After eight months of waiting, we’ve got a football Saturday. Breath it in. That’s what makes this time of year great.
And like college football always does, it surprises. It takes eight months of stories and hypotheses and shatters them when the bullets start flying and the team across from you doesn’t share the same jersey and locker room.
What do we know? Well, apparently not as much as we thought.
All that Virtual Reality talk that’s changing the game, with Stanford ahead of the curve thanks to their technology-driven ways? Well Kevin Hogan went 20 of 35 for just 155 yards and a game-ending interception to lose to Northwestern.
TCU’s unstoppable offense and sure-fire Heisman candidate Trevone Boykin? He may have spent the summer training in the Texas heat, but he was hobbled by cramps in Minnesota (yes, Minnesota!) and held on for dear life against a Gophers squad that’s coming off of an eight-win season.
The point of all of this? Maybe it’s just a reminder that all the preseason magazines, hype, conversation, blog posts, projections and debate don’t count for anything once the team kicks off. So while Irish fans will surely want to send a message and deliver Texas a mighty blow, and Notre Dame has all the hype in the world behind it as it begins the 2015 season, the most important thing is walking out of the Rock’s (mid-renovation) House tonight with a victory.
Winning in college football is hard. There’s no preseason schedule to dip your toe in the water. It’s straight into the pressure cooker.
And unless you scheduled a Tennessee-Martin or Alcorn State like Ole Miss and Georgia Tech chose to do, winning while figuring out who you are is pretty much the most important objective of opening day. (And even a cupcake to start is risky. Just ask Arizona, who almost lost All-American linebacker Scooby Wright to injury while playing something called Texas-San Antonio.)
But also realize each week is another chapter in a season. And the team that runs out of the tunnel will not be the one that finishes the book.
We saw that work for good in 2012, when the Irish found their way early before learning their identity. We saw that for bad, when the 2014 squad started out like world-beaters and ended up broken and bruised (and that’s not even talking about the injuries).
So with Malik Zaire making his first start at home and Charlie Strong bringing a young group of Longhorns to South Bend, we might have a good idea about what should happen.
Game day is here. And for those who won’t be in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night, here are all the details you’ll need to make sure you catch all the great coverage NBC has to offer, even if you can’t be parked on the couch in front of the TV.
Here’s the schedule for Saturday evening’s season opener (all times are EST):
You can also watch the game through the NBC Sports Live Extra App, available on your desktop, mobile devices and tablets. Get the NBC Sports Live Extra app here. You’ll have a simulcast of the broadcast feed in full HD quality and also have access to an online-only bonus camera. There’s picture-in-picture capabilities and full DVR functionality, so you can pause if you need to answer the door when the pizza guy comes or head to the fridge for a refill.
So here’s to another great season.
Pregame Six Pack: At long last, the Longhorns arrive
For all the grand plans on the horizon for Notre Dame’s most promising football team in a decade, none of them can materialize if Saturday goes haywire. So while the Fighting Irish have a team filled with depth, experience and talented playmakers as Texas is mid-renovation in Charlie Strong’s second season, all the magazine covers and preseason All-Americans in the world won’t help once the Irish kickoff at 7:42 on Saturday evening.
After a month of of training camp, the Irish are ready to take aim at somebody else. And as Charlie Strong returns to South Bend for the first time since his days as an assistant to Lou Holtz and Bob Davie, Notre Dame will face a young but proud football team with nothing to lose on Saturday evening.
With a hot and humid Saturday on tap, it isn’t hard to think back to the last time a former Irish assistant came into Notre Dame Stadium and threw a major wrench in the Irish’s plans. So while Kelly’s team doesn’t look like the one that turned over the football five times (and turned their head coach purple), the Longhorns also have a lot more talent than Skip Holtz’s 2011 South Florida team.
Six years into the program, there’s no reason to believe that the Irish won’t step onto the field ready. But that’s the beauty of college football. Every Saturday, another mystery revealed.
At long last, another year of football. And a season opener held under the lights of Notre Dame Stadium. So open up the cooler, it’s time for a pregame six pack, as we prepare for a primetime showdown (7:30 p.m. ET) on NBC.
All eyes will be on Malik Zaire.
With a tip of the cap to the Solid Verbal’s Ty Hildenbrandt, the Malik Zai-era begins. (Clever, right?) And with that comes the eager anticipation to see what Notre Dame’s junior quarterback can do now that the team is unquestionably his.
You’re curious? Don’t worry, so is Brian Kelly.
“As much as we’d like to say Malik’s a veteran, he’s still not. He played really in one game for us last year and he didn’t play the whole game,” Kelly conceded after Thursday’s practice.
“I told him, ‘You don’t have to be the reason why we won. You just can’t be the reason why we lost.’ We’ve got 10 other guys around you that are really good playmakers. Get the ball to them, get it to the right play. If he does that, he’ll do very, very well for us.”
That certainly sounds like the role of “game manager” to me, so for those worried that Kelly forgot about the running game this preseason, this is a pretty stark reminder that Notre Dame’s head coach understands how to manage a first-time starter at quarterback.
So expect not just a lot of Tarean Folston and C.J. Prosise, but a heavy dose of Zaire running the football, a skill that comes naturally to the powerful quarterback.
Six freshmen are set to make their debut on Saturday evening.
Usually, figuring out what freshman will see the field and who’ll be held back is a guessing game that takes a few weeks to figure out. But Kelly was kind enough to lay out the five* freshmen that’ll be participating on Saturday night, impressive work by young talent able to ascend a depth chart stacked full with returning contributors.
We all knew Justin Yoon would handle kicking duties. But joining Yoon on the field will be running back Josh Adams, cornerback Nick Coleman and wide receivers C.J. Sanders and Equanimeous St. Brown.
Something not quite sitting right? It’s probably because Kelly managed to forget about a guy who is nearly six-foot-seven and 305 pounds.
Kelly breezed right by freshman defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, who after spending spring football working exclusively with the first team, does act, play or have the expectations of a first-year player. Sharing duties with sophomore Daniel Cage, Tillery won’t be in the starting lineup, but will be in a more-than-regular rotation at both tackle positions.
Where does Notre Dame have its most lopsided advantage? Experience.
We just got done talking about the half-dozen freshmen who’ll contribute for Notre Dame on Saturday. Well Texas is in the middle of a youth movement, with the Longhorn’s week one depth chart featuring 24 true or redshirt freshmen, including four true freshmen starters.
That group includes true freshmen at left tackle and right guard, with Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe getting their first look at college football. That bodes well for Brian VanGorder’s chaos-based scheme and getting Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell off to a quick start. Also starting is true freshman wide receiver John Burt and middle linebacker (and former All-Everything recruit) Malik Jefferson.
Compare that to Notre Dame’s experience, with 10 returning starters on defense and 10 players having started at least 14 games on the Irish roster. You’ve got to think that this is a sizable advantage for Notre Dame.
For Harry Hiestand’s offensive line, it’s time to show that they’re capable of starting strong and dominating a talented unit.
The strength of the Longhorn defense is up front. Defensive tackles Hassan Ridgeway and Poona Ford both have high upsides. Nose guard Desmond Jackson and strong-side defensive end Shiro Davis are rare seniors on a team filled with kids.
We spent nine long months talking up Notre Dame’s performance in the Music City Bowl, especially in the running game. But led by Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin, this offensive line has to prove from game one that they’re capable of dictating terms at the line of scrimmage.
That just hasn’t been the case in previous seasons. While I’m throwing out the Rice game and Notre Dame’s opening win against Temple the season before, when faced with a Power 5 opponent, September has been abysmally slow-rolling.
The Irish’s 31-0 shutout victory over Michigan? It masked the mediocrity Notre Dame displayed on the ground, running for just 54 yards on 31 carries. A week later, the Irish only averaged 3.7 yards per carry on 38 attempts against a Purdue team that won just three games and only beat Illinois in Big Ten play.
This wasn’t just a 2014 thing, but rather an evergreen problem for the Irish offensive line. In 2013, the Irish’s slow start forced Notre Dame to run only 19 times against Michigan in a disappointing loss, but a week later they managed to escape late against Purdue with three fourth-quarter touchdowns, only running for 91 yards on 37 carries.
Stacked box, sold-out defense, whatever. This football team is built to run the football.
And while Zaire’s solid performance against LSU will make just about every defensive coordinator in America show some difficult run looks up front, it’s time for one of Notre Dame’s best front fives in recent memory to dominate anyway.
In a flashy non-conference match-up, Notre Dame and Texas share some history, and are playing for a place in unique place in the record books.
As you might expect when two of the traditional powers in college football match up, the historians sharpen their pencils and pay attention. And with 15 consensus national championships between the two programs, there’s plenty of glitz and glamor taking the field when Notre Dame and Texas sprint out of the tunnel.
Notre Dame holds a sizable edge in the series, leading 8-2, including a four-game winning streak that started with the Irish’s 1977 Cotton Bowl victory that clinched a national title. Texas beat the Irish in the 1969 Cotton Bowl and only once before in a 7-6 showdown way back in 1934.
But the 11th matchup between these two programs is also for a place in the record books. Notre Dame sits second in college football history at 882 all-time victories with Texas right behind at 881. So second place is on the line on Saturday night.
No, I didn’t forget Notre Dame’s edge on Michigan for winningest program in college football (by winning percentage) inched ahead after Jim Harbaugh lost his Wolverine coaching debut to Utah. But Notre Dame needs to hold serve with a victory or let Charlie Strong pull the Longhorns even.
For both Jarrett Grace and KeiVarae Russell, the long road back ends on Saturday.
Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace will return to the football field Saturday night, the end of a very long and difficult journey that started when Grace shattered his leg into multiple pieces in Notre Dame’s 2013 Shamrock Series victory over Arizona State. So when the fifth-year contributor takes the field, he’ll do so 700 days after his career was thrown into chaos. You can’t blame Kelly for putting the fifth-year leader on the Irish kick coverage team. Grace wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but running down the field on the very first play of the 2015 season.
Kelly talked about Grace’s return on Thursday, mentioning that he probably spent more time in the Cincinnati native’s hospital room than any other player in his 25 years as a coach. And while Grace finds himself in a different scheme and place in the depth chart from where he was when he was Notre Dame’s leading tackler at the time of his injury, Kelly said that Grace is all the way back when it comes to speed and explosion, amazing considering the head coach acknowledged that he wasn’t sure if the linebacker would ever play again.
Switching places on the defense, Saturday marks KeiVarae Russell’s return to Notre Dame Stadium. Russell’s exodus was courtesy of a self-inflicted mistake, but the senior cornerback more than paid his dues, coming back a better person and player after a year home in Washington. And frankly, after watching Everett Golson and Greg Bryant take the first train out of town when things didn’t look to be going in their favor, there’s a lot of nobility in Russell owning up to the mistake he made.
But now the senior cornerback needs to do much more than that. He needs to dominate on the field like he has on the image-rehabilitation circuit. He needs to show that the box-jumping and weight-lifting he chronicled on social media last year will allow him to jump back into the world of college football and fulfill his destiny of potentially being a first-round NFL draft pick.
Two Notre Dame football players, two very different ways back to the field. Welcome back, boys.
The pieces are in place for Notre Dame’s secondary to be great. Led by returning cornerback KeiVarae Russell and armed with depth at every starting position, first-year position coach Todd Lyght has considerable talent to work with.
But the Irish secondary remains a question mark, especially at the safety position where returning veterans Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate are still doing their best to play up to expectations. In a system where there’s nowhere to hide and aggression can expose sometimes critical mistakes, the secondary is better equipped to handle the flames, even if we aren’t exactly sure how they’ll do until we put their feet to the fire.
In our final section of last looks, Notre Dame’s secondary is under the microscope.
SECONDARY Position Coach: Todd Lyght
CB: KeiVarae Russell, Sr.*
S: Max Redfield, Jr.
S: Elijah Shumate, Sr.
CB: Cole Luke
CB: Devin Butler, Jr.
S: Matthias Farley, GS
S: Drue Tranquill, Soph.
CB: Nick Coleman, Fr.
KeiVarae Russell. Russell will lead this group, dragging along every member of the secondary to compete at his level. That’s a good thing, especially after late last season when a confidence boost was needed in November and nobody was there to provide it.
Yet Russell needs to bring more than just pompoms to work. He needs to prove he’s worth all the headlines he’s garnered—not just for the mistakes that led to him missing the 2014 season, but the lofty projections people have made for him after a solid-but-not-quite-spectacular sophomore season.
Russell is playing in a new system, a challenge he craves. He’ll be bouncing inside and out, allowing him to make an impact in both the run and pass game. But in an aggressive scheme that’ll challenge the Irish secondary on a play-to-play basis, Russell not only needs to make sure he’s getting the best out of his teammates, but that he’s delivering the All-American caliber production that we all expect.
NEED A BIG SEASON
Max Redfield & Elijah Shumate. Put simply, this defense will be as good as its safety play. And with little depth behind Redfield and Shumate, it’s on the shoulders of this duo to do the job and do it well.
Last year, both ended up in the dog house, and only a MASH unit allowed either to emerge. But after a year of learning and a commitment to communication, Redfield and Shumate appear poised to play up to their blue-chip expectations.
Of course, that’s what everybody says this time of year. And while Kelly, VanGorder and Lyght have all been saying the right things, this is a put-up or shut-up time for two critical pieces to the puzzle.
THREE BIGGEST FACTORS…
Can this group eliminate the big play? Bob Diaco’s secondary wasn’t the most exciting group in America. But it understood that you can win a lot of football games and keep the points down by not giving up the big play. Late last year when things started going wrong, the secondary was getting beat and giving up yards—and points—by the bushel.
With the talent that Notre Dame has, a repeat of that would be immensely disappointing. But with some talented quarterbacks and receivers on this schedule, it’s a key factor, especially if VanGorder wants to continue to play aggressive.
Can Redfield turn into a playmaker? Notre Dame hasn’t had a playmaking safety since Harrison Smith roamed centerfield. But Redfield has all the attributes you want from a free safety, and he’s literally the only guy on this roster who can physically do what this defense needs.
Redfield has a fresh start with Todd Lyght. He’s been filled with confidence by Brian Kelly. And he appears committed to football. Asking Redfield to be Smith—a first-rounder with elite talent as well—might be too much. But can he be at least above average, making some plays on the football that he was a step or two slow to last season?
Before Smith was ball-hawking he was getting kicked around for two seasons. And that’s reason for hope that the light can turn on for Redfield, too.
How versatile can this group be? Notre Dame will face teams that’ll spread the Irish out and also triple-option teams that’ll want to bully them. And with the depth chart still a little bit thinner than you want, how VanGorder and Lyght decide to use some of the key complementary pieces to this unit will be very important.
Matthias Farley won’t be asked to be a man-cover corner in the slot, but he’ll play a big role in other packages. Drue Tranquill might not be capable of being a half-field safety, but he certainly can attack off the edge, or hold-up against the pitch man versus an option attack. Beyond that, Notre Dame getting something out of Nick Watkins can only help, and if one of the freshmen safety can play it’d be a bonus, too. (Then again, so would keeping a redshirt on both.)
The loss of Shaun Crawford robbed the Irish of a little versatility, but seeing how this group mixes and matches will be fun.
THREE RANDOM THOUGHTS
Can Russell and Luke take their place among the dynamic cornerbacking duos? We’ve undersold Cole Luke’s 2014 season. He was really, really solid against a slate of wide receivers that looked like a murderer’s row. On the other hand, we’ve all bought in to KeiVarae Russell’s return to greatness, and the confident senior is deadset on making up for lost time.
There’s enough talent here for this duo to make the outside a no-fly zone. Just as important, this staff could have enough confidence in Luke and Russell to stay outside on islands against the option, allowing the Irish to put eight and nine men in the box as they aggressively attack the option, relying on their two corners to not get lost in the shuffle and get beat over the top.
It’s been since Vontez Duff and Shane Walton since the Irish had a duo that the college football world viewed as elite. If Russell and Luke can play up to that level, this defense will be in great shape.
Is Devin Butler really ready to be an outside cornerback? Want proof that Todd Lyght gave everybody a blank slate? Check out Butler’s ascent into the starting nickel corner role.
Last November, Butler had a two-way miss—giving up the underneath throws and still getting beat over the top. That’s a fatal flaw for a cornerback that some thought was a mismatch for this scheme to begin with, especially since he was recruited for Bob Diaco’s Cover 2.
But give credit to Butler for a big summer and preseason camp, earning his way into the lineup over a talented young cornerback like Nick Watkins. But also hold your breath, because you’ve got to expect offensive coordinators to throw at Butler early and often, especially after the game tape he put together last November.
Can Todd Lyght bring consistency to this group? Kerry Cooks is gone, off to Oklahoma after Signing Day, a calendar year after being passed up for the defensive coordinator job. So Kelly decided to bring Todd Lyght back to his alma mater, a decision that looks great on paper, with the former Irish All-American able to also point to a Super Bowl championship and a Pro Bowl NFL career as well.
But the move isn’t without risks. Lyght has barely begun his coaching career, serving as an intern at Oregon for two seasons under Chip Kelly before joining him in Philadelphia for parts of two seasons as an assistant defensive backs coach. And after just agreeing to join Vanderbilt’s staff to coach cornerbacks, Lyght took some convincing to turn around and head back to South Bend to coach the Irish secondary, a decision not without risk for either side.
The early returns say the decision was a good one, with Lyght quick to find his footing running the secondary while also hitting his stride on the recruiting trail. But in the past, Kelly has used two coaches to deal with the secondary, splitting jobs between cornerbacks and safeties. Lyght is handling it all, in his first full-fledged assistant job.
When Everett Golson pulled the chute and headed south to Tallahassee, Notre Dame’s quarterback competition quickly cleared up. This is Malik Zaire’s football team.
Depending on how you look at it, that could be a very good thing or a very bad thing. Those in favor of having Golson stick around liked the idea of a three-year starter and a quarterback with an elite throwing arm. Those ready to see him go were sick and tired of watching him cough up the football, each mistake erasing a highlight that would’ve looked great on YouTube, but was erased as it derailed a football team that couldn’t withstand critical mistakes, especially with a second-half, swiss cheese defense.
The Irish move forward, with Zaire implanted as the unofficial leader of the offense, a quarterback with no fear being the face of a unit with great expectations. But with zero experience behind Zaire’s own limited snap count, it’ll be a bit of a tight rope walk.
So let’s take our last looks at the quarterback position, always the most critical spot on the field.
*Denotes additional year of eligibility available.
Malik Zaire. No kidding, right? Zaire now steps into focus, allowed to let his confidence and off-field leadership abilities mesh with the opportunity afforded to him. We’ve spent a few thousand words talking about Zaire this offseason. But I’ll be interested to see if they treat Zaire like Golson in 2012 or give him a full menu.
NEED A BIG SEASON
DeShone Kizer. In a perfect world, Kizer is the world’s most boring kick-holder. But in case of injury—or if Zaire’s helmet pops off—Kizer’s number is going to be called, and it’ll be up to the sophomore to be ready to take over.
Watching the spring game, it sure looked like there was an ocean between Kizer and being ready to take over the quarterbacking duties. But with Golson gone and Kizer having a great offseason (I’ll choose to believe what Brian Kelly and Mike Sanford have said about him) and fall camp, there’s nobody this staff wants more as No. 2, especially with the preference to keep a redshirt on Wimbush.
THREE BIGGEST FACTORS…
Can Zaire keep the turnovers under control? There’s nothing more important to Notre Dame’s offense than limiting game-changing mistakes. So finding a way to run this offense in both an explosive way, but also one that limits potential mistakes, will be one of the critical balancing acts of the season.
There is too much talent on this offense to be overly vanilla. But all the talent in the world won’t help you win if you’re giving the football away. This is one of the largest big-picture questions I have for this season.
Can Zaire be a weapon in the running game… without getting hurt? Zaire is an elite option quarterback, based on a high school career that was almost exclusively triple-option until his senior season’s offense opened up. And add to that a rugged 230-pound frame that might make Zaire the most powerful runner in the stable, and you’ve got to wonder how the quarterback can be both a critical piece of the ground game, while also not getting hurt.
Early in Kelly’s time in South Bend, he seemed to put restrictions on Dayne Crist, knowing full well that he had nothing behind him. It didn’t matter, with Crist going down twice with season-ending (and career detouring) injuries. I expect Kelly has learned from that.
No, it’s not realistic for Zaire to run 22 times a game like he did against LSU. But finding a way to let Zaire impact the game on the ground while also limiting his “pitch count” makes sense.
What happens if things go wrong? Last season was ruined when Golson couldn’t pick himself up and revive his confidence. Zaire doesn’t look like he’ll have that problem, but it’s impossible to know how he’ll respond until he makes his first big mistake.
Building on this, things going wrong could also include losing the team’s starting quarterback. It’s a scenario that this staff has to be ready for, and if that happens, they need to be ready to not just take the redshirt off of Wimbush, but to potentially build him a package of plays that utilize his speed and big arm. This team is too good not to go all-in on salvaging the offense.
THREE RANDOM THOUGHTS
Does this offense need a game manager? Zaire is hardly a “game-manager” type, but is that what the Irish need?
I don’t think so, only because the Irish defense isn’t like the unit Notre Dame trotted out in 2012. But on a scale from “no-risks to full-throttle,” you’ve got to expect this staff to hand Zaire the reins slowly, keeping things as vanilla as they can until they need to outscore teams like Georgia Tech, Clemson and USC.
What will Mike Sanford’s impact on this position be? In Matt LaFleur’s single season in South Bend, he didn’t accomplish many of the things optimists expected, especially when it was clear that Golson was regressing down the stretch.
Sanford is a more polished offensive coach than LaFleur, who found himself a much better fit in the pro grame. And Kelly also likely looked hard at his arrangement last time around, where LaFleur focused on the guys behind Golson while the head coach seemed to work exclusively with the starter. Sanford wasn’t coming to South Bend to take a secondary role in this offense, especially after Urban Meyer offered him the keys to the Buckeyes offense.
But what changes should we expect at quarterback? We saw small tweaks—especially in the footwork in the zone read game—this spring. But expect Sanford’s DNA to be all over this offense (especially at quarterback), even as we wait to figure out how the offensive collaboration will work.
Can Zaire make progress in the red zone, especially near the goal line? While the Irish actually made great strides in converting opportunities to touchdowns (the Irish jumped from 100th to 45th in TD%), there’s still work to be done. And while Zaire’s decision-making in the passing game is still up for debate, his ability to run the ball near the goal line has to be a huge asset.
Stack the box and you leave guys like Will Fuller, Corey Robinson or Tight End X/Y/Z in single coverage. Respect the passing game and you’ve got a 230-pound quarterback barreling your way.
Even if we expect the special teams operation to get better, it’s still never good to rely on a freshman to get you three when you really want seven. The Irish can bury a lot of opponents by being opportunistic in the red zone, allowing Brian VanGorder’s defense to pin its ears back when an opponent gets down two scores. So cashing in on red zone opportunities is a key piece of the puzzle.