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Pregame Six Pack: Bring on the Owls

Aug 30, 2013, 8:30 AM EDT

USA TODAY Sports USA TODAY Sports

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.

  1. chipperforever - Aug 30, 2013 at 9:38 AM

    Whoa now! Don’t be dragging Ball State through the mud

    • mtflsmitty - Aug 31, 2013 at 11:21 AM

      Glad to see someone else willing to stand tall for BSU. Go Cards! GO IRISH.

  2. bernhtp - Aug 30, 2013 at 9:42 AM

    In all of the discussion of Amir Carlisle and his fragility, I haven’t seen a mention of his impressive physical transformation. I sat right behind the team bench during the 2012 BG Spring game where Amir was in street clothes because of his ankle injury. I remarked to myself how puny he appeared for a running back – small and skinny – especially when Theo walked by him, who was absolutely ripped like a body builder.

    In recent video Amir has obviously been working extremely hard. He has packed on an amazing amount of muscle. It seems he is way more prepared to see and endure serious action. Of course this doesn’t make him immune to the violence of football, but he is no longer the frail little kid I saw last year.

    • dickasman - Aug 31, 2013 at 1:21 PM

      PED does a body good

  3. simmel65 - Aug 30, 2013 at 9:47 AM

    We just need to play with a chip on our shoulder all year. I love that ND is being overlooked. I think that is exactly what this team needs.

    Through all the adversity, we could be seeing a very special team this year. The depth is so much better. Look at all the issues personnel wise. We have lost some amazing players and talent, and yet, when you look at this team, it is still very strong. Sometimes we get caught up in who left and forget who stayed!!

    The players are in great shape and are big and physical. I hope we can really run the ball this year. An old school ground and pound on offense and a punishing defense is how we need to be!

    Can’t wait for tomorrow!

    GO IRISH!

    • dickasman - Aug 31, 2013 at 1:22 PM

      Yeah I agree….can’t stand to see them play like hemorrhoid on butt like Alabama game. I just wish we had golson.

  4. aceinthehole12 - Aug 30, 2013 at 10:55 AM

    Been waiting since January for the Irish to come back !

  5. irishdodger - Aug 30, 2013 at 11:49 AM

    One thing I’m confident in: ND will not cover that spread. The Irish have to be one of the worst teams when it comes to covering a spread. Just win baby!

    • dickasman - Aug 31, 2013 at 1:23 PM

      Don’t worry I will gladly cover the spread with my third leg

  6. NotreDan - Aug 30, 2013 at 12:08 PM

    “Twelve victories has started to turn into seven wins, five squeakers, and a public reckoning…”

    KA, you do have a knack for perspective. I think I will print that paragraph and keep it. Some of your best writing, and I read it all.

  7. bernhtp - Aug 30, 2013 at 1:28 PM

    Something else I’m curious about is whether Diaco will get more aggressive with blitz packages. Given that we now have a more experienced defensive backfield and have more team speed, will he let loose the dogs to wreak havoc on physically-outmatched offenses.

    • gtizzo - Aug 30, 2013 at 3:29 PM

      I wonder that myself. I doubt we see anything against Temple mostly because Tuitt should be enough. When they go to Michigan going after Gardner may not be the best idea. Maybe against Michigan State as I doubt they will need to blitz much against Purdue.

    • dickasman - Aug 31, 2013 at 1:25 PM

      YES. Good point berno, I completely forgot about that. For a guy w serial killer look he sure doesn’t call the defense like it.

  8. irishdog80 - Aug 30, 2013 at 2:07 PM

    Great article. I have been sick and tired of explaining to friends how a 12-0 regular season and National Championship Game appearance was a great year for ND. That said, the light shines bright on Notre Dame and I would not want it any other way.

    The one omission from all the preseason build up that has not been addressed very well is our punting game. Ben Turk turned out to be adequate at best with his good moments balanced equally by his bad moments. How has Brindza looked? We know he has a big leg, but he was not impressive in the Blue-Gold game. Who knows, we might not even see him punt this weekend. With our defense, a big time punter would be a great weapon this year. Have I missed mentions about how our punting game is developing?

    • bernhtp - Aug 30, 2013 at 2:24 PM

      I’m hoping that we don’t see any evidence of our new punting prowess tomorrow, from Brindza or otherwise.

      70-0 with 3 of the TDs by the defense.

      New ND tradition: after each passing TD the student section does a rousing chorus of the revised hymnal “Oh what a friend we have in Reesus.”

      We can always dream.

      • steeldominance - Aug 30, 2013 at 11:52 PM

        I vomit everytime I read a bern post. Go Irish!

      • bernhtp - Aug 31, 2013 at 9:53 AM

        I leave it up to the reader to determine which posts are serious, which are not, and which are purposefully constructed to put the taste of vomit in your mouth (for fun and sport, of course). Thankfully, most of us on a Notre Dame board easily make this distinction.

      • dickasman - Aug 31, 2013 at 1:28 PM

        Berno, it is sad that you have to state the given. pretty stupid for pretty smart fan base. anywho, you clearly give these readers too much credit. They support gay marriage, abortion and link cards for the lazy, so I guess what do I expect.

  9. fnc111 - Aug 31, 2013 at 12:25 AM

    Let’s settle down a bit on Carlisle. All of his stats came against possibly the worst defense of all-time in the Colorado Buffaloes.

    • dickasman - Aug 31, 2013 at 1:31 PM

      I hope not but I don’t think Belinda Carlisle will make it through the entire season. I’m sure bk will be using him sparingly

      • bernhtp - Aug 31, 2013 at 3:12 PM

        I’ve seen Belinda a couple of times in the last few years – a guilty pleasure of mine has been girly punk bands like the Go-Go’s. She actually look better than she did at the beginning of her career.

        I like Carlisle, both of them, but Amir will get snaps based not only on his running and receiving versatility, but on how well he blocks. I don’t know how well he does the latter, but he will only be a specialist if the answer isn’t good.

        Belinda and her cohorts are always welcome during halftime.

  10. ndnapa - Aug 31, 2013 at 12:18 PM

    Coach Elliott’s praise of the HC should silence criticism by even Kelly’s biggest detractors. You couldn’t get a better testimonial from a more well-respected source.

    Time to kick azz.

  11. notredave - Aug 31, 2013 at 3:41 PM

    GO IRISH!!

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