090311_SPT_Umich vs WMU_MRM_

Pregame Six Pack: Late night with Michigan

22 Comments

So Lucy pulled the football out from under us last Saturday, adding a measure of cruelty to the loss that was incredibly difficult to see coming. (Unfortunately, part of me saw it coming.) With a painful first L in the opening ledger of the season, Notre Dame must turn the page to a team that’s provided plenty of gut-punches to Notre Dame fans lately.

With a prime-time start and ESPN’s College GameDay in attendance, Notre Dame is set to take on Michigan at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday night. We’ll be here with an old-fashioned, frantically paced live blog tomorrow night. Until then, here are are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as Brian Kelly‘s Fighting Irish prepare to play Brady Hoke‘s Michigan Wolverines.

There’s been remarkable parity in the modern era between Michigan and Notre Dame.

Since the Irish and the Wolverines renewed their rivalry in 1978, the series has been close. 13-13-1 close.

Saturday night’s game will break a remarkably even record, with both teams sitting at 13 wins and a tie against the other. Michigan has won four of the last five against the Irish, starting with the runaway upset win against Brady Quinn and the Irish in 2006. The Wolverines drubbed the ’07 Irish that started off historically bad, before Notre Dame won an error plagued game against Rich Rodriguez‘s first team in 2008. We all remember 2009 and 2010, which had Michigan quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson taking turns putting on Superman’s cape.

Since 1978, Notre Dame and Michigan have played every year except 1983, ’84, ’95, ’96, 2000, and ’01. Prior to the ’07 game, either Notre Dame or Michigan have been ranked for 24 consecutive meetings. Notre Dame dropped out of the Top 25 after losing to USF, so neither team is ranked this Saturday. And with a point spread that’s hovering around three points, it seems we could be in for another close game, which might actually be good for the Irish. While it doesn’t feel that way, close games in this rivalry usually end up in Notre Dame’s favor, with Notre Dame 4-2-1 in games decided by three points or less.

For the Irish, stop Denard Robinson and win the football game.

Last year, Robinson accounted for an incredible 502 of Michigan’s 532 total yards, scoring the game’s winning touchdown with 27 seconds left to put Michigan ahead 28-24.

“He’s the most electrifying offensive player in the country,” Bob Diaco said earlier this week. “He was a year ago and he is again.”

That electricity was evident last year, when Robinson broke a 87 yard touchdown run with under two minutes to go in the first half, a back-breaking touchdown with the Irish against the ropes and hoping to go into halftime just down a score. But while the Irish’s performance against Robinson deserves no caveats, the Irish held their own when their starting unit was in the game, only to be gashed when Diaco and Kelly tried to work in reserves.

“It starts and ends with Denard Robinson,” Kelly said. “We’re well aware of his talent level. He is a difference maker. Clearly he’s the guy you’ve got to keep an eye on when it comes to Michigan.”

There are a few things working in Notre Dame’s favor when it comes to slowing down Robinson. First, they faced a similarly mobile quarterback in B.J. Daniels last week, and had decent success.

“We have to be able to contain him,” Kelly said. “Like we did with B.J. Daniels, I think his longest run was 17 yards. If we can keep his longest run into that 15-17 yard range, we’ll feel really good about the day’s work.”

One thing also working in the Irish’s favor is new offensive coordinator Al Borges. Borges surprised many by keeping Robinson in the shotgun and designing some running plays for his star quarterback, after an offseason dedicated to working in pro-style sets. Hoke praised Borges for fitting the offense to its personnel.

“He’s done a tremendous job in a lot of different places utilizing the personnel that you have and really showcasing the guys who are your playmakers,” Hoke said this morning on the Dan Patrick Radio Show.

Of course, while Borges engineers plays for Robinson to run, he won’t be able to replicate the system Rodriguez almost perfected, taking advantage of his running backs not as ball carriers, but as lead blockers for his 195-pound quarterback.

On Robinson’s 87-yard touchdown run, Rodriguez had two backs in the backfield next with Robinson in the shotgun, and those eight men in the box beat Diaco’s seven, thanks to some good downfield blocking and a great individual effort by the quarterback.

Again, Robinson is capable of breaking a big play any time. It’ll be up to Borges to be as creative as Rodriguez was at designing them.

Brady Hoke hasn’t faced Notre Dame, but he’s 0-3 against Brian Kelly.

Brian Kelly and Brady Hoke’s careers have taken similar paths, with both coaches getting their first shots in the MAC conference before climbing the ladder to Notre Dame and Michigan at their third D-I coaching stop. (Hell, both guys coached at Grand Valley State.)

While this will be Hoke’s first time facing the Irish as a head coach, he’s gone head-to-head with Kelly three times, with Hoke’s Ball State team falling to Kelly’s Central Michigan squad each time.

2004: Hoke’s Cardinals jumped out to a 27-0 lead in the first quarter before Kelly’s troops picked themselves off the mat, battling back to tie the game at halftime 27-27. The third quarter was all Ball State, who took a ten point lead into the fourth, only to give it up with under five minutes remaining to the Chippewas. Jerry Seymour of CMU ran for the winning touchdown, his third of the day to put a cap on a monstrous 217 yard rushing effort to go along with 35 yards receiving.

2005: Another heart-breaker for the Cardinals, as Ball State jumped out to a quick 14 point lead only to lose in overtime, with the Chippewas storming back for an unlikely win late in the game. Clinging to a four-point lead with two minutes left, Ball State had the ball in CMU territory ready to seal the victory. After an 11 yard sack by Dan Bazuin pushed Ball State back to their side of the 50, Chris Miller‘s punt was blocked and Ryan Strehl scooped it up for the score. The Cardinals would march down and kick a field goal to send the game to overtime, but the Chippewas would score a touchdown in four plays, then stymie Hoke’s offense on a 4th and one. The win gave Central their first winning season under Kelly.

2006: With quarterback Dan LeFevour leading the way, the Chippewas improved to 4-0 in conference play, winning a defensive struggle against Ball State 18-7. LeFevour ran for 75 yards and two touchdowns, threw for another 160 yards, and the Chippewas held Ball State to 213 total yards, forcing five turnovers against Nate Davis and the conference’s leading passing attack.

Saturday night’s game will obviously be on a much bigger stage, but there’s no way either coach has forgotten three games that were so hotly contested.

Like it is in every game, protecting the football is critical to success.

It’s pretty obvious, Notre Dame isn’t going to win many games if it coughs up the football five times again, especially doing it in such inopportune times. Right now, a lot of Irish fans are willing to give Notre Dame a mulligan for last week’s bizarre behavior, with some of the team’s most solid performers guilty of the most egregious mistakes.

How big of a play was Jonas Gray‘s fumble return for a touchdown? Well consider Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders, who called it the most valuable play in football.

The Gray fumble occured on third-and-goal, but let’s imagine the same play occuring on a drive that starts with first-and-goal from the 1-yard-line. In this case, the expected scoring value of the offense’s drive is more than six points. The same play in this scenario is then worth the value of killing a six-point drive plus the value of the touchdown return. We might like to call it a 14-point play, but according to my unit value splits, it would officially be credited with a defensive value of 11.1 points. Remember that there is unearned value on every possession, so the defense doesn’t get the full credit for the 14-point swing, but a defensive score following a goal-to-go turnover is the most valuable single play in football.

Both Kelly and Gray are saying the right things this week and Gray took his session with the media like a man and answered every question asked of him. Jonas will be returning home to Michigan, ready to play in front of family and friends and a school that didn’t offer him a scholarship. And if the Irish are able to get Gray going along with Cierre Wood, they’ll be able to take advantage of one of Michigan defense’s weaknesses.

“We’ve got to be a much better defense versus the run,” Hoke told Dan Patrick. “I don’t think our front seven did the job that we need to have them do.”

Of course, the Irish need to clean up their own backyard first. And that means stopping the turnovers and cashing in on the opportunities that present themselves. Meanwhile, on the other sideline, Hoke’s team needs to build on their impressive debut forcing turnovers, starting +3 and turning two of them into defensive touchdowns.

“I think they’ve got some confidence because they scored on defense,” Kelly said. “Any time you score on defense you create an energy that can be contagious.”

The special teams need to be more special.

We’ll get to Notre Dame’s special teams play in a second. Brady Hoke’s unit has a lot of cleaning up to do as well.

“I think our guys know we didn’t perform like we should,” Hoke said. “We’ll look at some other guys in there a little.”

The Wolverines gave up good field position to Western Michigan multiple times on kickoff returns, with Dervon Wallace averaging better than 31 yards a return last Saturday. Making things worse, UM also had an extra point blocked, adding another headache to a laundry list of things that needed cleaning up.

With a large contingency of starters taking special teams snaps, Hoke and the Wolverines can’t afford any injuries, but also can’t afford to keep his best players off a unit that already strugged.

Speaking of struggling units, the Irish special teams played their worst game under Brian Kelly. Theo Riddick muffed punts, Ben Turk shanked them, and David Ruffer, Mr. Automatic last season, missed a crucial 30-yard chip shot from the left hashmark.

While turnovers might have been the fatal flaw of last week’s game, the Irish special teams weren’t far behind.

More from Fremeau:

South Florida’s special teams created another valuable single-play possession-change sequence by recovering a muffed punt in the second quarter. The turnover by Notre Dame’s Theo Riddick was worth 1.7 points in lost possession value, and the resulting field position for South Florida at the Irish 20-yard-line was worth an additional 3.4 points generated by the special teams play. The total value of the sequence (5.1 points) wasn’t quite as strong as the total value of the drive-turnover-return sequence that opened the game (6.3 points), but it was awfully close.

In the end, special teams account for the scoring margin of the game. South Florida earned a 12-point advantage through punt exchanges, turnovers, and place kicking success. Notre Dame’s second half offense actually erased the entire deficit generated by its red zone miscues by moving the ball and creating enough other scoring opportunities to win. And the defense held South Florida in check throughout the day, surrendering only one touchdown drive.

I’ll give Theo Riddick a one-game reprieve before calling the punt return experiment a huge bust, but he definitely struggled getting underneath the football on punts, rushing to the football late and making it harder on himself than he needs to. I’m tired of giving Turk mulligans, as the Irish punter can’t seem to kick the ball anywhere near as good on the big stage as he does practicing.

The Irish are going to be playing a team where a special teams victory is there for the taking. It’s up to Mike Elston‘s troops to straighten things out and take advantage of a potentially game changing opportunity.

Pressure vs. Pressure: How the Irish handle both sides of the ball will determine the game.

Offensively, Denard Robinson is able to put pressure on the Irish defense better than any other player in the country. Defensively, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will do his best to confuse and disrupt the Irish offense, relying on pressure from linebackers, safeties, and everyone in between.

For the Irish defense, the game plan focuses on simplicity.

“You’ve got to keep your players, those that can tackle and those that can chase him down,  in a position to do so,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to keep them in proximity to where Denard is going to be. You can’t have them in a position where they can’t run and hit. It’s very important structurally defensively that we put our guys in the right position.”

While the comment comes dangerously close to venturing into Ty Willingham territory, the Irish have to play assignment correct football and not fall prey to big plays in the playaction passing game or runs by Robinson. If Skip Holtz‘s attitude against Notre Dame was “make them run another play,” Diaco’s strategy should be the same. The Irish have too much skill to get beat on defense if they can successfully bend and not break.

The theme is similar on the offensive side of the ball. With a defense that struggled in high-tempo situations against Western Michigan, the Wolverines know they’ll likely face tempo and a variety of formations when facing the Irish. To counter that, they’ll also try to dictate terms by forcing Tommy Rees to make decisions faster than he wants to.

How the cat and mouse between Mattison and Kelly goes should determine Saturday night’s game.

“Certainly they’re going to want to bring pressure,” Kelly said yesterday. “But Tommy does a pretty good job getting the ball out of his hands. We do a pretty good job of protecting. That’s part of what he’ll do, but I don’t think it’s everything, because clearly they’re going to have to play some zone coverage, because if you let Michael Floyd out there, I like our chances.”

Kelly points to Michigan’s largest flaw: a defense that still doesn’t have the talent necessary to cover receivers without a pass rush, and a pass rush unable to get to the quarterback without bringing added pressure. Mattison learned from Rex Ryan and the Ravens the art of deception and scheme when bringing blitzers. Whether he’s able to get to the quarterback and create turnovers will likely determine who goes home happy Saturday night.

Progress on defense will be measured Sunday night

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
AP
7 Comments

Lost amidst the grumbling about Brian VanGorder‘s defense, the complexity of his scheme, and the wonders if it’s too much for a student-athlete, was the fact that the unit made some very nice improvements in 2015.

The Irish shut down the option, slowing the greatest Navy triggerman since Roger Staubach. They were the first fist to the face of a Georgia Tech team that went into free-fall after losing in South Bend. And when teams tried to go up-tempo on the Irish like North Carolina did with great success in 2014, VanGorder’s defense handled the pressure without struggle.

In an offseason where the defense was rebranded “likable and learnable,” Notre Dame’s coaching staff also likely went to work making sure that the tagline wasn’t going to serve as a punchline.

Knowing that they were tasked with breaking in an almost entirely new depth chart, after spending last offseason focused on option preparation and slowing down the up-tempo schemes, this year’s focus was likely turned inward—reexamining every one of the team’s teaching points with hopes that a clarified message will make the mental lapses and blown coverages disappear.

Did it work? We’ll get our first progress report on Sunday night.

Notre Dame’s rebuilt defense will face a new Texas scheme that incorporates spread and speed elements. And while there are legitimate questions as to how quickly the Longhorns can install and efficiently run Sterlin Gilbert’s up-tempo, spread attack, Kelly expects to see play volume coming at the Irish similar to the one that put the Irish on their heels in 2014.

“I mean, it’s fast. This is going to be North Carolina fast,” Kelly said Tuesday. “This is a fast, fast tempo. We’ve worked hard on that to prepare our defense for the kind of tempo they’re going to see.”

One other reason for optimism is the depth the Irish bring with them to Austin. Last season’s defensive lapses seemed to coincide with a lack of depth—taking away one of the main strategic benefits of VanGorder’s multiple-look, attacking system.

Certainly, the loss of Max Redfield forces VanGorder to pivot in the secondary. But the installation of Avery Sebastian (at least initially) over Devin Studstill puts in action the coaching point that Kelly and VanGorder stressed this offseason, consistency and assignment-correct football over talent, however promising.

Starting lineup aside, if there’s good reason to believe in the Irish defense, it’s mostly that they’ll have all hands on deck, with only Jay Hayes moderately hampered by an injury. They’ll also bring with them a handful of freshmen—including edge players Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara—two players most had pegged for a redshirt.

“We think they’ve got some skills that can help us in pass rush,” Kelly said.

 

Getting to the quarterback will be a key to the season. Many expect vaunted freshman Daelin Hayes to also help off the edge. The five-star recruit was on campus for spring drills, but recovering from shoulder surgery, the latest challenge that kept Hayes off the field more often than on it during his high school football career. That leaves Kelly keeping things simple for his talented pass rusher.

“Daelin hasn’t played a lot of football over the last year and a half. So settle into the game, get lined up right. Don’t jump offsides. Put your jersey on the right way,” Kelly said. “We’re not asking him to change the complexion of the game, but just to get into the flow of the game. And I think if he does a good job of settling down and getting into the flow of the game, I think he’ll have some success.”

You don’t replace a linebacker like Jaylon Smith. The front four will miss a competitor like Sheldon Day. And KeiVarae’s moxie needs to be replaced.

And even if it’s difficult to count on young players until you see them do it when the lights go on, there’s good reason that Kelly and VanGorder are confident that Year Three will continue to move the Irish defense forward—even after suffering the talent drain.

Sunday night, we’ll see if they were right.

***

For more on Notre Dame’s defense and a preview of what to expect when the Irish head to Austin, former team captain and MVP Joe Schmidt joined John Walters and I to talk about the weekend and the season head. 

And in that corner… The Texas Longhorns

WACO, TX - DECEMBER 5: Caleb Bluiett #42 of the Texas Longhorns celebrates with teammates after the Longhorns defeated the Baylor Bears 23-17 at McLane Stadium on December 5, 2015 in Waco, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
Getty
18 Comments

Welcome back. Football is finally here.

2016 comes in with a roar, as Notre Dame’s new season begins with a spotlight directly on Brian Kelly’s program, a primetime date with another traditional power, as the Irish head to Austin to take on the Texas Longhorns. A year after embarrassing Texas and landing an early-round knockout in the season opener, Charlie Strong’s third team—still young, but growing more talented by the year—looks to avenge the low-point of a challenging, five-win season.

Joining us again is Wescott Eberts of Burnt Orange Nation. In a busy week with plenty of action heading into Sunday, he was kind enough to get us ready for the big game.

 

Let’s start big picture: What’s the feeling heading into the season? Optimism? Dread? Uncertainty? In year three of the rebuild, do you have a feeling at the moment of what constitutes a successful season?

I think the feeling heading into the season is a mix of optimism with some lurking dread — there’s so much young talent on this team and an exciting new offense, but there are still areas of concern and an extremely difficult schedule looming, especially to start the season.

Given the team’s previous inconsistencies, there’s also a lot of uncertainty, which makes it hard to predict how to season is going to play out.

Beyond a purely holistic evaluation of improvement, a successful season would need to include at least seven wins, but more likely eight to ensure that Strong comes back for his fourth season. Any measurement of a successful season includes the stipulation that the Longhorns stop getting blown out so often.

 

That all but leads us into the quarterbacks. Senior Tyrone Swoopes and freshman Shane Buechele continue to share first-team reps and Charlie Strong says he “kind of” knows what he wants to do. Is there a world where both guys don’t play against Notre Dame? Can you give us the cliff notes on the difference between these two quarterbacks? And how quickly do you expect this job to become Buechele’s?

The only way that both quarterbacks don’t play in the opener is if Swoopes wins the starting job, as many currently expect, and plays so well that the coaches don’t have a compelling reason to get Buechele the first game action of his Texas career.
Coming in to fall camp, it seemed like the job was Buechele’s to lose, but Swoopes has been better than expected, so it’s possible that Buechele could end up being the back up for the entire season.
Swoopes has the advantage in experience, size, and arm strength, while Buechele ran the offense faster in the spring game, has better poise in the pocket, and has better touch and accuracy.

How has the transition gone to new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert? Last year, Notre Dame shut down the Longhorn offense and it cost coordinator Shawn Watson his job. Heading into the season, does the spread fit this personnel better?

By all accounts, the transition has gone well, though there is still a little bit of a learning curve in terms of getting the offense to run at the speed Gilbert wants it to run at. A couple things that have helped the ‘Horns get used to the new offense are the fact that this is now the fourth time that Gilbert has installed his offense in the last five years and there is no playbook, so this is an extremely simple attack.
There’s no question that the new offense fits the personnel better — it takes pressure off of the offensive line in pass protection by using a lot of run-pass options, it attacks defenses with vertical routes that take advantage of the speed at wide receiver, the running backs benefit from a defense that is spread more widely, and the quarterbacks don’t have to carry the burden of making the complicated reads demanded by the West Coast elements of Watson’s offense.

 

Notre Dame certainly made some preseason news with it’s eventful evening that ended with six arrests and the dismissal of Max Redfield. How has the offseason / preseason treated the Longhorns? It looks like a few injuries have hit the starting lineup. Will Texas be at full strength when the Irish come to town? 

The offseason featured some attrition for the Longhorns, but the good news for Texas is that none of those players were expected to contribute. The additions are the bigger story, as Strong was able to land four former Baylor signees, including the nation’s No. 4 wide receiver in Devin Duvernay, who has run a verified 4.38 40-yard dash. In July, the big news was securing the services of graduate transfer kicker Trent Domingue from LSU, who fills a big hole.
During fall camp, the ‘Horns have been a bit banged up, with the most significant injuries ankle sprains to three members of the starting offensive line — center Zach Shackelford, left guard Patrick Vahe, and right tackle Tristan Nickelson. By the time the opener rolls around, Nickelson should be back, but it’s unclear whether Shackelford and Vahe will be healthy.

Charlie Strong has hung his hat on his defensive reputation. But last year, the Longhorns were soft against the run—and that looks like another weakness considering the attrition on the defensive line. Is that the weak spot of this defense? Against what looks like the strength of Notre Dame’s offense, do you see this being the matchup to watch?

With the return of only three scholarship defensive tackles, the run defense will once again be a concern for Texas, though improved play at defensive end and linebacker should relieve some pressure there. One major question is whether Strong opts to change his preferred defensive approach — he typically likes to play odd fronts with coverage behind it designed to disallow big plays, but the 2016 Longhorns defense may need to be more aggressive in committing to even fronts that are less likely to allow so much running room for opposing backs.

 

How big of a game is this? Two traditional powers, a year after an embarrassing loss and a Sunday evening time slot that’ll have the entire college football world watching. It doesn’t “matter” when it comes to conference play, but how is this one being viewed?

This is being viewed not only as a huge opportunity for Texas, but also a high-stakes game. As you mention, the eyes of the college football world will be on Austin on September 4 and since this is a make-or-break year for Strong, the results of this game will set the early narrative for the season.
If Notre Dame wins going away once again, there will be a lot of talk about how Texas hasn’t improved enough and how the 2016 season could once again go off the rails.
In addition, there will be some important recruiting targets in attendance, including the nation’s No. 3 player in defensive tackle Marvin Wilson and one of the top offensive tackles in the country, Wilson’s teammate Walker Little. Both players want to see the Longhorns win this season before deciding whether or not to pledge to Strong, so their presence makes the stakes even higher.

The Irish are three-point road favorites, a surprising number when you consider how this went last year, but not when you think of how Notre Dame struggled on the road, the talent Texas has coming back and the type of atmosphere they’ll face.

How do you see this one going? Or if you’re not inclined to make a pick, give me one or two factors that’ll determine whether Texas starts their season with a win or the Irish leave Austin with a victory. 

Honestly, I don’t have any idea how the game is going to go and I don’t think that Strong or his staff have any idea, either. There are simply too many young players and too many questions to answer to be able to predict the outcome with any confidence.

Forced to make a prediction, I think Notre Dame wins in a game that is much closer than last season’s blowout.

***

Spend some time this week checking things out at Burnt Orange Nation — or give Wescott a follow on Twitter @SBN_Wescott.

Depth chart set for Texas

Line
Notre Dame Athletics
29 Comments

Brian Kelly hasn’t decided on a quarterback. But he has decided on a free safety. Sixth-year senior Avery Sebastian will get the start over true freshman Devin Studstill Kelly announced, giving the Irish a veteran presence on the back line.

Kelly made the decision to go with Sebastian, the former Cal safety back with the program and on the field after earning a medical redshirt in 2015 when he was injured against the Longhorns in the opener. And a strong camp—combined with Studstill returning from a lingering hamstring injury—helped Kelly made the decisions to tap the veteran as the teams starter at safety.

“Devin was a little behind with his hamstring,” Kelly said. “But certainly you want to put veterans on the field, if you can. I think if Devin was clearly ahead of Sebastian, we’d have Devin on the field over Sebastian. But Sebastian’s had a good camp. He’s been really rock solid.”

Positional fit is the next issue. Pairing Sebastian with Tranquill puts two in-the-box safeties on the field at the same time, neither at their best when asked to cover in the open field. But as Texas breaks in a freshman quarterback and a veteran whose best trait is running the football, it’s clear that making sure the defense is fundamentally sound is more important than someone best suited physically for the job.

“What we’ve seen and what we can evaluate is a consistent performer. He’s assignment correct,” Kelly said of Sebastian. “He makes very few errors, and that’s what we like. We have two performers back there in Tranquill and Sebastian that are assignment correct.”

***

It may have surprised some, but Te’von Coney and Kevin Stepherson were listen in the official two-deep for the Texas game. Kelly said that all four players remaining from the incident in Fulton County were available to him—though he did say that the university’s disciplinary arm will have their own say.

But Kelly’s decision comes not necessarily because of anything he’s decided, but rather the athletic department’s disciplinary policy on first-time offenders for a drug violation like marijuana.

“Throughout our entire athletic program, your first time is an educational process. In other words, counseling and education,” Kelly explained. “Then you enter into that track program that you could have random drug testing.

“So it’s not just football. It’s the entire athletic department. And our whole department is set up that way. I don’t know how other programs are, but we certainly consult and look at other like schools. And I’m confident to say that most if not all are pretty much the same.”

***

If the depth chart holds true on Sunday night, the following players will be earning their first start at their respective position:

Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders at WR.
Mike McGlinchey (LT), Sam Mustipher (C), Alex Bars (RT) and Colin McGovern (RG).
Shaun Crawford (CB), Avery Sebastian (S).

Five things we’ll learn: The 2016 Notre Dame season preview

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
AP
44 Comments

Entering his seventh season in South Bend, Brian Kelly is on the most stable footing of his career. In lockstep with his bosses Jack Swarbrick and Rev. John Jenkins, Kelly has spent the better part of his time at Notre Dame building a program to his specifications, granted unprecedented control and resources as the coach and administration continue to evolve a football program that serves as the university’s outward identity.

That’s what makes the 2016 season so fascinating.

Because for as comfortable as Kelly has become in a job that hasn’t seen anything close to comfort since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines, he’s got his hands full this season. His roster is turning over more high-end talent than any team since Holtz and Vinny Cerrato were stocking the pond, and he’s also attempting to upend conventional football wisdom as he juggles two quarterbacks.

Add to that a rebuilt defense and untested talent at several key positions, this type of high wire act is what gets coaches a bronze statue or a For Sale sign in their front lawn.

Having already faced an off-field mogul that cost him his starting free safety, Kelly and his coaching staff will spend the week going through final preparations before stress-testing his young team in front of 100,000 fans.

With the goal still a berth in the College Football Playoff, here are five things we’ll learn this season.

 

No coach is better qualified to juggle multiple quarterbacks. But that doesn’t mean it’ll work. 

In DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, Brian Kelly has two quarterbacks he handpicked. They’ve both showed flashes of brilliance on the field, character and resolve off of it, and the type of competitive nature that the head coach finds so vitally important at every spot on his roster.

Now he’s asking both quarterbacks to trust him as he tries to bring out the best of both players.

“They understand that my decisions are based upon what’s best for Notre Dame football, and not necessarily what’s in their best interest,” Kelly said after announcing that both would play.

“There’s always going to be that struggle with the individual versus the team. They clearly understand that team is most important and winning and beating Texas is more important than how they feel about the current situation.”

Those feelings struggled to stay beneath the surface on Media Day, when both quarterbacks answered question after question—often times the same one—from reporters roaming the room and looking for a quote.

But more important than anything Kizer or Zaire say is how they manage to play when the lights go on. And while we saw Kelly and Mike Denbrock navigate a far more toxic situation with Zaire and Everett Golson when they put together a remarkable game plan to beat LSU in the Music City Bowl, a month of bowl preparation is one thing, a 12-game regular season is another.

Most have forgotten that Kelly’s commitment to a two-quarterback situation was mostly framed through the lens of beating Texas. From there, what they decide to do remains to be seen—especially if one of the quarterbacks separates themselves on the field.

Thumbing his nose at tradition and trying to win with both is a calculated risk. Kelly is capable of pulling it off, but it’s one of the biggest gambles of his time at Notre Dame.

 

Three seasons in, there’s hope that the defense now fully comprehends Brian VanGorder’s scheme. But can it improve after replacing so much talent?

There is no shortage of postmortems on Brian VanGorder’s 2015 defense. Even with plentiful talent, big plays and maddening inconsistency ruined the Irish season.

Now without Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, KeiVarae Russell, Joe Schmidt and Romeo Okwara, Brian VanGorder is hoping that a younger, less experienced unit can skip past the rookie mistakes—finding a way to absorb and implement a scheme that mentally stressed even the most experienced starters.

Putting all the struggles on VanGorder’s system isn’t fair. Legacy issues and mismatched personnel doomed the group.  So did injuries, taking away some of the variables that allow a tactically-brilliant strategist to go from grease-board to gridiron.

Outside of the considerable weight hoisted onto several new shoulders, making sure all eleven defenders are on the same page remains the key to success. So is finding a pass rush.

As Kelly talked early on about making sure this team does the ordinary things extraordinarily well, that message may as well have been aimed solely at his defense, a group that needs to get back to the basic principles of winning football—even if it forces a few weapons to stay holstered.

 

Can a rebuilt offensive line serve as the identity of Notre Dame’s offense? 

Whoever ends up piloting the Irish attack, they’ll do so behind an offensive line that should serve as the identity of the team. Because Harry Hiestand’s rugged group has size, strength and a nasty disposition that should help the team win now—especially as the passing game finds its footing.

With Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson perhaps the strongest 1-2 punch in college football, dictating terms will be a necessity. So will breaking in three new starters, with Sam Mustipher, Colin McGovern and Alex Bars getting no warmup before they operate in a very hostile environment.

Coming off a breakthrough season running the football, there’s talent in the backfield and two quarterbacks capable of executing the zone-read attack. But without Will Fuller keeping safeties honest and receiving depth to keep secondaries occupied, it will be much rougher sledding in the trenches.

That’s where McGlinchey and Nelson come into play. Because even if everybody in the stadium knows where the Irish are going on 3rd-and-2, it’ll be up to this offensive line to pave the way, excelling in predictable downs and distances and pushing opponents around even when the numbers make things difficult.

Dominance can come in many forms. Last year’s offense found that ability with the highest yard-per-play total in the school’s modern history. That’s not likely in the cards this season, making it even more important that the Irish control the game in the trenches.

 

Can freshman Devin Studstill be Notre Dame’s last line of defense? 

Max Redfield’s dismissal was the final disappointing chapter in a collegiate career that will long be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Asked to be Notre Dame’s last line of defense—to serve as the nerve-center of the secondary—Redfield instead served as the ringleader to the most maddening, inexplicable preseason decision in recent memory, bringing guns and drugs and Notre Dame football into the same sentence, all too good of a reason for Kelly to pull the chute on a tenure that seemed like hard work on even the best days.

In his place, freshman Devin Studstill makes his first start. Matched up against a Texas offense that’ll need big plays (and maybe even a little broken coverage) to find its footing, Kelly puts a key job on the shoulders of an early-enrollee freshman, a safety who actually took a final look at playing for the Longhorns before heading to South Bend.

So for all the optimism that’s followed Studstill from the recruiting process, through spring drills and into fall camp, Kelly’s not unaware of the circumstances his young free safety will face.

“We’ll have a true freshman, on the road, playing against a talented team,” Kelly said through gritted teeth. “Devin is a kid that has a lot of talent. He’s a very confident player. But we’ll all be looking at it like you will be.

“He’s a pretty talented player. He’s confident. He had a pretty good spring game. He’s got some experience now after the spring. But we’ll have to play a few guys, I don’t think he’s going to go out there and play every snap.”

Behind him is where things get murky. There’s sixth-year safety Avery Sebastian, long on experience but built like a strong safety. Freshman Jalen Elliott has earned praise as well, but will be playing in his first college game as well. Sophomore Nicco Fertitta earned mention, but isn’t the athletic matchup you want with Texas’ receiving corps.

So that leaves Studstill to learn on the job. And at a position that’s seemed difficult to fill since Harrison Smith roamed the secondary, that’s a lot of pressure on a freshman.

 

With leadership still a work in progress, can this team grow—and win—while finding its identity?

Naming four captains after an embarrassing weekend found six players posing for mug shots, Brian Kelly’s concerns about player leadership found their way to the forefront before his young team even played a game. But there’s a silver lining in that embarrassing dust-up. Namely, the Irish stubbed their toe before it could cost them anything more than a starting safety and a week of headlines.

Kelly knows that this team will be a work in progress. That makes the key to this season winning while still figuring things out. If you’re wondering why he was so willing to play both quarterbacks, it ultimately comes down to the fact that he can’t take anything off the table as he looks for the right recipe for success.

Winning the weekend is the only goal that matters. Survive Texas and get home.

Because the cliche that each week is a season in college football holds true for this football team. Winning the week and going onto the next should allow this team to find its footing, doing so against a schedule that only features three true road games and opponents that all deal with major turnover either in the coaching ranks or in key personnel.

One Saturday at a time. (And this weekend, one Sunday, too.) Because even after six seasons, if Kelly takes a step back to look at the road ahead of him, he might understand just how much he’s trying to achieve.