Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2013 Record: 9-4
Scheme: Notre Dame is yet another FCS team that runs a no-huddle, spread offense. Unlike some other teams, the Irish don’t always go fast, but they will throw tempo at a defense at times. Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin was hired away to be the new head coach at Miami (OH) so even though Brian Kelly promoted Mike Denbrock with the OC title, Kelly is going to call the plays. Kelly’s preference is to lean a bit more on the passing game.
Quarterbacks: Tommy Rees graduated and Andrew Hendrix transferred, but the Irish are still set at QB thanks to the return of junior Everett Golson. Remember him? He was the guy who led Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season as a redshirt freshman in 2012. Golson (2405 yards, 59%, 12 TDs, 6 interceptions in 2012) was suspended for the Fall semester last year due to academic transgressions (rumor has it that he cheated on a test but FERPA laws mean we won’t know the real story any time soon) and only rejoined the team for spring drills. On paper, Golson seems like a perfect fit for Kelly’s offense—good arm, efficient, and just mobile enough to run, but he prefers to keep his eyes downfield and throw. Golson didn’t light the world on fire in 2012, but he was clutch, didn’t make many mistakes, and won games. I would assume there will be some rust, but the smart money would be on Golson having at least an above average season.
That being said, Golson faces competition for the starter’s job. Although it may seem like lip service to the outside world, ND insiders say redshirt freshman Malik Zaire is pushing Golson hard and no starter has been named yet. It would be a surprise if Golson doesn’t start, but Zaire had a great spring, is a superb athlete, and will likely at least see some snaps in special packages. True freshman DeShone Kizer is the only other QB on scholarship so Golson and Zaire need to stay healthy (it should be noted that Golson missed one game in 2012 and was constantly dinged up).
Running Backs: One contributor is gone, but the Irish look just fine here. Leading rusher Cam McDaniel, a senior, returns and depth is provoded by classmate Amir Carlisle, sophomore Taurean Folston, and redshirt frosh Greg Bryant. McDaniel (704 yds, 4.6 average, 3 TDs) is far from explosive, but he has good size and moves the pile. Folston (470 yds, 5.3 avg, 3 TDs) has similar size as McDaniel, but has more speed and shiftiness. Carlisle (204 yds, 4.3 avg, 7 receptions) has bounced between RB and WR and will likely continue to be used as a dual threat player. That is partly because big things are expected from Bryant, a former five star recruit who has a very good size-speed combo. Bryant had a great spring and expectations are high. I’d expect McDaniel, Folston, and Bryant to form the main triumvirate with Carlisle being used on occasion.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: With the departures of WR TJ Jones and TE Troy Niklas, Notre Dame is long on potential here, but short on proven talent. Sure, there are several guys who have been contributors here and there but the Irish need a few guys to step up to be everydown players.
Senior DaVaris Daniels is the seemingly one sure thing. Daniels was removed from the roster in the spring due to an academic issue but was recently readmitted to school. Daniels (49 recs, 745 yds, 7 TDs) has size, experience, and playmaking ability and should be the go-to guy. Junior Chris Brown (15 recs, 209 yds, TD) has shown flashes as has sophomore Corey Robinson (9 recs, 157 yds, TD) and those two should battle for starters reps on the outside. Jones must be replaced in the slot and the aforementioned Carlisle, sophomore Will Fuller (6 recs, 160 yds, TD) and redshirt freshman Torii Hunter, Jr., look like the most likely candidates. Junior C.J. Prosise is getting a look in the slot too, although he has been little-used to this point in his career. Again, there is potential here and lots of recruiting accolades, but Daniels is the only proven commodity.
Niklas was quite the security blanket at tight end and the coaches hope senior Ben Koyack can pick up where Niklas left off. Koyack (10 recs, 171 yds, 3 TDs) produced in limited opportunities last year as he was mostly used as a blocker. He has the size (6’5, 260) and hands to be a receiving threat and the coaching staff have raved about him constantly. The Irish used two tight end sets often last year and redshirt freshman Durham Smythe impressed the coaches in the spring with his blocking ability. He might be the first guy off the bench. Classmate Mike Heuerman and true freshman Nic Weishar provide depth, but both need to beef up and seem like strictly receiving threats at this point.
Offensive Line: Somewhat quietly, Notre Dame had one of the better offensive lines in the country, one that was equally adept at pass and run blocking. Although two starters are gone (one of whom, Zach Martin, was a first round draft pick), this unit returns six guys who have started. And if you put any stock in recruiting rankings, Notre Dame has one 5 star and ten 10 four star recruits on the roster so talent is not lacking.
The depth chart is still a bit fluid but it appears sophomore Ronnie Stanley is the starter at LT after starting all 13 games last season, senior Christian Lombard (20 starts) returns at RG, and Nick Martin will regain the center job. Martin was injured in the Stanford game last year and missed the rest of the season, but he is good to go. He’ll be pushed by senior Matt Hegarty, who started 2 games in Martin’s absence and did pretty well.
As for the open spots, sophomore Steve Elmer (4 starts) is battling talented redshirt frosh John Monteus at LG. Elmer exited spring ball with the job and seems set. Redshirt freshman Mike McGlinchey leads to start at RT, although there has been talk of Elmer moving to RT. If the latter occurred, it would likely be a battle between Monteus, Hegarty, senior Connor Hanratty (4 career starts), and potentially five star true freshman Quenton Nelson for the LG job. As of now, Elmer and McGlinchey round out the starting five.
Scheme: Kelly also had to replace a coordinator here, as Bob Diaco was hired as the new head coach at UConn. Unlike on offense, Kelly did not promote from within to the fill the job, but hired Brian VanGorder, most recently a position coach with the Atlanta Falcons. Kelly and VanGorder coached together at Grand Valley State (a recurring theme for many of the assistant coaches), but college football fans likely remember VanGorder as the DC at Georgia or Auburn (he’s also been a DC at three other schools).
Also unlike on offense, the new hire also means a radical shift in philosophy and scheme. Whereas Diaco favored a bend-but-don’t break 3-4, VanGorder has utilized an attacking, aggressive 4-3. For Seminole fans, I think comparing VanGorder’s philosophy and style to Mickey Andrews’ would be an apt comparison. The question may be how much Kelly allows VanGorder to attack. Granted, Kelly hired VanGorder, but Kelly also seems to favor the more conservative approach Diaco went with. Only time will tell.
Defensive Line: Diaco trusted the defensive line to hold up against the run and rush the passer, only occasionally sending blitzers. Despite having guys like Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III last year, the Irish did not necessarily succeed at either, allowing 168 rushing yards per game and making just 21 sacks (and all of those not by linemen). Hoping for improvement after losing two guys to the NFL might be asking too much. This unit is likely the biggest question mark on the entire team.
Defensive tackle appears to have two solid starters in junior Sheldon Day and sophomore Jarron Jones. Day (33 tackles, 5.5 for loss) seems primed for a breakout year and has all the talent in the world. Jones (20 tackles) is a space-eater who should provide steady run support. Depth is the problem here, as senior Justin Utupo, senior Chase Houshnell (who has missed two entire seasons due to injury), redshirt frosh Jacob Matuska, and true freshmen Jay Hayes and Andrew Trumbetti are the only other tackles on the roster and the latter two are still a bit undersized.
At end, the starters will surely be junior Romeo Okwara and senior Ishaq Williams. Okwara (19 tackles, 1.5 for loss) will be tasked with replacing Tuitt as the line’s top pass rusher. Williams (17 tackles, 1.5 for loss, 1 sack) is a big end that was a hyped recruit who hasn’t yet panned out. He has talent, but the light has never come on. The top backup looks to be sophomore Isaac Rochell, a talented youngter who could easily pass Williams by. Depth again is the question as beyond Rochell the roster is made up of guys who’ve rarely played and walk-ons.
Linebacker: Three of last year’s starters are gone and although this unit is totally starting from scratch, there are more guys with experience here than the defensive line. Just like the WR corps, there are guys with recruiting accolades galore here, but very few guys who have produced on Saturdays.
The sure thing is sophomore Jaylon Smith, who was one of the defense’s best playmakers as a freshman. Smith (67 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 3 pass breakups, 1 interception) seems like a perfect fit for this system and could be a terror on blitz packages. The coaches are really hoping seniors Ben Councell and Jarrett Grace recover from injuries that knocked them out last year. Councell (15 tackles, 1 for loss in 9 games) has the versatility to play multiple spots and is apparently close to being fully recovered. He’s a career backup, but at minimum could provide some experienced depth. Grace (41 tackles, 1 for loss in 7 games) is coming along slower, but he would be the starter at MLB as soon as he is healthy. In his place, senior Joe Schmidt (15 tackles, 2 for loss) will man the middle and the coaches named him as one of the most improved players in spring ball. Still, he lacks Grace’s overall talent and skill set.
There are some other options on the bench as well. Senior Kendall Moore (17 tackles, 1 for loss), sophomore James Onwualu, and redshirt freshman Doug Randolph were all four star recruits and junior John Turner has seen some special teams time. Incoming freshman Nyles Morgan was a four star recruit as well and will surely get a look given the lack of certainty in this unit.
Secondary: The secondary looks like the strength of the defense, but that isn’t just by default. Although one starting corner has moved on, the Irish return an excellent foursome at safety and although they don’t have a ton of depth at CB, it looks as if they have at least three good options. This could be one of the best defensive backfields in the country, although not getting any help from the pass rush could ultimately hurt this unit.
The aforementioned quartet at safety is one of the best such groups in the country. Seniors Austin Collinsworth and Eilar Hardy, junior Elijah Shumate and sophomore Max Redfield were excellent at preventing big plays last year and will surely be tasked with a similar job this year under VanGorder. Collinsworth (43 tackles, 3 ints) started 11 games last year and has size, experience, and smarts. Hardy (26 tackles) started twice last year and is solid, if unspectacular. Shumate (23 tackles) started four times last year and has potential, although he could stand to make more plays. As such, Redfield (12 tackles) was running with the starters in spring ball. A former five star recruit, Redfield has everything you’d want in a safety and could blossom this season. Sophomore Nicky Baratti adds even more depth.
The CB spot isn’t as deep, but ND appears to have a solid threesome in junior KeiVarae Russell, senior Cody Riggs, and former safety Matthias Farley, also a senior. Russell (51 tackles, 1.5 for loss, 3 pass breakups, 1 int) is the top player in the secondary and a definite NFL prospect. He doesn’t have elite size, but is a very good cover man. Riggs is a transfer from Florida who used the grad student rule to come to ND. Riggs is a tad undersized at just 5’9, but he always produced at Florida and has a high football IQ. Farley (49 tackles, 3 pass breakups, 2 ints) was a playmaker at safety last year and has the size and strength to be a solid press cover guy in VanGorder’s system. Interestingly enough, sophomore Cole Luke (15 tackles, 2 pass breakups) held down a starting job exiting spring. Luke appeared in all 13 games last year and has definite potential. True freshman Nick Watkins will be thrown into the fray in August and although he has the best size of the bunch (6’1, 190), he’ll be hard pressed to see the field often.
Special Teams: Senior Kyle Brindza handles both the punting and kicking for the Irish, averaging 41.1 yards per punt and hitting on 20 of 26 field goals. The Irish need to find a new kick and punt returner and the coverage units need to improve (Notre Dame ranked 122nd in kickoff coverage last year). One Notre Dame blog recently ranked the special teams as the weakest positional unit on the team so this is a worry spot for many fans.
Schedule: I think the strength of Notre Dame’s schedule is often overblown, but they do typically play a few heavyweights and this year is no different. The traditional rivalry games see Michigan and Stanford come to Indiana while the Irish will travel to play USC. The ACC slate is mixed, with a tough road game against FSU but winnable, albeit tricky, home games with UNC and Louisville. The road date with Syracuse should be a win. The rest of the schedule (Rice, Purdue, Navy, at Arizona State, Northwestern) does not seem very daunting, although many see ASU as a dark-horse in the Pac 12.
Overall: If recruiting rankings matter, Notre Dame should be okay as they have a roster full of four and five star recruits. That being said, a lot of those guys are either young and unproven or upperclassmen who have yet to fulfill their potential.
Although the WR corps is largely untested, you have to like the looks of the Notre Dame offense. Golson is a good triggerman for Kelly’s system, they have depth and talent at RB, and the offensive line looks good and deep. If just two or three guys emerge at WR and TE, the offense will likely hum along. The defense is more concerning. Not only is there a shift in coordinators and philosophies, but Notre Dame has also seen a mass exodus of talent along the front seven. The LB corps has potential, but I think the line is pretty worrisome and short on depth at both end and tackle. The secondary looks very good, but until they prove otherwise, I have a feeling most teams will pound the ball at the Irish and make them commit extra guys to the box.
When I do these previews, I consult various websites, blogs, and preseason magazines to gather information. Most times, expectations for a team I am reading up on are pretty consistent from place to place, but prognostications for the Irish vary wildly. Some people see them as a fringe top 10 team while others don’t think they’ll crack the top 25. I’d probably split the difference. FSU is really the only team on the schedule that I’d say is a sure loss, but even then I think ND can hang around in that game. Every other game is winnable and I’d place ND as the favorite in probably at least 6 of their games. Some of the toss-ups (Michigan, Louisville, Stanford) are at home and that may help. If I had to guess, I’d venture that ND finishes the regular season 9-3 but lays the groundwork to really be a contender in 2015. If the defense really falters, they might slip to 8-4 but this team just seems too talented overall to fall very far.