Tarean Folston, Daniel Gonzales, Obi Uzoma
AP

Notre Dame vs. Texas: Final thoughts before kickoff

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The first Saturday of the college football season yielded many a surprising result. Though perhaps one thing wasn’t all that shocking—those preseason polls weren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, nor the oxygen of the ensuing debate.

Saturday belonged to the underdog. Houston, Wisconsin and Texas A&M all beat College Football Playoff contenders, perhaps making themselves as one in the process. Western Michigan beat Northwestern, South Alabama beat Mississippi State and Richmond dominated Virginia—with just as many big programs surviving a near upset.

What does that mean for Notre Dame? Nothing really. But on a weekend where the unexpected was rather common, a few conclusions drawn from a wild weekend could play into Sunday’s primetime kickoff between the Irish and the Longhorns.

 

Notre Dame and Texas aren’t the only programs juggling two quarterbacks.

Brian Kelly made the unorthodox announcement that both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire were going to play against Texas. Charlie Strong was unwilling to tell anybody but his team who was starting between senior Tyrone Swoopes and freshman Shane Buechele.

Turns out, Kelly and Strong are hardly alone. Turn on a game this weekend and you likely saw head coaches shuffling between quarterbacks. Perhaps just as telling, just about every one of the scenarios seemed to skew closer to the old adage, not the belief of Kelly’s that two of his best playmakers are at the same position.

As if anybody needed a reminder, the juggling act isn’t easy. Even good coaches like David Shaw derailed offensive momentum the moment he brought in No. 2.

But it helps to have talented players. Notre Dame’s two-headed monster doesn’t resemble most of the tandems that were largely ineffective this weekend. Both it’ll still take plenty of work to bring out the best in the position, let alone both Kizer and Zaire.

 

Trench warfare is critical. 

Nothing was more telling this weekend than the battles in the trenches. Saturday seemed to be separated mostly by the ability for teams to win at the point of attack.

Notre Dame should have the edge in both matchups, with the Irish offensive line capable of getting Texas’s front four on their heels, while a beaten up Longhorns offensive line faces a physical defensive front that will attempt to slow down an up-tempo Texas attack.

It might not be that simple. We’ll see how Harry Hiestand’s restacked offensive line performs with new center Sam Mustiper calling the shots and Colin McGovern and Alex Bars working together for the first time on the right side.

On defense, Isaac Rochell is a proven commodity, but getting a true status check on Jarron Jones is critical. At his best, Jones can ruin Texas’s game plan. As a 25-snap player, he’ll turn the keys over to Daniel Cage and some unproven depth. Add in a critical season from Jerry Tillery and a still unsolved weakside defensive end, and take some time to keep an eye on Keith Gilmore’s group.

Over seven recruiting cycles, Brian Kelly has built an offensive line that’s the envy of the (non-Alabama) college football world. He’s struggled a bit more on the defensive front, but there’s a lot talented (but unproven) depth that’ll have to get experience this season.

Two critical showdowns. And two battles that the Irish need to win.

 

In front of the first sellout crowd of the Charlie Strong era, poise is critical. 

Brian Kelly acknowledges that he won’t fully know his young team until he sees how they react running out of the tunnel.

“We’ve got some young players. They’re going to have to settle down and play with some poise,” Kelly told ESPN Sunday morning. “But we’ve got a good nucleus of guys who have been on the road in some pretty raucous environments. It’s like any opener, we’re going to have some guys that’ll need to settle into the game, but I think we’re well prepared and they’re excited about the opportunity.

Kelly has talked multiple times this week about the idea of sparring with the Longhorns—almost willing to get into the feel of the game to get a sense of how they plan on defending the Irish. That could be a way of helping his team to find its footing, or it could be a smoke screen. (Notre Dame all but landed a first-round knockout last year against Texas. Don’t expect the offense to be all that vanilla.)

But this is a far less experienced group than the one that opened up last season. And with an offense that’ll be mixing and matching quarterbacks and a defense that’ll be breaking in a lot of new faces, making sure the Irish aren’t digging out of an early hole might be the first point of order.

 

Who is going to make the big plays? 

Will Fuller is gone. Jaylon Smith is as well. While both former All-Americans could be in the stadium cheering on the Irish, they’ll be in street clothes, passing off their big-play duties to still-to-be-determined former teammates.

Most expect big things from Torii Hunter in the passing game. We’ll see if he’s up to the task against a hometown program that only showed lukewarm interest in him. Nyles Morgan is now the man in the middle of the Irish defense. Against Smash Brothers D'Onta Foreman and Chris Warren, he’ll need to be a tackling machine.

Shaun Crawford is making his debut as a starter in the secondary. Freshman Daelin Hayes gets his chance to show off his pass rush skills.

Tarean Folston is back. So is Josh Adams. Receivers Equanimous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders move into the lineup, both capable of big plays.

Most believe the Irish offense will continue to excel, replacing Fuller and C.J. Prosise and a unit that had the highest yards per play average in school history. But standouts on both sides of the ball need to emerge.

 

 

 

Pregame Six Pack: Sunday night special

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish blocks Jermaine Roberts #16 of the Texas Longhorns as Josh Adams #33 rushes for a touchdown against the Texas Longhorns during the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won 38-3.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Amidst the busiest football weekend of the season, Notre Dame and Texas have Sunday night to themselves. That gives the Irish a chance to make a statement (or take a step back) in front of a national audience, as 100,000 screaming Texas fans will do their best to help the Longhorns rebound from last season’s drubbing.

With an August speed bump behind them and a two-quarterback scheme ahead, Brian Kelly’s team comes to Austin ready to unveil a roster with few things certain. Most expect a high-powered offense, a young and athletic defense, and a consistent special teams unit. But until things kickoff, all of that is merely speculation.

With one of college football’s blue-blooded matchups just around the corner, let’s get to our first Pregame Six Pack. Because with the Labor Day holiday signifying the end of summer, there’s football to play.

 

Notre Dame has had a ton of success against the Longhorns. 

When you’re the third-winningest program in the history of college football, not many schools can claim to have your number. But the Irish have historically had Texas by the Longhorns.

(Sorry, had to try it.)

Notre Dame’s won five straight against Texas, including last year’s 38-3 beating. Texas hasn’t beat the Irish since 1970, with Notre Dame holding more wins over Texas than any team not in their conference. Notre Dame leads the all-time series 9-2, with games doing back to 1913.

Other big wins include clinching the school’s tenth national title in the Cotton Bowl in 1978 and Jim Sanson knocking through a 39-yard game-winner in Austin in September, 1996.

Of course, none of that helps two young teams on Sunday night, but historically the Notre Dame-Texas rivalry is surprisingly one-sided.

 

Young. Talented. But on the road. 

Notre Dame will have the more talented football team on the field Sunday night. But the Irish haven’t always seen that talent translate on the road, and starting the season outside of South Bend is a rarity. This will be just the 31st time in the 128 seasons of the program where the Irish will go to someone else’s home field.

Digging deeper, road openers haven’t been kind to the Irish. Not when Ty Willingham brought Notre Dame to BYU. Or when Bob Davie got run out of Nebraska. Add to that some of the struggles Brian Kelly’s teams have had on the road and it’s understandable why Las Vegas sees this as close a a field goal rather than the five-touchdown blowout that came last season.

The Irish return just seven starters—three on offense, four on defense. That’s the lowest total in a dozen seasons, three less than perhaps the worst team in school history, the 3-9 Irish of 2007. So Kelly is taking great pains to make sure his team is doing all the little things right, knowing that they’re key to winning the football game.

“I think both teams are certainly focused on the little things in the opener,” Kelly said on Tuesday. “Special teams and taking care of the football and assignments. And I think that for me is the same thing when we’ve got a number of young players that are going to be playing in this game.

“I think what I’m most interested in is how we handle the adversity that we’ll face the first time. Certainly there will be some adversity, and how we charge through that and manage it will say a lot about this football team moving forward.”

This week there was plenty of crowd noise piped into practice. There were plenty of test runs and dress rehearsals. But Kelly also talked about the importance of finding the right players for the pressure-cooker situations. And he’s confident that his program has built up the right kind of personnel for the challenge.

“You try to recruit the right kind of kids that understand that when they come here, they’re going to be under intense scrutiny and spotlight and they’re gonna play in these kinds of games,” Kelly said.

“The second thing is you try and put them under intense scrutiny and pressure during the week. I wouldn’t consider our practices to be easy on kids in the sense we’re keeping pressure on them mentally to be sharp. They can’t be thin skinned. A lot of those things help you deal with an environment that is raucous and loud.”

 

Notre Dame will begin a new tradition on Sunday. 

Nobody will wear the jersey No. 1 this season. Instead, Kelly will award that jersey each week to a different player. Kelly walked through the mechanics of that process—a new tradition inside the program.

“The captains will have recommendations that will go to our staff and I during our 48-hour meeting, which is generally Thursdays,” Kelly explained. “At that staff meeting we will take those recommendations, discuss them as a staff, and then I’ll make the decision on who is awarded the No. 1 jersey.

“We won’t let them know until that jersey is in that locker in pregame. They won’t wear it out to pregame. But they’ll know in pregame that they are the recipient of it. Everybody will find out when they run out of the tunnel.”

Because of eligibility issues, an offensive lineman won’t be allowed to wear the jersey. But they’re still eligible to win the jersey, though it’ll remain hung in the locker room.

So if you’re keeping an eye out on Sunday night, watch for No. 1. It’ll likely be the reward of an excellent training camp and preseason.

 

The late Greg Bryant will be on the minds of his former teammates. 

The Irish will also take the field for the first time since Greg Bryant—the last man to wear No. 1 for the Irish—was murdered. And while Bryant had left the program and was in the process of rebooting his life and career at UAB when he was shot and killed, his presence is still felt among his former teammates.

CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz dug into this, talking to players and coaches about moving forward while honoring Bryant.  Running back coach Autry Denson was candid about the emotions this team is still facing.

“That was a very tough situation, still is,” Denson told Stankevitz. “His impact is being felt. You see practice, you see GB towels, things of that nature. And that’s a testament to who Greg is because Greg was such a great young man. He needed guidance, just like anybody else, as he was figuring out. But even though he wasn’t here, everybody here was still wishing him well. Nobody had any ill will. It was like, do what you have to do for you and we still have your back.

“Greg is Greg. He had an unbelievable smile and an unbelievable — it was just infectious, his attitude.”

While the No. 1 won’t technically honor Bryant or his memory, his former teammates will certainly be thinking about him when and if they get the chance to wear his old jersey.

 

“Me and Tarean talk about it a lot, to get No. 1 and stuff like that,” captain Torii Hunter told Stankevitz. “If you get No. 1, you gotta have the game of your life. That’s GB’s number. You gotta bring all the sauce.”

“Anything possible to show that this is for GB,” Folston said.

 

 

Josh Adams is in scary good company. (And not just Tarean Folston…)

Brian Kelly spoke after Thursday practice sounding very much like a head coach itching to go, his roster remarkably healthy heading into the weekend. We’ll find out if that means running back Josh Adams is full-go after battling hamstring issues all August. Because if he is, he’ll likely pick up right where he left off.

For a record-setting freshman season, Adams if saying remarkably under the radar. How good was Adams’ rookie year? Consider these names: Jamal Charles, C.J. Spiller and Nick Chubb.

Since 2000, those are the only other Power 5 true freshmen running backs to average at least seven yards a carry with more than 100 attempts.

Adams’ ascent was only possible after Tarean Folston went down just three carries into 2015. And Kelly expects his veteran back to take off quickly, ready to return against the Longhorns after having his season end against them last year.

“I’ve been very impressed with his camp, his elusiveness, the way he’s run,” Kelly said about Folston. “I expect him to have a significant impact in what we do offensively… He gives the offensive line an opportunity to get on their blocks. I know they love blocking for him because he makes our offensive line really look good on combination blocks. So I expect him to do some good things for us.”

The ground game will likely serve as the engine of this offensive attack. And these two backs could have a very big evening.

 

Sunday night’s big matchup is tugging at Lou Holtz.

Everybody knows that Lou Holtz loves Notre Dame. But Lou has a soft spot for Texas as well. So when the two teams kickoff this Sunday night, expect Notre Dame’s second-winningest coach of all-time to be slightly conflicted.

Not just because of Charlie Strong. Holtz’s affinity for Strong is well known, and he showed his admiration for his former defensive line coach by appearing in Austin earlier this week.

“I’m here because of my tremendous respect for Charlie Strong,” Holtz said as he addressed the Longhorns. “I’ve had a lot of great assistants, Urban Meyer, Barry Alvarez… Nobody is better than Charlie Strong as a person. I love him like a son.”

But Holtz’s grandson Trey is a fifth-year senior on the Longhorns. He’s a four-time member of the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll and serves as the team’s holder. So you can excuse Holtz if he’s cheering for somebody else on Saturday, especially when his grandson gets a chance to trot out every time the Longhorns score.

Here’s video of Holtz addressing the team this week, rolling out a familiar magic trick and inspirational message to the Longhorns.

 

 

 

Notre Dame announces sellout streak continues

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26:  A general view of Notre Dame Stadium as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish take on the Massachusetts Minutemen on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame Stadium is sold out. The university announced that all tickets for the six home games this season have been sold, keeping alive a streak that’ll hit 250 games when the Irish open things at home against Nevada next weekend.

It’s a streak that hasn’t been without some close moments. But as construction on Notre Dame’s Campus Crossroads project finishes before the 2017 season, it’ll assure the athletic department that all tickets are gone with the focus now on next year—and an opening game against Temple with Georgia arriving in South Bend the next week.

Notre Dame’s sellout streak is second only to Nebraska’s 347 games, the Cornhuskers having sold out every home game since 1962. There’s a large distance between Notre Dame and the third-longest streak, with Oregon having sold out 110-straight games at Autzen Stadium.

Winning comes first for Irish quarterback duo

Duke Ejiofor, DeShone Kizer
AP
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Brian Kelly‘s starting quarterback remains a mystery. And as of Wednesday night, his two candidates for the job were still in the dark.

Available to the local media post-practice, neither DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire knew who would take the first snap against Texas. But after much has been made about the general unhappiness about the time share, both veterans understood that there was something larger at stake than starting the game in the lineup or sharing the workload.

“I just want win games,” Kizer said, according to CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. “I obviously would love to be the guy to lead Notre Dame out there and play every snap, just like any competitor out there. If we can go out there and play five overtimes, I want every last snap of those overtimes. But this is a situation where you gotta trust in the man up top, and that’s the guy that has a corner office here in coach Kelly.”

Zaire also wanted nothing to do with the questions about his mindset—spinning away from a question or two and merely ready to move forward, playing in his first football game since breaking his ankle in week two of the 2015 season.

Notre Dame’s offensive game plan remains a mystery. It also serves as one of their strongest strategic advantages.

The Irish can beat you on the ground, with Tarean Folston, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams running behind one of the best offensive lines in college football. They can beat you by air, with Texas’ secondary probably still feeling scorched after Zaire’s impressive afternoon last September.

And as Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford decide how best to play their cards, Kelly talked about the benefits of having multiple options, especially if Texas decides to be the aggressor on Sunday night.

“What we’re mostly focusing on is what Texas wants to do and then how we counter with our two quarterbacks and how we think effectively they can run our offense,” Kelly explained. “What we’re trying to counter is the game within the game, and that is how Texas is trying to defend what we’re doing offensively.

“So that’s really the biggest issue that I have moving forward. We’re going to run the quarterbacks how we see the defense is playing us.”

The Irish have beaten Texas before, riding the arm of Zaire. They’ve worn down opponents with their ground game, something that’ll be an objective as the Longhorns do their best to replace a front seven that struggled to hold up against the run.

So even if that means Kizer and Zaire look more like centermen crossing the rink on a line change, getting out of Austin with a win is the common objective.

“The goal for us is to do what it takes to win the game, and for me it’s whatever it takes to get that opportunity and get the most out of those guys around me,” Zaire said. “At the end of the day it’s all about who wins the game up on the scoreboard, and that’s what we look to do.”

Progress on defense will be measured Sunday night

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
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Lost amidst the grumbling about Brian VanGorder‘s defense, the complexity of his scheme, and the wonders if it’s too much for a student-athlete, was the fact that the unit made some very nice improvements in 2015.

The Irish shut down the option, slowing the greatest Navy triggerman since Roger Staubach. They were the first fist to the face of a Georgia Tech team that went into free-fall after losing in South Bend. And when teams tried to go up-tempo on the Irish like North Carolina did with great success in 2014, VanGorder’s defense handled the pressure without struggle.

In an offseason where the defense was rebranded “likable and learnable,” Notre Dame’s coaching staff also likely went to work making sure that the tagline wasn’t going to serve as a punchline.

Knowing that they were tasked with breaking in an almost entirely new depth chart, after spending last offseason focused on option preparation and slowing down the up-tempo schemes, this year’s focus was likely turned inward—reexamining every one of the team’s teaching points with hopes that a clarified message will make the mental lapses and blown coverages disappear.

Did it work? We’ll get our first progress report on Sunday night.

Notre Dame’s rebuilt defense will face a new Texas scheme that incorporates spread and speed elements. And while there are legitimate questions as to how quickly the Longhorns can install and efficiently run Sterlin Gilbert’s up-tempo, spread attack, Kelly expects to see play volume coming at the Irish similar to the one that put the Irish on their heels in 2014.

“I mean, it’s fast. This is going to be North Carolina fast,” Kelly said Tuesday. “This is a fast, fast tempo. We’ve worked hard on that to prepare our defense for the kind of tempo they’re going to see.”

One other reason for optimism is the depth the Irish bring with them to Austin. Last season’s defensive lapses seemed to coincide with a lack of depth—taking away one of the main strategic benefits of VanGorder’s multiple-look, attacking system.

Certainly, the loss of Max Redfield forces VanGorder to pivot in the secondary. But the installation of Avery Sebastian (at least initially) over Devin Studstill puts in action the coaching point that Kelly and VanGorder stressed this offseason, consistency and assignment-correct football over talent, however promising.

Starting lineup aside, if there’s good reason to believe in the Irish defense, it’s mostly that they’ll have all hands on deck, with only Jay Hayes moderately hampered by an injury. They’ll also bring with them a handful of freshmen—including edge players Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara—two players most had pegged for a redshirt.

“We think they’ve got some skills that can help us in pass rush,” Kelly said.

Getting to the quarterback will be a key to the season. Many expect vaunted freshman Daelin Hayes to also help off the edge. The five-star recruit was on campus for spring drills, but recovering from shoulder surgery, the latest challenge that kept Hayes off the field more often than on it during his high school football career. That leaves Kelly keeping things simple for his talented pass rusher.

“Daelin hasn’t played a lot of football over the last year and a half. So settle into the game, get lined up right. Don’t jump offsides. Put your jersey on the right way,” Kelly said. “We’re not asking him to change the complexion of the game, but just to get into the flow of the game. And I think if he does a good job of settling down and getting into the flow of the game, I think he’ll have some success.”

You don’t replace a linebacker like Jaylon Smith. The front four will miss a competitor like Sheldon Day. And KeiVarae’s moxie needs to be replaced.

And even if it’s difficult to count on young players until you see them do it when the lights go on, there’s good reason that Kelly and VanGorder are confident that Year Three will continue to move the Irish defense forward—even after suffering the talent drain.

Sunday night, we’ll see if they were right.

***

For more on Notre Dame’s defense and a preview of what to expect when the Irish head to Austin, former team captain and MVP Joe Schmidt joined John Walters and I to talk about the weekend and the season head.