Alabama Crimson Tide's head coach Nick Saban holds up The Coaches Trophy after the NCAA BCS National Championship college football game in Miami

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Alabama

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That resounding thud you heard Monday night was reality setting in for millions of Notre Dame fans. After a season where just about everything went right for the Irish, after echoes were awaken, odds were defied, and luck had returned, it was hard for even the most jaded of fans not to feel like they were about to witness something magical. That destiny had found its way back to South Bend.

A handful of days in South Florida only emboldened those beliefs. While the odds looked long according to Las Vegas, more than a few analysts felt like the Irish would hold their own, and even the biggest skeptics had become believers in Brian Kelly’s football team. And for the thousands of Notre Dame fans that flooded the region, that invaded South Beach, it was hard not to believe that this team would find a way to get things done.

And then the game started.

After good kickoff coverage and a nice stop on first down, Alabama took advantage of the Irish’s aggression and went to playaction, where cornerback Bennett Jackson and safety Matthias Farley got their heads caught in the backfield, making for an easy throw to a wide open receiver running a flag pattern. From there, it got worse, Eddie Lacy zipped past Zeke Motta in the backfield, danced through traffic and was finally hogtied and taken down by Dan Fox, who was called for a 15-yard facemask penalty. With Alabama already inside the Irish 30, a hard count added five yards to the Irish misery, when Louis Nix jumped offside. Stacking five men across the line, the Irish stuffed TJ Yeldon on 1st and five, before Lacy returned.

On the next snap, Lacy sprinted up the middle for an easy 20 yard touchdown. Freshman Sheldon Day was no match for All-American center Barrett Jones, who twisted Day out of the A-gap. Prince Shembo was swallowed by two offensive linemen. Te’o missed Lacy, diving at his feet as he sprinted by. KeiVarae Russell did the same. Matthias Farley was no match for Lacy with a blocker in front of him and from their, the route was on.

As the proprietor of this operation, I’m going to flip things around a bit. I’m a bad news first kind of guy and that’s the way this is going to be presented here. So let’s get on with the inevitable.

Here’s the bad, good, and ugly from Alabama’s 42-14 thumping of Notre Dame.

THE BAD

The rush defense. Let’s get the big stuff out of the way. It was an ugly performance for ND’s front seven, after looking to be one of the toughest challenges for Alabama yet. From the get go, things started poorly and the Tide marched down the field for three straight touchdowns to open the game, with drives of 82, 61 and 80 all but icing the victory. Prior to Monday night, the Irish hadn’t given up a scoring drive longer than 75 yards.

“They ran the ball effectively. For us, we’ve been able to manage the run game. They were able to run the ball effectively, and then obviously when you do that, it opens up so much of the play‑action game,” Kelly said afterwards.

The Irish defense was often swallowed by Alabama’s offensive line, unable to shed blocks throughout the night. While Louis Nix played well along the front, contributing five tackles and two TFLs, the rest of the unit struggled, and the Irish just couldn’t stop Alabama when they subbed out their starting three, leading to difficult nights — understandably — for first year players like Sheldon Day, Tony Springmann and reserve Kona Schwenke. When Kapron Lewis-Moore went down with a heart-breaking knee injury, the Tide had already controlled the game, but any chance the Irish could stop the Bama ground game became even less likely.

Missed tackles were a product of Alabama’s excellent blocking up front, poor angles by guys like Zeke Motta and Matthias Farley, who found themselves having to knife through a crease hoping to trip up a runner, and Manti Te’o trying to fight his way through traffic to make tackles. With all eyes on the Irish’s No. 5, he struggled with the size and blocking of Alabama’s front, unable to get off a block before it was too late.

With six weeks to break down the Irish’s defensive principles, the Tide created a series of playcalls that looked to expose Bob Diaco’s scheme. After the game, center Barrett Jones discussed the Tide’s counter to what they expected the Irish defense to do.

“They’re good because they are so simple,” Jones told ESPN’s Ivan Maisel. “But, also, they’re simple. We knew if we had certain shifts, they would get into certain formations that we felt like we would have good runs against. We were right — every play, almost. This is not a flaw in Notre Dame. We watched a lot of film. We had a lot of time to figure out what they did in certain formations.”

The pass defense. With Notre Dame selling out to stop the run, Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier had the perfect answer: a devastating playaction passing game. Quarterback AJ McCarron was accurate all night, hitting on 20 of 28 throws, and just missing a few more big completions.

But McCarron had plenty of help from the Irish secondary, who too often got caught trying to play run support and left gigantic chunks of the field wide open. Just as helpful was Alabama’s tremendous diagnosis of the weak spots in the Irish zone defense, with the Tide continually attacking the deep corners and also having luck on the slants and posts as well.

The Irish defense’s lack of depth in the secondary had been well hidden by Diaco, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott all year. But watching youngsters Farley, Russell and Elijah Shumate do their best in coverage against Alabama’s receiving corps gave you an idea that the youth was finally being served.

The first fifteen minutes. Add in a few more seconds to count the Tide’s third touchdown drive, and it was a nightmare start for Notre Dame. As I quoted in my Five Things, you can’t say the Irish didn’t know starting fast would be crucial. But after deferring on the opening kickoff, the Tide just controlled the game, dominating the first fifteen minutes before coasting to a 28-0 halftime lead.

The running game. Falling behind early certainly didn’t help establish a ground game, but it was slim pickings for Theo Riddick and the Irish running game. Being held to 1.7 yards per carry doesn’t give a team much of a shot, and for a team that averaged more than 200 yards per game, that was a huge disappointment.

50-50 calls. Nothing wreaks worse than blaming referees in a game that’s decided by 28 points.

But it was a really tough start for the Pac-12 officiating crew. Tyler Eifert had what looked like possession of the football with feet in bounds on a critical 3rd and two catch, and then bobbled the ball before holding onto it as he fell out of bounds. Yet the Pac-12 officiating crew ruled that he was juggling the ball on the field, and even after Brian Kelly called timeout to give the replay booth more time to review it, they disagreed, as boos chorused down from the stands.

The very next play, Notre Dame got an even tougher break, called for kick catch interference after Ben Turk’s 50-yard punt. The Irish came up with the fumble, which would have given them the ball at the Alabama 24, a huge turn of events.

Replays showed that Matthias Farley, who was flagged for the 15 yard penalty, didn’t touch Christon Jones, the Alabama returner, and moreso was blocked into the return by cornerback Deion Belue. Kendall Moore nearly caught the punt mid-bobble before the scramble for the ball. With a really late fair-catch signal, Farley did all that he could to avoid making contact with the return man, and the Irish were on the spot to recover the fumble, yet it was all for naught, as referee Land Clark marked off 15 yards for the Tide.

“That’s a horrendous call,” Brent Musburger said at the time.

Already feeling aggrieved at the lack of replay review on Eifert’s catch, the pro-Notre Dame crowd overwhelmed the stadium with boos directed at the Pac-12 officiating crew.

“It’s amazing what a bad reputation Pac-12 officials have,” Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel said on Twitter. “And it’s amazing that they continue to perpetuate it.”

As you’d expect, the coordinator of officiating gave a clean bill of health to the crew on the field. But with momentum swinging in the wind, a few close calls early went Alabama’s way, and Notre Dame never recovered.

Missed tackles and Lost leverage. Zeke Motta played as hard as he could, and his 16 tackles were a career high. But he missed a half-dozen others, joined by a slew of teammates that too often came up tackling grass.

Also frustrating for Irish fans was watching Danny Spond and Prince Shembo give up leverage on the edges of the defense. Setting the edge was something that Spond and Shembo both did remarkably well this season. But against Alabama, too often the OLBs were swallowed up and taken out of the play.

It wasn’t noticeable this season because both Spond and Shembo played great, but one of the issues that come with starting those two at outside linebacker is that they lack the size and height Diaco and Kelly want in their edge players. With Shembo sliding down to the line and Ishaq Williams taking a ton of snaps, the outside linebackers didn’t have great games and didn’t do well against the size Alabama presented up front.

Manti Te’o. After spending the entire season playing great football, Te’o picked a tough game to miss some big plays. He still came up with ten tackles, but Te’o struggled with the phyiscal bulk of the Alabama run game, and the three-man front that the Irish employed had Te’o too often going head up with a guard, a battle even the best of players will struggle to win.

Special Teams. The special teams units featured new personnel and saw quite a few starters sprinking into the units. But that didn’t stop the Irish from struggling to get anything going in the return game, with George Atkinson really struggling all season at kickoff return after a record-setting freshman season.

Davonte Neal showed some bad decision making on punt returns, catching a ball inside the five yard line when he tried to make a play and then muffing another return when his fumble rolled out of bounds. The Irish special teams certainly weren’t in the top five reasons why the team lost, but it was discouraging to see nothing in the return game, and a huge penalty (that may have been the wrong call) go against the Irish.

THE GOOD

Everett Golson. All things considered, Golson played a strong game, especially after he was forced to mostly throw as the Irish were behind. Golson completed 21 of 36 passes for 270 yards. He threw a touchdown to Theo Riddick and extended many plays with his legs, connecting 13 times with TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels, two receivers that’ll be keys to next season’s Irish offense.

After struggling for most of the year to find chemistry with Tyler Eifert, he connected with the All-American tight end six times for 61 yards. (He was three inches and one marginal call away from making that eight catches for 100 yards.)

Still, for as ugly as the game was, the future looks very bright for Golson, who markedly improved in the six weeks leading up to the game. While the offense only managed 302 total yards, Golson never looked flustered and showed good decision making, turning the ball over only once on a remarkably acrobatic interception.

TJ Jones. It was a nice evening at the office for Jones as well, who battled all night and made a ton of tough catches with coverage usually blanketing the Irish receivers. For Jones, the 2012 season was a tremendous success, and a year that’ll set him up for a great senior season.

DaVaris Daniels. Returning from a broken collarbone, Daniels played terrific, catching six balls for 115 yards. Quite a nice way to finish off a freshman season of eligibility. Daniels looks every bit the part of a No. 1 receiver, and putting up 115 yards against Alabama has to have people feeling good about his future.

Red Zone offense. Sure, they only had two opportunities. But against a really stout defense, Notre Dame got in for touchdowns both times. The first touchdown featured a nice wrinkle by offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, running the option off a zone read look that helped Golson dive in for a touchdown. The second came courtesy of a nice throw to Riddick and good execution by the offense.

We said before the game that the Irish would need to get seven when they got in scoring range. While it didn’t end up mattering, they did their job in the red zone.

The Notre Dame turnout.  Throw out the sixty minutes of football. This was a tremendous experience for Notre Dame fans, alumni, and former players. With almost 50,000 people on the beach during a pep rally, ND Nation turned out for their school, and the support was overwhelming.

On the sidelines before the game, it was great to see guys like Mike Floyd and Brady Quinn shaking hands and patting backs. Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate were spotted, with Tate coming in after winning a playoff game. Former greats like Tony Rice and Jerome Bettis were in town, with the 1988 team having a reunion that brought together many former players, all united behind Brian Kelly and his team.

While the Irish showed they have work to do, even Alabama fans were amazed at the turnout at Sun Life Stadium and in the parking lots surrounding it.

THE UGLY

The Aftermath. It was an incredibly difficult game for Notre Dame and its supporters to stomach. After listening to six weeks of SEC crowing, Alabama ran through the Irish’s mighty defense with ease, doing exactly what many SEC fans thought they would do. The result was a worst case scenario for Notre Dame, empowering skeptics who thought that the Irish didn’t deserve to be in Miami, even with a 12-0 record.

But in today’s current system, those arguments should fall on deaf ears. And any categorization of Notre Dame’s season other than a resounding success is completely ridiculous. After losing ten games over two seasons, the Irish entered the season with a freshman quarterback, a rebuilt right side of the offensive line, and in need of replacing the school’s all-time receiving leader and three of four starters in the secondary, including a first round draft pick.

That the Irish didn’t play anywhere close to their best football on Monday, especially early in the game, is tremendously disappointing. But even their best is likely a few rungs short of where the Crimson Tide program is.

“They’re not just better than us; they’re better than everyone,” athletic director Jack Swarbrick told SI’s Pete Thamel. “It doesn’t diminish the regular season. That foundation is here. We’re back in elite status.”

Elite status is a great step forward. The Irish beat rivals USC, Michigan and Michigan State this year. They beat a Stanford team that finished No. 7 in the country, and defeated No. 2 Oregon. The Notre Dame offense is in good hands and will surely take a large step forward during the offseason, as Everett Golson becomes more comfortable after a season of learning on the fly. Replacing Theo Riddick and possibly Cierre Wood will be difficult, but Notre Dame has a home-run threat running back in George Atkinson, who averaged 7.1 yards a carry, and Amir Carlisle waiting in the wings. Add in wildcard Cam McDaniel, five-star recruit Greg Bryant and guys like Will Mahone and Tarean Folston, and the Irish will be able to run the ball.

Defensively, filling the shoes of Te’o will be a large task. But Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt will give Notre Dame the best one-two punch of any defensive line in the country, and all the depth behind. The Irish will also return three of four linebackers, and the secondary will welcome back Austin Collinsworth and Lo Wood, and potentially Jamoris Slaughter, who felt very optimistic about his sixth year chances.

The future is bright in South Bend. Sure, the game was a tremendous disappointment. But more so because it just felt like this magical Notre Dame was destined for victory. But destiny doesn’t stop Eddie Lacy.

With recruiting headed down the home stretch, Notre Dame is still targeting some of the nation’s highest rated players, looking to add to the No. 1 recruiting class they’ve assembled. They’ll also have a very clear picture of what they need to do to be able to plant their flag at the summit of college football, pointed out ever so dominantly by an Alabama team that showed the sizable gap between the Irish and the Crimson Tide.

With their mission statement for the offseason abundantly clear, the focus is already on 2013.

“Pasadena 2014,” Nix said.

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)
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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

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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)
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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.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Malik Zaire

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Malik Zaire #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes past defensive end Mike Moore #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the third quarter at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Malik Zaire will play this season. After battling DeShone Kizer to an unexpected draw this fall, the senior quarterback will have a chance to prove he’s one of the team’s top playmakers—even if his role in Brian Kelly’s offense is still uncertain.

The ultimate competitor and an emotional leader who plays with a chip on his shoulder and his heart on his sleeve, Zaire’s a key piece of an offensive puzzle that’ll only begin to show all its pieces starting this Sunday in Austin.

 

MALIK ZAIRE
6’0″, 225 lbs.
Senior, No. 9, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-rising recruit, Zaire made a statement at the national level with an impressive showing at the Elite 11 camp. An early target of Brian Kelly, Zaire rose to a four-star prospect, earning offers from Alabama, Arizona, a handful of others and eventually Ohio State.

Mostly an option quarterback until his senior season at Archbishop Alter, Zaire was a Top 150 recruit and a national prospect by Signing Day.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action, preserving year of eligibility.

Sophomore Season (2014): Saw brief action early in the season before relieving Everett Golson against USC in the second quarter and starting the Music City Bowl. Zaire was named the bowl’s MVP after winning his first ever start, running for 96 yards and a score while completing 12 of 15 passes.

Junior Season (2015): Started the season’s first two games before breaking his ankle against Virginia, ending his season. Played a nearly perfect statistical game as a passer in 38-3 win over Texas. Ran for 87 yards on 10 carries against Virginia.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Seemed on track until his ankle broke.

With an excellent set of skill players and an offensive line among the best in the country, Zaire won’t need to be the best player on the Irish offense, but simply make sure he allows this unit to prosper. Whether that makes him a game manager or point guard will be determined by how well the offense produces.

The Irish will need Zaire to be a capable runner. He showed more than enough ability to do that against LSU and also with big runs in limited snaps before then. The Irish will also need him to play smart. It’s long forgotten now, but late against LSU, Zaire made an ill-advised deep throw down the middle of the field that could’ve been intercepted. Golson took over in the passing game from that moment forward.

Zaire is going to make some mistakes. He’s seeing defenses and adjustments for basically the first time. But he also needs to show the confidence that allows him to run the football, adding a needed dimension to this offense that just didn’t exist, even with Golson behind center.

Ultimately, it’s probably unfair to say it, but Zaire will be the main factor in the Irish’s ability to make it to the four-team playoff. If he’s able to limit mistakes and trigger the running game, this team will be hard to stop. But if he plays like a first-year starter and struggles to get the passing attack started, it’ll be an opportunity lost.

I think this offense is ready to dominate and Zaire is prepared for his moment in the spotlight. Now he’s got to go out and prove it.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Not many quarterbacks have had a harder path to the top than Zaire. But the fact he’s still fighting to lead this team says quite a bit about him. He may not have the NFL ceiling of Kizer—or the same type of arm talent, but Zaire does so many things that Kelly values, and his ability to make plays after things break down is key to this offense.

One of the unquestionable leaders of this unit, Zaire may not be wearing the captain’s ‘C’, but he’ll have one of the strongest voices on the team. The longer he stays part of this time share the more likely he’ll be engaged.

A fifth-year is available, but projecting anything past this week isn’t wise. There are just so many different ways this position can go. But after most had all but given the starting job to Kizer this offseason, it’s wise not to count out Zaire.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I don’t quite know how he’ll do it, but I keep believing that Zaire will find ways to be a key piece of the Irish offense. Maybe that’s injury, maybe that’s outplaying Kizer, but some how, some way, Zaire will find a way to impact this offense.

Of course, the flip side is also just as likely. The more Kizer gets a chance to be comfortable, the more likely it is that Kelly relies on him to continue to run the offense. But there’s a reason that Kelly made the unorthodox decision to chose both quarterbacks. And it’s not just that Kelly didn’t want to split the locker room. It’s that he respects Notre Dame’s veteran quarterback—so much so that he’ll continue to give him a chance to lead this offense.
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