Pregame Six Pack: At long last, the season begins

26 Comments

That took long enough, didn’t it? After far too long, football is back.

With a preseason camp that the Irish survived mostly healthy, the biggest hits came off the field. As an academic investigation claimed its fifth player Thursday, Notre Dame heads into their season opener against Rice short wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, safety Eilar Hardy, linebacker Kendall Moore, cornerback KeiVarae Russell and defensive end Ishaq Williams.

The Irish will finally show their restructured defense helmed by Brian VanGorder, with Saturday afternoon our first look at the young and inexperienced defense that’ll be the X-factor of the season. Breaking in the new FieldTurf inside Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish will attempt to kickoff the season in style.

Before we get there, let’s crack open our pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings before the Irish take on the Owls at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

***

1. We’ll find out pretty quickly if Brian VanGorder’s defense can hold up against a running offense. 

Last year, Rice’s offense moved impressively on the ground. The Owls rushing attack finished 17th in the nation with 227 yards a game, making a pledge to controlling the ball via the run. That commitment was a big reason why the Owls ranked 12th in the country in time of possession.

Charles Ross, who led Rice in rushing last season with 1,280 yards, is gone. But quarterback Driphus Jackson is a run threat, and backs like Jawon Davis and Darik Dillard are going to get their opportunities. So if you were wondering if Brian VanGorder’s young defense can hold up in the trenches, it won’t take long to find out.

A closer look to Rice’s commitment to running is pretty impressive. In the regular season, their lowest total rushing attempts were 42 carries, when the Owls ran for 192 yards in a 23-14 win over Kansas. In their loss to Texas A&M, Rice ran for 306 yards on 51 attempts. The Owls 31-26 loss to Houston? Still ran 45 times for 174 yards and two touchdowns.

Only in Rice’s blowout 44-7 loss to Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl did the Owls not hit the 40-carry mark. Even then, they still managed to tote the ball 32 times, in a game the Owls trailed by five touchdowns by midway through the third quarter.

 

2. Even against a team that feels like a run first (and maybe second, too) offense, converted wide receiver James Onwualu gets the first opportunity at Sam linebacker. 

One of the stories of fall camp was the ascent of James Onwualu, who finished last season with four starts at wide receiver and begins this year in the starting lineup at outside linebacker. Joining Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith as starters, nobody’s going to get this trio mixed up with the big bodies that anchored Bob Diaco’s 3-4, but this trio sets a new bar for athleticism.

When asked about Ben Councell’s availability for Saturday, Kelly showed no hesitations playing Councell for fear that his surgically repaired ACL wasn’t properly healed. But rather, Kelly explained that even if Rice is going to run the ball 40 times, formationally it makes sense for the 220-pound Onwualu to play in the game.

“In terms of the way we’re playing the defense, it’s definitely been more towards handling spread teams,” Kelly explained. “That’s why we feel like we’d be better-suited with some more athleticism… (Because Rice) is in open sets.”

We’ve heard nothing but superlatives about Onwualu, and his ability to prepare. Consider Saturday afternoon a progress report on the sophomore.

 

3. Let the Greg Bryant era begin. (Again.)

Sure Bryant had a few carries early last season, not making much out of those opportunities. But a nagging knee injury allowed the blue-chip recruit to take a medical redshirt and Saturday’s game serves as a mulligan for the redshirt freshman.

The depth chart at running back lists captain Cam McDaniel atop a three-man first-string, though you’ve got to expect to see Bryant quite a bit on Saturday, if only to get the butterflies out before taking on Michigan.

With the Irish expecting to move with pace, the running game will dictate the tempo. Even with standout defensive lineman Christian Covington anchoring the interior of the defensive line, the rest of the unit is still finding its role. But Bryant will get his chances to break a big one. He’ll just need to show some patience.

Even if it isn’t Bryant, Saturday serves as the first test for the Irish coaching staff. How they split touches between Tarean Folston, McDaniel and Bryant will likely dictate how productive the Irish offense can be.  After getting less than the sum of the team’s parts at running back last year, it’s a big season to reestablish Notre Dame’s ground game.

 

4. First time back? Let’s run through the new kids on defense. 

Basically, the only guys you’ll really recognize are defensive lineman Sheldon Day, linebacker Jaylon Smith and safety Austin Collinsworth. Day and Collinsworth were awarded captaincy by Kelly earlier this week, and Smith probably should have.

But outside of that trio, nobody will blame you for pulling out a roster. Up front, we’ll see debut starts for sophomore Isaac Rochell and freshman Andrew Trumbetti. If it’s not Trumbetti at defensive end, junior Romeo Okwara will be in line to make his second career start.

Defensive tackle Jarron Jones feels like a veteran, but in reality he’s only started one game in his career. But he’ll pair with Day on the interior of the defensive line, taking as many reps as possible before the juniors gives way to grad student Justin Utupo and true freshman Daniel Cage.

Backing up the linebacking trio is a group of youngsters. Freshmen Nyles Morgan backs up Schmidt. Fellow freshman Greer Martini is in the two-deep behind Smith. And junior John Turner is the next man in behind Onwualu.

Without KeiVarae Russell’s 26 starts at cornerback, the Irish secondary is pretty green. as well Cody Riggs will make his first start in South Bend after playing 40 games for Florida. Cole Luke starts his first game at cornerback. Max Redfield starts his second, after Kelly forced him into the lineup against Rutgers. Add to that some veteran experience in Collinsworth, and you’ve got a secondary that desperately needs to communicate well.

(And maybe wear names on the backs of their jerseys, just for the fans’ sake.)

 

5. After all the talk of spread offense and hurry-up, tempo attacks, this is our first look at the “new look” Irish offense. 

Everett Golson has traveled the long road back. Now he’ll take off the red jersey and be a live target for the first time since Alabama took dead aim at him. That’s over 600 days since Golson last suited up when it counts, so don’t necessarily expect everything to go perfectly from the start.

But that being said, it’s time for the Irish to push the pace of the game and utilize the zone-read, spread principles Kelly’s been waiting to unleash since Golson arrived.

The running game is there. The offensive line’s advantage is distinct. Now it’s time to see what the Irish offense looks like under Mike Denbrock’s supervision and the play-calling of Kelly.

The Irish are short their No. 1 receiver as Daniels continues to be wrapped up in the academic investigation. But that shouldn’t stop Notre Dame from running and gunning all afternoon. But one player to keep an eye on: sophomore receiver Corey Robinson. He had a pin inserted into his thumb and had it casted late last week. He was somehow miraculously back at practice Tuesday, good to go, per Kelly.

 

6. Opening Day hasn’t been all that kind to Kelly’s Irish squad. After a distracting last few weeks, can the Irish set things aside and play a dominant game?

The Irish are 21-point favorites over Rice, a school that’s 0-4 against Notre Dame, with a collective one touchdown in those games. Can the Irish put the Owls away early and build momentum into next week’s matchup with Michigan?

First things first, Kelly’s Irish may be 3-1 on opening days, but only Notre Dame’s win over Navy in Dublin could be considered a rousing success. Last year, after jumping on Temple, the offense struggled and the defense showed some of the inadequacies that plagued them all season. In Kelly’s first season, the Irish won ugly over Danny Hope’s Purdue team.

Of course, 2011’s opener against South Florida is going to be difficult to forget. Watching the Irish short-circuit with five turnovers in a lightning-delayed game at Notre Dame Stadium could go down among the most miserable losses of the last 20 years.

The weather forecast for Saturday shows a good chance of rain. But regardless of what the weather brings, Saturday is an opportunity for the Irish to make a statement and set the tone for the 2014 season.

Make no mistake, this Rice team isn’t coming to South Bend to take one on the chin. David Bailiff’s team has won 15 of their last 19 games, a record you don’t get by accident. But with or without five suspended players, the Irish have a large personnel advantage.

Now they need to take care of business and get ready for a battle with Michigan that could go down for the ages.