The Irish are home. After failing to get through an opening weekend stress test in the unfriendly confines of Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium, Notre Dame gets a chance to get back to normal with a Saturday in South Bend.
Even on short rest and a compressed preparation schedule, the Irish are hopeful to leave behind the sting of last weekend’s double-overtime defeat and get healthy—both mentally and physically—against a Nevada team that is young and needed overtime to beat FCS opponent Cal Poly.
With DeShone Kizer named as the teams starter and adjustments made to the lineup on defense, Brian Kelly feels that even with a tweaked run-up to the weekend, his team is ready to go.
“We were able to make up for the short week by really spreading the practice out,” Kelly said Thursday. “We got all our work in and (Friday) we’ll have about 50 minutes on the field and we’ll be ready for Nevada on Saturday.”
To get all of us ready for Saturday, let’s turn the Pregame Six Pack on its head. Here are six players to focus on as the Irish get back to the basics against the Wolf Pack.
He’s clearly earned the starting job on the field. Now it’ll be up to Kizer to navigate the tricky dynamics of unseating a veteran leader who has a ton of respect in the locker room.
The good news is that Kizer lit up Texas, accounting for six touchdowns while giving up three series to Malik Zaire. That settled any debate on the field. So with a body of work that only picked up where it left off last season, Kelly’s expectations for the junior’s performance are unchanged.
“My expectation is that he’s the starter for this game and we know that based upon what he’s done in the past that he’s been very effective as a starting quarterback,” Kelly said. “I expect him to continue in that role. If he’s not effective, if he’s not what we’ve known him to be, we’ve got one heck of a good quarterback ready to play.”
That other quarterback, Malik Zaire, will have a lot of focus on him. And while Kelly is uninterested in the subplots that seemed destined to start after the camera found Zaire after nearly every good play Kizer made, the head coach was happy that his senior back-up went to work this week with his mind in the right place.
“I thought he had two really very good days,” Kelly said of Zaire. “I thought he was really focused, locked in, and is ready to lead our football team. That’s all I’ve asked him to be—ready to lead our team.”
The fifth-year senior made one of last week’s critical plays, blocking the extra point that Shaun Crawford returned for the game’s tying two points. But Notre Dame needs more from Jones, who is healthy after a season lost to injury, but still clearly working through the mental side of recovery.
“I don’t see that there’s anything that’s holding him back from a physical standpoint, Kelly said. “If anything is holding him back, it’s perceived. There’s nothing from a training room perspective that’s on my report that would put him back.”
One of the big surprises of last weekend was the loss in the trenches to the Longhorns. Some of that can be attributed to the three-man front the Irish deployed. Some should be focused on the lack of impact Jones made, playing only 26 snaps in a time share with Daniel Cage.
“He’s got to give us some quality snaps in there at the shade with Daniel, that’s his role,” Kelly said. “Continue to be a good technician. He doesn’t have to be a guy that gets a lot of tackles for a loss but he’s strong. Play physical and play with great technique.”
Irish fans expect more than just a technician. Especially after seeing the impact he had when he was healthy and motivated in 2014.
Notre Dame’s young free safety made it through his first game without any hiccups. And after the decision to start Drue Tranquill in his place backfired, it’s time to throw the early-enrollee freshman into the fire and see how he comes out.
Even with Avery Sebastian cleared through the concussion protocol, Studstill is moving into the lineup. And while Nevada won’t test Notre Dame’s personnel quite like Texas’s athletic receiving corp, it’s a great test for the Irish free safety, who’ll be doing and seeing things for the first time inside of Notre Dame Stadium, all while needing to be the stabilizing force of a secondary that had multiple busted coverages.
“He will see a lot of playing time this week,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We will have to continue to give him the opportunity to get out there and play and experience the scenarios that you can’t really duplicate in practice.”
Torii Hunter will take the practice field Friday, his status on Saturday still up in the air. But regardless of Hunter’s return, Holmes needs to seize the opportunity ahead of him, one of spring’s big surprises all but absent in Austin last weekend.
With C.J. Sanders locked in as the team’s dynamic slot receiver, Holmes will have to do his damage at the X receiver, lined up on the wide side of the field and often times on an island against defenders asked to run with the Irish’s fastest receiver. Now it’s time to see Holmes’ track speed translate to the football field. Because for the veteran to stay in the mix at receiver, he’ll need to make a few plays down the field, especially in the vertical passing game, a key part of the Irish offense last season thanks to Will Fuller.
K.J. Stepherson will also get a chance to contribute. But his knowledge base is still a work-in-progress, Kelly acknowledging what most of us saw during crunch time at Texas. That leaves an opportunity for the third-year veteran, a chance to build a niche role in the Irish offense as Hunter recovers from a nasty concussion.
Notre Dame’s All-American candidate at left guard didn’t play his best last weekend. He graded out negative against the Longhorns according to PFF College, struggles as a run blocker that are antithetical to what are believed to be the strengths of his game.
Expect some frustrations to be taken out on a Nevada front seven that’s breaking in six new starters. And Nelson, a 330-pound cinder block, needs to take a tough opening week and get back on track.
It’s hardly analysis to say that Notre Dame’s offense is better when the run game is humming. But to make things easier for a still-inexperienced receiving corps, the ground game needs to be the engine, opening up opportunities down field when Nevada adds an extra hat in the box to slow down the Irish running backs.
Billed as one of the best pairings in college football, Nelson and Mike McGlinchey didn’t put up the performance expected of them last weekend. That’ll change quickly on Saturday.
Back at home at strong safety, Tranquill needs to recapture his confidence. Because while his limitations in coverage seemed to be exploited last week, he’s far too important of a defender for the Irish to be thrown aside after one week.
“He was put in a situation where he fully understands what’s expected of him, things that he has to work on. He’s a guy that is very conscientious and works hard at his craft,” Kelly said.
Against triple-option opponents like Navy, his skills jump out — a sure tackler in the box and a great safety working inside out. But the Irish defense needs more from him than specialty work, and he’ll be given another chance this week to expand his repertoire.
“He’s not just a downhill box safety,” Kelly explained. “He has to play on the hash, he has to play man-to-man, he has to do more than roll down and be a flat-foot safety making tackles as the extra hat.”
Nevada loves to run the football, so there’ll be plenty of chances to make an impact in the ground game. But if he can’t survive in space and hold up against the pass, the Irish will need to make some big changes to their defensive alignment.