Man In” philosophy is a key tenet of Brian Kelly’s belief system, the head coach is tweaking his rules when it comes to starting quarterback Dayne Crist. While Crist has only thrown 20 passes in his college career, behind him the Irish are looking at true freshman Tommy Rees and former walk-on quarterback Nate Montana. With Crist only 10 months removed from a torn ACL, Kelly is playing a delicate balancing act with his junior quarterback.

“Dayne Crist is a guy who is going to have to use all of his tools,” Kelly said. “He’s a pretty good athlete. He can run as well and he can extend plays. He’s going to get hit out there. But we’re not going to put him in a position where we get running hits on our quarterback. That’s just not smart.”

The physical ability of Crist has never been questioned, and nobody inside the program would be surprised if he leaves Notre Dame drafted higher than Jimmy Clausen. But for Notre Dame to win now, they’ll need to keep the quarterback healthy.

4. If the offensive line can hold up, Notre Dame will dominate with its running game.

Many assumed the implementation of the spread offense meant throwing the ball a majority of the time. But if you look back at the history of Brian Kelly’s offense, you’ll see that he’s kept a run-pass balance that purists would find refreshing. At Central Michigan, Kelly ran the ball nearly 53-percent of the time. At Cincinnati, that number was 48-percent.  

“It’s a misnomer that with the spread you’re going to throw the ball every down,” offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said. “If we can get the defense in the looks where we like to run the football, where they’re really trying to play coverage, we’ll create running lanes for our running backs that would be no different than what you would get in a conventional offense.”

More importantly, the Irish will depend on the run to keep its relatively youthful offensive line protected, leaning on the zone running system that Kelly and Molnar have utilized as well as the expertise of line coach Ed Warinner to protect Zack Martin and Taylor Dever, two tackles starting their first games on Saturday.

Armando Allen, Cierre Wood, Robert Hughes and Jonas Gray are the most talented backfield the Irish have had since the Holtz era. The Notre Dame rushing attack took a backseat during the Charlie Weis era, as the team’s finesse style struggled to create an even average ground attack. Expect that to change under Kelly, where explosive running plays from the spread could bring back memories of Reggie Brooks and Tony Rice breaking free in the second
ary.

5. The i
dentity of Notre Dame football has changed for the better.

Even if the 2010 season doesn’t go as well as many Irish fans hope, there’s still plenty of reason to believe that the Irish football program has changed for the better. New strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo has implemented a program that made incredible gains to a roster that consistently faltered in November. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick worked with Kelly to institute a training table, catching the Irish up in a dietary arms race that Notre Dame has been lagging behind in for years. And Kelly re-energized the Notre Dame community, meeting with professors, deans, and students in ways that Charlie Weis never made time to do. Kelly didn’t need to make 180 stops in 180 days this offseason, but he understands better than any coach that’s been at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz that being an ambassador at award dinners, fund-raisers and golf outings is part of the job as well.

While Weis touted a schematic advantage, Kelly might also better him on the field immediately by installing a frenetically-paced, no-huddle spread attack that will wear down teams with their conditioning and precision. While Weis reveled in outsmarting his opponents, Kelly plans on out-hustling his opponents with smart players, a change that could pay immediate dividends.

The days of Brian Kelly being perfect end this Saturday. But even if he’ll never be, Notre Dame fans can at least find hope in the new beginning.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: North Carolina

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It illustrates the nature of the NFL Draft that No. 2 overall pick quarterback Mitch Trubisky and eventual second-rounder and former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer were hardly ever in the same conversation about the 2017 first overall pick. Trubisky rose up draft boards after, and possibly partly due to, Kizer had already fallen down them.

No matter where the two passers went in April’s draft, both their former teams are now adjusting to life without them. Notre Dame’s response to that is clear: Plug junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush into an offense that did not lose much else. North Carolina, meanwhile, has a lot more questions to answer in addition to the quarterback quandary.

2016 REVIEW
In the span of the first week of October, North Carolina went from a possibly program-defining victory to a harsh reminder it is not yet joined the ACC’s elite. From there, the season stumbled forward, culminating in a three-game FBS-level losing streak.

The Tar Heels upended Florida State on Oct. 1 in Tallahassee thanks to a 54-yard game-winning field goal from senior Nick Weiler. Suddenly at 4-1 — with the only loss being a respectable 33-24 defeat to then-No. 18 Georgia in a season kickoff special — North Carolina could think big picture.

Virginia Tech had other ideas. Only a week later, the same team that had just scored a road upset of the No. 12 team in the country fell at home to the No. 25 Hokies by a not-as-close-as-it-sounds score of 34-3.

In the first paragraph of this section, it notes the Tar Heels “stumbled forward” after that loss. That phrasing was chosen to indicate North Carolina did not outright collapse. It, in fact, followed up the clunker with a 20-13 win at No. 16 Miami (FL), raising the Tar Heels’ record in one-possession games to 3-0. Somewhere in the next few weeks, though, that clutch ability disappeared.

North Carolina lost its final three games against FBS foes — the distinction is needed since the Tar Heels slipped in a 41-7 victory over Football Championship Subdivision power The Citadel before their regular season finale — all by one score. Included in that streak: Losses to each of North Carolina’s biggest rivals, 28-27 at Duke and 28-21 vs. North Carolina State.

A 25-23 defeat to No. 16 Stanford in the Sun Bowl dropped the Tar Heels’ record to 8-5, quite a disappointment if looking back on the excitement of the Oct. 1 triumph.

WHAT NORTH CAROLINA LOST
Including Trubisky, six North Carolina contributors were drafted by the NFL this spring. Essentially, all of the Tar Heels’ offensive skill position players departed, including four of their top-five receivers and their top-four rushers (with Trubisky third).

Ryan Switzer (Getty Images)

Ryan Switzer stands out as the most notable receiver, pulling in 96 catches last season for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns. He was also the long-established punt returner, someone who Notre Dame game-planned around controlling back in 2014, and game-planned around successfully, it should be remembered. Elijah Hood, a former Notre Dame commit, and TJ Logan combined to rush for 1,508 yards and 15 touchdowns last year before both hearing their names called at the draft.

On the other side of the ball, North Carolina lost far less, most notably third-round draft pick defensive tackle Nazir Jones, who had 2.5 sacks and 7 more tackles for loss.

The aforementioned Florida State hero, kicker Weiler, also departed.

WHAT NORTH CAROLINA GAINED
The Tar Heels incoming graduate transfers warrant as much, if not more, recognition as the recruiting class. Head coach Larry Fedora seemingly raided the SEC’s cupboards for any suitable spare ingredients, coming away with LSU quarterback Brandon Harris, Florida center Cameron Dillard and Auburn running back Stanton Truitt.

Brandon Harris (Getty Images)

Truitt will need to compete with freshman Michael Carter, who turned down offers from Florida, Tennessee and Louisville to join a 20-member North Carolina recruiting class, rated No. 30 in the country by rivals.com. Receiver J.T. Cauthen joined Carter in the class rather than head to Michigan, Oklahoma or Virginia Tech andc considering the exodus of receivers this offseason, could become an immediate contributor.

HEAD COACH
In Fedora’s five seasons at Chapel Hill, he has amassed a 40-25 overall record, making last year’s 8-5 tally exactly average for his tenure. He has led North Carolina to four bowl games in those five years, but making it five out of six will be a difficult task this season.

It should be noted Fedora has shown to prefer a mobile quarterback, even getting 308 yards and five rushing touchdowns out of the prototypical-passer Trubisky. Harris may fit that mold perfectly.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Losing four of its top-five receivers, top-four rushers and quarterback would be hard for any offense to recover from. In order to do so, starting with the offensive line makes sense, and the Tar Heels return three starters plus a promising sophomore right tackle, in addition to the Florida transfer Dillard.

What will remain unclear at least until North Carolina’s opener against Cal, and will probably remain muddled well into the season, is who exactly that line will block for. Truitt and Carter are competing with sophomore Jordan Brown for top running back honors. Shoulder injuries hampered Truitt throughout his time at Auburn. Once finally healthy last season, he took 31 carries for 187 yards and two touchdowns while catching seven passes for another 100 yards and a score. Those numbers may be modest, but they easily trump Brown’s totals of 20 carries for 45 yards and a touchdown.

Of the three, Carter has received the most hype. He may not be the lead back to begin the season, but six weeks in it is distinctly possible the freshman will have absorbed enough to take that role.

Presumably, Harris will start at quarterback. It is not a sure thing, and junior Nathan Elliott has reportedly been given an equal share of repetitions in preseason practice, but the dual-threat Harris makes the most sense. Either way, the quarterback will be looking to an inexperienced receiver corps led by senior Austin Proehl, the son of former NFL receiver Ricky Proehl. The younger Proehl totaled 43 catches for 597 yards and three touchdowns last year, finishing third on the team in both of the first two categories.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
On the complete opposite end of the returning players spectrum when compared to the offense, North Carolina’s defense returns its top three tacklers and all of its linebackers, led by senior Cole Holcomb (115 tackles) and junior Andrew Smith (113). Century tacklers are somewhat rare in college football, making it even more notable the Tar Heels return a third in senior safety Donnie Miles and his 102 takedowns.

Cole Holcomb (Getty Images)

Losing Jones in the middle is no small thing, but then again, this defense allowed 227.3 rushing yards per game in 2016. Plugging in junior Aaron Crawford (6-foot-1, 310 pounds) could bolster that aspect of containment, even if he is not necessarily as much of a presence in the backfield as Jones was.

Senior cornerback MJ Stewart could have probably declared for the draft, instead opting to return to build on a season in which he broke up 11 passes, leading a secondary that rated No. 12 in the country against the pass.

The Tar Heels defense did lose one more additional piece: Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik retired. Linebackers coach John Papuchis takes over, meaning continuity should lead to little drop-off.

SEASON OUTLOOK
North Carolina scored 32.3 points per game in 2016, a low in Fedora’s time there. It is hard to believe an entirely new offense will top that number this season, putting even more pressure on the defense. That defense, however, performed at a level consistent with Fedora’s tenure, allowing 24.9 points per game. Aside from 2014’s 39.0 points allowed per game, which led to Chizik’s arrival, Fedora’s defenses have given up between 24.5 and 25.7 points.

All this is to say, matching last year’s 8-5 seems a tall order. It is more likely the Tar Heels fall short of their over/under win total of 7, finishing fifth or sixth in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Yesterday: Miami (OH)
Tomorrow: 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.)

Friday at 4: 40 Predictions

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The Notre Dame class of 2021 moved onto campus today. Roommates were met. Lofts were modulated. Mothers cried. These things are as inevitable as summer equaling visits to brewery rooftops, Christmas bringing familial tension, and someone being upset about where the Irish land (or don’t land) in Monday’s Associated Press top-25 release.

Years ago, I managed to move in two days earlier than most freshmen. International students are afforded that luxury. No, I am not from abroad. As has been discussed, this scribe is a Wisconsin native. Rather, my roommate was from Canada, though I will always take great joy in reminding him my green-and-gold hometown is actually farther north by latitude than his Maple Leaf roots.

Two weeks after moving in, I wrote my first football article for The Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper. It was actually purposed for a long-since defunct blog. It included references to “Rudy,” Sly Stallone and initial, but momentary, college friendships. Pretty standard fare, in all of reality, though the ignorance of the AP Stylebook and improper usage of only makes its author cringe in rereading.

That roommate did not notice those errors. Rather, his review was simple and has stuck with me nearly a decade later.

“You shouldn’t have started with ‘I think.’ It made your point weaker.”

He was, and is, right. With all due respect to that fact, arbitrary, varied and debatable predictions may necessitate a weaker stance. Thus, I think … (more…)

Notre Dame unveils Rockne Heritage uniforms

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Notre Dame will wear Rockne Heritage uniforms in the home schedule’s season finale against Navy on Nov. 18. Though they are alternate uniforms, the outfits are far more in-line with the typical Irish weekly attire than most years’ additional uniform designs are.

Clearly paralleling the $400 million in updates to Notre Dame Stadium, “The House That Rock Built,” the uniforms combine the fashion of Knute Rockne’s era with the progress afforded nearly a century later.

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“I think it is a unique opportunity with this uniform to celebrate the past while creating the future,” Under Armour Design Director Nick Billiris said in a University release. “That’s why we incorporated some of those elements that harken back to the 1920s and the 1930s when Knute Rockne was there, but we did it with cutting edge fabrics and technology. The whole idea is that this uniform is a time-capsule of Notre Dame football from when Rockne first grew the football program into the national power that it has become today.”

Perhaps most notably, the uniforms will feature a ND monogram unfamiliar to modern fans. It comes from a 1912 sweater, per Billiris.

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The helmets will lack some of their weekly shine, with subtle graphics intended to elicit the leather helmets of the 1930s.

Each uniform will read “ROCKNE” across the back nameplate, and will feature an excerpt of his famous “We’re going to get them on the run, and we’re going to keep them on the run” pep talk on the shoulders.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Miami (OH)

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When former Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin left Notre Dame for Miami of Ohio, he was departing a team coming off a frustrating, but promising, season for one showed no great potential and any frustration around it would have started with misguided optimism.

Since then, the Irish have gone up and down while the RedHawks have trended in only an upward direction, albeit slowly. That growth will be tested quite bluntly in Martin’s return to Notre Dame at the end of September.

In an effort to desensitize any to the time and channel of that game, they will be mentioned in this space anytime the Notre Dame vs. Miami (OH) matchup is discussed.  Hopefully when that week comes around, no questions will remain about the Irish playing at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN on Sept. 30.

2016 REVIEW
Miami had one of the most-interesting storylines in the country last season, beginning the year 0-6 before finishing 6-7, becoming the first FBS team to ever follow a six-game losing streak with a six-game winning streak within one season. All six of those wins came in conference play.

That opening series of losses was not simply due to facing superior opponents. The RedHawks choked away a win over Eastern Illinois by getting outscored 14-0 in the fourth quarter, losing 21-17. The tail end of the half dozen losses came against MAC division foes Ohio and Akron. Ohio’s head-to-head victory gave the Bobcats a tiebreaker over Miami, hence why Ohio headed to the MAC title game and not the RedHawks when they tied atop the Eastern Division at season’s end, with Akron three games behind them tied for third place.

The swing in the season came in part due to a quarterback switch. Then-sophomore Billy Bahl was putting together a statistically-satisfactory season through five games, completing 55.2 percent of his passes and throwing eight touchdowns, but then he went down with a season-ending injury. Martin first turned to a freshman — who has since transferred from the program — but he did not perform such in the loss to Akron to convince the coaching staff not to start then-sophomore Gus Ragland a week later.

Quarterback Gus Ragland‘s insertion into the Miami starting lineup played a key part in flipping the Redhawks‘ season. (Getty Images)

Ragland proceeded to lead the way in the six-game winning streak, throwing 15 touchdowns and no interceptions in that stretch. With the 6-6 record, Miami headed to the St. Petersburg Bowl, falling 17-16 to Mississippi State. Ragland threw two touchdowns and one interception, going 22-of-30 for 263 yards.

Ragland certainly deserves some credit for the midseason swing, as does Martin simply for keeping Miami upbeat and confident enough to string together a few wins. Yet, it was somewhat a schedule fluke, too. In the six wins, the RedHawks beat only one team that finished better than 3-5 in the conference. The one team earning that exception was Eastern Michigan, not exactly excelling with its 4-4 conference mark.

WHAT MIAMI (OH) LOST
Perhaps even more encouraging than the six-game winning streak was the youth with which the RedHawks rattled off those wins. Offensively, Miami lost receiver Rakeem Williams and his 26 catches for 501 yards and three touchdowns. The yardage qualifies Williams as Miami’s No. 3 receiver last year, but it came despite missing two games due to injury. If healthy, he may not have leapt to No. 1, but he was, for all true intents and purposes, the most dangerous receiver on the team, averaging 19.3 yards per catch.

Defensively, the Redhawks will need to find a new source of a pass rush. While they returned six of their top eight tacklers, the two who left were also the leaders in sacks. Defensive ends JT Jones (No. 6 tackler with 47) and Austin Gearing (38 tackles) combined for 10.5 sacks, eight more tackles for loss and 10 additional quarterback hurries. Add in the departure of fellow defensive end Zach Smierciak and his three sacks, and suddenly Miami is without more than half its 24 sacks from a year ago.

WHAT MIAMI (OH) GAINED
Included in a recruiting class which rated about middle of the pack in the MAC, defensive end Joshua Maize could quickly find himself working to replace some of that lost pass rush. While he was never necessarily a recruit targeted by Notre Dame, Maize — from Deerfield, Ill., a Chicago suburb north of the city and only about two hours from South Bend, Ind. — did visit campus three times.

HEAD COACH
Martin enters his fourth season at the Cradle of Coaches. There are two particular items to note about his return to face the Irish. First of all, Notre Dame deserves some degree of credit for how often it reaches out to former assistants or administrators to offer a scheduling boon. Similar to this contest, the Irish men’s basketball team will visit Delaware this winter to face former assistant Martin Inglesby. Notre Dame does not need to schedule those games, but it is a small luxury afforded former staffers who left on good terms.

Secondly, and related, the Irish schedule would have allowed for Martin’s return in his second or third season with the RedHawks if he had wanted such. Instead, he intentionally put off the game until his fourth season there, hoping to bring a more-respectable team to Notre Dame.

Considering Martin has turned Miami from an 0-12 team the year before he arrived to a genuine MAC title contender this season, it seems appropriate to say he achieved his goal of respectability, if not more than that.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Heaping too much praise onto Ragland could come at a cost. Then again, his record as a starter is 6-1. That praise is earned.

Ragland not only aided the Redhawks offense with his nearly mistake-free passing, but also with his rushing abilities. (Getty Images)

This year, he will lead an offense returning nine starters, including four offensive linemen with a combined 80 career starts. They will be opening holes for a running back by committee attack that fared quite well last season. Including Ragland, Miami’s top-four rushers combined for 1,726 yards. Ragland accounted for 202 of those. Remember, that came in only seven games. All four of those rushers return.

The RedHawks also return four of their top-five receivers, losing only the aforementioned Williams.

Overall, the offensive unit should continue the prolific stretch with which it ended the season. In weeks six and seven last year (the turn from the losing streak to the winning streak), Miami totaled 260 yards in each game. In the following six contests, the RedHawks averaged 409 yards per game.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Aside from the already-discussed pass rush, Miami is returning nearly all of its defense, including eight starters. Most notably, junior linebackers Junior McMullen and De’Andre Montgomery each started 13 games last season, and will now be joined by classmate Brad Koenig, who started six.

On the outside, senior cornerback Heath Harding should warrant NFL notice by the end of the year, and his counterpart junior Deondre Daniels should not be scoffed at, either, having broken up six passes last year and intercepting one more.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Miami is favored to win the MAC’s Eastern Division, though only a touch ahead of Ohio in that evaluation. (The two face off on what should be an annual holiday: Halloween MACTion!)

If Martin can lead the RedHawks to a conference title game in only his fourth season at the helm of what was the laughingstock of the FBS, then he will be well on his way to continuing the tradition of the Cradle of Coaches.

On that note, the Notre Dame vs. Miami game could present a great opportunity for additional homages to the late Ara Parseghian. He got his start at Miami, and obviously reached a legendary status with the Irish.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Yesterday: Michigan State
Tomorrow: 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.)