Counting down the Irish: 10-6

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This is the fourth installment of “Counting down the Irish,” our annual ranking of the Top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster. Click here for our ratings of players 25-2120-16, and 15-11.

We’re into our top ten. It’s time to start looking at the players that are going to drive the Irish either into the thick of the BCS race, or come up short of expectations in a season where hopes are growing by the day.

Three seniors and two juniors grace our list of five. All three seniors are playing their final season for the Irish, with two playing out their eligibility in four consecutive seasons and the other finding his way onto a scholarship for the first time in his career. This may be the group of guys that could shape the season — if these five plays to the peak of their potential, the Irish have a handful of All-American candidates ready to step onto the field.

Here’s our Top 25 as it stands:

25. Taylor Dever (OT, Sr.)
24. Chris Watt (OG, Jr.)
23. Zeke Motta (S, Jr.)
22. Aaron Lynch (DE, Fr.)
21. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Jr.)
20. TJ Jones (WR, Soph.)
19. Louis Nix (NT, Soph.)
18. Braxston Cave (C, Sr.)
17. Tommy Rees (QB, Soph.)
16. Prince Shembo (OLB, Soph.)
15. Trevor Robinson (OG, Sr.)
14. Ethan Johnson (DE, Sr.)
13. Dayne Crist (QB, Sr.)
12. Tyler Eifert (TE, Jr.)
11. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, Sr.)

Of the 15 players listed, there are six seniors (three in their final year of eligibility), four juniors, four sophomores, and a freshman. Four offensive linemen, two quarterbacks, four defensive linemen, two linebackers and a safety, wide receiver, and tight end each.

Once again, here’s our esteemed voting panel:

Frank Vitovitch of UHND.com
DomerMQ of HerLoyalSons.com
Eric Murtaugh of OneFootDown.com
Matt Mattare of WeNeverGradute.com
Matt & CW of RakesofMallow.com

RANKINGS

10. Robert Blanton (CB, Sr.): Starting only one game, the least in his three years in uniform for the Irish, 2010 could have been a lost season for Blanton. Instead, it was his best in an Irish uniform. Blanton played just about every position in the Irish secondary, and his seven TFLs were the most by an Irish DB in over a decade. At 6-foot-1, Blanton has prototypical size for Bob Diaco’s defense, and his athleticism was on full displayed when he blocked and returned a Utah punt for a touchdown, the biggest play of the season.

Highest ranking: 7th. Lowest ranking: 16th.

9. David Ruffer (K, Sr.): Ruffer started the season as an afterthought and ended it in the Irish record books. The former walk-on who had never played a game of football in his life before college went from unknown to a finalist for the Lou Groza Award after kicking 18 field goals to start the year, only missing his final attempt in the bowl game victory against Miami. Ruffer set a Notre Dame record making the first 23 field goal attempts of his career. Back as a fifth-year senior and finally on a scholarship, Ruffer will continue to kick field goals and compete with Nick Tausch and freshman Kyle Brindza for kickoff duties.

Highest ranking: 1st. Lowest ranking: 21st.

8. Theo Riddick (WR, Jr.): After struggling out of the gate, Riddick exploded against Michigan State, catching 10 balls for 128 yards and a touchdown against Michigan State. He caught 33 balls over four games before getting injured early against Western Michigan, essentially ending his productivity in the middle of October. Riddick has always been dangerous with the ball in his hands and he’ll likely see the ball early and often in 2011, fully recovered from a severe ankle sprain and ready to make an impact on special teams as well.

Highest ranking: 4th. Lowest ranking: 11.

7. Cierre Wood (RB, Jr.): After sitting out his freshman year, Wood burst onto the scene in Brian Kelly’s first spring game, breaking multiple long touchdowns and showing Irish fans they finally had another home run threat in the backfield. That explosiveness carried over to 2010, and every game Wood had over 10 carries he broke a run for at least 15 yards. With the rushing game likely leaning more on Wood in his second year in the backfield, there’s every reason to believe Cierre will build on the 603 yards and 5.1 per carry he averaged in 2010. Even in split duty, Wood lead the Irish in all-purpose yards with 1,073.

Highest ranking: 6th. Lowest ranking: 10th.

6. Darius Fleming (OLB, Sr.): It says a lot for Darius Fleming’s athleticism that the team leader in sacks and TFLs spent most of last season trying to learn on the job. Converting back to an outside linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system, Fleming struggled regaining his instincts, and came on late in the season. One of the most effective pass rushers on the team, there’s reason to believe the immensely talented Chicago native will turn in a complete season now that he’s absorbed the defense.

Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking 11th.

ANALYSIS

After looking at the bottom-half of our top ten, I posed a few questions to our group. Because day jobs tend to get busy, I only heard from two guys. Consider this a showdown with MQ and Eric, with me lending some thoughts at the end.

In many ways Robert Blanton is a better fit in Bob Diaco’s scheme at cornerback than Darrin Walls was. What do you expect out of the cornerbacks this season?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — One of the really sneaky things about Blanton is that he’s not just good against the pass. He’s good at making plays on the ground too, be it in the form of sacks, regular tackles for loss against components of the ground game, or blowing up those long, lateral passes to the flanks that Weis used to swear were part of the running game. In fact, Blanton not only finished 5th in tackles, but 3rd in tackles-for-loss among Irish defenders. And he’s largely considered to be the 2nd best cornerback on the team. So long as the starters remain healthy, this should be a position of power for the 2011 Irish.

Eric @OneFootDown — I expect big things out of the corners this year mainly because I believe guys like Blanton are very talented and we saw this group take a big step forward last year. After another year in the system and being coached by this staff, I don’t see why we shouldn’t expect our starters to be among the best in the country.

David Ruffer was one of the best stories in all of college football last year, but even with his excellent year, the Irish special teams were fairly ordinary. Who’s the guy that’s going to be the biggest difference maker for the Irish special teams in 2011?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — It was Ruffer last year, and I see no reason to expect otherwise this year. That’s not to say I don’t look for big improvement among the rest of the Irish special teams in 2011.  It’s just to say that I’ve got that much faith in Ruffer.  I suspect watching Ruffer prepare to kick is a lot like what it used to be like to watch Jack Nicklaus prepare to putt. Eventually, seeing him nail it in a big situation just gets so common-place, it’s more of a shock when he misses.  Ruffer delivered on 18 of 19 attempts last year, and I’ll be pretty surprised if Kelly doesn’t trust him to take a few more long shots this year.

Eric @OneFootDown — It has to be the guy who returns punts and it looks like it will be Theo Riddick. The team desperately needs a jolt from this aspect of special teams, the blocking should improve, so now is the time to go out and make some plays. Punt returns last year were pretty much awful and this has to be a huge focus for the coaches this year.

Injuries robbed us of a true evaluation of Theo Riddick as a wide receiver. Will he be a pure No. 2 opposite Michael Floyd?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — There was an awful lot of hinting at the end of 2010 that Riddick might be made into more of a multi-position player than a pure slot receiver.  And while we’ve yet to see that come to fruition, I’ll be keeping an eye out for a lot of wrinkles to show up in the play-book that involve moving Riddick where the defense can’t match up, particularly by the mid-point of the season, just in time for Southern Cal.

Eric @OneFootDown — Without a doubt, I think Riddick will be a tremendous No. 2 receiver. In fact, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that he leads the team in some major receiving categories. That may seem shocking to some, but it was obvious that Theo was improving quickly last year before he was injured, and even still his numbers were pretty darn good.

What do you expect out of Cierre Wood in 2011. Will a lack of depth at running back cost the Irish?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — This ties in nicely with my expectations that Riddick will be moved around a lot – Wood’s set up for a big year, but even in the college game, surviving an entire season as an “every down back” is tough going. (Insert jokes about Kelly not running the ball enough here.)  Wood’s got all the capability in the world, and it’s his turn to step up, but it’ll take quite a confluence of factors for him to reach any hallmarks like a 1000 yard rushing season.

Eric @OneFootDown — I full expect Cierre Wood to prove why he’s the best running back Notre Dame has had in years. I’ve said from day one that I think he is a special runner and a special player, and Brian Kelly’s confidence in him just makes me believe he is ready to break out in a big way in 2011. However, I’m not sure a lack of depth is going to cost the Irish mainly because I think Kelly can win without a dominant run game if need be, and there are plenty of other guys in the offense who can pick up the slack.

Darius Fleming manages to lead the Irish in plays behind the line of scrimmage, all while looking like he’s learning on the job. What happens this year?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — “Looking like he’s learning on the job” is an interesting way to put it, considering a fun fact we managed to dig up in early November of 2010: By that point in the season, Manti Te’o was out-pacing Fleming in total tackles by 66.  Granted, trying to keep pace with Te’o is a tall order, but, at the same point in the season, 66 was equal to the total number of tackles recorded by the Irish’s #2 tackler, Harrison Smith. Despite that quirk, Fleming was 8th on the team in tackles by the finish of 2010, only 85 behind Te’o. Fleming’s ability to make big plays is certainly valuable, but he risks losing the opportunity to make those plays if the Irish coaching staff somehow identify a steadier player at the position.

Eric @OneFootDown — Fleming seemed to have the best year for a linebacker that no one even noticed in 2010. This year I think he’s ready to be a big force in games and everyone is going to notice how good he is. I don’t think that means he’ll be an All-American, but I’m banking on him being one of the top two or three defenders on the Irish squad.

MY THOUGHTS

Robert Blanton is a very good football player. He’s got good size, is always around the football, and loves to come up and tackle. He’s your perfect Cover 2 cornerback, and he’s got a chance to put together a nice career in the NFL if he can run a 4.5. With or without elite speed, Blanton has a nose for the football, great versatility, and solid football instincts. He’s a perfect program player, and has a chance to be a standout during his senior year.

Let’s get this out of the way now: It was DomerMQ that called David Ruffer the best player on the Irish and while I think it’s a preposterous statement, it’s not grounded in ridiculousness. Nobody else on the roster was a finalist for player of the year at their position. Now it’s up to Ruffer to convert all his extra points and for Brian Kelly to use Ruffer as an offensive weapon. Sticking with special teams, the Irish need to get more from Mike Elston’s troops. The Irish lost the field position battle too often last year. First things first, ND needs a punt return game, and we’ll likely see Theo Riddick back there, or potentially freshman running back Cam McDaniel. Anything to strengthen a pretty mediocre unit.

I’m not as sold on Theo Riddick as everybody else seems to be. I’ve got him just outside my top ten, which was lower than any of our panelists see him. To me, the numbers Riddick put up in the slot are more a credit to the system and the position, and while Theo’s got the athleticism in space to make an impact, I’m going to wait and see him make a few big plays before deciding he’s a legit No. 2 wide receiver. There’s reason to believe that Brian Kelly might use Theo as a Percy Harvin-type guy in his offense. If he’s able to do it, and put up even 70-percent of the numbers Harvin did in Gainesville, Irish fans should be thrilled.

This is the year where Cierre Wood decides whether or not he’s a top-flight running back. There’s a shocking lack of depth behind Wood, who was learning on the job last year and some Saturdays doing better than others. I expect Cierre to get 1,000 yards this year, and do it averaging more than five-yards a carry.

Lastly, call me crazy — but I’m expecting a monster year out of Darius Fleming. Everybody that plays the ‘cat’ linebacker in Bob Diaco’s system puts up big numbers, and Fleming looks like an All-American in his uniform, he just needs to get out of his own way and play like one. Food for thought, but at 6-foot-2, 250-pounds, Fleming is hardly a perfect fit for Kelly’s rush linebacker spot, but if Darius can learn how to balance pinning back his ears and chasing a quarterback with dropping into the flats and covering running backs, then he’s got every chance to get noticed by more than a few NFL teams.

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…)

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Temple

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There are exactly two weeks remaining until a Monday arrives with a Notre Dame game awaiting on the other end of the work week. For the second time in five years, the Irish will open against Temple. In 2013, the Owls were entering their first season under a first-time head coach after their previous leader left for a Power Five school beginning with the letter ‘B.’

Admittedly, specifying that Boston College and Baylor open with the same letter of the alphabet may be a reach, but in doing so, everything about that 2013 sentence will hold true for Temple again in 2017.

2016 REVIEW
The Owls went 10-4 last season, including losses to both Memphis and Wake Forest. The season’s highlight came when Temple beat then-No. 20 Navy 34-10 in the American Athletic Conference title game.

Those losses to Memphis and Wake Forest warrant extra notice for Irish fans this season—Memphis’ offensive coordinator Chip Long now holds that role at Notre Dame and the same can be said for Wake Forest’s defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

Long and the Tigers stretched the Owls’ defense further than it did throughout the rest of the season, though Temple still held Memphis to much less than its usual output. Against the Owls, the Tigers managed 34 points, though 14 of those came off a defensive score and a special teams touchdown, lowering the actual offensive production to only 20 points. Temple allowed 17.2 points per game in its 13 other contests, while Memphis averaged 39.25 points per game otherwise.

The Tigers rushed for 149 yards, less than their average across the rest of the year of 160.2 rushing yards, but also more than the Owls’ usual allowance of 129.9 yards. Memphis threw for 174 yards, far short of its usual 315.3, yet more than Temple’s 150.5 average. The Tigers gained an average of 5.6 yards per play, closer to its usual 6.3 yards than the Owls’ standard of 4.6 yards allowed per play.

Against Wake Forest, a quick look at the stats becomes quickly skewed. Temple trailed 31-7 in the second quarter, thus taking to the air, and doing so somewhat successfully, finally succumbing to a final score of 34-26. The Deacons held the Owls to -20 rushing yards on 23 attempts while giving up 396 passing yards and 5.2 yards per play. If removing the bowl game from Temple’s season, the Owls averaged 32.8 points, 191.2 rushing yards, 225.2 passing yards and 6.0 yards per play. Wake Forest allowed an average of 21.8 points, 155.9 rushing yards, 214.2 passing yards and 5.3 yards per play.

WHAT TEMPLE LOST
To start with, Temple lost Rhule. Back-to-back 10-4 seasons put him in position to move on to a bigger gig, and considering the amount of talent leaving the program at the same time, it would appear Rhule made the smart move.

The NFL drafted three Owls, including defensive end Hasson Reddick as the No. 13 overall pick to the Arizona Cardinals and left tackle Dion Dawkins with the No. 63 overall pick courtesy of the Buffalo Bills. Perhaps more notably at the collegiate level, quarterback Phillip Walker was one of six undrafted free agents to sign with NFL teams.

A four-year starter, Walker set the career passing mark at Temple with 10,669 yards. He was only 121 yards away from setting the record in only three seasons before adding 3295 yards in 2016. Joining him among those undrafted free agents, running back Jahad Thomas ran for 953 yards and 14 touchdowns last year.

The Owls also lost what seems to be their entire linebacker corps, returning only one of their top-six tacklers.

WHAT TEMPLE GAINED
This category is meant to be about recruiting. So as not to reduce the following “HEAD COACH” section as entirely unnecessary, the incoming coach will be mentioned there. Among recruits, Temple signed a total of 16 players in the class of 2017, including three prospects rated as three-stars by rivals.com. Of those three, linebacker Malik Burns and quarterback Todd Centeio could conceivably see notable playing time this season.

HEAD COACH
Geoff Collins takes over the program fresh from spending six seasons as a defensive coordinator in the SEC, the two most-recent at Florida. There may not be much else to know about Collins until he leads a program. He has spent his entire career on the defensive side of the ball, including four years playing linebacker at Western Carolina.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY

Temple junior running back Ryquell Armstead Getty Images)

Collins tapped a former Fordham colleague to lead the Owls offense, pulling Dave Patenaude from the offensive coordinator role at Coastal Carolina, a Football Championship Series program. While with the Chanticleers, it is hard to underscore how dynamic Patenaude’s offense was, including a 2015 season in which it averaged 37.3 points per game while churning through six different quarterbacks.

At Temple, Patenaude will obviously need to adjust to an inexperienced quarterback. A starter has yet to be named, and it appears there is a non-zero chance Centeio earns the nod. Whoever takes the first snap will have the luxury of turning to a tested running back in junior Ryquell Armstead. Though he was not the starter, Armstead still took 156 carries for 919 yards and 14 touchdowns last year.

For that matter, the quarterback will have Walker’s top-four receivers available to target, led by senior Keith Kirkwood and junior Ventell Bryant.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Formerly the defensive backs coach at Purdue, defensive coordinator Taver Johnson is expected to keep Temple’s 4-3 defense intact. Doing so should allow him to rely on a strong secondary, perhaps the Owls’ most-reliable defensive asset. Senior free safety Sean Chandler, 6-foot and 190 pounds, and junior strong safety Delvon Randall, 5-foot-11 and 208 pounds, lead the way along the back-line.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Rhule left for one of the most-challenging job openings in recent years. He did so in part because his profile would never be higher than it was following Temple’s 2016 season. This year certainly does not have the makings of another 10-4 campaign. The over/under on Owl wins this year is a middling 6.5, and Notre Dame currently stands as a 15-point favorite for the Sept. 2 season opener.

In 19 days, Irish fans should take particular notice of what Temple players wear Nos. 6, 7 and 8. The Owls have a relatively-young tradition of bestowing single-digit numbers upon players deemed “Temple Tuff” by their teammates. Of the names mentioned above, Kirkwood, Bryant, Chandler and Randall all wear single digits and will be expected to contribute heavily. Nos. 6-8 are unclaimed at the moment.

Tomorrow: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Friday: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week (Nice how that works out, isn’t it? Almost like it was planned.)
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: One last breath before the season truly begins.