All posts by benbelden

Notre Dame’s Success Hinges on Running Game

When Brian Kelly came to Notre Dame before the 2010 season, it became clear that the pro-style offense was a thing of the past in South Bend. Not only did Kelly transform the offense, but he transformed the look of the Irish roster, as well. Gone were the days of the traditional pocket passer quarterbacks such as Brady Quinn. In were the days of the dual-threat quarterbacks like Everett GolsonMalik Zaire, and Deshone Kizer. Receivers such as Theo Riddick, Will Fuller, and Chris Brown flourished under Kelly’s wide-open attack on their way to NFL careers.

But the 2016 Irish will figure to have a slightly different look.

For the past three seasons, the Irish offense always seemed to have a deep pass to Fuller in their back pocket for whenever they needed it most. Without an experienced go-to receiver on the roster, the Irish figure to have somewhat of a wide-receiver-by-committee situation on their hands. Because of the inexperience at receiver, the Irish will be forced to utilize depth at the running back position to be successful.

On his third carry of the 2015’s opening drive, then-junior captain Tarean Folston went down with an injury. That carry proved to be his final carry of the season, as Folston was diagnosed with a torn ACL. He finished the season with 19 total yards on the ground.

As of the spring football game, Folston was full-go for the Irish and returns this season to once again be the Irish’s feature back. Before his injury, Folston racked up 889 yards on 175 carries in 2014. That’s an average of just over 5 yards per carry. At 5’10,” 207 pounds, Folston combines strength and speed to be a solid between-the-tackles runner. If Folston remains healthy, there is no doubt that he will have a big year in the Irish backfield.

Splitting some carries with Folston will be rising-sophomore Josh Adams. Adams had a terrific freshman campaign in Folston’s absence, splitting carries with CJ Prosise, who is now a member of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. During his freshman campaign, Adams carried the ball 116 times for 838 yards. That’s an average of a little over 7 yards per carry. Perhaps the most impressive part of Adams’ running was his breakaway speed in the open field. On long runs, Adams was often creating more space between himself and the nearest defender rather than allowing defenders to gain on him. This was something unseen from a Notre Dame freshman running back, at least in recent memory. At 6’1,” 212 pounds, Adams is more of a speed back than Folston, but still has the size to compete between the tackles.

Folston and Adams will also be joined in the backfield by rising-sophomore Dexter Williams, who will be dawning a new jersey number (2) this season. In limited work as a freshman, Williams showed promise. He carried the ball 21 times for 83 yards.

The Irish running game, of course, will be supplemented by an offensive line that figures to be one of college football’s best. In a recent article by Pro Football Focus, the Irish are ranked as the top offensive line in the country, even after losing Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin to the NFL. Mike McGlinchey is moving from his former right tackle position to replace Stanley at the left tackle position and veteran Quenton Nelson joins McGlinchey on the left side at guard to create quite a duo on the offensive line.

With the Irish passing game in question, the offensive line and running backs will be called upon to rise to the occasion for the Notre Dame offense. Behind the running of Prosise, the Irish running game was explosive last season and hopes to pick up where it left off this year. By season’s end, don’t be surprised if the Irish have multiple 1,000-yard rushers on their hands.

Contact Ben by emailing him at [email protected] or finding him on twitter @bbelden330. 

Image: Flickr – Daniel Hartwig

Former Notre Dame Quarterback Makes His Pick to Lead Irish Offense

Former Notre Dame quarterback and FS1 analyst Brady Quinn joined Bruce Feldman on The Audible podcast to discuss the quarterback competition at his alma mater. In sitting down with Feldman, Quinn discussed his choice for the Notre Dame quarterback position.

Quinn chose to side with last year’s game one starter, Malik Zaire, in lieu of his eventual replacement, Deshone Kizer.

Much of Quinn’s decision has to do with seniority. Zaire can graduate in the spring, but still has a year of eligibility left. Under the graduate transfer rule, this would give him the ability to transfer without sitting out a season. Giving Zaire the nod to start this season would likely eliminate this as a possibility.

According to Quinn, if Zaire gets the nod to start the season, the Irish will be better suited in the long-run. Should Zaire falter, Kizer would replace him, much like he was able to do last season. Zaire would then be free to transfer with no hard feelings and the Irish would move on with Kizer as the starter.

However, should the Irish start Kizer on opening weekend, there is greater chance of instability at the position. Should Kizer falter, Zaire would undoubtedly replace him. Zaire potentially could feel slighted enough to transfer at season’s end if he is not given the job to start the season. This would leave the Irish with a shaky Kizer and an inexperienced Brandon Wimbush to start 2017.

Whatever the decision is, Quinn highlighted the importance of making a decision early in the process. Quinn’s “X-factor” is the fact that Zaire is left-handed and Kizer is right-handed. According to Quinn, “Your entire team has to adjust to a different spin of the football and the fact that the plays are going to be formatted a different way. Teams are going to attack you differently based on the arm of your quarterback.”

Quinn certainly has valid points. One idea that seems to be conventional wisdom is the desire to name a starter sooner rather than later. Zaire seems to be the safe choice, while giving the Irish the most flexibility going forward.

Many will argue that the experience factor gives Kizer an edge. One must consider if that argument matters, given the number of players the Irish are replacing from last year’s team. Neither Zaire nor Kizer gives the offense much as far as chemistry with returning players is concerned. Of the many newcomers, many will come at the wide receiver position. Whoever wins the starting job will need to develop chemistry with a nearly-brand-new group of receivers.

One area of optimism carrying over from last season is the emergence of the running game. Even with the injury to Tarean Folston, the Irish were able to plug in ball-carriers with great success. Folston will return from injury and will split carries with promising sophomore back Josh Adams. The Irish may need to lean on their running game while the passing game develops continuity.

Zaire is the better of the two runners and can add an element to the running game that Kizer cannot. For Brian Kelly, the best decision may be to go with Malik Zaire to start the season.

Non-Schedule Games Important for Notre Dame’s Title Hopes

By now, Notre Dame fans know which games are most critical to the Irish’s hopes of running the regular season table this fall. Michigan State, Stanford, Miami, and Southern California are the marquee matchups featured on the 2016 docket for the Irish. If the Irish take care of business in these games, there will not be much debate about their place in the College Football Playoff picture.

However, should the Irish stumble along the way, style points will be at a premium. A few games not featuring a team in all-gold helmets will play a large part in the Irish’s ability to gain style points.

September 3rd – USC Trojans vs. Alabama Crimson Tide

The first week of the season features perhaps the most important game of the year in terms of Notre Dame’s strength of schedule. This matchup between the Trojans and Crimson Tide will be played at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. USC is projected to finish at or near the top of the Pac-12, along with fellow Notre Dame opponent, Stanford. A win for the Trojans would validate the Pac-12 and deliver a blow to the SEC. This would be huge for the Irish, who have plenty of opportunity to prove themselves against Pac-12 opponents, but lack a matchup against the SEC. At season’s end, a debate between Notre Dame and Alabama for playoff positioning could be settled by how each performs against a common opponent.

October 29th – Michigan at Michigan State

On the day Notre Dame hosts the Miami Hurricanes at Notre Dame Stadium, there is another major midwest college football game that has plenty of bearing on Notre Dame’s path to the playoff. With Ohio State reloading after losing numerous starters, the Wolverines and Spartans figure to be the two teams contending for a spot in the Big Ten title game. Outside of Michigan State, Michigan and Notre Dame have no common opponents. In fact, Notre Dame’s game against Michigan State is the only time the Irish will face a Big Ten opponent this season. For this reason, Michigan State dominating the Big Ten would once again be beneficial for the Irish.

November 25th – TCU at Texas

Despite losing Josh Doctson and Trevone Boykin to the NFL, the TCU Horned Frogs still figure to be a contender for the always wide-open Big 12. This game, which takes place the day after Thanksgiving, is a potential trap game for the Horned Frogs. If Notre Dame takes care of Texas in the first game of the season and the Longhorns can steal a late-season game against the Horned Frogs, the Irish will certainly have a decided tiebreaker against teams from the Big 12. Much like the situation with Michigan State, Notre Dame’s only game against a Big 12 opponent comes against Texas. If Charlie Strong’s team can surprise college football experts, Notre Dame benefits.


Other games that should gain considerable notice from Irish fans include Florida State at Miami (October 8th) and Ohio State at Michigan State (November 19th). With a pseudo-Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, Notre Dame should have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate its worth against ACC opponents. If Urban Meyer’s Ohio State team can pick up where it left off last season, however, the matchup with the Spartans in East Lansing is arguably more important than the aforementioned Michigan – Michigan State matchup.

Whatever the case, Notre Dame has plenty of opportunities to add wins against opponents from many of the Power 5 conferences to their resume. If the Irish take care of business at home (with the exception of the game against USC, all of their marquee matchups take place in South Bend), Notre Dame just may find its way into the College Football Playoff for the first time since its inception.

Featured image is courtesy of wikipedia.com. 

Greg Bryant: Comeback Story Ends Way Too Soon

By now, there have been plenty of reports about the murder of former Notre Dame running back, Greg Bryant, but the situation surrounding the senseless shooting that took Bryant’s life still raises question in the minds of many. Bryant, a Florida native, was back home, enjoying his time off with friends last weekend, just days before he was to return to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, according to a report by the Chicago Tribune.

Bryant was accompanied by childhood friend Maurice Glover at the time of the shooting. The two were on their way home from a club. When speaking to the Tribune, Glover indicated that he felt the shooter purposely targeted Bryant. As for the reason why, Glover was unsure:

“I don’t believe it was mistaken identity,” Grover said. “It had to be somebody that was in the club. Jealousy? Maybe. People will kill for jealousy and animosity. It’s a hateful world, man.”

Glover went on to say that there was no road rage nor altercations prior to the shooting.

Bryant was said to be loved by many and to have problems with very few. Coming out of high school, Bryant was one of the most highly-touted recruits in his class. He was physically ready for college football, but he was unready for the rigors of the college classroom. These struggles caused Bryant to be suspended for a full season and ultimately withdraw from Notre Dame. From there, Bryant went home, attended community college, and waited for his next opportunity. That opportunity came from UAB.

Losing a young life to something as senseless as a random shooting is always tragic, but what makes the loss of Bryant particularly upsetting is the work Bryant had done to set up a second chance at UAB. According to a report form Alabama.com, Bryant was having success at UAB. His coach, Bill Clark, indicated that Bryant had received a 2.5 grade point average in his first semester at UAB, and for this, Bryant was said to have indicated that this was the proudest he had been of himself in the classroom since grade school.

Though he never saw the field, Bryant played a huge role in reviving the UAB program. Largely due to Bryant’s contributions and attitude, there was excitement abound in the program. The fact that Bryant will never have an opportunity to carry the football for the Blazers goes beyond tragedy.

Bryant’s story is one that should be remembered with admiration and inspiration. Down on himself after his struggles in South Bend, Bryant easily could have quit on his dreams of becoming a top college player with NFL aspirations. Instead, he picked himself up, endured the struggles of community college, and was primed for a football comeback. In life, he had already made his comeback.

Many who knew Bryant, whether it be as a football player or as a person, will wait for answers that may never come and may never make sense. The certainty of the situation, however, is that life is fleeting.

Feature image is courtesy of yahoo.com

Draft Success is Proof that Irish are Officially Back

Since Brian Kelly took over the program before the 2010 season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have taken more than a couple steps forward. The three head coaches before Kelly, Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, and Charlie Weis combined for a 91-68 record and one bowl victory. This was far from the excellence many had come to expect from a program that ranks first all-time in college football win percentage and third all-time in total wins.

Under Davie, Willingham, and Weis, there were glimpses of a Notre Dame return to glory, but those moments were fleeting. Davie lead the Irish to nine wins twice. Willingham had great success in his first season, going 10-3, but subsequent 5-7 and 6-5 seasons lead to his termination. With Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija leading the way, Charlie Weis was able to help the Irish to back-to-back BCS bowls (both of which were losses), but a 3-9 season that saw the Irish lose to Navy for the first time in nearly half a century and then back-to-back .500 seasons were Weis’ undoing.

But Brian Kelly has contributed something those coaches lacked: the ability to recruit and keep star power in South Bend.

Both Willingham and Weis were soft-spoken, matter-of-fact guys. When they walked into the living room of a recruit, it’s hard to imagine that there was a lot of buzz that followed them. Weis, at least, could get out his multiple Super Bowl rings he won as an offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, but his personality was undoubtedly less-than-exciting for the 18-year-old mind.

Notre Dame has always had plenty of tools in the toolbox when it comes to hitting the recruiting trail. First of all, the campus has a certain mystique that can’t be duplicated anywhere in college football. It’s a feeling that some know and understand, while others don’t. Other recruiting pitches include a top-notch education, a game in California every season, a program that features one of the most famous legacies in college football, a national television contract that guarantees exposure, and much more.

But to many recruits, Notre Dame was a boring program. The songs played before games were boring, the field was boring, and the uniforms were boring. There wasn’t enough flash to the program.

Kelly brought change.

Before games, modern music plays. Prior to the 2014 season, Notre Dame installed a synthetic turf playing field, which also meant there would be a monogram “ND” at the 50 yard line. Every year, the Irish play a game on a neutral field while wearing an alternate jersey. The changes allowed Notre Dame to compete with flashier programs while keeping much of the tradition. Many of the changes were Kelly’s doing.

Perhaps the biggest change during Kelly’s time at the helm of the Irish, however, has nothing to do with the optics of a football game.

Under Brian Kelly, Notre Dame football teams have had more talent and more speed than they have during the times of Kelly’s predecessors. This increase in talent is evident by Notre Dame’s success at this past weekend’s NFL draft.

Notre Dame had two first-round selections: tackle Ronnie Stanley was selected sixth overall by the Ravens, while Will Fuller went twenty first overall to the Texans. Jaylon Smith, who was an easy top-five selection before being injured in the Fiesta Bowl, went early in the second round to the Cowboys at thirty fourth overall. CJ Prosise became the first Notre Dame running back taken in the draft since 2004 when the Seahawks selected him with the ninetieth overall selection. In all, the Irish had seven players drafted, while five more signed with teams as undrafted free agents.

Under Kelly, six Notre Dame players have been selected in the first round. Davie, Willingham, and Weis combined for just one first-round selection.

Kelly has yet to have a losing season as coach of the Irish, nor does a losing season appear to be on the horizon. The success on the field and in the draft is a clear indication that, under Kelly, the Irish have once again arrived to the party and are here to stay.

Brian Kelly Searches for Answers at Receiver

Last Saturday’s spring football game was just that–a spring football game.

Off a successful season that saw the Irish a couple plays and a couple fortuitous bounces away from an undefeated regular season, Notre Dame fans have reason to be excited come September. Despite a bevy of injuries that left the Irish very thin and forced inexperienced players to be relied on heavily, the Irish lost two regular season games by a total of 4 points on the road against Clemson and Stanford. Both the Tigers and the Cardinal finished in last season’s top ten.

Notre Dame will get key contributors back on both sides of the football, but questions still remain going forward. One question undoubtedly will be who plays the quarterback position. Both Deshone Kizer and Malik Zaire had up-and-down spring games, with Kizer starting off hot and then coming back down to earth, while Zaire started off slow, but made some big plays after settling into a rhythm. However, the quarterback position is not one where the Irish face significant problems. However the position battle plays out, the Irish will be left with a proven performer at the helm of the offense.

More concerning are the offensive and defensive fronts for the Irish. Although both units are young, Brian Kelly has indicated confidence and optimism in both. Perhaps most concerning for the Irish is the lack of experience at the receiver position.

One glaring weakness that came to fruition in Notre Dame’s spring game was evident in the group of receivers. While Kizer was able to find a couple receivers on intermediate routes, Zaire’s completions came on spectacular or broken plays. As a whole, the Irish receivers struggled to get separation against defensive backs.

Losing Will Fuller to the NFL draft is a major blow for the Irish. Not only are the Irish losing Smith, but they are losing their leader in Chris Brown, also. Torii Hunter, Jr. is the leading returning receiver for the Irish, but whether or not he can be a number-one wide receiver has been a point of debate among Irish followers. His one-handed catch in traffic at Notre Dame’s spring game perhaps showed a glimpse of his potential to be the first option, but other than that single catch, Hunter was quiet most of the day.

Other receivers who have an opportunity to step up for the Irish this season are Corey Robinson, Equinameous St. Brown, and newly-emerging Corey Holmes. Robinson, who was recently elected as student-body president, has faced concussion issues that has put his playing career in jeopardy. A decision on Robinson’s future is expected to be made in the coming days. With the ramifications of concussions, it would be hard for one to criticize Robinson for calling it quits, especially considering his seemingly bright future outside of football.

St. Brown and Holmes are both relative newcomers for the Irish. Both are inexperienced, but have tantalizing raw skills that the Irish will need to utilize each of them to have success in the upcoming season. At 6-foot-4, St. Brown could become a move-the-chains receiver for the Irish and a lethal redzone target, while the 6-foot-1 Holmes could, indeed, be the receiver that replaces Fuller as the deep threat.

After redshirting last season, Holmes is said to have impressed Irish coaches behind the scenes. Entering the spring season, Holmes clocked the fastest 40-yard dash time of the team at 4.39 seconds, but that’s not all. Holmes recorded a 41-inch vertical leap, which makes him an eye-popping prospect for the Irish.

Part of Brian Kelly’s challenging task with the Irish is to figure out how to best use receivers like Hunter, St. Brown, and Holmes to utilize their strengths. If he finds the correct formula and balance, the Irish passing game could be lethal once again, regardless of who is throwing the passes for the blue and gold.

*Featured image courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Comparing Top Irish Prospects to Current NFL Players

The first round of the NFL Draft starts on April 28 and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have multiple players who may go before the conclusion of the opening round. Tackle Ronnie Stanley, Wide Receiver Will Fuller, and Linebacker Jaylon Smith highlight the Irish draft class. But what is the ceiling for these Irish football alumni? For the sake of attempting to answer this question, let’s compare Irish prospects to current NFL players:

Ronnie Stanley, LT

NFL Comparison: Ryan Clady, New York Jets (was selected 12th overall in 2008 by the Denver Broncos)

Stats/Measurables

Stanley

Clady

Height: 6’6” Height: 6’6”
Weight: 312 lbs. Weight: 309 lbs.
40-yard Dash: 5.20 seconds 40-yard Dash: 5.18 seconds
Bench reps at 225: 24 Bench reps at 225: 24

Stanley is rated as perhaps the second-best left tackle prospect in the draft behind only Laremy Tunsil out of Ole Miss, who might be the first overall selection. Stanley could go as early as the third overall selection to the San Diego Chargers, who undoubtedly will want to protect quarterback Phillip Rivers while getting last year’s first-round selection going in the running game. Stanley’s major weakness has been his lack of core strength, but his technique is among the best at the position and makes up for his lack of brute strength. When compared to Clady’s similar numbers, questions of strength are minimized.

Will Fuller, WR

NFL Comparison: T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts (selected 92nd overall in 2012 by the Colts).

Stats/Measurables

Fuller

Hilton

Height: 6’0” Height: 5’9”
Weight: 186 lbs. Weight: 183 lbs.
40-yard Dash: 4.32 seconds 40-yard Dash: 4.34 seconds
Bench reps at 225: 10 Bench reps at 225: 7

Fuller was Notre Dame’s go-to wide receiver the last two seasons and one of the best wide receivers in the draft. Fuller has drawn many comparisons to Emmanuelle Sanders of the Denver Broncos, and certainly those comparisons make sense, especially considering the two are nearly identical in height and weight. However, as far as numbers are concerned, Fuller matches up well with Hilton. Like Hilton, Fuller will be a potent deep threat in the NFL that will take the top off defenses. As good as Hilton has been in the NFL, Fuller perhaps has the bigger upside, as he played at a major college program (Hilton played at Florida International) and has better size and strength than Hilton. Fuller’s main weakness is his ability to make big catches in traffic, but his ability to run by people will keep him in the league and allow him to develop into a well-rounded receiver and potential star. Fuller may make it to the second round of the draft, but if he does, he won’t be on the board for long.

Jaylon Smith, LB

NFL Comparison: Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders (selected 5th overall in 2012 by the Raiders).

Smith’s comparison is, understandably, much more difficult. Because of Smith’s gruesome injury in his final game for the Irish, he has been unable to participate in workouts. Before injury, there really was no comparison to Smith’s talents, other than perhaps UCLA’s Myles Jack, who is in the same draft class. Smith had the ability to wear so many hats for the Irish defense and his versatility made him a tantalizing prospect. Smith was good enough to be a legitimate middle linebacker but also had the speed to be an edge rusher or even cover a slot receiver. At Notre Dame, Smith was often seen covering slot receivers down the field on one down, and on the next, pressuring the opposing team’s quarterback. His versatility would have made him an easy top-10 selection.

Questions about Smith’s ability to recover from his injury will cause Smith to drop, and it is anyone’s guess how far that will be. Even so, odds are a team won’t let Smith get far into the second round before taking a chance on one who could be a franchise-changing player on the defensive side of the football.

Irish Should Have ‘College Football Playoff or Bust’ Mentality

For Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish team, nothing short of a berth in the in College Football Playoff should constitute a successful season. Not only do the Irish have plenty of talent returning from a successful, but injury-laden 2015 season, but they also have a favorable schedule ahead of them this season. According to an article from Bleacher Report, “Projecting 2016 Win-Loss Records for Every Power 5 Football Team,” the Irish are projected for an 11-1 record this season, which would almost certainly net them a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The article does not explicitly predict which games Notre Dame will win and which it will lose, but it does say that Notre Dame has 6 “guaranteed” wins, and notes that the Irish have a minimal amount of true road games. The article also mentions Michigan State as a toss-up game for the Irish. For the sake of speculation, I will try my hand at predicting Notre Dame’s 2016 schedule:

Guaranteed Wins: 

  1. September 3rd, at Texas
  2. September 10th, vs. Nevada
  3. October 8th, at North Carolina State
  4. November 5th, vs. Navy (neutral site)
  5. November 12th, vs. Army (neutral site)
  6. November 19th, vs. Virginia Tech

Texas will be out for revenge against the Irish, after falling 38-3 in South Bend to start the 2015 season. Despite Charlie Strong’s words that the Longhorns are out to make up for the embarrassment they suffered in that game, there are far too many question marks surrounding the Longhorns and Strong’s future in Austin to win the game.

Navy, despite having one of their most successful seasons in recent memory last season, should be somewhat of a cakewalk for the Irish. The Midshipmen will be without quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who has moved on by graduation.

Nevada, North Carolina State, Army, and Virginia Tech should all also fit the bill of easy wins for the Irish.

More difficult wins: 

  1. September 24th, vs. Duke
  2. October 1st, at Syracuse (neutral site)

Duke and Syracuse are both middle-of-the-road college football teams. Notre Dame is not. The Blue Devils come to South Bend, a place where the Irish did not lose in 2015, and the Irish take on the Orange at a neutral site in East Rutherford, New Jersey. If the Irish are healthy, neither game should prove much of a problem.

Tough games: 

  1. September 17th, vs. Michigan State
  2. October 15th, vs. Stanford
  3. October 29th, vs. Miami
  4. November 26th, at USC

With Michigan State and Stanford, the Irish know what they will be in for: tough, physical, grind-it-out football. Both teams are know for their physicality and defense. Despite the difficulty of both games, the Irish will have an advantage, however. Both Michigan State and Stanford will be without last season’s starting quarterback when they take on the Irish and both games are on Notre Dame’s home field. Connor Cook and Kevin Hogan have both moved on to the NFL, meaning that the quarterback position for each team is somewhat of a question mark. Because of a lack of experience, the Irish should prevail in both games at Notre Dame Stadium.

Just before Halloween, the Miami Hurricanes will visit South Bend, renewing the regular season rivalry between two programs that stems back to the “Catholics vs. Convicts” days. Though neither program is exactly in the same place they were more than twenty years ago, this matchup may prove to be Notre Dame’s most lucrative matchup of 2016. Under Mark Richt, the Hurricanes figure to recover from the recent years of mediocrity. The Hurricanes also have the benefit of experience at the quarterback position, which will be anchored by Brad Kaaya, who threw for over 3,000 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. Despite all of this, the game is being played in South Bend, so the Irish figure to emerge victorious, if everything goes according to plan.

As they do every year, the Irish finish the season in California, this time to face the University of Southern California. The USC program has been quite a mess in recent years, with the dismissal of Steve Sarkisian during last season and the stepping down of Athletic Director Pat Haden recently. The Trojans hope to move past those distractions in 2015. The Trojans figure to improve this season, but still won’t be the Trojans of old, not to mention that they, like so many other teams the Irish face in 2016, lost starting quarterback Cody Kessler to the NFL Draft. Once again, this game should prove to be a very winnable game for the Irish.

Outlook:

For the first time in years, the Notre Dame schedule does not feature an opponent that sticks out as an “uh-oh” game for the Irish. In the past, road tests against Florida State and Clemson seemed to prove Notre Dame’s downfall. If the Irish can remain healthy in 2016, they have a very manageable schedule that would make anything less than the College Football Playoff a failure for Brian Kelly’s squad.

Three Reasons Notre Dame Will Make the College Football Playoff

Notre Dame came just short of the 2016 College Football Playoff after an inspired Stanford team drove into field goal range with under a minute left and kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired to cap off an incredible Senior Day for Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan. The depleted Irish then went on to falter in the Fiesta Bowl, losing to an Ohio State team that looked good enough to compete for a national title. The experiences roller coaster 2015-2016 campaign was just a precursor to the Irish being major contenders in Brian Kelly’s sixth season at the helm in South Bend. Here are a few reasons why you will be seeing the Irish playing in a game on New Year’s Even 2016:

The Irish have the best quarterback situation/controversy in College Football entering the season.

Malik Zaire entered his first season as a starter with a bang, lighting up the Texas Longhorns in South Bend, on the way to a 38-3 Irish victory. After having a shaky start to his second career official start on the road against the Virginia Cavaliers, Zaire had the Irish gaining momentum, just before a gruesome-looking ankle injury ended his season toward the end of the third quarter. The Irish didn’t miss a beat, however, as Deshone Kizer took the reins, leading the Irish to a win in the game and an improbable run that had the Irish as serious contenders until the final days of November.

Kizer went on to complete 63% of his passes on the season for the Irish, racking up 2,884 yards and 21 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions. Stats aside, Kizer showed he was not afraid of the big moment, leading comebacks in games on the road against Clemson and Temple. Against Stanford, Kizer lead a drive to take a one-point lead with under a minute remaining. His only knock was perhaps that he scored too quickly, as Stanford was able to come back and win the game.

With both healthy and eager, the Irish look to have a great problem on their hands as the season approaches. Don’t rule out Brandon Wimbush, the Irish’s third quarterback option, either. Though many consider him to be the last horse in the race, Wimbush has shown great physical tools in limited action for the Irish and will look to shock the world and win the starting job in South Bend.

The Irish have a solid mix of veterans and newcomers who are returning this year

The Irish lost nine starters to injury last season, starting with a preseason injury to defensive tackle Jarron Jones, who will be perhaps Notre Dame’s best returning defensive lineman this season. Along with Jones, safety Drue Tranquill will be back with the Irish to help solidify a defensive secondary that was much-maligned last season and has question marks moving forward. Besides Jones and Tranquill, the Irish will be lead on defense by Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini, James Onwualu, Cole Luke, Andrew Trumbetti, and others who each contributed in the 2016 season. Even for a team that struggled at times, the cupboard is not dry with talent. For the Notre Dame defense, the only place to go is up.

On offense, the Irish will have to replace the production of Will Fuller, but new student-body president Corey Robinson and rising sophomore Equinameous St. Brown, along with veteran slot receiver Tori Hunter, Jr. will look to spread the load. Durham Smythe will return at the tight end position, with Alize Jones likely to get a lot of time there, also. Perhaps most significant is the return of Tarean Folston, who was Notre Dame’s top running back coming in to 2015 before tearing his ACL on the opening drive of the season. Folston will share carries with rising sophomore Josh Adams, who had a very impressive freshman campaign for the Irish.

The Irish have some favorable match-ups on their schedule this season

When looking at Notre Dame’s schedule, there isn’t a game that jumps out as a game where the Irish might find themselves outmatched. Key matchups include Texas (away), Michigan State (home), Duke (home), Stanford (home), Miami (home), Navy (neutral), Virginia Tech (home), and Southern California (away). Most of Notre Dame’s key matchups take place in South Bend, a place where the Irish did not lose last season. In addition, with the exception of Miami, all of the aforementioned opponents will have to replace a quarterback to start their season. Gone are the likes of Connor Cook, Kevin Hogan, Keenan Reynolds, and Cody Kessler from the list of quarterbacks the Irish will hope to defend. This will only help a pass defense that struggled mightily at times last season.

What to watch for:

If the Irish are able to stay healthy (something they could not do last season), there is no reason they cannot win every game they play this season. That said, there are two major question marks heading into the season:

The first, who will play quarterback? Naming a starter early would be best for the Irish, as a position battle that spills over into the season may prove a distraction.

The second question is whether or not the offensive line will be able to enjoy the same success as last season. A year ago, the Irish were experienced up front and their offensive success showed because of the talent of the big uglies up front. After losing three starters (LT Ronnie Stanley, C Nick Martin, and RG Steve Elmer), the Irish have some big shoes to fill. The offensive line may be the key to the season for the Irish.

E-mail Ben at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @BBelden330.

NCAA Back at it Again with Targeting Rule Changes

The targeting call has been the center of much debate in college football circles. In an age where concussions are front and center on the football forefront, the targeting rule was created to protect “defenseless” ball carriers from vicious and unnecessary blows to the head. While the rule claims to have good intentions, the actual motivation for the rule may not have much to do with keeping players safe.

Let’s call it what it is: The targeting rule is completely geared toward protecting quarterbacks and wide receivers (a.k.a. the flashy players that viewers tune in to see on a weekly basis), promote offense, and make defense more difficult. High-scoring games get ratings; defensive battles don’t.

I’ve watched my fair share of college football. While I don’t remember every targeting call in every game, I can say that most targeting calls are egregiously bad. Under the current rule, the targeting penalty is assessed by a 15-yard penalty and an ejection for the offending player. The NCAA has put so much pressure on officials to enforce the rules that said officials are forced to ere on the side of an ejection when targeting is even a possibility.

The key to the targeting call is the intent of the defender. The last I checked, defenders are just as worried about their well-being as offensive players and to suggest that replay referees can judge the intent of defensive players in bang-bang plays is nothing short of ludicrous. The targeting penalty is nothing short of excessive.

However, as excessive as the targeting penalty has gotten, it is only about to get worse.

Per an article on the NCAA’s official website, the targeting rule will be expanded to allow the replay official to have more power in regards to its enforcement. In addition to a variety of minor rules changes, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel agreed to allow replay officials the authority to stop game action when he or she feels that a targeting call was warranted, but went unnoticed by on-field officials.

In other words, when helmet-to-helmet contact is not egregious enough to warrant a penalty from guys (or gals) who are on the field, mere yards from the action, it will be closely analyzed by people in a booth who likely have the NCAA breathing down their neck to ere on the side of the offense.

It would be remiss to say that the NCAA looking out for the well-being of players is, indeed, admirable, however it is difficult to pretend that a 15-yard penalty and an ejection takes away the potential concussion caused by such a hit that oftentimes was likely the result of incidental contact.

The best way for college football to address the targeting rule would be to assign degrees to the hit, much like the NBA’s flagrant foul system. Under such a rule, replay officials would be able to make the distinction of contact not warranting a penalty, more excessive contact that results in a 15-yard penalty (Flagrant), and contact that results in a penalty and ejection (Flagrant 2).

Current and former NCAA football officials have been on record as being in favor of this model, but if and when it will be formally address is currently unknown. The NCAA is already criticized for the pace of play when big games lose momentum due to excessive replay reviews, so adding another reason for review and ejection cannot be in the best interest for college football. Whatever the compromise is, I can’t imagine that giving replay officials more power is a step in the right direction.