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Pregame Six Pack: Bring on the Owls

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Thirty-three weeks. Two hundred thirty-six days. Five thousand, six hundred sixty-four hours. Three hundred thirty-nine thousand eight hundred forty minutes. Twenty million, three hundred ninety thousand, four hundred seconds. No, those aren’t alternative lyrics to the Rent soundtrack, but rather how long the Irish have had to have the awful taste of defeat in their mouths.

After twelve glorious Saturdays of singing the Fight Song and celebrating sixty minutes (and sometimes more) of victorious football, the Irish laid an egg on the sport’s biggest stage, the clock striking midnight on a season cut from a fairy tale. The proceeding weeks acted as nothing more than piling on, with just about every conceivable headline working as another rimshot for Notre Dame haters sick and tired of another Irish return to glory, with this one carrying Notre Dame all the way to the BCS Championship game.

Weird as it may seem, the Notre Dame team and its coaching staff may have had better luck putting last season in the rearview mirror than the media and football-loving public. As we run out of things to talk about during the offseason abyss, a sort of revisionist history has set in — a recreation of last season that subtly shifted the Irish’s ugly but time-honored formula of ferocious defense and protecting the football into a revolving door of Hail Marys and Divine Intervention.

Twelve victories has started to turn into seven wins, five squeakers, and a public reckoning. Never mind that Notre Dame out-rushed, out-passed, out-first downed, and fumbled the ball away three times (including once in the end zone) against a Stanford team and still beat a team many expect to see play Alabama for the title this year. That victory has become the product of a referee’s overtime blunder. Forget that Ohio State scraped by a Cal team that got its coach fired, one of Mark Dantonio’s worst Spartan squads, a four-win Indiana team that lost to Ball State, needed a furious comeback (and overtime) to beat Purdue, and had close victories over Wisconsin and Michigan. Urban Meyer’s team is a consensus top two team in the country.

But all of that is water under the bridge now, with college football’s silly season all but forgotten with kickoffs happening all across the country on this final weekend of summer. So Irish fans put down your clubs. The battle is over and the games finally count. Now Brian Kelly’s squad gets to forge a new identity as it looks to take out some long festering frustrations against a Temple team that looks overmatched on paper.

With kickoff set for 3:30 p.m. ET in South Bend, and the game broadcast (and livestream) on NBC, let’s dive into the season’s first pregame six pack.

As usual, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the No. 14 Fighting Irish take on the Temple Owls.

***

How much will the Irish showcase during their season opener? 

Notre Dame enters Saturday’s game better than a four touchdown favorite. And with a visit to Ann Arbor on the books for next weekend, there’s a very real possibility that the Irish show a very vanilla look on both sides of the ball, holding out their best stuff for the Wolverines.

Still, for Notre Dame fans looking to see just what this edition of the Irish have in store for us, even the most basic game plan will supply some long overdue answers.

Consider this a short checklist of things to keep an eye on:

* How does Kelly distribute carries?
* How often does Tommy Rees throw the football?
* Who’s the next man in on the defensive line?
* What’s the rotation like at safety and linebacker?
* How does the right side of the offensive line look?

We’ve already talked about the team approach to special teams, with graduate student Nick Tausch given the first shot at the placekicking job after losing the job to both David Ruffer and Kyle Brindza. But consider Saturday a chance to face live bullets while getting a feel for the game, especially in the above areas.

***

George Atkinson may be the team’s starting running back, but Amir Carlisle is the X (or Z) factor. 

It’s been a long time since Amir Carlisle has been spotted on a football field when it matters. After starting his Notre Dame career a calendar year later than he hoped, Carlisle will finally don the Blue and Gold this Saturday.

So much has changed since Carlisle was last a difference-maker on a football field. Back in 2011, Carlisle, then a gifted freshman running back for USC, turned a Matt Barkley screen pass into a touchdown, helping the Trojan quarterback set another school record on the afternoon.

After a transfer to Notre Dame and working his way back from a broken ankle and collarbone, Carlisle could be the key towards unlocking the Irish offense, the rare player with the ability to play running back or the slot (Z receiver), something Kelly has looked for since coming to South Bend.

While it appears that George Atkinson has held onto the starting role through a spirited training camp that featured pushes from all six scholarship running backs, Carlisle’s ability to do it all will be counted on by the head coach.

“Versatility is great if you can handle it. You can say, ‘I want you to be versatile and play all these positions,’ but if you can’t handle it, then you can’t be versatile,” Kelly explained. “What makes him the player that he is is that he can handle those dual roles, and you start with the fact that he’s a very smart kid.”

There will continue to be concerns about Carlisle’s durability until he proves its not an issue, but after a long wait, it’ll be fun to see what the Irish’s new #3 can do.

***

Not that the Irish wanted to use him, but the quarterback depth chart will be without Malik Zaire. 

My how fortunes have changed for a position that was once the envy of college football. Set to enter spring practice with five scholarship quarterbacks, the Irish are down to Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix this Saturday, with freshman Malik Zaire being held out because of a bout with mono.

That’s forced Kelly to turn to Luke Massa as the team’s emergency No. 3 quarterback, with the Ohio native returning to his signal-caller roots after ditching the red jersey for the wide receiver position group early in his Irish career. Kelly’s also turned to fourth-string walk-on Will Cronin, a little known senior who came out of nowhere to help this week.

“This morning our last blood workup for Malik was that he is not going to be able to play on Saturday,” Kelly said Thursday after practice. “Luke Massa took reps this week as our third quarterback. Will Cronin, a walk-on that we brought in as part of our 105 was scout team quarterback along with Rashad Kinlaw. Both of those young men were the scout team quarterbacks this week. But Luke got a lot of reps as our No. 3 this week.”

Massa was part of a three-quarterback class that included Rees and Hendrix and was perhaps best knows as the high school teammate of blue-chip offensive lineman Matt James at St. Xavier, who tragically passed away during a Spring Break accident during his senior year of high school. While Massa has made his way into the Irish’s Saturday plans as the team’s holder this season, seeing him at quarterback would be a sight.

But perhaps an even bigger one would be Cronin working his way onto the field. The 5-foot-11 inch, 180-pound senior walk-on wasn’t on the official roster the last three seasons for the Irish, already one-upping Rudy in the “would you believe it?” category. The 2008 2A Illinois state champion quarterback was an honorable mention Academic All-State competitor at Immaculate Conception high school in Elmurst, Illinois, putting up a career day in September of 2009 when he threw for 422 yards and five touchdowns in a tough 46-38 shootout loss to the St. Edwards Green Wave.

Part of me thinks Cronin having a chance to even contribute this week as a scout team player may turn this Saturday’s game into a new career-best moment.

(Now all he has to do is find his way onto the field in garbage time…)

***

With all the offseason offensive wrinkles, will Notre Dame finally reveal The Pistol?

Brian Kelly brought former Nevada coach Chris Ault to campus this offseason, inviting the offensive innovator to Notre Dame’s coaching clinic, where Ault talked about the Pistol offense. A formation and offensive package that Ault’s largely credited with inventing, it’s a shotgun formation that features a running back lined up directly behind the quarterback.

Early in fall camp, Kelly did his best to downplay the use of the Pistol. But even in the media’s limited viewing window, it’s been clear that the formation has been a big part of the team’s practice efforts. And with George Atkinson a running back that can do some damage if he gets started running downhill, the Pistol is a great way for a spread team to infuse a few power principles to its offensive attack.

“He ran downhill very well in high school, and we felt like the pistol could fit him very well,” Kelly said of Atkinson. “Not just him, but we felt like it was something that could benefit us moving forward.”

Still, Kelly was quick to downplay any widespread change to the offense, particularly when the best quarterbacks in the formation generally have some dual-threat capabilities.

“It’s just another piece to our offense that gives us the versatility that we’re looking for,” Kelly said earlier this week. “I think week to week you may see it a little bit more than others, and some you may not see it at all.  I just think it’s another piece that helps us complement the players we have.”

***

It’s finally time to see this freshman class in action.

Last year against Navy, the Irish played 47 different players in the first quarter alone, on the way to getting 17 players their first collegiate action. With a hot and humid day on tap for South Bend on Saturday, expect to see plenty of guys seeing the field.

That includes the freshman class. A group that Brian Kelly has already singled out as one of his most competitive ever, the “IrishMob” that was such a cohesive unit as a recruiting class will now get to strut their stuff on the field for the first time.

Let’s go quickly through the class and give you a quick rundown of what to expect from each player this Saturday:

Hunter Bivin — He’s made the two-deep, but expect him to stay on the sideline this year.
Greg Bryant — One of camp’s big surprises should be revealed this weekend.
Devin Butler — With depth at corner, Butler will likely spend Saturday watching.
Michael Deeb — Expect this mauler to make an impact on special teams immediately.
Steve Elmer — You’ll see him rotate in at right tackle.
Tarean Folston — It’s up in the air if he’ll work his way into the crowded RB rotation.
William Fuller — Just outside the two-deep, he’s a talented young deep threat.
Mike Heuerman — With three veterans in front of him, it might be special teams or bust.
Torii Hunter Jr. — While there’s been progress in his leg’s recovery, a redshirt is likely.
Rashad Kinlaw — Helped out at scout team QB, his athleticism could get him on the field.
Cole Luke — Already one of the team’s best corners. Will wear #36 because of special teams.
Jacob Matuska — One of the team’s best positions isn’t its deepest. But a likely redshirt.
Mike McGlinchey — One of camp’s biggest surprises. Closer to the field than many expected.
Colin McGovern — A high school injury and depth at guard makes a redshirt an easy choice.
John Montelus — Shoulder injury and 340-pounds of bulk means a saved year of eligibility.
James Onwualu — Kelly called him one of camp’s best surprises. Will see the field.
Doug Randolph — Surgery ended his season before it began.
Max Redfield — Just outside the two-deep (for now), he’s too talented to keep off special teams.
Corey Robinson — Get ready to see this red zone match-up wreak havoc.
Isaac Rochelle — Injuries or not, Rochelle is too talented to keep off the field.
Jaylon Smith — His star turns begins Saturday.
Durham Smythe — Silky smooth tight end is a long shot to play this year.
Malik Ziare — Mono or not, he’s better off saving a year of eligibility.

***

Most Notre Dame coaches find success. But for Brian Kelly, now comes the hard part.

While they didn’t go undefeated, Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis all at one point looked like they’d be the next great Notre Dame head coach. So with Brian Kelly coming off a twelve-win regular season, now comes the hard part: Doing it again.

NBC Sports’ Joe Posnanski headed to South Bend last week to investigate what makes Brian Kelly different. After talking with Dan Fox, Zack Martin, assistant coach Bob Elliott and others, Posnanski believes it’s Kelly’s innate ability to understand and connect to his team.

Take this interesting snippet from Posnanski’s excellent piece:

All of last season, while coaching at Notre Dame, Bob Elliott would administer daily self-dialysis. His kidneys were failing. He said it was more of a pain that painful. This past February, after the season, he had a kidney transplant, with his sister Betsy as the donor. He says he’s doing well.

And he says that going through that last year while coaching a great Notre Dame team taught him a lot about what makes Brian Kelly win. Elliott has been around some of the greatest coaches in college football history. His father, Bump Elliott, was coach at Michigan for 10 years and athletic director at Iowa for more than two decades. Bob himself has coached for 34 years and has worked under Bill Snyder at Kansas State, under Hayden Fry at Iowa, under Dick Crum at North Carolina. He has some connection to just about everybody in college football.

And he says that what amazes him about Kelly is how well he understands the people around him. He said that Kelly seemed to know when to check in and when to butt out. Kelly seemed to know how to revitalize Elliott in low moments without making a big deal out of it. Kelly just understood. This is what everybody keeps coming back to when they talk about Kelly — Elliott says it’s the most remarkable talent of a remarkable coach.

“Oh, he’s a great technical coach too,” Elliott says. “He’s been successful for a long time and he knows the game as well as anybody. But what makes him unique, I think, is that guys like to play for Brian. Coaches like to coach for Brian. He’s one of my favorites. He lets coaches do our jobs without micromanaging unless there is something that needs to be micromanaged. And then he does it in a respectful way. And he is very much in charge — he sets the tone for everything.

“It’s hard to build a family environment. That’s what coaches are always going for, right? You want players who play for each other and push each other and make each other better. That’s a hard thing to accomplish. Brian Kelly is as good as anybody Ive ever seen at building that environment.”

It’s worth noting that in Brian Kelly’s first 39 games at Notre Dame, he’s won 28 of them. In Lou Holtz’s first 39 games, he won 29. Extracting just one more similarity from the two: Both Kelly and Holtz averaged five losses a season in their first two years on the Irish sideline. They each won twelve games their third season.

For the record, Holtz followed up his 1988 National Championship season with a 12-1 campaign only spoiled by a late November loss to Miami. We’ll see what Kelly has in store for an encore.

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.