Jan. 16, 2015
Yes, the 2014 University of Notre Dame season ended just a few weeks ago, and it’s a long time until the Texas Longhorns arrive in South Bend in September. Recruiting and spring drills will tide Irish fans over until that Sept. 5, 2015, season opener at Notre Dame Stadium.
In the meantime, let’s consider 20 questions Irish fans (and maybe even Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and his staff) will mull over in the offseason lull:
1. It came about due to late-season circumstances leading into a one-shot bowl effort, yet the notion of practicing and playing both quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire essentially worked against LSU, a highly rated defensive team from the most highly regarded conference in the land. It’s safe to say both Golson and Zaire are capable of being full-time regulars at the position, even if their strong points differ slightly-and it’s impossible to know now if the idea of a two-headed “monster” at quarterback could really be effective on a long-term basis. There’s plenty of time for Kelly and his staff to let this play out through the spring and even into August, if that’s what they choose to do. So, what does the future hold at quarterback for Notre Dame?
2. The Irish ran for 246 yards (their second-highest rushing total of 2014 and best since the season opener versus Rice) against LSU in the Music City Bowl, and that came with Mike McGlinchey making his first start at offensive tackle. Notre Dame returns a solid, proven tailback in Tarean Folston and a potential improving and talented sidekick in Greg Bryant-and the makings are there for an offensive line with productivity and experience. Can the Irish become a team in 2015 known for its smash-mouth running style?
3. Even with Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin, Steve Elmer, Mike McGlinchey and Matt Hegarty back in the fold, there are a host of young Irish offensive linemen in the mix. Consider the likes of John Montelus, Colin McGovern, Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher, Jimmy Byrne, Hunter Bivin and Alex Bars-most all of them highly regarded when they showed up on campus. Can any of that group develop into a major contributor by the time the 2015 campaign unfolds?
4. It’s hard to imagine a Notre Dame position area that grew up more than the Irish receivers did in 2014. Will Fuller became a bona-fide star. Corey Robinson proved to be a matchup nightmare. Chris Brown emerged as a dependable, if under the radar, staple. C.J. Prosise showed he could both catch and run (see 50-yard touchdown on jet sweep vs. LSU, the longest run by an Irish receiver in two decades), as did Amir Carlisle. Now that Torii Hunter Jr. is healthy, expect him to be a force. And Folston has proven he can catch the ball out of the backfield. All those players return in 2015. What’s the next step for Notre Dame’s passing game?
5. Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas-all those recent Irish tight ends now draw paychecks in the National Football League. Ben Koyack, who graduates this spring, should add his name to that list. That leaves a combination of Durham Smythe and Tyler Luatua, plus untested Mike Heuerman and Nic Weishar. Can a less-experienced-than-usual list of tight end candidates fill the bill for the Irish in 2015?
6. Kyle Brindza leaves as the Notre Dame career leader in field goals (57) and he was no slouch as a punter the last two seasons either. Tyler Newsome will be the lone scholarship player for those spots during spring drills. So, what’s the future of the Irish special teams when it comes to punts, field goals and PATs?
7. The look and emphasis of the Notre Dame offense often have varied from week to week, depending on whether the Irish coaches believe heavier doses of throws or runs can be most effective against that week’s opponent. There’s plenty of raw material for the Irish to be more than competent in both areas by next fall. What will be the ultimate identity of the Notre Dame offensive unit in 2015?
8. Two of the most impressive bowl victors in 2014 were #12 Georgia Tech (won 49-34 over #7 Mississippi State) and #17 Clemson (won 40-6 over Oklahoma)-and those just happen to be two of the first five Irish opponents on the 2015 schedule. The Georgia Tech game is Sept. 19 at Notre Dame Stadium-and the Clemson contest is at Clemson Oct. 3 in Notre Dame’s first visit there since 1977. The Irish also play Atlantic Coast Conference opponents Virginia, Boston College (at Fenway Park in the Shamrock Series), Wake Forest and Pittsburgh. How will Notre Dame fare against its ACC foes in 2015?
9. The very early preseason looks at the 2015 season listed the Irish 10th (FOX), 12th (ESPN.com) and 22nd (USA Today) in several of those polls. What are realistic expectations for Notre Dame in 2015?
10. Notre Dame played cleanly early in 2014, then suffered from all kinds of turnover woes late in the year. The Irish only won the turnover battle four times all year (they were plus-eight in that category after the first three games) and not once from the Sept. 13 Purdue game until a turnover-free effort in the Music City Bowl against LSU. Can the Irish return to their mistake-free form in 2015?
11. First-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme got off to a solid start, but injuries, attrition and youth caught up to the Irish late in the year. Notre Dame’s final scoring defense figure of 29.2 points ranked abnormally low. Can the Notre Dame defense, with a full year working under VanGorder, put things together on a more consistent basis this fall?
12. Sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith was the most decorated Irish player in 2014 as a second-team Associated Press All-American, and he’s arguably the most talented all-around athlete on the roster. Originally an outside linebacker, Smith was moved inside in 2014 after the graduation loss of Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese combined with the Jarrett Grace injury issues.Wherever he plays in 2015, can Smith become the dominant defensive player on the field every Saturday?
13. Inside linebacker Joe Schmidt, a walk-on not that long ago, became an amazingly important cog for the Notre Dame defense in 2014. He led the team in tackles and was a key spokesman for the Irish on and off the field until the Nov. 1 foot injury that ended his season. The Irish had their share of problems defending the run once he left the lineup (after limiting three of their first six opponents to 56 rushing yards or fewer), and his teammates recognized that by naming him the 2014 team MVP.Can Schmidt’s return in 2015, along with the experience gained this past year by talented rookie Nyles Morgan (and a potential return to good health by Jarrett Grace), put the Irish back on the road to prospering at linebacker?
14. The Irish in 2014 looked at all kinds of options along the defensive line, and veteran tackle Justin Utupo is the only one who does not return for the 2015 campaign. With Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones, Romeo Okwara and Isaac Rochell all back to anchor that group, and if some of the many freshmen who debuted this year develop into major contributors, can Notre Dame’s defensive front this fall be one of the strong points of the depth chart?
15. With Austin Collinsworth thwarted most of the year by injuries, Notre Dame’s secondary never looked like the Irish thought it would in 2014. This time around only Collinsworth and corner Cody Riggs will be missing. Four of the top six Irish tacklers in 2014 were Max Redfield (68), Elijah Shumate (66), Matthias Farley (53) and Cole Luke (48, plus 11 passes broken up), with all expected back this fall. So, are the pieces in places for the Irish defensive backs to shine in 2015?
16. Tight end Ben Koyack, offensive tackle Christian Lombard and cornerback Cody Riggs qualify as the only graduating regulars who won’t be around in 2015.Will that level of experience put the Irish seriously into the playoff hunt next fall?
17. Notre Dame has the potential for a record number of fifth-year players in 2015, pending the spring semester application and approval process through the Faculty Board on Athletics.Can that pay big dividends once the 2015 campaign begins?
18. When Notre Dame walked off the field last October in Tallahassee, despite the last-minute defeat the Irish felt like they had showed they could play with anyone in the country considering their performance on the road against the defending national champions and, ultimately, a 2014 playoff team.What will it take for the Irish to play at that level on a regular basis?
19. Notre Dame played in the national championship game in 2012 and now has won bowl games in consecutive years for the first time since the early 1990s.Can the Irish parlay that into headline news in 2015?
20. Notre Dame’s 2015 schedule features five teams that won bowl games to finish 2014 (Georgia Tech, Clemson, Navy, USC and Stanford). Four of Notre Dame’s five defeats in 2014 came against teams that finished in the final Associated Press top 25 (#5 Florida State, #12 Arizona State, #20 USC and #24 Louisville)-and the 2015 schedule includes three teams that ended up in that same final AP poll (#8 Georgia Tech at 11-3, #15 Clemson at 10-3 and #20 USC at 9-4). How strongly will Notre Dame’s 2015 agenda ultimately rank?
— by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director