May 6, 2016
Setting expectations for Notre Dame Fighting Irish football’s 2016 season is one of college football’s more perplexing tasks, given the team’s uncertainty at quarterback.
Unlike most programs, though, the Fighting Irish must decide between two respectable options to lead the offense.
But is the best decision the right-hander or the southpaw?
Head coach Brian Kelly and his staff face an intriguing decision, especially because Notre Dame’s scoring attack must carry the 2016 squad. Defensive troubles could be headed to South Bend.
Additionally, the Fighting Irish have a smaller margin for error because of their independent status. A midseason loss could doom Notre Dame and its aspirations for a national championship.
Expectations for the Offense
We know that the quarterback will provide a running threat, but we don’t know his name.
DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire are battling for the starting job. They pulled away from Brandon Wimbush but not each other during spring practice, as expected.
However, the competition could be so tight throughout fall camp that a clear-cut starter doesn’t emerge. That possibility would leave Kelly in a position to simply make an educated guess.
“I think I’m going to have to make a judgment call,” Kelly said, according to Evan Sharpley of 247Sports. “There will be a time when I’m going to have to say, that’s our quarterback, let’s go with him, we’re all in, and let’s move forward. They are both that good; I already know that.”
Kizer—who might hold the smallest of edges post-spring—has the most experience, while Zaire won the starting job heading into the 2015 season. Either way, the Irish will boast a dynamic quarterback and the nation’s best backup.
Protection won’t be an issue with Mike McGlinchey (LT), Quenton Nelson (LG) and Sam Mustipher (C). Once the right side is settled, Notre Dame will have a formidable unit to open running lanes for Tarean Folston, Josh Adams and (in a lesser role) Dexter Williams.
The primary question is who will catch the ball.
Versatile wideout Torii Hunter Jr. appears headed for a standout season. The same cannot be said for fellow veteran target Corey Robinson, whose football future as of this writing is unknown.
Otherwise, the Irish will rely on talented but inexperienced pass-catchers to replace Will Fuller, Chris Brown and even C.J. Prosise. Equanimeous St. Brown, Durham Smythe, Corey Holmes, Alize Jones, C.J. Sanders, Myles Boykin and Kevin Stepherson are among the names expected to contribute.
The biggest factor in determining the effectiveness of the offense will be how productive can Kizer or Zaire make the receivers.
Notre Dame finished top-35 of both scoring and total offense rankings last year. Considering the losses at skill positions, matching that standing is an acceptable target. Surpassing it would be a compliment to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford.
Expectations for the Defense
Put simply, there isn’t as much as excitement surrounding the defense. Notre Dame’s secondary should be strong, but what matters most is winning the line of scrimmage.
And that’s far from a guarantee in 2016.
Even with Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara, Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, the Irish ranked 72nd against the run. Unless the four players “weren’t that good,” Notre Dame should regress defensively this year.
Their replacements are talented, yes. But if they were interchangeable, players like Nyles Morgan wouldn’t have watched from the sideline all last season. Rapid development is paramount for the new starters and top rotational pieces.
Additionally, there’s the unknown of those defenders grasping defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme, which—right or wrong—is often labeled overly complicated. Kelly disagrees with that assertion, per Nick Ironside of 247Sports.
We don’t have any scheme issues. Maybe we had some tendencies, but there aren’t any scheme issues that we’re concerned with. … You look at what you’re doing and you want to see how other teams perceive you and how other teams are looking at you and how other teams are attacking you, and then it gives you a great perspective on how you move forward.
Despite Notre Dame’s struggles creating pressure, the defensive backfield withstood aerial attacks. It was one of 28 groups nationally to surrender less than 200 yards per game.
Defensive backs Drue Tranquill and Shaun Crawford had season-ending injuries last year but return alongside Cole Luke, Devin Butler and a frustrating yet talented Max Redfield. Among others, Devin Studstill, Nick Watkins and Nick Coleman fill out the secondary.
Still, the Irish notched just 24 sacks—16 of which came from departed players—and finished 110th at forcing turnovers. Can that improve without Day commanding double teams, Okwara disrupting off the edge and Smith roaming at linebacker?
Perfect Schedule for a Playoff Run
The concerns on defense are real. Thanks to a favorable schedule, though, Notre Dame just needs VanGorder’s unit to survive. Kelly essentially said as much.
“Play the defense necessary” is not synonymous with “dominate and be elite.”
That’s not a jab at the Fighting Irish. Take the Oklahoma Sooners, for example, which reached the College Football Playoff with a top-40 defense, while the Alabama Crimson Tide, Clemson Tigers and Michigan State Spartans were each 26th or better.
Like in March Madness, Notre Dame’s biggest goal will be to survive and advance. Fortunately for the Irish, most of their toughest games are in South Bend.
Notre Dame hosts Michigan State, the Duke Blue Devils, Stanford Cardinal, Miami Hurricanes and Virginia Tech Hokies. The major road contests are the Texas Longhorns, Syracuse Orange Men, North Carolina State Wolfpack and USC Trojans. While the schedule isn’t easy, a home-heavy slate against top competition is ideal.
The offense will be productive enough to keep Kelly’s team in the CFP conversation. However, whether or not the defense performs well enough against MSU, Stanford, Miami and USC will determine if the Irish earn a spot in the championship tournament.
Because without a conference title at stake, Notre Dame likely needs to finish the regular season undefeated.
All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.
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