Everett Golson

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Five things we’ll learn: The 2016 Notre Dame season preview

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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.

 

Kelly on the QBs: “Everything is on the table”

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A starter and backup. A timeshare. Alternating series—or snaps.

That quarterback battle between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire? As of today, the possibilities are limitless.

“I have not taken anything off the table. Really. Honestly,” head coach Brian Kelly said, when asked why he wouldn’t play two quarterbacks. “If we go down the roster and look at the playmakers on offense, two of them are on the quarterback side.

“I’ve got to look at all of those and factor every one of them in. For me not to look at every single scenario possible as it relates to the quarterback position, I would not be smart as a football coach. We’ll look at every option and everything that’s available to us to put the best offense on the field. Everything is on the table.”

After spending the spring talking about finding a starter and disappointing one very good football player, this is a far more intriguing comment than maybe any of us will allow.

And why is that?

Maybe it’s the burn we still feel after spending an offseason wondering what the duo of Malik Zaire and Everett Golson could do after their dynamic-duo performance in the bowl win over LSU. Or maybe it’s because we just watched Urban Meyer—still a deity in the eyes of most Irish fans—turn his (regular season) offense into a huge disappointment as he mismanaged a depth chart that was three-deep entering last season and had Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield.

But if Kelly has truly backed away from the starter-backup concept and really is willing to play both quarterbacks, what this Notre Dame offense could look like is really an incredible proposition.

Is it Kizer between the 20s and Zaire in the red zone? Is it both guys on the field at once? Is it it a ham-and-egg combo like the near-perfect gameplan we saw against LSU? Or maybe the turbo-speed attack that Irish fans have been clamoring for since the day Kelly got to South Bend?

Both quarterbacks can run. Before Kizer became the team’s goal line and short yardage option, Zaire was ready to be a chain-mover as well and breakaway run threat as well. And gone are the days of worrying what happens when No. 1 goes down. As we saw last year—nothing changes.

Kelly’s certainly not afraid to make an unorthodox decision. Last offseason when he decided to bring Mike Sanford to town, much was made about the offensive coordinator title given to the young assistant, with Mike Denbrock “promoted” to associate head coach.

But that leadership trio went as smoothly as you could ask, taking the Irish offense to new heights, even while breaking in a quarterback who wasn’t accurate enough to hit water from a boat the spring before.

Given an entire offseason to figure out how best to utilize Zaire and Kizer, maybe there’s enough confidence atop the Notre Dame program to go out on that ledge again. Because while it’d certainly be a risk, game planning for both Kizer and Zaire would be a nightmare for opponents.

After day one, it all seems possible. And with Kelly growing more and more comfortable about the competition as it’s finally arrived, there doesn’t seem to be any sense of urgency.

“We don’t have to make a decision until they tell us only one quarterback can play,” Kelly said after the team’s opening practice at Culver Academies. “And that’s right up to Texas.”

Counting Down the Irish: 10-6

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We enter the top ten in the middle of an eventful 24 hours that saw Notre Dame lose tight end Alizé Jones for the season, gain another 2018 recruit, and announce a social media partnership with Bleacher Report that’ll give Irish fans another inside look at the program. And Brian Kelly still hasn’t had his introductory fall press conference.

But as we get to the top of this list, the strength of this team continues to emerge. Four talented skill players and a gigantic defensive tackle who could all be among the best in the country.

What this panel still isn’t sure of is how to balance the considerable talent Brian Kelly has stockpiled. Last year’s opening day starters at running back and quarterback are now listed below their injury replacements. Their awards candidates at cornerback and nose guard return with lower expectations than we had for them last year.

Let’s get into our Top 10.

 

2016 Irish Top 25 Rankings: 
25. Equanimeous St. Brown (WR, Soph.)
24. Durham Smythe (TE, Sr.
23. Justin Yoon, (K, Soph.)
22. Tyler Newsome (P, Jr.)
21. Daniel Cage (DT, Jr.)
20. Sam Mustipher (C, Jr.)
19. Jerry Tillery (DT, Soph.)
18. Max Redfield (S, Sr.)
17. CJ Sanders (WR, Soph.)
16. Drue Tranquill (S, Jr.)
15. James Onwualu (OLB, Sr.)

14. Alex Bars (RT, Jr.)
13. Alizé Jones (TE, Soph.)
12. Shaun Crawford (DB, Soph.)
11. Nyles Morgan (LB, Jr.)

 

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

10. Tarean Folston (RB, Senior): Folston might not even be in South Bend had 2015 gone according to plan. With C.J. Prosise exploding onto the scene and going in the third round and Josh Adams establishing a school record for a freshman running back, you’ve got to wonder what Folston would’ve done had he not gone down with a season-ending knee injury on just his third carry.

Notre Dame’s most talented and well-rounded back, we’ve yet to see if Folston is back at 100 percent. We’ll also see if he’s still the team’s preferred ball carrier, with Adams a bigger home run threat with breakaway speed that Folston just doesn’t have.

Still, Folston is a pure talent. He’s excellent in space, reading blocks and catching passes. There’s no reason not to believe he won’t step right back into the action, capable of a huge season if healthy and given the opportunity. This ranking might be too low.

Highest Ranking: 6th. Lowest Ranking: 16th.

North Carolina v Notre Dame

9. Jarron Jones (DT, Grad Student): Jones’ senior season was derailed before it ever started, another returner to the roster who likely would’ve been in the NFL had he not gone down with an August knee injury. That’s given the Irish one of college football’s most dominant interior players—when Jones is motivated and healthy.

The Syracuse native was already battling a lisfranc injury that made it tough to return to full speed even before his MCL injury last August. And after being cautious with the injury this spring, Jones will be asked to go full out, even if he’s on a pitch count. Brian Kelly hopes a 35- to 40-play limit will keep Jones fresh.

Tasked with wreaking havoc in the trenches and keeping offensive linemen off of Nyles Morgan, Jones has All-American ability if he can harness it.

Highest Ranking: 2nd. Lowest Ranking: 16th.

 

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 14: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes for a 98-yard touchdown against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on November 14, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

8. Josh Adams (RB, Sophomore): Expected to do little more than redshirt last season, Josh Adams’ record-breaking campaign leaves many wondering just how impressive the encore can be. With power and size—not to mention incredible long speed—Adams is the perfect Brian Kelly recruit, a three-star prospect that the staff stayed on even through a major knee injury.

He’s already surpassed Tarean Folston in the eyes of this panel. While seniority might rule when it comes to the starting lineup, expect both backs to get plenty of carries, with each having the chance to put together a very big season.

Highest Ranking: 4th. Lowest Ranking: 10th.

 

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08: Cornerback Cole Luke #36 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the college football game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

7. Cole Luke (CB, Senior): After a mostly anonymous junior season, Luke enters 2016 possibly underrated at the national level. Luke’s exceptional sophomore campaign saw him lock up some of the nation’s best receivers. With KeiVarae Russell gone and no experience at the other cornerback spot, it’ll be up to Luke to repeat that performance, not the so-so junior year.

A talented cover cornerback with good ball skills, Luke will likely handle the job of covering an opponents No. 1 receiver. If he can find a way to impact the game and make more big plays, the Irish defense has a chance to improve, even after saying goodbye to some elite talent.

Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking: 19th.

 

Malik Zaire

6. Malik Zaire (QB, Senior): Our panel clearly respects Zaire and views him as one of the team’s top players. But he’s No. 2 behind DeShone Kizer, who ranks inside the team’s Top Five. Start Kizer? Start Zaire? Play them both? Let’s just say they don’t pay us enough to make that decision.

Zaire’s entering his fourth season in South Bend and has only made an impact in four games over that period. Still, he’s done just that in every chance he’s been given, a standout against USC after taking over for Everett Golson, an emotional win over LSU in the bowl game, near perfection against Texas and then a nice performance before ending his season with an ankle injury against Virginia.

Entering a training camp battle that not many expect him to win, Zaire’s a key part of this Irish football team, with a still to be determined role.

Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking 11th.

Counting Down the Irish: Ranking Notre Dame’s 2016 roster

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With training camp set to start later this week, it’s time for us to unveil our annual preseason roster rankings. And unlike last season, there’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to Brian Kelly’s seventh roster.

With a young, talented, and inexperienced roster, our panelists had a variety of opinions on how this roster breaks down. That’s to be expected, when the Irish need to replace a starting trio of wide receivers, their best NFL Draft class in over a decade, five captains, the top five players from our list last year and seven of the top ten.

Thirty-seven different players received a vote in your rankings, up from the 33 who found their way onto last year’s list. And while we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the instant impact many freshman could have on this team, it’s interesting to note that no true freshman made our list.

While just about every Irish fan could agree on last year’s 1-2-3 of Jaylon Smith, Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, only one of our 12 panelist came up with the exact top three our rankings system produced. And Notre Dame’s starting quarterback? There seemed to be a consensus (both guys rated quite well), but it wasn’t unanimous.

For those looking to turn back the clock, here’s a look at each season under Brian Kelly and the Top Five players from each group (click the season for the entire list):

2015
5. Sheldon Day, DL
4. KeiVarae Russell, CB
3. Will Fuller, WR
2. Ronnie Stanley, LT
1. Jaylon Smith, LB

2014 
5. Tarean Folston, RB
4. Everett Golson, QB
3. Sheldon Day, DT
2. KeiVarae Russell, CB
1. Jaylon Smith, LB

2013
5. Prince Shembo, LB
4. Bennett Jackson, CB
3. Zack Martin, LT
2. Stephon Tuitt, DE
1. Louis Nix, DT

2012
5. Stephon Tuitt, DE
4. Zack Martin, LT
3. Cierre Wood, RB
2. Tyler Eifert, TE
1. Manti Te’o, LB

2011
5. Gary Gray, CB
4. Zack Martin, LT
3. Harrison Smith, S
2. Manti Te’o, LB
1. Michael Floyd, WR

2010*
5. Trevor Robinson, OT
4. Chris Stewart, OG
3. Manti Te’o, LB
2. Kyle Rudolph, TE
1. Michael Floyd, WR

As usual, this list couldn’t be possible without the help of many people. We surveyed a cross-section of Notre Dame experts, hitting up many of the outlets you turn to on a daily basis to cover your favorite football team.

Hope you enjoy.

Our 2016 Irish Top 25 panel:
Keith ArnoldInside the Irish
Bryan DriskellBlue & Gold
Matt FreemanIrish Sports Daily
Nick IronsideIrish 247
Tyler JamesSouth Bend Tribune
Eric Murtaugh18 Stripes
Pete SampsonIrish Illustrated
Jude SeymourHer Loyal Sons
JJ StankevitzCSN Chicago
John VannieNDNation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down
John WaltersNewsweek 

 

Kelly expects to play two quarterbacks in 2016

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With Notre Dame opening up camp next week, Brian Kelly seems to be opening up to the idea of playing two quarterbacks.

As DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire get set to begin their battle, Notre Dame’s head coach talked about that high-profile job with Jim Rome, giving us an interesting look at his mindset on the eve of the season, while also adding a new tweak to the old adage of having two quarterbacks.

Namely, you need two.

“I think you need two,” Kelly told Rome. “You’re going to need two quarterbacks in college football. You need two and we’ve got two very good ones. My expectation is that we need both of them to play.”

That attitude makes sense when you look back at Kelly’s time in South Bend. From the moment Dayne Crist’s bell was rung against Michigan in Kelly’s first season, Notre Dame’s offense has seemingly been pushed into Plan B each and every season—giving way to Nate Montana, Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and eventually Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer.

The Irish certainly wouldn’t have won 10 games in 2015 if Kizer wasn’t capable of thriving when he replaced Zaire against Virginia. And Kelly knows that experience has turned the tables on the depth chart as they enter 2016.

“Both of them are capable of winning, we know that. Malik showed that in the way he played against Texas and he’s been in the program for four years,” Kelly said. “But Kizer obviously has got more experience because of the number of games that he played and big games last year.”

While the plan to continue the competition into fall camp hasn’t changed, Kelly seems to have softened on his stance that only one quarterback will be happy. And while you certainly can’t take this as a declaration that a platoon is coming, Kelly acknowledged the need to have both guys ready and involved. And the best way to do that is by getting them on the field.

“It would be great that whoever took the job over played so well that he’s going to be a Heisman contender,” Kelly said. “If that doesn’t happen, I can see both of them eventually playing.”

The balancing act is nothing new for Kelly. He’s managed it in South Bend, as well as in Cincinnati and his two previous stops. While he’s noted the challenges Ohio State had last season trying to make their offense work while utilizing both Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, it’s worth pointing out that the Irish coaching staff also spent significant time this offseason huddled with the Buckeyes coaching staff, likely a helpful introduction to the quarterback challenges that even Urban Meyer struggled with.

Kelly knows it won’t be easy finding snaps for both quarterbacks. But he also knows it’s likely better to find your balance when you’re the one dictating terms—not a season-ending injury.

“I think it’s so important to have two quarterbacks, be engaged, keep them involved and as much as they can try to get them in the game if you can,” Kelly said. “It’s a lot more difficult if you can do that. But thats the way it is in college football, with the quarterback being so actively involved in the running game.”

Zaire made it only 19 carries last year when his season ended with a broken ankle. Quarterback runs have ended seasons for Dayne Crist and forced Everett Golson to miss multiple games. But Notre Dame’s offense requires a quarterback who can run the football. And Kelly would rather take his chances playing to that identity than recalibrating how they attack opponents.

“You can’t change your identity week to week, you’ve got to be who you are,” Kelly said. “These two quarterbacks are proven winners. The team knows that.

“I’m not going to have a quarterback controversy. I think we can move forward knowing that both of them are going to play in some fashion.”

***

Listen to Kelly’s full interview with Jim Rome from July 29 below.