This morning, we previewed the Hoos' first opponent, the UCLA Bruins. In week two, the gauntlet continues with a home date against Notre Dame. One Foot Down helps us know what to expect from the golden domers in 2015.
STL: Virginia and Notre Dame have only played once before, a season kickoff game at the Meadowlands in 1989. Obviously lots has changed since then, especially Notre Dame's quasi-membership in the ACC. What's the feeling among the Irish faithful after the first season of ACC-heavy football?
OFD: Well, if we ND fans can set aside or get over the fear that the partnership may draw Notre Dame closer to eventual full membership in a conference (obviously likely to be the ACC) I think most would agree it's been good so far, and begrudgingly a necessary move in this new post-realignment College Football Playoff world.
There's typically a perception outside of Notre Dame that the Irish would be a better fit in the Big Ten, usually based on geography and some rivalries. But there's always been heavy opposition to such a move, while joining the ACC (especially when factoring in the other sports) was a much more popular decision.
Culturally, the ACC is a much better fit for Notre Dame. The campuses are more similar, there are more private schools, and academically the ACC fits Notre Dame's vision much, much better. With football in particular it stabilizes the Irish schedule, opens up the door to some new rivalries, and gives us a much bigger presence in the Eastern seaboard and Southeast parts of the country where population has boomed and a lot of football talent resides.
You know, there's nothing we can do about playing 6 home games every year in the Midwest and there's very little lobbying to play 4 or 5 more in Michigan, or Iowa, or Illinois. Give us the ACC with warmer weather, pretty campuses, and expansion into talent-rich regions of the country all day.
STL: Things took a nose dive for the Irish in 2014 after the controversial loss to Florida State. Was that a matter of a back-loaded schedule, or did something really go wrong halfway through the year?
OFD: It was a mixture of a back loaded schedule, turnovers, and a bunch of injuries.
The Irish defense under new DC Brian VanGorder looked very good through the first third to half of the schedule but some cracks began to show in the scheme after a few weeks and then injuries opened the floodgates. Over the last few weeks of the season Notre Dame was using maybe 4 or 5 regulars who were projected to start in fall camp but in some areas relying on third team, and even fourth team players. We even burned one of our 4-star defensive tackle's redshirts for game 11 and he too got hurt.
And while the offense remained pretty good and downright explosive at times it was Golson's turnover problems that were their Achilles heel on that side of the ball. We needed to really overwhelm some teams with our offense and just couldn't get it done down the stretch.
STL: Going into Brian Kelly's sixth season, what's the read on his career at Notre Dame? A lot of schools would be thrilled with a coach who averages 9 wins a season and took a team to the BCS National Championship Game, but Notre Dame operates on different standards. Have you gotten about what you expected?
OFD: Kelly's career has been fascinating so far because he doesn't fit neatly into a box that so many Notre Dame fans (and perhaps non-Irish fans) have come to expect. We're talking about a school where the last 4 National Championship winning coaches won their first title on or before their third season in South Bend. Kelly had a shot to keep that odd streak alive but I'm sure everyone remembers that night in Miami in early 2013.
I think you could probably build a broad consensus, plus or minus some issues that are hotly debatable, that we've gotten what we expected from Kelly. He's a good, perhaps even a very good coach, who hasn't really shown himself to be an elite head coach.
But like I said, he's just in a weird spot right now. Most Notre Dame coaches have made it abundantly clear they were either great or terrible at the job after 3 or 4 years. As things stand today, Kelly has a lot in common in terms of winning percentage with Elmer Layden (coached in the 1930's never won a title but generally had really good teams) and Dan Devine--and Devine was a little more dominant and picked up a National Title in 1977.
I'm not sure we know where to put or what to do with someone like Brian Kelly who has fielded a bunch of solid teams but hasn't really been able to break through and win the Big One or even a major bowl--which by the way Notre Dame still hasn't done since 1993. Breaking that streak in 2015, at minimum, is a goal this year.
STL: Who are the most important players to watch who return from last season? Which newcomers are you most excited about?
OFD: On offense the big names to know who return are Ronnie Stanley, Will Fuller, Tarean Folston, and C.J. Prosise.
Stanley is a redshirt junior left tackle and maybe the top NFL prospect at his position. It was a really close call about him coming back so we got lucky he's anchoring the left side again.
Fuller is small and wasn't even projected to start going into camp last year but he exploded for 15 touchdowns and easily became the top receiver on the team. He occasionally has problems fighting the ball and doesn't have great hands, but he's lightning quick. He's equally dangerous weaving through traffic on a screen or taking the top off the defense.
Folston is a solid around back who should see a lot of carries now that projected backup Greg Bryant is suspended for the entire season. Folston isn't a burner, but he's elusive in small spaces and packs a lot of power in his 5-9 frame.
Prosise came on strong late last year and continued to develop in the spring. He was an athlete projected to play safety coming out of high school in Virginia (see, we like to recruit here!) but switched to offense after a redshirt year. As late as last year he was still splitting time in the slot and playing really well as a tackler on special teams but due to Bryant's suspension and his own skill-set he's ascended to a role where the Irish are just going to get him the ball at running back or the slot, or in the return game. He's still raw but has outrageous speed in a 6-1, 220 pound frame.
On defense I'd focus on Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones, and KeiVarae Russell.
Smith has blown up this off-season into a Top 15 NFL prospect and plays our weak-side linebacker position while moving around quite a bit to take advantage of his skills. Pound for pound he might be the most athletic defender in the country. At 235 he runs like a track star and his linebacker skills are just getting better and better.
Schmidt is a former walk-on who won the starting middle linebacker job last year as a redshirt junior. He's short (maybe 6-0, hence a lack of offers coming out of Mater Dei) but he's super smart, tough, and really quick to the ball. He broke his ankle in the Navy game and the defense kind of fell apart without him. Even while missing several games to close out the season he still was voted Defensive MVP by the team.
Sheldon Day is a penetrating 3-tech interior lineman who hasn't quite lived up to his hype after a really promising freshman season that saw him grab time on a loaded D-line in 2012. He's also dealt with injuries every year which hasn't helped. We're hoping his senior season is finally that big year and even though he's kind of a shorter typical tackle we'll be putting him at end in pass rushing situations to get him after the quarterback more often.
Jones is a hulking nose tackle who went from being a question mark prior to 2014 to becoming one of the best at his position when he turns it on. He's adept at taking on double teams but shows really good quickness for his size and can be a problem in the backfield if left alone. He too went down with a lisfranc injury towards the end of the season. He's healthy now.
Russell was garnering some All-American buzz as a corner coming into 2014 but was suspended all of last year as one of the Frozen 5 who sat out due to an academic cheating investigation. He's been readmitted and is back as one of the starting corners again. His duo mate Cole Luke might actually be better (or at least had a really good sophomore season in his own right) so this is supposed to be a great 1-2 punch for the Irish in the secondary.
If we're talking newcomers I'd point to Malik Zaire, Alize Jones, C.J. Sanders, and Shaun Crawford.
Zaire is the new quarterback who saw a little bit of time last year, played the second half of the USC game, and started the bowl game. He's performed really well so far on the big stage. I know this sounds crazy, and it is to a degree, but his game is similar to a shorter Tim Tebow. He's left-handed, is a very willing and powerful runner, and is a very fiery leader. Although he has a really strong arm his passing has been noted as a little suspect (especially in practice where the media has seen him throw more) so we're all anxious to see how he does playing an entire season.
Elsewhere there just isn't a lot of room for newcomers. We're basically replacing one offensive lineman, a tight end, and Golson on offense, while the defense is bringing back essentially all 11 starters and the entire 2-deep.
Jones was the top tight end this past recruiting cycle and is already getting pushed onto the 1st team offense. He'll likely be a flex tight end and dynamic pass catcher but maybe not a guy who plays a ton early. Sanders is likely to be limited to a return guy and might win one of those jobs as a true freshman. Crawford was basically a 5-star corner in everything but height coming out of high school and is expected to make an impact immediately as a nickel or dime defender.
STL: What are the biggest strength and the biggest weakness of the 2015 Fighting Irish? What does this team need to do to count this season as a success?
ND: This team should be very good at running the ball, but I wouldn't argue with anyone who wants to see it to believe it. We'll probably be morphing into more of a power run spread team (see the bowl game against LSU) because Zaire is that type of quarterback. Our offensive line is supposed to be one of the best units in the country and Zaire could potentially carry the ball 150 times a game and completely open things up for the offense. If he's better than competent as a passer this should be a really explosive offense that can beat you in a lot of different ways.
But, if team's don't respect Zaire's passing and he struggles as defenses stack the box things might not be that great. The brighter forecasters think we might be able to simply overpower teams regardless, but there's doubt.
Defensively, the Brian Kelly defenses have generally been very good at stopping the run when healthy. With so many guys coming back that should be the case this year.
However, VanGorder runs an aggressive blitzing style that struggled getting a pass rush up front and was neutralized starting in the middle of last year by up-tempo, quick-passing teams. We're still waiting on a legit pass rusher up front (I think most ND fans blow this concern up to epic proportions but it is generally a weakness) and there are questions about our safeties, too.
Elijah Shumate shined as a nickel corner in 2012 and has spent the past couple seasons not really figuring out the strong-safety role. Beside him Max Redfield was a massive 5-star prospect but barely played as a freshman and was more down than up last year as starter--even being benched at one point. We don't really have effective or defined backups at safety yet (although experienced Cal grad transfer Avery Sebastian helps) so if there's an injury or the starter's can't live up to expectations it's potentially a huge problem.
What counts as success this year? If we win less than 9 games I'd have a hard time seeing Kelly not being on the hot seat. A 9-3 season would be met with a lot of moans, depending on the outcome of a bowl game. A 10-2 season is probably the base line for success this year but a 10-3 season could be too depending on some circumstances.
It's going to be tough, especially with a front-loaded schedule. We're opening with a pair of Power 5 conference teams and Virginia has played well at home lately. Then 3 of our toughest games (Georgia Tech, Clemson, USC) are over the next 5 weeks, with pesky Navy thrown in there to boot. It won't be easy going 7-0 or 6-1 against that lineup.