Notre Dame Football Preview

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Aside from the obvious “Irish” reference (Spoiler alert: prepare for another one), the clip actually has a fair amount of applicability to the upcoming Notre Dame season. Based on last season’s start and plethora of experience returning, the Fighting Irish enter the 2015 season with justifiably high expectations. Here’s the deal. They have a chance to win as long as they have their “Patches”. The big question remains however: who is Notre Dame’s “Patches”? Smart odds are on one of two people/things. With the news of Everett Golson’s imminent transfer, Malik Zaire is an obvious candidate as the offense is now his to run. The other is the defense, which fell apart last season, but returns plenty of experienced talent. So, will Notre Dame protect “Patches”? Keep reading to find out.

Heir Zaire

Malik Zaire in Music City Bowl from Nick Ironside/247 Sports
Malik Zaire in Music City Bowl from Nick Ironside/247 Sports

With the news of Everett Golson transferring to Florida State, the quarterback competition in South Bend comes to an end. The Malik Zaire era will officially begin in 2015. Zaire played a limited number of snaps last season until the end of the year, when he played extensively in both the regular season finale against USC and the Music City Bowl against LSU.

Zaire has a tremendous amount of talent as both a runner and thrower. He has a live arm, and runs like a gazelle, especially considering his 220-pound frame. Standing at 6’0 tall, he isn’t your prototypical quarterback height, but in recent years height has ceased to be as important a measurement for quarterbacks in both the NCAA and NFL. The big question for Zaire going into 2015 is how will he be utilized under new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, who comes to South Bend after previously serving the same role at Boise State?

The answer is probably similarly to how he was used last year, especially since Brian Kelly is a hands-on head coach when it comes to how the offense is run. The scheme will likely only feature minor tweaks under Sanford, however they could make all the difference. Zaire was featured heavily in the zone read game, and the Irish liked to get him going with quick hitting passes early to get him comfortable in the passing game. At least early in the season, my guess is that will be a recurring theme. Malik has all the ability and talent around him to take this Notre Dame team into the top ten or higher, but as any decent football fan knows, talent and ability are only part of what makes up a successful season.

Should Zaire stumble, or heaven forbid get injured, then heavily recruited quarterbacks DeShone Kizer and Brandon Wimbush will be waiting eagerly in the wings for their “golden” opportunity.

Talented and Versatile Skill Players 

Will Fuller catches TD pass over Michigan's Blake Countess by Nick Gonzales/The Elkhart Truth
Will Fuller catches TD pass over Michigan’s Blake Countess by Nick Gonzales/The Elkhart Truth

It’s hard to tell whether the biggest asset for this Notre Dame offense heading into the season is the skill players or the line, a strong argument could be made for either. The Fighting Irish do lose one rotation back in Cam McDaniel, but return leading rusher Taurean Folston and complementary back Greg Bryant. Bryant and Zaire also showed good chemistry in the zone read game in Zaire’s limited action last season.

The receivers should be pretty loaded with leading receiver and home run threat Will Fuller coming back. They also return outside receivers Chris Brown (not Rihanna’s ex) and Corey Robinson (son of David “The Admiral” Robinson). At 6’5, Robinson will be the biggest target at Zaire’s disposal. Slot receiver duties will likely be split between Amir Carlisle and C.J. Prosise. Prosise has also worked with the running backs this spring and will likely play all over the field. Carlisle will likely be the team’s primary return man.

The tight end position is the only inexperienced skill position, which could potentially hurt if the Fighting Irish continue their propensity for two tight end sets. Durham Smythe and Tyler Luatua are probably the guys who will get the majority of the tight end reps. The third man in the tight end rotation would most likely be true freshman Alize Jones, who comes highly recruited out of Sin City. Between the three of these guys, there is talent enough to believe that the production, both pass catching and run blocking, of the departed Ben Koyack can be replicated again this season.

Ronnie Stanley is a Beast

Ronnie Stanley blocking Michigan's Frank Clark by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Ronnie Stanley blocking Michigan’s Frank Clark by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Ronnie Stanley is a top 5 pick in all of the “way too early NFL mock drafts” for next season, and even the number one pick in several. The fact that that’s the case isn’t a headscratcher either. Stanley is a massive tackle that has all of the measurable and skills of an elite level left tackle both in college and pro. That being said, we have seen plenty of players like that in recent years fall short of their preseason expectations in their final college season.

The Notre Dame line was good last season, but not as good as it should have been. A scrambling quarterback almost always takes more sacks than a pocket passer, but they barely cracked the top 100 in sack rate on passing downs last season. They were 5th in standard down sack rate, which is obviously excellent, but I’m sure Kelly will look for his team to protect the quarterback better on passing downs this year. They also only managed to finish in the 30s in adjusted line yards, which is just not good enough for a line that is talented enough to be in the top 10 in virtually every statistical category.

The rest of the line includes returning starters Nick Martin and Steve Elmer, who play center and left guard respectively, and new starters who in all likelihood will be Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson. McGlinchey should be the team’s right tackle; he started there in the Music City Bowl last season. Nelson has not been confirmed as the starting left guard yet, but it seems highly likely that that will be the case. Despite not playing a snap yet, Nelson is highly thought of by the coaching staff and the general public because of his 5-star rating coming out of high school, according to Rivals, and his weight room accomplishments, which have given him “workout warrior” status. There’s a good chance he takes over at one of the tackle spots next season, but expect a full season at guard from Quenton Nelson this year.

Familiar Faces

Joe Schmidt vs. USC 2013 by SBT Photo/James Brosher
Joe Schmidt vs. USC 2013 by SBT Photo/James Brosher

One of the major positives heading into the season is that the entire front seven is returning, with the exception of Justin Utupo who still only finished 6th among defensive linemen in tackles. Granted, the down side to that is this defense also accounted for only the 74th best rushing defense. Injuries at least played some role in that though and another year of seasoning can’t hurt either. The biggest aid will come in getting Joe Schmidt back from injury. Schmidt, a middle linebacker, missed the final five games after suffering a fractured and dislocated left ankle against Navy.

The line should be fairly strong with ends Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara. Those two were not super productive last season combining for a mere 5.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss and a lone forced fumble, but the talent is there so improvement is a reasonable expectation. The strength of the line will likely be the interior, however, with defensive tackle Sheldon Day and nose tackle Jarron Jones, who combined for 15 tackles for loss last season in 4 fewer combined games then the aforementioned ends.

Schmidt and run stopper extraordinaire Jaylon Smith will lead the linebacking corps. Smith was a maniac last season. He led the team in tackles with 87.5, sacks with 3.5, and tackles for loss with 9. He was a 5-star recruit and he backed it up last season. Expect more of the same from number 9 this season. Junior James Onwualu will likely fill the other linebacker spot, and Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan should factor into the primary linebacking rotation. All three of those guys saw significant playing time last season.

Strong Safeties

Max Redfield vs. LSU by Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
Max Redfield vs. LSU by Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

The strength of the defensive secondary is the safety duo of Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield. They each had over 50 tackles last season, but they only combined for two interceptions and six pass break-ups. Shumate and Redfield are talented though and both have performed well this spring. Their primary backup will be Matthias Farley who actually tied for most interceptions on the team last season with four.

KeiVarae Russell’s return from a season-long suspension should improve the corner situation. Cornerback Cody Riggs is the only starter from last season to not return, but Russell’s suspension freed up a starting spot for Cole Luke, so the Irish are essentially starting two guys with significant playing experience anyway. Luke led the team in PBUs last season with 11, and tied Farley with 4 interceptions. The primary backup, and nickelback (not the band), will be Devin Butler who filled a similar role last season.

Prediction: 10-2 (non-playoff New Year’s Six Bowl)

Notre Dame always plays a rough schedule, and adding the mandated AAC games doesn’t really help. They do get three of their five biggest games at home though, with Texas, Georgia Tech, and USC all making the trek to South Bend. The Irish have to travel to Clemson and Stanford, both difficult places to play. Then, they have some sneaky tough road games with Pitt, Boston College, and Virginia. None of these teams should be as good as Notre Dame, but playing at home on the right night each is capable of pulling off the upset.

All in all, I think that the return of so many experienced players, and the potential that Malik Zaire has exhibited to date add up for plenty of reason to be optimistic. I think they likely lose one of the two road games to Clemson or Stanford, and then drop a home game to either Georgia Tech or USC. They ought to beat Texas this year, as the Longhorns are still rebuilding and getting accustomed to the Charlie Strong era. So, unless you are a Notre Dame fan whose motto is “championship or bust”, this should be how you feel most of next season…

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