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Sunday Brunch: 20 Questions on Notre Dame Football 2016

Aug. 28, 2016

By John Heisler

The highly successful 2015 University of Notre Dame football season is in the rearview mirror, as are the 2016 Irish spring drills. It’s now only a week until the Texas Longhorns play host to Notre Dame to begin the 2016 campaign on the first Sunday night in September.

So let’s consider 20 questions Irish fans–and potentially Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and his staff–have been mulling over during the summer and through fall camp:

1. It’s been a long time since Notre Dame had so many players show so impressively in the NFL Draft as in 2016. Start with consensus All-Americans Ronnie Stanley at offensive tackle and Jaylon Smith at linebacker, throw in first-team All-America receiver Will Fuller–and add draftees C.J. Prosise, KeiVarae Russell, Sheldon Day and Nick Martin. Seven other undrafted Irish signed pro contracts. That means there are lots of holes to fill for the 2016 Notre Dame season–gaps left behind by some extremely productive departed players. In fact, some of the roster analyses for 2016 suggest Notre Dame will have one of the lower number of starters returning of any team in the country. Still, the experts are high on the Irish in 2016. The Associated Press rated Notre Dame 10th in its preseason poll, while the coaches rated the Irish ninth. Several preseason magazines predicted Notre Dame would end up one of four teams in the College Football Playoff. So, despite a comparative lack of Irish experience, the prognosticators apparently are convinced Kelly has the talent on hand to again be a CFP contender. Without the same sort of star power as a year ago, does Notre Dame have the makings of a CFP team for 2016?

2. From strictly a numbers standpoint, Notre Dame lost from its 2015 roster (and final stat sheet) its leading rusher (C.J. Prosise), its top three pass-catchers (Will Fuller, Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle), its top four tacklers (Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate, Max Redfield), its leaders in sacks (Romeo Okwara), tackles for loss and quarterback hurries (Sheldon Day) and interceptions (KeiVarae Russell), as well as offensive line standouts Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Steve Elmer. Can the Irish in 2016 fill all those blanks and be as productive across the board as the Irish were last fall?

3. About 16 months ago Irish fans were pondering if quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire might end up sharing the position in 2015 after that worked effectively in a 2014 Music City Bowl win against LSU. That option never came to fruition after Golson left for Florida State and Zaire broke an ankle in the second game of 2015 at Virginia–leaving relatively untested sophomore DeShone Kizer to play through the 2015 season. Realistically, Kizer could not have been much more impressive than he was last fall in fulfilling Kelly’s “next man in” philosophy. With Zaire healthy again in 2016 spring drills, both Kizer and Zaire took their shots at the starting role. Kelly last spring acknowledged that it wouldn’t be an easy decision to name the starter this fall, and that someone was likely to be unhappy. Then, 10 days ago, Kelly said he now plans to use both Zaire and Kizer in games to begin the season (with a more specific plan to be determined). That leaves a question identical to one from a year ago: What does the future hold at quarterback for Notre Dame?

4. The Irish thought their 2015 running game would be based on the contributions of returning backs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston. But, like at quarterback, neither of the top two names on the early depth chart ended up making a big impact. Bryant left Notre Dame during the summer, and Folston suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Texas. At a second position where “next man in” evolved in headline-making fashion, C.J. Prosise came on to become a dominant back capable of hitting the 100-yard mark on any given week–and rookie Josh Adams got better every week. He had four 100-yard games of his own, including 168 in the regular-season finale at Stanford. Prosise left for the NFL, but Folston is healthy again, Adams has a chance to develop even further, and Dexter Williams is expected to be a contributor. Can the Irish be a consistently very good (if not great) running team?

5. The loss of Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Steve Elmer–especially considering just how much football that trio played over the last few seasons–would suggest that Notre Dame’s offensive line might take a step back in 2016. But don’t tell that to offensive line coach Harry Hiestand or offensive tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey or any of the newest names expected to impact that unit. Hiestand has built a reputation for constructing consistently productive units up front–and in 2016 he will build around McGlinchey. There are a host of young and talented Irish offensive linemen in the mix–Tristen Hoge, Colin McGovern, Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher, Hunter Bivin and Alex Bars, among others–most all of them highly regarded when they showed up on campus. Can Harry Hiestand put together an offensive line capable of allowing the Irish offense to prosper once again?

6. There is a host of players on the roster who missed all–or virtually all–of the 2015 campaign. That list includes running back Tarean Folston, safety Drue Tranquill, quarterback Malik Zaire, tight end Durham Smythe, defensive lineman Jarron Jones, cornerback Shaun Crawford and safety Avery Sebastian. Given how long it’s been since these individuals played in live football games, is it realistic to expect all of them to hit the ground running (literally) when the 2016 season begins in Austin?

7. There’s probably no Notre Dame position area that has endured more turnover from a year ago than the receiving crew. Gone are game-changing speedster Will Fuller, ultra-dependable and often under-the-radar Chris Brown, matchup nightmare Corey Robinson, all-purpose specialist Amir Carlisle, along with back C.J. Prosise, who proved he could catch as well as he could run. The most prominent name returning is captain Torii Hunter Jr., and he’ll have help from Equanimeous St. Brown, CJ Sanders, Corey Holmes, Miles Boykin and potentially some freshmen. What’s the next step for Notre Dame’s passing game?

8. Notre Dame has been as good as any program in the country at placing its tight ends onto National Football League rosters–including Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas in recent years. The 2016 Irish roster at that slot lists Durham Smythe, Tyler Luatua, Nic Weishar and former lineman Jake Matuska–and between them they had six receptions in 2015. Can a less-experienced-than-usual list of tight end candidates fill the bill for the Irish in 2016?

9. A year ago this time Kyle Brindza had left South Bend as the Notre Dame career leader in field goals (57) and he was no slouch as a punter his last two seasons either. Still, Tyler Newsome filled the bill quite admirably as a punter (44.5 average) in 2015, and freshman Justin Yoon did the same in the field goal department (15 of 17). Newsome was so impressive in the 2016 Blue-Gold game that he merited MVP honors. Is there a team in the country with two more competent and yet unsung players in the kicking game?

10. In a perfect world, Notre Dame can both run and throw the ball effectively anytime it wants to. That would enable Irish coaches, who believe heavier doses of throws or runs can be most effective against that week’s opponent, to create potentially completely different game plans from scratch each week. There’s lots of raw material for the Irish to be more than competent in both areas this fall. What will be the ultimate identity of the Notre Dame offensive unit in 2016–and how will that identity be impacted if both Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer are consistent factors week to week at quarterback?

11. Notre Dame’s Atlantic Coast Conference matchups in 2016 are intriguing. Old rival Miami comes to town for the first time in 24 years. Perennial power Virginia Tech visits Notre Dame Stadium and represents a first-time Irish opponent. Both those programs have new head coaches in Mark Richt and Justin Fuente. The Irish also play host to Duke, a recent ACC contender and a program that has been on the Notre Dame schedule only once (2007 at Notre Dame Stadium) since 1966. Kelly takes a Notre Dame team to play in Raleigh for the first time against North Carolina State. The lone previous meeting between the Irish and Wolfpack came in the 2002 Gator Bowl. How will Notre Dame fare against its ACC foes in 2016?

12. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder knows that, at least on paper, his 2016 defense doesn’t rate long on experience. The only returnees who started seven or more games last fall are captains James Onwaulu (linebacker) and Isaac Rochell (defensive line), defensive lineman Daniel Cage and cornerback Cole Luke. Can the Notre Dame defense, with two full years working under VanGorder, put things together on a more consistent basis this fall?

13. Put on the tape from just about any Notre Dame game the last few years and you are struck by the way linebacker Jaylon Smith (the 2015 Butkus Award winner) consistently made plays all over the field with his speed and quickness. Joe Schmidt, once a walk-on, created his own list of contributions in working his way into the lineup (those two combined for an amazing 369 tackles in 2014 and 2015 combined). But those two have moved on, as has Jarrett Grace, whose playing time lagged only because of injury. The names at the forefront at linebacker now are captain James Onwaulu, Greer Martini, Nyles Morgan and Te’von Coney. Can Notre Dame’s rebuilt linebacking corps come anywhere near the numerical productivity of the Jaylon Smith years?

14. The Irish lost a pair of defensive linemen to the 2016 NFL Draft–Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara. That leaves captain Isaac Rochell as the logical headliner of a unit that also includes returning starter Daniel Cage along with Andrew Trumbetti, Jerry Tillery, Jonathan Bonner and Jarron Jones as returning letter-winners. Can Notre Dame’s defensive front this fall be one of the strong points of the depth chart?

15. The Irish secondary is another area on the Notre Dame roster that doesn’t feature a long listing of veterans. Senior cornerback Cole Luke tops that chart, and he’ll have help at that position from sophomore Shaun Crawford, who missed all of 2015 due to injury, and junior Nick Watkins, a starter in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. The safety positions likely will showcase junior Drue Tranquill, also an injury victim in 2015, and maybe even a true freshman in Devin Studstill. How well will the Irish secondary stand up in 2016 with a bare minimum of returnees with extensive game experience?

16. A year ago, Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was still fine-tuning his approach on that side of the ball, while assistant head coach Mike Denbrock and first-year offensive coordinator Mike Sanford were working their way through the planning process for the Irish offense for the initial time. Brian Kelly had no staff turnover in the offseason, so all nine full-time assistants return for 2016. What will that coaching continuity mean for the Irish in 2016?

17. C.J. Sanders added some serious juice to the Irish return game as a rookie last fall–and now he’s primed to play a much more prominent role as part of the receiving corps as well. Sanders returned both a punt and a kickoff for scores in 2015–and only two other Irish players in history have done that in the same season. Can Sanders continue his all-purpose contributions in 2016 as well as make Irish fans stand up in anticipation every time he’s back to return a punt or kickoff?

18. When Notre Dame walked off the field last September at Clemson, little did the Irish know they had just lost a last-second decision against the only team that would finish the regular season unbeaten and a team that would play for the CFP title. Then, after DeShone Kizer’s TD run gave Notre Dame a late lead at Stanford, the only other Irish regular-season defeat came on the final play of that game. Can the Irish play at that elite level again in 2016?

19. Notre Dame played in the national championship game in 2012, won bowl games in consecutive years (2013 and 2014) for the first time since the early 1990s–and then made a season-long push for a CFP slot in 2015. What’s in the postseason future for the Irish?

20. Notre Dame’s 2016 schedule features four teams that won bowl games to finish 2015 (Stanford, Duke, Virginia Tech and Navy). The three Notre Dame defeats in 2015 came against teams that finished among the top four in the final Associated Press top 25 (#2 Clemson at 14-1, #3 Stanford at 12-2 and #4 Ohio State at 12-1)–and the 2016 schedule includes three teams that ended up in that same final AP poll (#3 Stanford, #6 Michigan State at 12-2 and #18 Navy at 11-2). The 2016 preseason AP poll lists Stanford eighth, Michigan State 12th and USC 20th (those same three teams rate seventh, 11th and 17th in the poll of coaches). How strongly will Notre Dame’s 2016 agenda ultimately rank?

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been part of the Notre Dame athletics communications team since 1978.