Jaylon Smith, Tyrone Swoopes

Things look different! Let me tell you why.

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You went to sleep with a smile on your face after Notre Dame’s dominant 38-3 victory over Texas. You woke up and came back to see something… well, very different.

Welcome to the redesigned digital home of NBC Sports and the new home of Inside the Irish. Don’t worry. It’s still me, Keith, writing from Inside the Irish HQ about all things Notre Dame football. But now we have an adaptable, responsive layout that should give you an optimal experience no matter what type of device (desktop, tablet or mobile) you’re using.

Yes, I know the front page is different. (Believe me, I’m still getting used to it, too.) So spend the long weekend poking around.

Some benefits:

  • No longer will you need to click around from story to story. Articles now flow together with “infinite scrolling” and “story explorer.”
  • All the great video content that NBC Sports is producing will be seamlessly integrated, with a standalone tab taking you to the Notre Dame video homepage.
  • You’ll have access to scores and news from around college football, along with links to the NBC Sports Live Extra programming.

For those of you that often head here on your iPhone or after clicking a link from Twitter, you’ll be happy that you don’t have to squint your eyes and adjust your screen to read the story. And for those of you who come to hang out in the comments to discuss the latest and the greatest, we’ll make sure those are working right for you, too.

There’s a joke here about change being easy, especially when you’re talking to Notre Dame fans. But after having the same look since we debuted before the 2009 season, things are different around here.

That’s a good thing.

 

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 38, Texas 3

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When it comes to season openers, you can’t ask for much more than that. On a beautiful night for football, Notre Dame kicked off the 2015 season with a performance nearly as perfect, trouncing the Texas Longhorns 38-3.

Backed by a flawless night by junior quarterback Malik Zaire and a strong defensive effort that held Texas to just 163 total yards, the Irish played a stress-free season opener and looked every bit the part of a playoff contender by out-classing one of college football’s blue-bloods in every phase of the game.

If you were looking to the season opener for the Irish to check off some boxes, you likely left happy. Notre Dame’s depth and skill flashed from the start. The Irish defense, a question mark after imploding late last season after injuries, dominated.

The offense showed balance on the ground and explosiveness through the air. And after watching a season go up in smoke courtesy of self-inflected mistakes, the number probably most impressive was the very large zero in the turnovers department.

The night was not without some worries, namely the health of starting running back Tarean Folston, who left the game with an early knee injury that had most on the Irish sidelines prepared for the worst. But after the first Saturday of the college football season, Notre Dame served notice that this was a football team prepared to do big things.

Let’s find out the five things we learned in the Irish’s 38-3 win.

 

 

With Malik Zaire at quarterback, Notre Dame’s offense looks as good as ever. 

Those worries about Malik Zaire? Put them away for another week. The junior quarterback, making his first home start and just the second of his career, put together a near perfect performance. He completed 19 of 22 throws for 313 yards and three touchdowns, showing accuracy, a power arm and great feet in the running game as well.

Zaire did everything his head coach asked of him, making the ordinary plays and doing a good job moving the chains early, converting on multiple third downs when the Irish offense needed it. While the unit made a few mistakes that knocked the Irish out of scoring range and kept points off the board, Zaire did a few things that just made you say wow—including a perfect dart to Will Fuller for a 63-yard touchdown.

Zaire hit his star receiver for two touchdowns on Saturday evening, throwing his third to Chris Brown on a nifty play-fake in the red zone. The junior quarterback did everything you could ask for, managing the game, being aggressive when the moment called for it and burying the Longhorns when the game was ready to be put away.

“We believe in Malik and we trust in him,” Kelly said. “I think we put him in a good position to succeed.”

This is just the first step in a season-long evolutionary process for Zaire, and you can bet that Brian Kelly, Mike Sanford and Mike Denbrock will have some game tape to look at come tomorrow morning. But after an offseason where many wondered how the Irish would cope without Everett Golson, the early returns are in: Just fine.

 

 

Notre Dame’s offense is likely bracing itself for very bad news with Tarean Folston’s injury. 

It didn’t take a medical degree to see things looked quite grim for starting running back Tarean Folston, who was injured on his third carry of the season, a seemingly ordinary tackle after Folston burst through a big hole for a nice gain.

We saw Folston get his knee checked out by head trainer Rob Hunt on the sideline, and we also saw the junior get emotional as teammates came by to give encouragement or a quick hug, with the NBC camera catching the back taking the long walk up the tunnel, ice bag on his knee and just about everybody bracing for a season without the talented runner.

Without Folston, C.J. Prosise came in and carried the load, running for 98 yards on 20 carries before he was subbed out. Prosise seemed to do just fine, though he likely wasn’t fully prepared for the increased workload, with Prosise himself still on the way back from a hip flexor injury that kept him out of two weeks of camp.

Brian Kelly said Folston will get an MRI tomorrow. Perhaps the results will be less serious than we expect. But most are bracing for a season without Folston, the depth chart at running back perilously thin after just one game.

 

 

The Irish front seven totally overwhelmed the young Longhorn offensive line. 

Maybe Brian VanGorder knew a camera would be focused on him. Because Irish fans were ready to see another viral moment from Notre Dame’s intense defensive coordinator, who was likely very pleased with the effort of his embattled defense. VanGorder didn’t throw any mega-fist rockets or get “turnt up,” but you have to expect that the “D-Boys” celebrated this completely dominating performance, especially as the front seven swarmed Texas quarterbacks Tyrone Swoops and Jerrod Heard.

Texas receiver John Burt got behind KeiVarae Russell for a 48-yard gain. But other than that? The Longhorns were held to a ridiculous 2.2 yards a play, with the Longhorns only gaining 60 yards total on the ground and 103 in the air, Burt’s long catch included.

After spending all offseason wondering how Notre Dame would get pressure on the quarterback, Swoopes and Heard were constantly under pressure. Sheldon Day may only have notched one tackle—a sack—in the box score, but he was in the backfield all day, with Swoopes continually pressured by the Irish senior. Jaylon Smith, Romeo Okwara and Jerry Tillery also earned sacks.

Notre Dame’s linebacking corps looked every bit as athletic as you wanted it to look, with Smith playing excellent football and wreaking havoc off the edge and Joe Schmidt his normal solid self. The Irish took on Texas’ up-tempo attack with little problem, forcing the Longhorns off the field as quickly as they could move on it, setting up their defense for a horrific time of possession deficit that saw the Irish hold the football for over 39 minutes.

Whether it was from a three-down front or four, the Irish looked stout in the trenches. Daniel Cage lived up to Kelly’s comments earlier this week, while Andrew Trumbetti and Isaac Rochell destroyed the pocket and made Texas’ undermanned offensive line look like a group trying to break in two true freshmen.

 

 

Josh Adams had quite a debut. 

You’ve got to wonder what tonight feels like for Josh Adams. Notre Dame’s freshman running back took the road less traveled to the end zone tonight, with Adams one of Notre Dame’s earliest running back commitments, even when he was recovering from a torn ACL.

Notre Dame identified Adams as a back they wanted early and didn’t care if recruiting services collectively shrugged their shoulders at the former three-star prospect. But Adams showed good size, great speed a nose for the end zone on Saturday evening, scoring on the first carry of his career and then shaking off a major collision with Malik Jefferson to bounce back and score a second time to finish off the game.

Kelly talked about how Adams was able to make such an immediate impact.

“He was able to pick up all the protections early on,” Kelly said. “Any time when a freshman can come in and pick up all the protections early on, it’s been my feeling that he’s ready to play, provided he’s got the skill and also what kind of skill he has.

“We felt like he was a kid that was under the radar last year. He had a knee injury that kind of took him off the radar a little bit. But he’s just scratching the surface. He’s got elite speed. He’s got great size. He’s got good ball skills and obviously he’s a kid that we believe in.”

Adams is now the No. 2 back in Notre Dame’s offense. (That redshirt that was planned for Dexter Williams? Likely off as well.) Now Adams will need to continue learning the intricacies of the position, with first-year position coach Autry Denson ready to earn his keep as he works with a position group that’ll find out tomorrow if it’ll be without its leader.

 

 

 

Will Fuller: As good as he ever was. 

I know most of the mainstream media forgot Will Fuller when they were filling out their preseason All-American ballots or short-lists for the end of the year banquet circuit. But I didn’t think Charlie Strong’s defense would forget to account for him.

Notre Dame’s star receiver was once again a difference maker and took over the football game, hauling in seven catches for 142 yards, including touchdowns from 16 and 66 yards out. Fuller’s early season chemistry was on-point with Zaire, an interesting data point, especially for those who worried that the passing game would take a step backwards without Everett Golson behind center.

Fuller has now scored 17 touchdowns in his last 14 games, notching a score in every contest he’s played in the last two seasons except on a rainy Saturday against Stanford last October. More importantly, we didn’t see any mental mistakes by the blazing receiver, with Fuller reeling in the routine balls and making a very nice play on a sideline throw from Zaire, dragging his foot on a catch that needed to be overturned by replay.

Fuller is a quiet guy, a player who prefers to do his talking on the field. But to get a glimpse of how the junior thinks, I spoke with him briefly on Media Day about the difference between playing with Golson and Zaire.

And while most would expect a receiver to like the quarterback who shows more comfort throwing the ball (that’s still Golson, though Zaire will certainly have a say in that), Fuller mentioned that he didn’t have a final conversation with his former quarterback, with Golson heading to Tallahassee without even a goodbye.

So one game is hardly a conclusion. But even if the Irish find a better running game, expect this season to be another big one from the duo of Zaire and Fuller.

Final thoughts before kickoff

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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.)

So you have a right to be excited. Who isn’t?

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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.

But that’s why you play the games.

Your viewing guide for Notre Dame-Texas

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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):

7:00 p.m. — Notre Dame Pregame Show, NBCSN
7:30 p.m. — Notre Dame vs. Texas, NBC

11:00 p.m.  — Notre Dame Postgame Show, NBCSN

If you can’t tune in on your television set, you can log-in and STREAM ALL THREE RIGHT HERE.

 

WATCH LIVE: Notre Dame vs. Texas on NBC Sports Live Extra

 

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

Tarean Folston
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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.

 

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

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.

 

North Carolina v Notre Dame

 

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.

 

Jarrett Grace

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.