Dec. 29, 2015
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - The original version of this piece ran in January on UND.com. Then in August we provided a second look at those same 20 questions--along with some answers. Now, with the 2015 regular season in the rear-view mirror, let’s take another look and see how our observations actually panned out (the latest analysis is in bold-face print).
By John Heisler
Yes, the 2014 University of Notre Dame season ended just a few weeks ago, and it’s a long time until the Texas Longhorns arrive in South Bend in September. Recruiting and spring drills will tide Irish fans over until that Sept. 5, 2015, season opener at Notre Dame Stadium.
In the meantime, let’s consider 20 questions Irish fans (and maybe even Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and his staff) will mull over in the offseason lull:
1. It came about due to late-season circumstances leading into a one-shot bowl effort, yet the notion of practicing and playing both quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire essentially worked against LSU, a highly rated defensive team from the most highly regarded conference in the land. It’s safe to say both Golson and Zaire are capable of being full-time regulars at the position, even if their strong points differ slightly—and it’s impossible to know now if the idea of a two-headed “monster” at quarterback could really be effective on a long-term basis. There’s plenty of time for Kelly and his staff to let this play out through the spring and even into August, if that’s what they choose to do. So, what does the future hold at quarterback for Notre Dame? Malik Zaire is what the future holds for the Irish. Both Zaire and Everett Golson went through all of spring drills together—then Golson announced in May his intention to transfer and he ultimately ended up at Florida State. So the Irish offensive coaches have put any plans for dual quarterbacks in mothballs and are now focused on what it takes to make Zaire a consistent, productive signal-caller for Notre Dame. With the potential drama of a Golson-Zaire debate now eliminated, all involved can concentrate on making Zaire a potent cog in the Irish offense. Even with only 35 pass attempts on his resume and the single start in the Music City Bowl win versus LSU, Zaire brings a flair and confidence to the huddle that should be a boon. Golson and Zaire sharing Irish quarterback duties? Wow, it never came close to that, did it? Golson headed to Tallahassee, Zaire broke his ankle two weeks into the season--and yet DeShone Kizer hardly could have been any more impressive in showcasing Kelly’s “next man in” philosophy. In fact, you could make some comparisons to Ohio State’s 2014 quarterback saga. Kizer, an Ohio native (Toledo) like the Buckeyes’ Cardale Jones (Cleveland), brought both technique and style to his new role. And the best thing about Kizer? He has three more years of eligibility remaining.
2. The Irish ran for 246 yards (their second-highest rushing total of 2014 and best since the season opener versus Rice) against LSU in the Music City Bowl, and that came with Mike McGlinchey making his first start at offensive tackle. Notre Dame returns a solid, proven tailback in Tarean Folston and a potential improving and talented sidekick in Greg Bryant—and the makings are there for an offensive line with productivity and experience. Can the Irish become a team in 2015 known for its smash-mouth running style? Naysayers will worry that the loss of Bryant makes this question more difficult to answer in the affirmative. But the emergence of C.J. Prosise during spring drills and the potential of receiver Justin Brent to try his hand as a running back in fall camp both provide intriguing options. While Notre Dame fans had been comfortable with all the depth at that tailback spot, it’s also possible that Folston could thrive if he’s rewarded with 22-25 carries a contest. No matter who lines up behind the quarterback, the Irish figure to put one of their more talented and potentially productive offensive lines on the field in years. Notre Dame did, indeed, become a very solid rushing team—and that came without both Bryant and Folston (he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener versus Texas). If Kizer represented the first chapter of Kelly’s off-the-bench theory, then Prosise (1,032 rushing yards) and freshman Josh Adams (757 rushing yards) represented Next Man In, Part II. Prosise early was as productive as anyone in the country, and he’ll return from a late-season ankle injury to play in the Fiesta Bowl. Adams boasts a nifty combination of speed, power and size, and he represents the future at this position. Notre Dame’s 2015 average of 214.8 rushing yards per game ranked as the best for the Irish since 1996.
3. Even with Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin, Steve Elmer and Mike McGlinchey back in the fold, there are a host of young Irish offensive linemen in the mix. Consider the likes of John Montelus, Colin McGovern, Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher, Jimmy Byrne, Hunter Bivin and Alex Bars—most all of them highly regarded when they showed up on campus. Can any of that group develop into a major contributor by the time the 2015 campaign unfolds? The Irish came out of spring drills feeling good about their entire second offensive line unit. There may not be an immediate need for any of those backups to play a major role right off the bat, but the Notre Dame coaches liked what they saw from those younger, less-experienced linemen. Nelson became the regular at left guard, and Bars filled in for him for a couple of games. Otherwise, that number-one unit remained healthy, with Stanley finishing as a consensus All-American. That starting offensive line group had a lot to do with players like Kizer and Prosise and Adams being able to grow into their roles.
4. It’s hard to imagine a Notre Dame position area that grew up more than the Irish receivers did in 2014. Will Fuller became a bona-fide star. Corey Robinson proved to be a matchup nightmare. Chris Brown emerged as a dependable, if under the radar, staple. C.J. Prosise showed he could both catch and run (see 50-yard touchdown on a jet sweep versus LSU, the longest run by an Irish receiver in two decades), as did Amir Carlisle. Now that Torii Hunter Jr. is healthy, expect him to be a force. And Folston has proven he can catch the ball out of the backfield. All those players return in 2015. What’s the next step for Notre Dame’s passing game? The best part about Notre Dame’s depth at receiver is that Malik Zaire can make use of all those different targets. As productive as Fuller was in 2014, for example, he doesn’t have to be the whole show. The arrow is pointing up for all those pass-catchers in terms of advancement, and there is a talented group of freshmen who also have a chance to have an impact at some point in 2015. Fuller (56 catches for 1,145 yards and 13 TDs) had another all-star season (he essentially was a consensus second-team All-American and was selected the Irish MVP by his teammates). Brown (44 for 562) had his best season in an Irish uniform, Hunter Jr. (24 for 311) came into his own--and both Prosise (26 for 308) and Carlisle (30 for 341) proved to be excellent targets out of the backfield. And, even though freshman Equanimeous St. Brown only caught one pass, the Notre Dame coaches can’t wait to see him in an expanded role.
5. Anthony Fasano, Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas—all those recent Irish tight ends now draw paychecks in the National Football League. Ben Koyack, who graduates this spring, should add his name to that list. That leaves a combination of Durham Smythe and Tyler Luatua, plus untested Mike Heuerman and Nic Weishar. Can a less-experienced-than-usual list of tight end candidates fill the bill for the Irish in 2015? Notre Dame can’t truly answer this question until games begin in 2015, and the tight end position still might qualify as the most legitimate offensive question mark heading into the fall. Incoming freshman Alize Jones may well inject himself into the mix, and Smythe, Luatua and Weishar could enjoy chances for much expanded roles. The injury bug bit this spot as well, with Smythe going down in the second game of the season at Virginia (he should return to play in the Fiesta Bowl). Between Jones (11 receptions for 166 yards), Weishar, Smythe and Chase Hounshell, the tight end corps combined to catch only 17 balls in 2015, a rare low total for that position.
6. Kyle Brindza leaves as the Notre Dame career leader in field goals (57) and he was no slouch as a punter the last two seasons either. Tyler Newsome will be the lone scholarship player for those spots during spring drills. So, what’s the future of the Irish special teams when it comes to punts, field goals and PATs? This is another area where 2015 game production will be the key, considering there’s no one around who has kicked or punted in a college game. A freshman, Justin Yoon, is the likely placekicker, while Newsome is expected to handle the punting chores. Yoon was more than solid, making 15 of 17 field goals (and 46 of 48 PATs), including a dozen straight field goals to end the regular season (topped by a 52-yarder against Navy). Newsome was just as good, averaging 44.0 yards per punt. Yoon made several all-freshman teams, and Newsome is in range of Craig Hentrich’s single-season punting average of 44.1. The future of the Notre Dame kicking game is in good hands.
7. The look and emphasis of the Notre Dame offense often have varied from week to week, depending on whether the Irish coaches believe heavier doses of throws or runs can be most effective against that week’s opponent. There’s plenty of raw material for the Irish to be more than competent in both areas by next fall. What will be the ultimate identity of the Notre Dame offensive unit in 2015? This remains to be seen. But Malik Zaire gives the Irish a variety of ways to hurt a defense, and he has lots of people to help him. Zaire and his offensive mates simply need to avoid the turnover bug that bit Notre Dame so hard the last month of the 2014 regular season. The victory over LSU in Nashville showed the Irish were capable of playing smash-mouth football against a quality opponent. Notre Dame proved it could do lots of things on offense. Kizer was way better than advertised. If opposing defenses dropped a safety down to double Fuller or if they stacked the box to stop Prosise, Kizer was more than capable of running (he finished with 499 rushing yards and nine rushing TDs, highlighted by his 79-yard TD sprint against Temple). Kizer, Fuller, Brown, Prosise, Adams and a veteran offensive line made for an offense that averaged 34.8 points (not far behind the Notre Dame record of 37.6) and 471.5 total yards per game (second best total in Notre Dame history). Run it, throw it, power it, finesse it—all those aspects played roles in Notre Dame’s offensive success in 2015.
8. Two of the most impressive bowl victors in 2014 were #12 Georgia Tech (won 49-34 over #7 Mississippi State) and #17 Clemson (won 40-6 over Oklahoma)—and those just happen to be two of the first five Irish opponents on the 2015 schedule. The Georgia Tech game is Sept. 19 at Notre Dame Stadium—and the Clemson contest is at Clemson Oct. 3 in Notre Dame’s first visit there since 1977. The Irish also play Atlantic Coast Conference opponents Virginia, Boston College (at Fenway Park in the Shamrock Series), Wake Forest and Pittsburgh. How will Notre Dame fare against its ACC foes in 2015? This marks the second year of the Irish scheduling relationship with the ACC (six games in 2015 after four a year ago), and without question the games against Clemson and Georgia Tech are two of the more intriguing matchups not just on Notre Dame’s schedule but among any intersectional dates in the country. It’s Notre Dame’s first trip in history to play football in Charlottesville and the first Irish visit to Clemson since the Joe Montana era. Plus, Notre Dame-Boston College, always an interesting matchup, takes on a different look at Fenway. The Notre Dame-Clemson game was a prime-time ABC attraction, and ultimately it determined who made the College Football Playoff. The Irish game against Georgia Tech looked huge at the time (it marked Kizer’s first start, with the Irish defense facing an unusual look), but the Yellow Jackets ended up losing nine of their last 10 games. Kizer and Fuller pulled the Virginia game out of the fire, the Irish prevailed late against Boston College, they put up 42 points on the road at Pitt (the Panthers ranked 27th in total defense)—and the win over Wake Forest qualified as a final record-setting home victory for the Notre Dame seniors.
9. The very early preseason looks at the 2015 season listed the Irish 10th (FOX), 12th (ESPN.com) and 22nd (USA Today) in several of those polls. What are realistic expectations for Notre Dame in 2015? Again, only time will tell—but games against Texas, Georgia Tech and Clemson among the first five outings surely ought to offer some hints. Someone at Sports Illustrated thinks Irish fans will enjoy the fall, predicting Notre Dame will finish as one of four playoff teams. The Irish did, indeed, remain in the CFP hunt until the final weekend. Their two losses—by two points at Clemson and by two points at Stanford—easily could have gone the other way. And Notre Dame did it despite the rather astounding set of injuries to front-line personnel.
10. Notre Dame played cleanly early in 2014, then suffered from all kinds of turnover woes late in the year. The Irish only won the turnover battle four times all year (they were plus-eight in that category after the first three games) and not once from the Sept. 13 Purdue game until a turnover-free effort in the Music City Bowl against LSU. Can the Irish return to their mistake-free form in 2015? The 2014 season appears to be an anomaly because Notre Dame has a history of being strong in the area of avoiding turnovers. The Irish running backs have been great at not losing fumbles in recent years. Still, you can’t just talk about protecting the football—you’ve got to do it. The Irish finished on the negative side of the turnover margin chart, mostly because they forced only 13 fumbles and interceptions. Generally, Notre Dame played smart football, making only 18 turnovers (four in the second half alone at Clemson and five against Boston College). Six times the Irish did not throw an interception.
11. First-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme got off to a solid start, but injuries, attrition and youth caught up to the Irish late in the year. Notre Dame’s final scoring defense figure of 29.2 points ranked abnormally low. Can the Notre Dame defense, with a full year working under VanGorder, put things together on a more consistent basis this fall? That’s certainly the hope. The Irish have lots of experienced pieces. Now they just need them all to fit—and be productive. Staying healthy (compared to a year ago) would be nice, too. Notre Dame had its moments in 2015, completely shutting down Texas, handling both Georgia Tech and Navy when facing schemes that qualified as different than the norm—and limiting Temple to 295 total yards. Linebacker Jaylon Smith was all over the football field most every Saturday and earned consensus All-America honors, while defensive lineman Sheldon Day merited second-team All-America recognition.
12. Sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith was the most decorated Irish player in 2014 as a second-team Associated Press All-American, and he’s arguably the most talented all-around athlete on the roster. Originally an outside linebacker, Smith was moved inside in 2014 after the graduation loss of Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese combined with the Jarrett Grace injury issues. Wherever he plays in 2015, can Smith become the dominant defensive player on the field every Saturday? Absolutely. The combined presence of Joe Schmidt, Jarrett Grace and Nyles Morgan inside may allow Smith to roam outside where he’s most dangerous. He can run with any linebacker in the country, and he likes to chase quarterbacks. It’s safe to say Smith was the best defensive player on the field most, if not all, weeks in 2015. He makes plays everywhere on the gridiron. Irish history buffs are hard-pressed to name a Notre Dame linebacker with more size, speed and range.
13. Inside linebacker Joe Schmidt, a walk-on not that long ago, became an amazingly important cog for the Notre Dame defense in 2014. He led the team in tackles and was a key spokesman for the Irish on and off the field until the Nov. 1 foot injury that ended his season. The Irish had their share of problems defending the run once he left the lineup (after limiting three of their first six opponents to 56 rushing yards or fewer), and his teammates recognized that by naming him the 2014 team MVP. Can Schmidt’s return in 2015, along with the experience gained this past year by talented rookie Nyles Morgan (and a potential return to good health by Jarrett Grace), put the Irish back on the road to prospering at linebacker? Yes (see #12 above, too). No longer a hidden gem, Schmidt helps glue all the pieces in their places—and Grace has moved past his health issues. Schmidt was not as productive as in 2014, yet he still made 65 tackles (second on the team), including 10 each against Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. He contributed just as much as one of the more vocal locker room leaders. Grace rebounded to make his share of contributions, and Morgan represents a big part of the Irish future at linebacker.
14. The Irish in 2014 looked at all kinds of options along the defensive line, and veteran tackle Justin Utupo is the only one who does not return for the 2015 campaign. With Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones, Romeo Okwara and Isaac Rochell all back to anchor that group, and if some of the many freshmen who debuted last year develop into major contributors, can Notre Dame’s defensive front this fall be one of the strong points of the depth chart? That’s the plan. The Irish don’t need anyone among that group to make every tackle. They just need the group to play solid, consistent, productive football and be effective stopping the run and keeping quarterbacks from becoming comfortable. Notre Dame held its own up front, even with Jones missing all year following an August injury (he should return against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl). Day (41 tackles, 14.5 TFL) played All-America football, Okwara (43 tackles) had twice as many sacks (eight) as anyone else--and Rochell (58 tackles) was solid. The Irish did not wow anyone with their pass rush, yet they were capable of holding Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey to less than 100 yards rushing (easily his lowest total in his final 12 games).
15. With Austin Collinsworth thwarted most of the year by injuries, Notre Dame’s secondary never looked like the Irish thought it would in 2014. This time around only Collinsworth and corner Cody Riggs will be missing. Four of the top six Irish tacklers in 2014 were Max Redfield (68), Elijah Shumate (66), Matthias Farley (53) and Cole Luke (48, plus 11 passes broken up), with all expected back this fall. So, are the pieces in places for the Irish defensive backs to shine in 2015? Like a handful of other position areas, the secondary has its share (maybe more) of familiar names on the depth chart—including potential all-star corner KeiVarae Russell, who did not play in 2014. Seldom these days do opponents show up without productive passing attacks, so competent coverage will be a requirement and will help define this group. Kelly dismisses the idea that anybody these days qualifies as a “shut-down corner,” given the pass-happy offenses all over the map. So play hard, have a short memory and then on to the next play. Redfield (64 tackles, third on the team) topped the 60-tackle mark for a second straight season. Russell added 60 tackles, six pass break-ups and huge interceptions that cemented wins against USC and Temple--and Shumate contributed 57 plus 6.5 tackles for loss. Luke added 35 and Farley 33. No one had more than two interceptions. Of Notre Dame’s 2015 opponents, Navy ranked 126th in passing yards (92.3 per game), Boston College 124th, Georgia Tech 123rd and Texas 117 (with Ohio State, interestingly, next at 104th at 187.0 yards per game, though the Bucks do rank 38th in passing efficiency). The best teams the Irish faced in terms of passing efficiency? Stanford rated fourth, Navy 11th, USC 17th and Clemson 19th.
16. Tight end Ben Koyack, offensive tackle Christian Lombard, center Matt Hegarty and cornerback Cody Riggs qualify as the only graduating regulars who won’t be around in 2015. Will that level of experience put the Irish seriously into the playoff hunt next fall? Few teams in the country boast more returning starters for 2015 than the Irish. Whether or not Notre Dame can turn that into a big-time positive will determine the playoff aspect of that question. Kelly in 2015 may well have done his best coaching job yet during his time at Notre Dame, as quality depth proved present and necessary, given the glut of early injuries. The Irish made a legitimate playoff run and produced multiple consensus All-Americans for the first time in 22 years.
17. Notre Dame has the potential for a record number of fifth-year players in 2015, pending the spring semester application and approval process through the Faculty Board on Athletics. Can that pay big dividends once the 2015 campaign begins? That list now officially includes Joe Schmidt, Nick Martin, Matthias Farley, Jarrett Grace, Chase Hounshell, Amir Carlisle, Connor Cavalaris, Nick Ossello (four-year lacrosse monogram winner) and graduate transfer Avery Sebastian. That’s a noteworthy list of names, many of whom already have been proven contributors. Schmidt, Martin and Farley all ended up selected as captains, and the leadership on this Notre Dame team proved outstanding. It was an experienced, veteran, likeable group that played that way most of the time.
18. When Notre Dame walked off the field last October in Tallahassee, despite the last-minute defeat, the Irish felt like they had showed they could play with anyone in the country considering their performance on the road against the defending national champions and, ultimately, a 2014 playoff team. What will it take for the Irish to play at that level on a regular basis? That game at Florida State set the performance standard for Notre Dame. Eliminate the turnovers and stay healthy, and the Irish will take their shots in 2015. The margin for error was slim in 2015 (two losses by two points each, four wins by eight points or fewer), yet the Irish proved they could play with anyone. Clemson finished as the one unbeaten team in the country, and the Tigers might not have finished that way if Notre Dame had eliminated even one of its four second-half turnovers in the rain. Look at it this way—Clemson made it to the CFP semifinals, and that’s after Kizer threw for 202 yards in one period alone (the fourth) against a Tiger defense that ranked fifth in the country in passing yards allowed (166.9 per game).
19. Notre Dame played in the national championship game in 2012 and now has won bowl games in consecutive years for the first time since the early 1990s. Can the Irish parlay that into headline news in 2015? It’s hard to talk to any of the Notre Dame veterans who aren’t excited about prospects for the season. Once September arrives it becomes a matter of being the best team on the field from one Saturday to the next. The Irish knew, once they lost at Clemson in early October, that their playoff margin was slim. But they hung in there until the last weekend, and even then it looked like Kizer’s TD run in the final minute at Stanford gave Notre Dame fans hope. A victory in a New Year’s Six game would be a very nice ribbon on this season-long performance.
20. Notre Dame’s 2015 schedule features five teams that won bowl games to finish 2014 (Georgia Tech, Clemson, Navy, USC and Stanford). Four of Notre Dame’s five defeats in 2014 came against teams that finished in the final Associated Press top 25 (#5 Florida State, #12 Arizona State, #20 USC and #24 Louisville)—and the 2015 schedule includes three teams that ended up in that same final AP poll (#8 Georgia Tech at 11-3, #15 Clemson at 10-3 and #20 USC at 9-4). How strongly will Notre Dame’s 2015 agenda ultimately rank? That’s impossible to predict. There are always a few teams that play better than expected and often a few that don’t measure up to expectations. But, given that the Irish can’t control that, the conversation becomes all about Notre Dame and how it performs. The schedule never turns out how fans expect, and 2015 absolutely confirmed that notion. No one would have predicted Texas and Georgia Tech would combine for 16 defeats. No one would have predicted that Irish wins over Temple and Navy would qualify as arguably their most impressive. No one would have predicted that the team with the best statistical defense in the country (Boston College) would lose nine games.
And now, one more football game--this one in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State--provides the Irish with one extra opportunity to add some exclamation points to all those answers.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.