Defense Must Grow Up Quickly for Notre Dame
By TRACY WATSON
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly’s seventh season as coach of Notre Dame could very well turn into one of his most interesting.
Kelly, the longest tenured Fighting Irish coach since Lou Holtz was in charge from 1986-96, led Notre Dame to a 10-victory season in 2015 even with a what seemed like a never-ending rash of injuries to key players.
If not for a pair of hard-to-swallow two-point losses to national powers Clemson (24-22) and Stanford (38-36), the Fighting Irish may have been in the group of final four playoff teams competing for a chance to capture a national championship. As it turned out, Kelly’s crew dropped a 44-28 decision to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Tigers went on to play Alabama in the national championship game while the Cardinal finished just out of the top four, but won the Pac-12 championship game and pounded Iowa, 45-16, in the Rose Bowl.
Entering 2016 the two biggest keys to Notre Dame staying among the nation’s elite, will be figuring out what the best option is at quarterback between two special candidates and trying to keep the defense healthy and established.
The Irish are loaded at quarterback where senior Malik Zaire, who was the starter last year before going down with an injury, is battling with his replacement, junior DeShone Kizer, for the starting job. Brandon Wimbush, who could be starting at most Division-I schools in the country, will be redshirted, but figures to fight for the position in 2017.
Zaire had a big start last year, hitting 26 of 40 passes for 428 yards and four scores without and interception while rushing 19 times for 103 yards before breaking his ankle in a Week 2 victory against Virginia. Kiser played the remainder of the season and threw for 2,880 yards and 21 touchdowns with 10 picks. He also rushed for 508 yards and 10 scores.
“I honestly have not taken anything off the table,” Kelly told reporters earlier this summer. “If you go down our roster and look at all the play-makers, two of them are on the quarterback side. So I have to look at all of those and factor everything in.”
Kelly also admitted that he does not have a timetable for naming his starter ahead of the Fighting Irish’s Sept. 4 opener at Texas.
The running back position also seems to be in pretty good hands with senior Tarean Folston and sophomore Josh Adams in charge. Adams set a school-record for rushing yards by a freshman last year with 835, averaging 7.1 yards a carry, another school best.
On the other hand, the receiving corps will be the least experienced of the offensive group, with a big part of that being the departure of talented Will Fuller to the NFL. Fuller had 14 scoring grabs and 1,258 yards last year. Also needing replaced are Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle and Corey Robinson, who decided to give up football due to concussions.
The only two returnees with any real experience are Torii Hunter Jr. and Alize Jones, who could have Notre Dame’s top NFL prospect on the offensive side of the football. But he had academic issues and is suspended for the season. Junior Corey Holmes will be the third starter while depth could be provided by sophomores C.J. Sanders, Miles Boykin, Josh Adams, Equanimeous St. Brown and freshman Kevin Stephenson. Brown could also be fighting for a starting spot.
Senior Durham Smythe and junior Nic Weishar will both see playing time at tight end.
More than one “expert” has gone as far to rank Notre Dame’s offensive front wall as the best in the country, even with the fact it lost three starters. Ronnie Stanley was drafted No. 6 by Baltimore and Nick Martin went No. 50 to Houston while Steve Elmer decided to pursue a career in politics.
Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand have been singled out by many as being the best pair of offensive line recruiters in the country. This year’s line is stacking to include senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, junior Quenton Nelson at left guard, junior Sam Musipher at center, senior Hunter Bivin at right guard and junior Alex Bars at right tackle.
Backups include senior Colin McGovern, sophomores Tristen Hoge and Trevor Ruhland and a trio of stud freshmen in Tommy Kraemer, Liam Eichenberg and Parker Boudreaux.
Notre Dame will need to replace six starters on the defensive side of the football, including All-American Jaylon Smith, who was drafted by Dallas after suffering a knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Irish did a great job getting off the field on third down in 2015, but were terrible in the red zone, something Kelly hopes will improve with a defensive front that will consist of senior Isaac Rochell and junior Andrew Trumbetti at the ends, senior Jarron Jones at nose guard and sophomore Jerry Tillery at defensive tackle. Junior Jonathan Bonner and freshman Dadlin Hayes are also both available at end with junior Daniel Cage at the nose and sophomore Elijah Taylor at tackle.
Senior Cole Luke and sophomore Shaun Crawford will be the corners with junior Drue Tranquill at free safety and freshman Devin Studstill at strong safety. Crawford is coming off an ACL injury while Tranquill has had two of them. Seniors Max Redfield and Avery Sebastian along with junior Nick Watkins and sophomore Nick Coleman will all lend support in the defensive backfield.
Senior James Onwualu and junior Nyles Morgan highlight the linebacking crew with sophomore Te’Von Coney also a starter. Junior Greeer Martini and sophomores Josh Barajas and Asmar Bilal will add relief.
Sophomore Justin Yoon nailed 15 of 17 field-goal attempts and is joined by junior Tyler Newsome, who averaged 44.5 yards a kick to provide one of the strongest special-teams units in the land.
The schedule is one of the most favorable the Fighting Irish have had in a while with most of the bigger games, against Michigan State, Duke, Stanford, Miami and Virginia Tech all in South Bend. Notre Dame’s two most important road contests come in their first and last regular-season games against Texas and USC.
Kelly’s squad will meet two of the three Service Academies on neutral fields, playing Navy at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 5, and meeting Army the following week in the Shamrock Series at the Alomodome in San Antonio, Texas.
Sept. 4: at Texas 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 10: Nevada 3:30 p.m.
Sept. 17: Michigan State 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 24: Duke 3:30 p.m.
*Oct. 1: at Syracuse TBA
Oct. 8: at North Carolina State TBA
Oct. 15: Stanford 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 29: Miami 3:30 p.m.
**Nov. 5: vs. Navy 11:30 a.m.
***Nov. 12: vs. Army 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 19: Virginia Tech 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 26: at USC TBA
*at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ
**at EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.
***at Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas
Win 10, Lose 2