Sept. 3, 2016
When Irish head coach Brian Kelly's seventh Notre Dame football team takes the field in Austin Sunday night to open the 2016 season against Texas, here are five things to watch:
1.The quarterback situation
Nothing gets a team's fan base buzzing like a good quarterback controversy. The difference here is that Kelly doesn't consider it a controversy. He's convinced both Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer can help Notre Dame win, even if Kelly acknowledges the naysayers who aren't sold that playing both will work. Kelly's decision speaks to the upsized abilities of his two signal-callers, and he suggested this week that he'll utilize the talents of the duo to a great extent based on how Texas opts to defend the Irish.
Reverse field to the 2014 Music City Bowl win over a potent LSU team. Kelly pushed all the right buttons that day in alternating Zaire and Everett Golson. Irish fans will be hoping the Irish coach can do so with that sort of effectiveness Sunday night--and potentially throughout the 2016 campaign.
2. The Irish running game
There's nothing that demoralizes a defense more than an opposing running game that can pound the ball down after down. Notre Dame believes it can do that with the return of back-from-injury running back Tarean Folston, the growth of freshman sensation-turned sophomore Josh Adams and the potential emergence of Dexter Williams. Leading the way in front of them are left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson. An added bonus? Zaire is a more-than-capable runner and scrambler, and even Kizer surprised many a year ago with his ability to take off with the football.
3. Who could/will step up among the Notre Dame receivers?
The Irish understand they may not have a game-changer with blinding speed who can do the things Will Fuller did the last two years in simply running away from and past defenders. Kelly acknowledges that even captain Torii Hunter Jr., the most experienced of the returning Notre Dame pass-catchers, has some things to prove in terms of being a productive, week-to-week lead receiver. So, who else will be in the mix? The list is intriguing--Equanimeous St. Brown (Irish coaches have loved his potential since he arrived in South Bend a year ago), C.J. Sanders (he wowed the Irish fan base last fall with his return skills and now could be a full-time contributor), along with Miles Boykin and Corey Holmes and maybe even early-enrollee freshman Kevin Stepherson. The more productive that unit can be, the more likely Kelly can run the balanced offense he wants to see.
4. Irish defensive adjustments
Texas coach Charlie Strong, like Kelly, has been coy about what he will do at quarterback. He may start and feature a true freshman with a big arm. So Notre Dame and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, as in any season opener, likely will have to make some adjustments on the fly. There are lots of comparatively new names in the Irish lineup--the likes of Greer Martini, Avery Sebastian, Shaun Crawford, Nyles Morgan, Jerry Tillery and others. They may not have to be spectacular, but they at least need to be solid in an away-from-home debut game against an opponent with a new offensive coordinator expected to keep the Irish on the run with an up-tempo approach.
5. The motivational elements
Much has been made in Austin of the Longhorns' intent to begin proving they are better than their losing records from 2014 and 2015--and specifically prove they are better than what they showed in losing by five touchdowns a year ago this weekend at Notre Dame Stadium. Then there's the warm weather in Austin and the 100,000 fans in burnt orange--not that any of that is anything new when the Irish head out on the road. For Notre Dame? Kelly looks at this opening challenge as the first step to his team again injecting itself into the College Football Playoff conversation.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler follows the Irish football scene for Fighting Irish Media. He's in Austin with the Notre Dame travel squad, so look for his Sunday Brunch (in this case, Monday Brunch) piece, an inside recap of what happens as Brian Kelly's squad kicks off the 2016 season.