Sept. 9, 2016
By John Heisler
When Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s 2016 Notre Dame football team takes the Notre Dame Stadium field Saturday afternoon for the first of three consecutive home games (the first time in nine years that has happened), here are five things to watch:
1.The Notre Dame quarterback situation
The Irish were committed to utilizing both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire last week in the opener at Texas–and they did. However, a week later, after Kizer made the most of his time on the field by throwing five touchdowns and running for a sixth versus the Longhorns, he’ll start against Nevada. Kizer’s productivity against Texas mirrored what he did throughout 2015 once he was thrown into the lineup after Zaire’s injury at Virginia. If Kizer can play at least as well as he has shown in his time on the field to date, Notre Dame’s offense figures to be in good hands. With receivers like Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders playing full-time roles for the first season, the chemistry between them and Kizer only figures to improve. And the Irish know that Zaire continues to provide a game-proven, multitalented option any time he’s needed.
2. Early season improvement
There’s an old saying in football that a team makes its greatest improvement from the first game to the second. Brian Kelly will see how that translates on Saturday. He put seven first-time starters on the field at Texas, and–as the Irish head coach has noted–there are 10 players missing from last year’s team who now occupy spots on NFL rosters. That’s some significant turnover. Now that the Irish have seen some of their younger, less-experienced players in game situations, at least for a week, it’s easier to make adjustments, corrections and improvement. Expect everybody on the field to have a better feel for his assignment this week after the opener at Texas.
3. What to expect from Nevada?
It figures to be an emotional day for Wolf Pack head coach Brian Polian who not long ago spent five seasons (2005-09) in South Bend as an Irish assistant coach. It’s no different than when other former Irish assistants such as Skip Holtz and Charlie Strong have brought teams to Notre Dame Stadium, and it’ll happen again a year from now when Chuck Martin brings his Miami of Ohio squad to town. This is a Nevada program that won a bowl game last year (in fact the Wolf Pack has played in a bowl game 10 of the last 11 seasons) and opened with an overtime home win. James Butler is a proven talent at running back, while senior quarterback Tyler Stewart was an efficient 17 of 23 throwing the football last weekend.
4. The shorter work week
Since Notre Dame didn’t play its opener until Sunday night (and the Irish travel party didn’t return home to South Bend until after 4 a.m. Monday), it has been a shorter than usual prep period this week for the Irish coaches and players. On the flip side, Nevada’s opening win came Friday night, so the Wolf Pack actually has had an extra day to prepare for Notre Dame. It’s been hot and humid this week in South Bend, but the weather Saturday is expected to be much cooler. The Irish coaches have had plenty of time to anticipate the six-day turnaround, so it’s not likely it ultimately plays that much of a role.
5. The NBC broadcast
There’s a new name in the NBC Sports broadcast booth for Notre Dame’s three September games in 2016. Mike Tirico will handle the play by play Saturday when the Irish face Nevada and also when Notre Dame meets Michigan State and Duke. Dan Hicks has NBC golf assignments this month, then he will return to work the last three Irish games at Notre Dame Stadium as well as the Shamrock Series game. Tirico worked plenty of Notre Dame basketball games in 25 years with ESPN and ABC, but this will be his initial Notre Dame football assignment and the first time has set foot in Notre Dame Stadium.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler follows the Irish football scene for Fighting Irish Media. He’ll be in the Notre Dame Stadium press box Saturday, so look for his Sunday Brunch piece, an inside recap of what happens as Brian Kelly’s squad kicks off its 2016 home season.