Matt Cashore - USA Today

Five things we learned: Stanford 27, Notre Dame 20

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STANFORD, Calif. — Like many Notre Dame losses, you can look at the Irish’s 27-20 defeat at the hands of No. 8 Stanford in a variety of ways. The pragmatist sees a beaten Irish squad hang with one of college football’s most physical teams while ravaged by injuries. The optimist sees a young stable of talent that’ll be much better for the opportunity. But the realist can’t help but see a team defined by these 60 minutes — heart, effort and character usurped by back-breaking mistakes and missed opportunities.

As Notre Dame falls to 8-4, Brian Kelly made it clear that as important as it is to see the silver lining, the life of a football coach isn’t defined by anything but the bottom line.

“There’s no moral victories,” Kelly said after the loss. “I’m very disappointed that we weren’t able to come up with a play and win the football game. We didn’t come down here to play a close game.”

That the Irish did play a close one says a bunch about this team. Unfortunately, that they still ended up losing says just as much.

Let’s take a look at what we learned during the Irish’s 27-20 loss to Stanford.

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With a beat up defensive front, Tyler Gaffney and the Stanford ground game was just too much to handle. 

With Louis Nix watching from in front of his computer, Stanford decided to put the game in the hands of its power running game, challenging the Irish’s beat-up defensive front to hang with the Cardinal’s impressive offensive line. 

Ultimately, the Irish couldn’t do it. Stanford ran for 261 yards on the ground, powered by senior running back Tyler Gaffney, who carried the ball 33 times for 189 yards and a touchdown.

After the Irish held strong for most of the second half, Gaffney iced the victory was an impressive final carry, dragging along a handful of Irish defenders for a hard-earned first down.

“This one was pretty special,” Stanford coach David Shaw said of Gaffney’s performance. “When we get a lead, we get into the fourth quarter, they know what’s coming, we know what’s coming. That last run might have been his best run ever. There wasn’t a big hole. He squeaked through it. There was a guy after the hole. He took that guy for a ride.”

There were a lot of positives in the way the Irish defensive front battled for much of the second half, keeping the Irish in the game by keeping the Cardinal out of the end zone, but ultimately the Cardinal’s 51 carries at over five yards a crack was just too much.

***

With the game there to be tied, senior quarterback Tommy Rees just couldn’t get it done. 

With Notre Dame miraculously down just seven points in the fourth quarter, the Irish had two drives to try and tie the football game. Both ended in Tommy Rees interceptions.

The senior quarterback did a lot of good things against a Stanford defense that’s one of the toughest against passers in the country, but when it came down to crunch time, the Irish quarterback threw two critical interceptions that killed the Irish’s chances for winning a close game.

“Our offense kept us in it,” Kelly said. “We just needed to make another play. We had an opportunity. We just couldn’t get the ball to Will (Fuller) when we needed to.”

The interception that Rees threw to Fuller will likely go down as the quintessential Rees interception, a severely under-thrown deep ball that Rees just couldn’t physically get enough on.

The interceptions will keep Irish fans from seeing a solid football game Rees had played until then. In a game where the Irish offense put a ton on the quarterback’s shoulders, Rees played before the snap as well as he ever has.

“Tommy did a great job with double checking, checking,” Kelly said. “There were some things going on out there. I thought he was masterful in a lot of things that he did today. He had them on their heels at times and he got us in some really good looks.”

On a night where Rees passed Jimmy Clausen in the Notre Dame record books for career touchdown passes, the veteran showed that while he couldn’t necessarily do all that was asked of him, he certainly would go down trying.

“I just love the way the kid competes out there,” Kelly said. “As a coach, what you appreciate is when somebody gives you all he has. He threw that ball as far as he could throw it to Will Fuller. Can’t get it any further than that. That’s just Tommy. He gives you everything he has.”

***

On a big stage, DaVaris Daniels put together an impressive football game. But he also showed how much work he still has to do. 

The Irish will say goodbye to veteran wide receiver TJ Jones after the bowl game, with the senior catching six balls for 56 yards and a touchdown against a stingy Stanford secondary. But playing against an elite defense and an excellent secondary, DaVaris Daniels showed that he has the goods to be next year’s No. 1 wide receiver, and potentially give even more to the Irish offense than Jones.

Daniels caught five balls for 79 yards and a touchdown, getting behind the Cardinal secondary for an impressive touchdown that reminds you just how talented the Chicago native can be. But for as tantalizing as Daniels’ skills appear, it’s also clear that the veteran receiver needs to advance his football game in the offseason.

“He does some really, really good things,” Kelly said. “He’s coming. I mean there’s a lot of good things out there for him. He does a really nice job. He’s just got to continue running his routes, and every single play is where his focus needs to be. That’s the next level for him, it’s that consistency.”

That consistency was demonstrated by TJ Jones this season, with the senior elevating his game from complementary piece of the offense to leading man. As Daniels heads into bowl practice and the offseason, he’ll need to reacquaint himself with quarterback Everett Golson, and take his game from sometimes to always, especially if the Irish want to build around some very talented offensive playmakers.

***

With the loss of Chris Watt, the Notre Dame offensive line just keeps getting younger and younger. 

Listening to Brian Kelly after the game, you got the feeling that whatever fell senior left guard Chris Watt, it was something far more serious than aggravating a PCL tear that Watt was playing through.

Watt’s loss is a serious one, pushing both Conor Hanratty and Steve Elmer into the starting lineup. After starting the season with four upperclassmen along the offensive line, the Irish will now start ironman Zack Martin next to four first-year contributors. Yet they weren’t overwhelmed by the moment, a stark difference from the last time Notre Dame visited Stanford.

“They gave us a chance to win,” Kelly said of his beat-up offensive line. “They battled and held their own. It could have been ugly.”

The Irish struggled to carve out a run game, gaining just 64 yards on 24 attempts. But Tarean Folston gave some life to the Irish run game, picking up momentum in the second half while running for 50 yards on 14 carries. Probably more important than that was the excellent protection they gave Rees, giving up just one sack and holding national sack leader Trent Murphy to just two tackles.

“I’m very proud of our young guys,” senior captain Zack Martin said after the game. “When you’re out there in the third and fourth quarter, we have four guys who never started this season, on the road against an opponent this this, it speaks volumes to the way we prepare.”

The experience Elmer, Hanratty, Ronnie Stanley and Matt Hegarty gained late this season will serve the Irish well next season.

***

Notre Dame may not have won on Saturday night. But they finish the season a better team than they began.

Brian Kelly and his players refuted the idea of moral victories so often Saturday night after the game that you would be wise to believe them. Yet it’s hard not to tip your cap at the effort the undermanned Irish played with against a Stanford team that just couldn’t shake Notre Dame.

Senior linebacker Dan Fox made 15 tackles, elevating his play to levels unseen these past two weeks. After being bounced from the starting lineup early this season, Fox has carried the Irish defense through November.

“I really can’t wait to watch him play one more game,” Kelly said of Fox’s efforts. “Because he’s playing good football.”

Fox wasn’t alone leaving it on the field. Austin Collinsworth had another interception, making 11 tackles while playing just about the entire game with a safety position short Eilar Hardy and Elijah Shumate. Collinsworth isn’t Zeke Motta or Harrison Smith, but he played as well as you could ask on Saturday night.

Kona Schwenke played with an ankle that was heavily wrapped. Ishaq Williams returned even with a knee injury that robbed him of a month. And even with Stanford keying on Stephon Tuitt, the junior was a bear for the Cardinal to handle.

“Stephon Tuitt is one of the three top defensive linemen in the nation. He’s phenomenal,” Shaw said, before paying Louis Nix the ultimate compliment. “The best defensive lineman in the nation didn’t play tonight.”

There’s a maxim about horseshoes and hand grenades here somewhere, but not all 8-4 regular seasons are created equal. And as you watched the wounded Irish team walk towards the team bus, you saw a lot of guys that have had injuries rob them of a full season.

“Obviously you’re never happy at 8-4,” Martin said after the game. “We’re disappointed with the season. But, you know, we got the right guys here and the right guys that bought into Coach Kelly’s system. As long as they do that, they’ll be fine.”

If you’re looking for a measure of this team, perhaps Kelly gave his most candid evaluation in some of his closing comments.

“We’re better in November than we are in September,” Kelly said. “I’d like to take this team and look at it where were you in September compared to where you were in November and we’re a better football team.”

When asked what that means, Kelly was perfectly diffusive.

“I guess I’ve got to find a way to get better in September.”  

Progress on defense will be measured Sunday night

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
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Lost amidst the grumbling about Brian VanGorder‘s defense, the complexity of his scheme, and the wonders if it’s too much for a student-athlete, was the fact that the unit made some very nice improvements in 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

And in that corner… The Texas Longhorns

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