2013 was a bit of a mulligan year for the Irish. Following the demoralization at the hands of the Alabama Crimson Tide, Manti Teo graduated and Everett Golson was suspended, having failed to qualify academically. Tommy Rees held down the fort as best he could and Notre Dame managed a 9-4 record, but most eyes were looking toward 2014 and Golson’s return.
Even with Golson back I’m not sure we bought the Irish as a playoff contender. Even as Notre Dame climbed to a 6-0 start and a #5 ranking headed into Tallahassee, the cracks were already showing. A miserable Syracuse offense had gone for 6.3 yards per play but just 15 points. A very good North Carolina offense had gone for 6.1 yards per play and a much more obvious 43 points.
Then Florida State (an oddly similar knew-they-weren’t-as-good-as-they-looked team) toppled the Irish thanks in part to a controversial penalty, and the Irish never really recovered. Golson turned into a turnover machine (including four pick-sixes and a particularly dreadful day against Arizona State). That those turnovers coincided with a defensive collapse meant opposing offenses were suddenly scoring a lot more points. Navy scored 39. Arizona State scored 55. Northwestern (!) scored 43. USC scored 49.
First seven games: Notre dame 31.4, Opponents 12 (5-0)
Last six games: Opponents 39.9, Notre Dame 33.8 (3-5)
That the Irish rebounded for a bowl win against a far superior LSU team demonstrates both a lot of growth as a team and the weirdness of bowl season. Golson got benched, freshman Mailk Zaire took over and posted a 12-for-15 passing day . . . but for just 96 yards.
Golson is off to Florida State, so barring a surprise, Zaire’s the leading man for the 2015 season. He’s surrounded by a host of experience on both sides of the ball, but they face (as is typical for Notre Dame) a vicious schedule. So good news for Irish fans: your team will probably be better! And good news for Irish haters: they’ll still probably lose three or four games!
THE ZAIRE OFFENSE
For most quarterbacks, to be described as a “running back who throws” is derogatory, but for Zaire, it means he’s six feet tall and a solid 225 pounds, capable of filling the running roles of Brian Kelly’s offense. He toted 22 times for 96 yards in the Music City Bowl. Zaire’s got the burst and power to be effective in the run game.
Where Zaire excels as a runner, he lacks as a passer. While he’s comfortable throwing on the run and slinging the ball deep, he’s shaky on the intermediate routes and getting rid of the ball in a hurry. Notre Dame’s offense under Golson lived and breathed by slants, sticks, and wide receiver screens, which Zaire, in two starts and spring ball, hasn’t quite demonstrated the acumen to hit regularly yet. I expect Kelly to call plays better suited to Zaire’s skill set early on, with a lot more zone read and run-pass options. Despite a good bowl showing, the September 5 showdown with Texas will just be his third start.
He’ll be throwing to a bevy of talented receivers, the top five of whom return from 2014, all of whom pulled down passes for at least 8.3 yards per target in 2014. These guys have great size and hands and are well-suited to get yards after the catch, so all Zaire should have to worry about is just getting them the ball.
At running back, Tarean Folston takes over after winning the bulk of the carries from Greg Bryant midseason. Bryant got suspended for four games, then the whole season, so it’s Folston’s show. The former four-star carried for 889 yards (5.1 per carry) and six touchdowns in 2014. Between him and Zaire (and an experienced offensive line full of four-star talent), Notre Dame should be an efficient machine rushing the ball.
WHOLE < SUM OF PARTS
It’s a theme of many of these previews. An unit ravaged by injury (and in Notre Dame’s case, suspensions) threw a lot of guys into the mix too early, and they made a lot of mistakes. But they get more time in a system and typically the next year, a defense is better for it.
Factor in a brand-new defensive coordinator (Brian VanGorder) and some talented opposing offenses, and 2014 was bound to be a rough year. But in 2015 everybody’s back (for better or worse) along with an influx of youngsters.
The defensive line was that weird blend of guys who could get disruptive in the backfield (32 tackles for loss) but somehow also gave up a ton of yards, especially in the second half of the season. The stats are eye-popping on their own, but the product was lackluster (just 70th in rushing efficiency defense). In a 3-4 set with roving linebackers, you’ve got to do better than 70th.
If they improve it will be because talented upperclassmen like defensive tackle Sheldon Day playing up to their recruiting rankings. Irish fans are bullish on up-and-comer Isaac Rochell who could provide a much-needed specialization in the pass rush. They’ll be backed up by a pair of excellent linebackers, including Jaylon Smith (possibly one of the best in the country), and Joe Schmidt, who finished third on the team in tackles despite missing the final five games to injury.
And any pressure they can put on opposing quarterbacks will be appreciated by a dreadful secondary. Notre Dame’s back four finished 96th in passing efficiency in 2014 (an inexcusable performance for a unit with this much individual talent).
Again, Notre Dame gets everyone back: safety Matthias Farley picked off four passes and KeiVarae Russell, back from suspension, broke up eight passes in the 2013 season, so they’ll lead a unit that was sorely lacking. Hopefully the front can generate a better pass rush and help put the secondary in more favorable situations.
NEW FACES ON SPECIAL TEAMS
When one guy does all your punts, kickoffs, and placekicking, and that guy leaves, you get a whole bunch of question marks. True freshman Justin Yoon will take over the kicking duties, and while he was the second-rated kicker in his recruiting class, he’s still yet to try a kick at the collegiate level, so you won’t really know until he gets a few kicks under his belt.
Joining him at punter is redshirt sophomore Tyler Newsome, who like Yoon has yet to boot a ball in a live environment.
Notre Dame’s schedules consistently rate among the nation’s most difficult and 2015 is no different. The Irish will face eight teams projected 44th or higher by Football Outsiders, including tough trips to Clemson and Stanford, and even Temple is no slouch defensively. Fortunately for the Irish, an iffy pass defense will probably only be picked on by USC, but if the front four don’t improve, Georgia Tech, Pitt, and Boston College could run all over this team.
Since a 2012 season when Notre Dame got every break possible to make the BCS title game, the Irish have had brutal luck with suspensions and injuries. But Notre Dame Circa 2015 has experience at almost every position, and while I’m less bullish on the defense than some, I’m confident the offense should be a force to be reckoned with with Zaire and Folston toting the ball.
Just don’t suspend anyone else.