Tag: Nick Martin

Sep 12, 2015; Charlottesville, VA, USA; The Notre Dame Fighting Irish offense lines up against the Virginia Cavaliers defense in the second quarter at Scott Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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Bye week snapshot: Offensive line


Entering the season, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line had all the ingredients to be one of the more dominant units in recent Notre Dame memory. A star-in-the-making in left tackle Ronnie Stanley. A fifth-year veteran and two-time captain in center Nick Martin. Add in former high-profile recruits like Quenton Nelson and Steve Elmer, along with promising tackle Mike McGlinchey, and there was plenty of reason for optimism.

Expected to be the strength of this offense, the line hasn’t disappointed.

The Irish ground game is one of the best and most explosive in the country. The Irish are seventh in the country in yards per play, and averaging 38.3 points a game, another Top 15 unit.

We’ve seen the time this line has given young quarterbacks Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer to throw and the holes they’ve opened for C.J. Prosise. But with no true statistics to calculate how this group is playing, we’ve turned to ProFootballFocus’s snap count and grading system, our best look at a progress report for the six main contributors along the offensive line.

The MVP: Ronnie Stanley

It shouldn’t a surprise that Ronnie Stanley grades out as the top performer along the offensive line. What might be a surprise is how badly penalties have impacted his overall rating. Stanley is head and shoulders above every other blocker when it comes to pass protection. Only Quenton Nelson and Nick Martin edge him in the run game. But penalties have killed his grade.

The senior potential first-rounder knows he needs to clean up the mental mistakes, some penalties attributed to the different cadences between Zaire and Kizer. But with some good defenses still on the schedule, Stanley has an opportunity to finish strong and play dominant football.


Needs a better second half: Steve Elmer

While I won’t take these ratings as bible, it doesn’t take much to notice the slow start to the season by Steve Elmer. The junior is in his third season in the starting lineup, and even though he’s found his home at guard it appears he’s still making too many mistakes.

Elmer’s overall grade is negative mostly based on two tough games—the season opener against Texas and, maybe surprisingly, some struggles against Navy. But Elmer’s held down his starting position, playing the most snaps of any starter on the line, matched by Mike McGlinchey’s 493 plays.

The major deficiencies have come in run blocking. We’ve seen Elmer get his body out of position, too often swinging and missing on a block in tight quarters. Those end up being play-ruiners, and if the junior can clean those up he’ll likely help power the interior ground game, especially against strong rush defenses like Temple, Pitt, Boston College and Stanford, all Top 40 teams against the run.


Early Season Surprise: Quenton Nelson

I knew Quenton Nelson was tough. But I didn’t think he’d immediately step into the starting lineup and grade out as Notre Dame’s best run blocker. Nelson’s grades are buoyed by a dominant performance against UMass, but the fact he’s at the top of the stat sheet here is impressive. I also like the fact that he was able to come in and gut out 44 snaps against USC after suffering an ankle sprain. He didn’t earn a positive grade, but the Irish ground game wore down the Trojans late in that ball game.


Pregame Six Pack: Notre Dame (and Mother Nature) head to Clemson

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish passes against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

As the East Coast braces for Hurricane Joaquin, Notre Dame prepares for a gigantic football game. The Irish head to upstate South Carolina on Friday, ready for the elements, not to mention a football game with No. 12 Clemson.

The Irish practiced with a wet ball this week. They worked out on natural grass. They drilled down and tried to cover everything, from squib kicks to rain delays, any potential scenario they might face, on or off the field.

“We booked a hotel for a couple extra days just in case,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We’ve got a place Sunday or Monday, we’ll be down there and ready to play.”

After a week of work, Kelly is confident that his team won’t be worried about the weather. After all, the Tigers seem to be challenge enough.

So as DeShone Kizer gets ready to lead the Irish into Memorial Stadium and a rain-soaked Death Valley, let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. (Hopefully you brought an umbrella.)


Forget about Hurricane Joaquin. All Irish eyes should be on DeShone Kizer.

There is no single player more important to the Irish’s fate this weekend than quarterback DeShone Kizer. The sophomore is coming off three performances where he’s looked at home in the pocket, never displaying any of the shakiness you might expect from a first-time performer.

But traveling to Clemson will be different. As will the elements. Kizer covered both parts of this equation on Wednesday, sounding not all that worried about any slickness that might come with a wet football.

“I’ve never really had too big of an issue when it came to rain. I have pretty good-sized hands where I can grip the ball pretty well,” Kizer said this week. “We’ll definitely prepare for that with using wet balls in our practice and understanding that the wind is going to come into play and things like that. But it’s all going to be a mental mindset.”

Dealing with the crowd is another point. After recalling the feeling that came when he heard his first Tomahawk chop at Doak Campbell Stadium, Kizer expects this crowd to be even louder, giving him all the more reason to do his best to quiet them down quickly.

“Doing the extra small things—making sure you’re being quick in getting up there and relaying the play a couple times down. And getting back into your stance so you can be able to make a check,” Kizer said. “Also with that being said, the best way of quieting a crowd down is making big plays…so we’ve got to make sure that we get things rolling as soon as possible and hopefully at least take it down a couple of notches on the loudness scale.”


It’s been since 1977 since Notre Dame and Clemson did battle. Let’s hope this one is as good of a game as the one 38 years ago. 

It’s a trip beyond Memory Lane for me, but the last time Notre Dame traveled to Clemson, Joe Montana led the Irish to an epic victory that helped spring a national championship. Trailing by 10 heading into the fourth quarter, Montana put the team on his shoulders, running for two touchdowns to pull out a 21-17 win, their closest game in their national championship season.

(Fun fact: Montana faced off against his professional teammate, TE Dwight Clark, that evening in Clemson, collegiate opponents before becoming one of the game’s historic QB-TE connections, including “The Catch” from the 1982 NFC Championship game.)

But while Montana’s comeback is all that remains in most stories, one controversial call still stands above the rest. On a critical 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line, Clemson looked to be stuffed just shy of the end zone (feel free to watch for yourself). But the referee found a way to block Notre Dame’s defender from making the tackle, allowing Clemson’s Lester Brown to get to the pylon before the Irish could chase him down.

It’s the type of play that would’ve likely melted the internet (certainly more controversial than the illegal pick called last season) today, with screams of home-cooking surely to last for years to come. Instead, the Irish pulled the victory out, rallying from the 10-point deficit to turn the play into a forgotten footnote.

Are we in for a game as memorable as that one? Check out this spooky stat:


Keep your eye on the trenches. While the Irish offensive line is stout, Notre Dame’s front seven might hold the key to victory.

Clemson’s offensive line is a work in progress. While the Tigers skill talent is among the best Notre Dame has faced, the guys protecting Deshaun Watson are still figuring it out.

So while most of us have wondered if Harry Hiestand’s boys can continue their dominance up front, take a look at Notre Dame’s front seven, because there’s a chance this group is the one that wins the game for the Irish.

Clemson starts a true freshman at left tackle. Mitch Hyatt was a blue-chip recruit and a Top 100 player, but at this time last year he was playing at North Gwinnett high school, not in the ACC. A matchup with Sheldon Day or Isaac Rochell might be a good one for Notre Dame.

Starting center Ryan Norton is out with a knee injury, replaced by junior Jay Guillermo. Even veterans Eric Mac Lain and Joe Gore, both fifth-year seniors, hardly inspire much confidence.

In their preview of the offensive line before the season, Shakin’ the Southland had this to say about the veteran duo.

Eric Mac Lain was a failed tackle experiment that moved inside to guard and has still struggled at times in the pass pro department. Joe Gore looks like Tarzan but for the most part has played like Jane throughout his career.

Notre Dame’s front controlling things could be key this weekend. And facing an offensive line that finished last season ranked 101st in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards and has had to deal with injuries and replacing two key starters? This might be a place where the Irish could take control of the game.

For all the join a conference talk, Notre Dame is still plenty comfortable in the ACC. And they should be, considering the Notre Dame alums running athletic departments across the conference. 

It’s not exactly a story that’ll impact the play on the field this weekend. But Dabo Swinney’s non-comment comments about Notre Dame and the ACC stirred up a bunch of old news, namely complaints from other coaches that the Irish should join a conference.

The Irish did join a conference, in all sports but football. And Notre Dame’s made a quick home in the ACC, a partnership that has all parties involved saying nothing but good things. That ACC commissioner John Swofford accepted partial-admittance in exchange for five regular season football games raised a few eyeballs. But no group of athletic directors likely understand the value of the Irish to the conference more than the ACC.

We see that this week, in ticket prices. We saw that in Notre Dame’s trip to Virginia. And as the Irish continue their tour of ACC opponents, they’ll play to packed houses, not always the norm for an average Saturday in a conference that isn’t as rabid as the SEC.

In this week’s game notes from Clemson, Tigers Assistant AD and football SID Tim Bourrett (a 1977 Notre Dame grad) points out the Irish alums in leadership positions inside the conference, likely a reason the move was such a good fit to begin with.

Georgia Tech’s athletic director Mike Bobinski is a 1979 Notre Dame graduate. Florida State’s AD Stan Wilcox graduated from Notre Dame in 1981, playing for Digger Phelps on the 1977-78 basketball team that reached the Final Four. North Carolina’s Bubba Cunningham played golf for the Irish and earned both a bachelors degree and a master from Notre Dame. He also spent over 15 years in the Irish athletics department.

So while some head coaches inside the conference may not understand why Notre Dame’s allowed a unique relationship with the conference, don’t worry—their bosses do.

Going up against a tough Clemson defense, Notre Dame’s offensive line knows it has a chance to make a statement. 

Notre Dame’s running game has taken college football by storm. Expected to be a backup, C.J. Prosise‘s 600 yards are the most in school history through four games. His yardage, touchdowns and average per carry all are within the nation’s best dozen statistically.

That work has been fueled by the offensive line. Both Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin look like top NFL prospects. The Irish rank 12th in the nation in rushing offense at 284.8 yards per game, the most through four games for an Irish team since 1992, exactly 23 seasons ago. (Another fun fact: Not a single player on Notre Dame’s team was alive for that season.)

Center Nick Martin talked about the mindset the Irish offensive line has as they head into their most challenging environment of the year, facing their most capable opponent.

“It’s a sense of pride. As an O-lineman we love to run the ball. We like when we have success,” Martin said. Our running backs, the way they run, you guys have all seen it. It’s unbelievable.

“Up front, we work our butts off to try and make holes and do our best. But beyond that also, it’s about the people that come before you, too. The O lines, having guys like Chris Watt, Zack Martin, Christian Lombard, those guys, and even before that, the O line at Notre Dame, especially in the 90s and ever since then, has always been a sense of pride, and we just try to carry that on.”

Saturday evening, with a 99 percent chance of rain in the forecast, the offensive line will be asked to dictate terms. After earning the game ball last week, Martin and his linemates couldn’t be happier for the opportunity.


With the hype machine turned up to an 11, every little thing counts. And it’s certainly added some fuel to the matchup of Will Fuller against Clemson’s talented secondary.

We’ve already talked about Will Fuller vs. Mackensie Alexander. Clemson’s top corner is ready for the receiver that Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables is calling perhaps “the best receiver in America.”

Alexander’s teammates are also ready. They took this tweet by Fuller and used it as fuel, a slight only understandable with an advanced degree in social media and youthful hashtags.

“I actually ‘favorited’ the tweet,” Clemson safety Jayron Kearse told local media on Monday. “They’re talking a lot. Obviously they don’t know what we do down here in Death Valley, so I’m looking forward to this.”

The Tigers have put together quite a winning run at home over the past few years. But Fuller has also dominated college football these past two seasons as well, scoring more touchdowns than any other receiver in college football since the start of 2014.

So Saturday night, something’s got to give. And with the weather, the Irish and the Tigers all set to do battle in Death Valley, it’s got the ingredients to be a classic.


Pregame Six Pack: Keys to stopping Tech’s offensive juggernaut

Brian Kelly

The objective is straightforward. Accomplishing it? That’s much more difficult. As Paul Johnson and his Georgia Tech team travel to South Bend, they bring with them an offense that’s provided sleepless nights to opposing coaches all around the country.

Johnson’s triple-option attack stresses defenses in ways others do not. Its ability to be both singular and multiple, simple and yet complex; it starts to feel like we’re discussing a Sherlock Holmes villain, not an offensive scheme concocted in a long-ago era of football and improved upon by Johnson over the last two decades.

So while Georgia Tech leaves half of the offensive menu largely untouched (so far, Yellow Jacket quarterback Justin Thomas has thrown the ball 13 times this season, the same as DeShone Kizer), the challenge is a singular one, and will likely determine the path Brian Kelly’s football team will travel this season.

As we crack open this pregame six pack, we’re going to focus on six key members*  of the Irish who will play a large part in determining if Notre Dame sings the alma mater undefeated, or if the home crowd heads to the parking lot with frowns on their faces.



Notre Dame’s defensive star needs to be one on Saturday. Last year against Navy, Smith only made six tackles. Against Georgia Tech, that number should double if the junior is on his game.

Also playing a factor is where Smith lines up. After being taken out of certain plays schematically, Notre Dame’s staff has made certain that whatever the Yellow Jackets plan on doing, they’ll need to accomplish it by going through Smith.

“We’ve made sure that regardless of the situation, Jaylon is going to be central to what happens on the field on Saturday,” Kelly said on Tuesday.

That should mean a move to the middle for Smith, likely in tandem with Joe Schmidt. And while that’ll mean tougher sledding in the trenches for a linebacker who is still learning how to shed blockers and excel in the interior, Smith’s other-worldly athleticism and skills need to be on display.



Making his first start, Kizer carries the weight of the Irish offense on his shoulders. But this week Kelly and the Irish offensive staff did their best to tell Kizer he was just one-eleventh of the equation.

“We want to make sure that he understands that he’s got a lot of good players around him,” Kelly said. “He needs to just be who he is and we’ll take advantage of what his skills are.”

That’s easier said than done. Kizer’s life has been turned inside out this week. After shuffling through his first year on campus as just another football player, the biggest news heading into spring football was that Kizer would see the field…as the holder.

But after the transfer of Everett Golson and the injury to Malik Zaire, Kizer is now the starting quarterback on a Top 10 football team.

“I’m trying my hardest to make it as normal as I can,” Kizer told Jac Collinsworth this week for our Stay Gold podcast. “Obviously there’s some things you just can’t get around… It can become overwhelming at times, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job trying to push myself into my academics and push myself into preparing for Georgia Tech, trying to ignore some of the extra stuff that comes with the position.”

If Kizer’s on-field performance is anything like his game-week remarks, the Irish offense won’t miss a beat. From the moment he took the podium after Notre Dame’s win over Virginia, everything that’s come out of Kizer’s mouth has been a really impressive display for a young kid seeing and doing things for the first time.

Now it’s time for him to parlay that into a heady afternoon on the football field, with Kelly’s continual reminder to simply stay within himself.

“He doesn’t need to come in here and put everybody on his shoulders and say I’m going to save the day for Notre Dame when Malik goes down,” Kelly said. “We have a system here in place. Just do exactly what we ask you to do and you’re going to be fine.”



You thought we’d spend a few hundred more words on the play of Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate? (Believe me, I could…) No, the safeties that I’m most interested in are sophomore Drue Tranquill and graduate student Matthias Farley. Both will likely play critical roles in the defensive game plan, asked to make plays in space and tackle the pitch man on the edges of the defense.

Tranquill’s size and speed has quickly made him a useful cog in Notre Dame’s sub-packages, with Brian VanGorder utilizing Tranquill in dime packages and as a blitzer. On Saturday, expect to see Tranquill around the line of scrimmage, asked to come up and tackle from the edge, a 225-pounder who should be able to run with Georgia Tech’s backfield.

Farley’s role might come at the expense of Redfield’s, with the veteran a nearly forgotten part of the defensive scheme last season against Navy. But when he got his chances, Farley did some serious damage, notching two sacks of Keenan Reynolds (the only two of the game) and five tackles in limited minutes.

Notre Dame’s secondary needs to tackle better. They need to do their jobs better. And while Farley doesn’t have the athleticism that Redfield does, he has two working hands and a head on his shoulders that should help keep missed tackles—and mental mistakes—down.

That’s a critical piece of the puzzle for the secondary this week, with everybody tasked with a different objective. And the game plan demands excellence from this group if the Irish are going to pull out a win on Saturday.

“They’re all going to play a role in our success. And they’re all going to have to tackle well and they’re all going to have to be so locked in on their keys,” Kelly said, when asked about the back-end of his defense.

After a tough weekend at the office against Virginia, can this group rally to stop a Georgia Tech offense that was 76 spots better in scoring offense in 2014?

“The answer to that question will not be evident until Saturday around seven o’clock,” Kelly said with a smile.



Notre Dame’s returning captain on the defensive line needs to wreak havoc and lead from the front. Against an offensive line that’s done a dominant job run blocking and controlling the point of attack, Day needs to fill the stat sheet, but also drag along with him Isaac Rochell, Daniel Cage, Jerry Tillery and defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti.

There are so many factors that’ll determine whether this game is won or lost. But it’s hard to find a position group more important than the defensive line. After looking like a unit that wore down last week against Virginia’s offensive line, how Keith Gilmore’s position group handles the non-stop challenge of the Yellow Jacket’s ground game will be fascinating.

Day will shift inside and out, asked to do everything from tackle the dive, stop Justin Thomas and destroy blockers to free up the linebackers behind him. And just as important, he’ll have to stay healthy against an offensive line that utilizes a cut-blocking scheme to trigger some elements of its ground attack.

(Before you say it, let’s get this out of the way: It’s legal. Get over it.)

Day is four years into his college football career, one that started in Dublin against a Navy offense running a similar scheme. As he plays his two final games against the triple-option, taking all his acquired knowledge and leading his position group with a big afternoon is a key to victory.



Color me unimpressed by the short-yardage performance of Harry Hiestand’s group last week. And while the Irish are averaging a robust 5.4 yards per carry and 233 yards a game running the football, none of it will matter if the offense can’t convert on 3rd-and-short.

Martin is the leader of the unit and triggers the point of attack. Earlier this week, he made it clear that he understands that the problems the Irish had up front and knows they need to be corrected by Saturday afternoon.

“As an offensive line we talk about where to find the obvious run and the obvious pass,” Martin said Wednesday, when asked about the struggles on third down and in short yardage situations. “And plain and simple we haven’t been good enough in that situation. Good thing is every week’s new, every week’s different. You can’t dwell in the past, you can only learn from it and move on from there.”

There will be opportunities to exploit Georgia Tech’s defensive line. The Yellow Jackets gave up a shade over five yards a carry last season, a dreadful 105th in the country in that category. And while defensive coordinator Ted Roof returns most of his defense, they are still susceptible up front, as long as the Irish offensive line puts together a complete game.

There is a lot on Martin’s shoulders this week. Communication with a first-time starting quarterback. Making sure the chains move and protections get picked up. But as a fifth-year player and a returning captain, that’s part of the gig.

Everybody inside Notre Dame Stadium knows it’ll be important for the Irish ground game to hold its own. It’s Martin’s job to make sure the offensive line imposes its will.



Enough about the subplot between Paul Johnson and Brian VanGorder. This game will come down to the head of the Irish football program getting the most out of his team and out-coaching Johnson.

That means finding solutions on defense. It’ll mean orchestrating a better offensive game plan than the one in Charlottesville. And it also requires a victory on special teams.

“We don’t have big margins for error in any one of those three areas. Guys need to be locked in,” Kelly said on Thursday. “The challenge this week was to be a smarter football team. A more efficient football team. And then (have) a great will to win. We need to bring that as well.”

Kelly has shown an ability to rally his team. And in many ways entering Notre Dame Stadium as an underdog will be helpful, though it’s hard to think anybody in the Irish locker room needs added incentive to play well.

Contrary to public opinion, Notre Dame doesn’t need to be perfect to beat Georgia Tech. But they need to be very good and very efficient.

As we look back on past victories, this game calls to mind the Irish’s impressive Shamrock Series win over Arizona State in 2013. The defense held their own against the Sun Devils’ high-powered attack. Tommy Rees engineered an efficient day in Dallas. And the special teams executed, with Kyle Brindza making three second-half field goals, including a 53-yarder.

A victory over Georgia Tech will go a long way toward providing a road map to the lofty places the Irish want to go. A defeat? Well it could very well do irreparable harm to mission objectives that still stand intact, even after five dispiriting injuries.

Kelly is viewed as an elite coach in college football circles. Days like Saturday are where he’ll earn that reputation. So if the Irish are going to win against the Yellow Jackets, the troops aren’t the only ones who’ll have to do a great job. The man leading the charge needs to push all the right buttons, too.




Zaire, Day lead Notre Dame in PFF grades

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Sheldon Day #91 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Isaac Rochell #90 celebrate after making a tackle for a loss of yards against the Texas Longhorns during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

Box scores can be deceiving. Especially when you look at Sheldon Day‘s performance on the field with the numbers he put down on paper. Notre Dame’s senior captain was the Irish’s most dominant defender, according to Pro Football Focus. The research-heavy, game-tape tracking football website had nothing but love for a large contingent of Notre Dame players, with quarterback Malik Zaire and Day leading the way.

So while some look at Day’s pedestrian numbers—his lone tackle happened to be a sack of quarterback Tyrone Swoopes—the senior tackle is earning rave reviews for his bludgeoning of Texas’ young and inexperienced offensive line.

On the offensive side of the ball, Zaire’s performance was graded as good as you expected. Zaire was 13 of 14 for 273 yards with three touchdowns on throws of 10 yards or more. According to PFF, he was 4 of 5 for 42 yards in pass-rush/pressure situations. And his three incompletions? Two hit the receiver in the hands and the third likely was caused because the receiver stopped his route.

(Don’t tell Brian Kelly, but Jeff Dooley of PFF already went there with Zaire and the Heisman.)

PFF also had good things to say about Will Fuller, as you might imagine. Notre Dame’s star receiver caught all seven of his targets for 142 yards and two touchdowns. Fifth-year captain Nick Martin also handled his job well, earning the highest grade along the offensive line, a nice sign that Martin at full strength will be a handful. (Jaylon Smith graded out at +1.4.)

You can read more here, but here are the top five performers from Saturday night according to PFF:

Malik Zaire, QB: (+6.2)
Sheldon Day, DT: (+4.6)
Nick Martin, C (+3.9)
Will Fuller, WR (+3.0)
Ronnie Stanley (+2.0)

Only Texas defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway finished with a grade above +2.0, earning a 2.7 for his work in the trenches against Notre Dame’s guards. Tyrone Swoops had a -3.6 while senior guard Sedrick Flowers (-8.4) and freshman Patrick Vahe (-4.6) were major problems up front for Texas.

Pregame Six Pack: At long last, the Longhorns arrive

Tarean Folston

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.