Brian Kelly, Malik Zaire

Kelly: Play-calling will be a collaboration


So who’s calling the plays? That was one of the main questions  still unanswered heading into the season’s opening game, and when head coach Brian Kelly was asked about it, he was staying mum.

With Mike Sanford (the offensive coordinator) taking his cues from Mike Denbrock (the associate head coach), you already knew that the org chart looked different than most. So maybe it makes sense that Kelly’s going relatively new-age with his philosophy on play-calling.

“We are going to collaborate,” Kelly said Tuesday. “There will be collaboration. Mike Sanford, myself, Coach Denbrock, there will be collaboration on Saturday.”

In theory, it makes sense, and likely shows just how much Kelly trusts the opinion of both Denbrock, an assistant coach Kelly’s know for the better part of 25 years, and Sanford, an assistant he’s worked with for roughly nine months.

With Kelly and Denbrock on the sidelines and Sanford upstairs in the box, game day operations will be worth watching. Especially the first time Zaire gets behind center only to notice that the playclock is moments from zero and a blown timeout earns the scorn of the Irish head coach. Collaboration? That’ll be the collective groan you hear emanating from Notre Dame Stadium.

Yet there’s a good chance that frustrating scenario might not ever happen. In fact, you could also argue that this collaboration could actually speed up an operation that sometimes struggled to move quickly, with both Tommy Rees and Everett Golson prone to evaluating what the defense showed and then counter-punching.

Building on this theory, you could also take the leap that the three-man effort could be to help speed up an operation that wants to move at significant pace this season. With Sanford above the action, he can better fill in Kelly and Denbrock on what he sees and what the defense is doing. With the game plan set and scripting in place, the Irish offense could finally dictate terms to the defense, after years of watching quarterbacks read and react.

Of course, we’ve spent five years talking about Kelly’s offense going up-tempo, a veritable white whale for some Irish diehards. And for all the clamoring and discussion about turning Kelly’s offense into Oregon’s, we’ve really only really seen it happen a handful of series. But with Zaire at quarterback and Notre Dame’s best running signal caller since Carlyle Holiday, the option to finally “call it and haul it” is available to this offense, if they choose to utilize it.

Kelly confirmed Tuesday that he holds veto rights on what play goes to the quarterback, pretty much what you’d expect from a head coach with a reputation for being one of the best play-callers in America. (Yes, Irish fans, that’s what people outside our little bubble think.) But with Zaire, a veteran of roughly six quarters of action and a new offensive coordinator, the Irish offense is finally an unknown, likely the head coach’s rational for playing this one very close to the vest.

“I’m just not going to give you much more than, you know, all three of us are collaborating,” Kelly said. “We’re all in unison as to how we want the game to unfold. So we are all going to be working off the same play sheet. We are going to all be working off the same openers. We are going to all be working off the same down and distance sheet.

“So whether it’s coming out of Mike or Mike or Brian’s lips, is really immaterial as far as I’m concerned. All I know is that we’ve got great collaboration between the three of us.”

And in that corner… The Texas Longhorns

AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl - Arkansas v Texas

Game week is finally here. After nearly nine months—spent wondering about transfers, speculating upon returns and predicting what’ll happen come September—we finally get to see a football game.

And the 2015 season kicks off not just with an ordinary football game, but a showdown between two of college football’s proudest programs. Notre Dame will receive a visit from Texas on Saturday night, with the Irish kicking off their home season in style with a primetime affair on NBC.

After a difficult first-season that saw Charlie Strong take some lumps as he fought tirelessly to rework the Longhorns in his image, Texas looks to build off a six-win season. Strong has hit the recruiting trail hard since arriving in Austin and brings with him a young team that’ll have two dozen true or redshirt freshmen on the depth chart.

To get us up to speed on the state of the Longhorns, Wescott Eberts of Burnt Orange Nation rejoins us. Nice enough to get us up to speed on things earlier this summer, Eberts cleared some time in a busy week one schedule to answer some questions for us before the games begin.

Hope you enjoy.

It looks like quarterback Tyrone Swoops is the man who’ll lead the Longhorns offense into South Bend. How has he been during fall camp? And what do you expect out of him in a night game on a very big stage in a fairly hostile environment?

By all reports, Tyrone Swoopes has been the better of the two quarterbacks, with particular development in his leadership ability. Normally a low-key guy, he’s been much more fiery and demonstrative in practice.

However, head coach Charlie Strong said back during the spring that while he thinks Swoopes is improved, he didn’t know how much better the Texas quarterback will be until he steps on the field. I think that’s still the case and there’s no question that much of his success will depend on improved play from the offensive line and consistency from his wide receivers, a position currently suffering from a lot of drops in practice.


I’ve been reading about some of the shakeups on the Texas offensive line. Charlie Strong has sounded complimentary when discussing his running backs, but how will the line be in front of him?

The early returns from practice are that the offensive line is much more physicality in the running game. In pass protection, the Horns may be a little bit more suspect, especially if freshman offensive guard Patrick Vahe remains a starter and pushes junior Kent Perkins out to right tackle, where he struggled last year. The flipside is that Texas will use run-pass options on a number of plays, which will reduce the number of pure drop-back situations for Swoopes.


How does Strong’s defense look as it prepares for an offensive opponent that should be one of the more explosive units in the country? Also — what’s the scouting report from Texas’ POV on quarterback Malik Zaire, who has really only played six quarters of football.

There are a lot of question marks for the Texas defense right now, which was missing a couple of key pieces at defensive tackle through much of fall camp. There will be six new starters against Notre Dame and several of them will likely be freshmen, including potential star linebacker Malik Jefferson and maybe even one of three cornerbacks who are making waves. If the linebackers can play well, then the Horns should be okay, efforts that the defensive line could enable by consistently occupying blocks.

As for Zaire, I think the Longhorns coaches respect his arm and his ability to scramble for big plays or be a part of the Fighting Irish power running game, which poses some problems for Texas. Against Big 12 teams, Strong likes to concede some rushing yards in order to reduce big plays down field in the passing game, but with Zaire so dangerous on the move, he may have to switch that up and try to take away the spread-option elements of Notre Dame’s offense.


Fill in the blanks. For Texas to win on Saturday night, the offensive key is ________________. For Texas to win on Saturday night, the defensive key is ________________________. 

For Texas to win on Saturday night, the key offensively is to produce explosive plays and avoid three and outs. While that may sound simplistic, the Horns struggled mightily in both of those areas last year, ultimately affording the defense little rest and poor field position to defend.

For Texas to win on Sunday night, the defense has to turn Notre Dame over and keep Zaire from making off-schedule plays with his feet, especially in long down-and-distance situations. Like most teams, there was a major difference in turnover margin in wins and losses — Texas was +9 in wins and -12 in losses.


What position group or specific player’s progress are you most interested in monitoring on Saturday?

The quarterback position is the obvious one and the offensive line’s development will factor heavily into the team’s success this season, but the freshman class may be an even bigger key this season. Two freshmen could start on the offensive line, one could start at wide receiver, and several could start on defense.

Seeing Jefferson in action will be particularly interesting — he made plays in the spring game, but also suffered from some inconsistencies that ultimately resulted in a poor grade for his efforts. The guess here is that he’ll have some growing pains in his first truly live action in college, but will also flash that playmaking ability that resulted in so much hype around him during his recruitment.


Not to put you on the spot, but do you have a prediction for Saturday night’s game? And if you’re calling the Longhorns’ getting the victory, who is your offensive and defensive MVP?

Not really too into predictions, but this looks like a game that Notre Dame should win, perhaps even handily. If the Horns do pull it off, I think that Tyrone Swoopes has to be the MVP offensively, while junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway will need to create some serious disruption inside.


For more from Wes and the crew at Burnt Orange Nation this week, check out the site or follow him on Twitter @SBN_Wescott and the site @BON_SBNation.



Last looks: Linebackers

Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt

With a strong recruiting surge, some roster shuffling and some good luck (and hard work) in the health department, Notre Dame’s linebacking corps was rebuilt remarkably quickly. A season after question marks were everywhere, the Irish have a linebacking group that is among the fastest and most athletic we’ve seen in a very long time.

With an All-American star and a returning MVP as its heartbeat, new position coach Mike Elston is working with a group of talented and veteran players. They are also the key to the defense’s success against a schedule that features a variety of offenses and two difficult option opponents.

Let’s take our last look at the linebackers before the season opens this weekend.


Position Coach: Mike Elston



Mike: Joe Schmidt, Grad Student
Mike: Nyles Morgan, Soph.
or: Jarrett Grace, Grad Student

Will: Jaylon Smith, Jr.
Will: Te’von Coney, Fr.

OLB: James Onwualu, Jr.
OLB: Greer Martini, Soph.

Additional Depth:

Asmar Bilal, Freshman
Josh Barajas, Freshman



Jaylon Smith. Notre Dame’s most talented defender is ready to take a step forward and play dominant football. After a strong preseason camp and an offseason dedicated to improving key pieces of his game, Smith looks poised to match his world-class athleticism with a better grasp of the Notre Dame defense. Just as important, he’s ready to lead from the front, named a team captain, the only junior of the five wearing the ‘C.’

Capable of being Notre Dame’s best edge rusher and also an elite cover man, Smith can do so many things to help the Irish defense. In what is likely his final season in South Bend, dominance—and a full stat sheet—are just the beginning for him. Willing the defense to a complete performance is another.



Joe Schmidt. The team’s returning MVP and the captain who is the alpha of the unit, Schmidt’s Cinderella story is done and told. Now he needs to be an overly productive middle linebacker, building on a great first season in the starting lineup.

Schmidt’s injury was essentially the beginning of the end for Notre Dame’s defense last season. Now that he’s healthy, it’s even more important for him to take the core basics that allowed him to excel last season and use them to play championship-level football.

Schmidt’s limited physically. But no more than 30 or 40 other middle linebackers in the country, including Scooby Wright, Arizona’s all-everything performer. So it’s time to take the focus off of his size and two-star pedigree.

Schmidt runs well, he’s got plenty of heft at 235 well-sculpted pounds and he’s got a brilliant football mind. Now he’s got to learn how to impact a game more, making plays behind the line of scrimmage in addition to anchoring the unit in the huddle.



Where will Jaylon Smith spend most of his time? Yes, Smith is still listed as the starter at the Will linebacker spot. But there’s no doubt that Notre Dame will play Smith everywhere, hoping to get him into positions where he can best impact the game.

If Smith shifts outside, what does that do for James Onwualu? If the Irish need to go bigger against triple-option teams like Georgia Tech or Navy, who slides into the middle? One thing seems clear, Smith isn’t coming off the field. But mixing and matching around him is one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle that’ll only be revealed once the games start.


How will Notre Dame’s linebackers adapt to the up-tempo attacks? It’s great to have versatile pieces of depth. But if you can’t run them on and off the field, you’re only as good as the three guys you have on the field.

On paper, the depth chart looks great. Onwualu is the perfect outside linebacker for teams trying to spread the Irish out. Greer Martini has more mass, capable of holding up in the trenches if team’s try to go big against the Irish. Jarrett Grace and Nyles Morgan will each have specific jobs in different packages.

But a versatile collection of weapons doesn’t do you much good if you can’t get them out of the holster.


How can this defense optimize their personnel?  I’m not sure how you do it, but I think it starts with Jaylon Smith. From there, it’s hard to see a grouping that doesn’t include Joe Schmidt. After that, Notre Dame’s defense will likely view the third linebacker as a swing piece, deciding if Onwualu is a better fit than Matthias Farley or an additional defensive back.

The loss of freshman Shaun Crawford likely tweaks this formula. So does the move of KeiVarae Russell to the slot and Devin Butler to the outside in nickel. It’s easy to see a Schmidt-Smith pairing, but beyond that, finding how best to use the linebackers is going to be key.



Can this group hold up against the run? A former walk-on, a converted wide receiver and Jaylon Smith walk into a bar…

I’m at a loss for the punch line right now, but with the loss of Jarron Jones in the middle, Notre Dame’s undersized linebacking corps lost a very important protective barrier as this unit looks to be stout against the run.

In 2014, before the rash of injuries the Irish were tough to run against. And while Daniel Cage was praised on Tuesday afternoon by Kelly for his work in the trenches, calling on Cage and true freshman Jerry Tillery to play the nose and stuff the point of attack is a step backwards from a senior like Jones. There’s no questioning this group’s athleticism. But the war in the trenches will be one to watch.


Is Te’von Coney ready? A lot of freshmen have been discussed this August. But Te’von Coney has flown under the radar, interesting considering he’s in the two-deep behind Jaylon Smith.

Sure, Smith isn’t coming off the field. But he’s also not a full-time Will linebacker, either. So we’ll have to figure out if Coney’s just a plug-in name on a weekly release or a part of the plans on the inside. The Irish know they have contributors in Grace and Nyles Morgan, but having one in Coney would be impressive, too.


Is it crazy to believe that this group can be elite? Nightmares from November continue to run through my head. Watching Jaylon Smith get stuck behind a cavalcade of blockers against USC as the Trojans just ran the ball through Notre Dame’s injury-ravaged defense isn’t forgotten. Even in the Irish’s improbable victory over LSU, Leonard Fournette got his 2016 Heisman campaign started early, averaging 13 yards a carry as the Tigers ran for 285 yards and 7.5 a carry.

Yet the personnel at this position is talented, physical and extremely athletic. They don’t resemble the group that ran around like chickens with their heads cut off late last season. So while it’s tough to forget a terrible run of football that saw Notre Dame give up an average of 39.8 points a game over the final eight games of the year, this group looks really good both on paper and in practice.

Now let’s see what happens when the games start.