THE IRISH CAME SO CLOSE
In 2012, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish played a 12-0 regular season. They beat Purdue by three, Michigan by seven, Stanford by seven, BYU by three, Pitt by three and USC by nine before getting blasted by Alabama in the national championship.
That Notre Dame went 10-3 an came within two plays of an undefeated regular season is nothing short of remarkable. Running back Tarean Folston got injured in week one. Quarterback Malik Zaire got injured in week two. Nevertheless, Notre Dame was a failed two-point try away from taking Clemson to overtime. Stanford went the length of the field in 30 seconds to hit a game-winning field goal.
If that doesn’t happen Notre Dame is probably in the playoffs with a redshirt freshman quarterback and a defense battered by injury.
Now the Irish essentially get a mulligan. The Irish must replace deep threat receiver Will Fuller and dependable running back C.J. Prosise. But there are enough pieces returning to make Notre Dame a reasonable Playoff pick.
NOW JUST PICK A QUARTERBACK
Zaire earned the starting job after closing out 2014 for the Irish, but he only got to play one game before getting injured late against Virginia. DeShone Kizer stepped in and threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Fuller with twelve seconds remaining. He led Notre Dame on the road to Clemson and darn near toppled a national championship-caliber team. Kizer led a touchdown drive with 4:45 to play to beat Temple in Philadelphia and threw for five touchdowns the following week at Pitt, and did everything he could to put the Irish in a position to win at Palo Alto. He was good for 7.7 yards per attempt and 21 touchdowns passing, plus 5.8 yards per rush and ten scores on the ground. Notre Dame ranked fifth in Offensive S&P+, first in rushing, tenth in passing, and seventh in scoring position efficiency.
Hard to ask for a much better performance out of a freshman. Will he start in 2016?
Notre Dame has the embarrassment of riches no one wants: two great quarterbacks.
Kizer is a more consistent passer (to my eyes, anyway) and his size (6’4”, 235 pounds) allows him to bowl over opponents at the line of scrimmage. When we’ve seen him, Zaire was a bit more athletic and has explosive speed but we’re not sure if he’ll get that back after a broken ankle. Both are ideal spread quarterbacks with great field vision and the ability to make plays with the arms and legs.
Kizer has something Zaire doesn’t, though: an entire season of starting experience. He lead the Irish on the road against Clemson, Temple, Pitt, and Stanford. For all his athletic gifts, Zaire has only started three games.
Whichever quarterback Brian Kelly chooses, I hope he sticks with him and doesn’t try the dual-quarterback thing. I can’t imagine it working with guys with such similar skill sets. Either is capable of leading the team.
Quarterback won’t be the only contested starting role. Notre Dame also returns two quality running backs in Folston and Josh Adams, who broke Notre Dame’s freshman rushing record while splitting time with Prosise in 2015. Prosise is gone, and Folston returns after missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL. Folston and Adams will make a great one-two punch.
Two areas where Notre Dame has questions: wide receiver and offensive line. Fuller and Chris Brown were ridiculously explosive options and Kizer targeted them on half his dropbacks. Both are gone, along with 1,900 yards of production. Whoever Kelly picks at quarterback will now look to Torii Hunter Jr. and Corey Robinson. Notre Dame will also add a sophomore named Equanimeous St. Brown who contributed on special teams in 2015 and impressed in the spring.
Despite the quarterback battle and the replacement of two hugely important wide receivers (not to mention some new faces on the offensive line), I don’t worry about this offense much at all. The plug-and-play we saw last year with Kizer and Prosise stepping in for Zaire and Folston gives me confidence they can do it again.
THE DEFENSE MUST CONTINUE TO IMPROVE
In 2014 Notre Dame went 8-5 despite a bad defense. (In last year’s preview I marveled at how such a collection of star rankings could produce such a poor product.) Talent finally won out in 2015 and the Irish defense improved all the way to mediocre, which is impressive considering the injuries it faced. Despite opponents that occasionally ground out gains with the run, Notre Dame was able to make plays on passing downs and just enough red zone stops to let the Irish win four one-possession games.
With an offense this effective the defense only had to be so good, but after a woeful 2014 year when the Irish allowed 31 or more points seven times, they did so only twice in the regular season in 2015.
They have to continue this improvement to make a Playoff run in 2016, but it will be difficult given the losses.
Up front, the Irish get back Jarron Jones from injury. He and Isaac Rochell will bolster a line long on game experience and star rankings but short on production. Behind him, Notre Dame must replace Jaylon Smith, an all-time great Irish linebacker. Nyles Morgan will step up to fill the middle and a pair of OLBs, James Onwualu and Greer Martini, return. But this unit is pretty thin, so nobody better get hurt.
Senior leaders will head up the secondary. Max Redfield, Cole Luke, and Devin Butler each missed some time due to injury (who didn’t?) but behind them the Irish have a number of intriguing freshmen who could surprise and steal time. (Namely, Devin Studstill, a true freshman who challenged Redfield in the spring.)
These units need to turn potential into performance. We saw improvement from bad to mediocre in 2015, the second year in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s system. Notre Dame has recruited extremely well (especially in the secondary) and I expect a number of young players to step up and perform.
THREE MORE YEARS OF . . .
. . . placekicker Justin Yoon, punter Tyler Newsome, and returner C.J. Sanders, all of whom headed up special teams as freshmen in 2015. Yoon was great, hitting on 12-of-13 field goal attempts inside of 40 yards, and three of four beyond that mark. At returner, Sanders took both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns. Kelly has routinely fielded strong special teams units and with all these freshmen becoming sophomores, I expect the Irish will be much improved even over a solid 2015 performance.
WITH SOME LUCK . . .
. . . this Irish team can make a run at the Playoffs.
First and foremost, Kelly needs to choose a quarterback. Secondly, the wide receivers need to develop chemistry with that starter. The defense has to continue to improve.
But this was a young team which will mature and continue to come into its own. The schedule sets up nicely. Notre Dame will get another shot at a Texas team it dominated in 2015. Florida State and Clemson are off the ACC portion of the schedule. Miami and Virginia Tech (both with new coaches) are on. Stanford visits, as does Michigan State.
There aren’t any games here that I definitely would pick the Irish to lose. The week one Texas game will be a one-stop shop for NARRATIVES as Notre Dame hopes to make the Playoff and Texas’ coach is on the hot seat. I’ll be watching week three as Michigan State (a team I think could be underrated in the Big Ten) comes to South Bend with a new quarterback.
But again, the Irish will need some luck. Namely, Notre Dame will have to hope for dilution atop the Power Five. I think a 12-1 or 11-2 Power Five champ (with a conference championship game victory on its résumé) will have a better case than an 11-1 Notre Dame in the eyes of the Committee. Lord knows there would be hell to pay if two P5 champs got left out in favor of the Irish.
Notre Dame could just make things a lot easier for itself by winning all its games.