Notre Dame football has College Football Playoff expectations in 2016, but Brian Kelly‘s team will need to address and overcome a few major questions along the way.
Injuries derailed a promising 2015 campaign, though the Fighting Irish still managed a 10-3 record. The coaching staff reeled in the No. 15 recruiting class for 2016, per the 247Sports composite rankings, and several of the signees may contribute this season.
And that’s because Notre Dame must replace 15 starters, including standouts Ronnie Stanley, Will Fuller and Jaylon Smith. Previously injured players will fill a couple of voids, but while talent isn’t necessarily an issue, experienced depth is.
Fortunately for the Irish, they hold top-10 rankings in both the Amway Coaches (No. 9) and Associated Press (No. 10) polls.
Still, Notre Dame might be either the nation’s worst top-level team or the best second-tier squad. But a favorable schedule is a major advantage for a program seeking the Playoff.
Like many others, Kelly has kept several assistants from previous coaching stops. The major difference is he’s entering season No. 7 at the helm in South Bend.
Mike Denbrock, Mike Sanford, Autry Denson, Harry Hiestand and Scott Booker comprise the offensive staff. Hiestand is one of the most-respected offensive line coaches in the nation. Booker also serves as the special teams coach.
On the defensive side, Brian VanGorder oversees the unit. After two seasons of mediocre performances, VanGorder could be entering a make-or-break season as coordinator.
Mike Elston and Paul Longo have been on Kelly’s staff since 2004 at Central Michigan, while Keith Gilmore and Todd Lyght are each entering their second year at Notre Dame.
What to watch for on offense
The question: DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire? The answer: both.
Kelly announced both players would see action during the season opener at Texas. Kizer started 11 games last year, and Zaire ascended the depth chart in 2014 before winning the starting job in 2015.
How long the two-quarterback system lasts is unknown. But we know two things: The Irish will attempt to redshirt Brandon Wimbush, and the gunslinger will be well-protected on the left side.
Mike McGlinchey has moved from right tackle to replace Stanley, and Quenton Nelson returns at left guard. Three new starters will join them, including Sam Mustipher, Alex Bars and Colin McGovern.
The offensive line will be opening running lanes for a respectable group of running backs. Tarean Folston scampered for a team-best 889 yards in 2014, and Josh Adams amassed 838 as a freshman and the backup to C.J. Prosise last year.
At receiver, Notre Dame has a whole bunch of potential and very, very little production. Only Torii Hunter Jr. has more than one career reception. However, each of Equanimeous St. Brown, Corey Holmes, Miles Boykin and CJ Sanders were 4-star prospects, per 247Sports.
Durham Smythe is the starting tight end, but Nic Weishar should receive regular snaps due to Alize Jones’ suspension.
What to watch for on defense
Notre Dame lost a masterful interior disruptor in Sheldon Day (15.5 tackles for loss) and a superb edge-rusher in Romeo Okwara (13.5 TFL; 9.0 sacks). Replacing them could be problematic, but VanGorder is confident the defense will be OK.
“Oh yeah, we’re going to be a team that gets pressure,” he said, per Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports.
But waiting to believe it until you see it might be wise.
VanGorder’s defense is sometimes criticized for being too complicated, and Notre Dame lost its best three defensive players plus middle linebacker Joe Schmidt. Nyles Morgan will take over, but he’s entering a tough situation.
Isaac Rochell, Andrew Trumbetti, Jarron Jones and Daniel Cage have experience, and Jerry Tillery, Jay Hayes and Daelin Hayes are expected to fill significant roles. However, there’s no guarantee any of them provide an impact anywhere close to Day or Okwara.
Joining Morgan at linebacker are James Onwualu and Greer Martini. The latter is slated to replace Smith, who racked up 114 total stops with nine tackles for loss in 2015. Martini could replace both Morgan and Onwualu if the need arises.
What was once considered the strength has consistently lost its depth this offseason. The secondary must replace KeiVarae Russell, Elijah Shumate, Matthias Farley and now Max Redfield. Cole Luke is the lone returning starter, though Drue Tranquill is basically one.
Shaun Crawford is ready after missing 2015 due to injury, but he’s never appeared in a college game. Neither has Devin Studstill, a first-year player set to start at free safety.
Nick Watkins is expected to be sidelined for a couple games, and Devin Butler won’t return until October at the earliest. The secondary is full of freshman reserves.
What to watch for on special teams
Barring injury, the Irish have zero questions on special teams. Considering the uncertainty elsewhere, that must be a big relief.
Justin Yoon converted 12 straight field goals to end the 2015 season, finishing 15-of-17 overall. Tyler Newsome blasted 55 punts with a 44.5-yard average, which ranked 15th in the country. Long snapper Scott Daly is also back.
Additionally, Sanders took one kickoff and one punt to the house last year. Notre Dame would benefit from more consistent impactful short returns, but Sanders’ game-breaking ability is important.
Injury and suspension news
Notre Dame hoped Jones could provide a boost on offense, but the tight end/receiver hybrid is academically ineligible for 2016, per Mike Vorel of the South Bend Tribune.
CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz reported that Kevin Stepherson, Dexter Williams, Te’von Coney and Ashton White could face university discipline after being arrested with Redfield, who Kelly immediately dismissed following the charges.
In a separate incident, Butler was arrested for allegedly tackling and hitting a police officer, per Paul Skrbina of the Chicago Tribune. A foot injury will sideline the cornerback until mid-October anyway, but he’s now suspended indefinitely.
Ask anyone involved with the Notre Dame program, and they’ll tell you Torii Hunter Jr. is on the verge of a breakout season.
The redshirt junior is the most experienced receiver on the roster. In 2015, he tallied 28 receptions for 363 yards and two touchdowns, collecting the fourth-most targets, per NCAA Savant. Now, he’s expected to be the featured wideout.
But what if that doesn’t happen?
Well, the offense could be in serious trouble. Again, Hunter is the only wide receiver with more than one career reception. Excluding running backs, Smythe has the second-highest total at four.
The Irish are leaning heavily on Hunter to match—and hopefully exceed—the hype. Otherwise, neither the quarterback dilemma nor a potentially shaky defense will be the biggest story in South Bend.
Note: * denotes game will be played at neutral site.
Despite all these possible shortcomings, Notre Dame will remain in the College Football Playoff picture, thanks to a favorable schedule that is also home-heavy.
Now, it’s not the program’s fault the five-game ACC slate didn’t include Florida State and Clemson—a pair of top-five teams—this season. But the Irish will challenge Syracuse, Navy and Army at neutral sites, so they’ll only encounter three true road games.
Most of the toughest opponents—namely Michigan State, Stanford and Miami—travel to South Bend, though Notre Dame heads to Texas in the opener and to USC for the finale.
Duke, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech shouldn’t be overlooked, but the Irish will be favored at home for each outing.
Notre Dame flat-out obliterated the Longhorns to begin the 2015 campaign. This year, however, a close game is expected—and that might be a common theme for the Irish.
In all likelihood, at least three of Michigan State, Stanford, Miami and USC will take Notre Dame into the fourth quarter. Losing three times is the worst-case scenario, dropping two wouldn’t be surprising and only falling once would be impressive.
Plus, the Irish will need to survive the annual unanticipated close game. Although that happens to every program, Fuller won’t be there to bail them out in 2016.
Notre Dame has the talent to engineer a Playoff run, but depth questions and the lack of experience are real problems. The Irish absolutely must defend home field and snatch a couple road victories in order to have a chance at a national championship.
Overall record (regular season only): 10-2
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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Source: Bleacher Report-CFB News