What can the Texas Longhorns expect when they walk into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday evening for a primetime tilt against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish as two of the most prestigious programs in college football history meet for the 11th time and the first time since 1996.
To preview that match up, we exchanged questions with Patrick Burns (pburns2010) to get some expert insight into head coach Brian Kellys
1. Y'all mentioned this in your questions to me, but Notre Dame had been in a long rebuilding process when Brian Kelly arrived. How did he turn things around in South Bend and are the expectations of Golden Domers are high as some in the national media who are predicting a possible College Football Playoff birth for the Fighting Irish?
PB: The crater from which Brian Kelly has lifted us from was pretty spectacular. Bob Davie was an alright coach who made some questionable in-game decisions, but kept the ship mostly pointed in the right direction. Tyrone Willingham I don't believe ever actually recruited a player, and Charlie Weis couldn't develop anything other than quarterbacks and wide receivers, and also brought in a very entitled sense of being to the Notre Dame locker room.
Much like Charlie Strong at Texas, Brian Kelly came in and immediately set to work on changing the feel and mood of the team. No more entitlement -- it was all about hard work and doing it for the guy next to you. He made a famous "my guys" statement in that first season that got blown way out of proportion, but went to show you that he really felt like there was a portion of the team he still needed to buy in. That was step one. Step two was simply recruiting across the board to replenish what was a ruined depth chart. Only now, in 2015, would I say that we are at full strength across the board.
The expectations are a little bit all over the place for a lot of ND fans this year. I would slot most fans into "about 10 wins" and a shot at the playoff, but there's certainly folks who think we'll go 8-4 again, just like every year, and some who think 14-0. I personally fall in the 10-2 camp.
2. The last month or so hasn't really gone to plan for Kelly's team, as there have been some serious injuries and significant attrition, including the season-ending injury to defensive tackle Jarron Jones and the departure of former five-star running back Greg Bryant. For Texas fans who haven't been paying close attention, can you quickly run through all those losses and provide some perspective on how much they will impact the upside of the 2015 team?
PB: I'll speak first about the Bryant departure, since it won't truly affect the Notre Dame team. He would have likely been a kick returner and spelled the starting running back Tarean Folston, but wasn't a huge part of the plans this year (as far as we can tell).
Jarron Jones is a MUCH larger injury. He was hurt at the end of last season, when powerhouses such as Northwestern and Louisville ran riot over our defensive line. He was going to bring some much needed beef to the defensive front. That being said, he was coming off of injury, so there's no guarantee that he would have had the impact we were all hoping for. Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery (true freshman) will pick up the slack, and as long as they give us average snaps, the rest of the defense should be able to pick them up.
I would say these losses combined may cost us the equivalent of one game this season.
3. Even though junior quarterback Malik Zaire has only started two games at Notre Dame, he already seems entrenched as Notre Dame's QB1. Is he ready to step into that full-time starter role with no issues after only 35 games or do you anticipate a few bumps along that road? What are his strengths and weaknesses right now?
PB: Yes, he's certainly entrenched as our No. 1 -- backup DeShone Kizer had a ton of question marks heading into fall camp, and it appears he has put those to bed, but Zaire is still the unquestioned QB1. I don't think it will be all sunshine and rainbows this year, as he has a tendency to rocket every pass, not using enough touch on some balls. He is also far less accurate than Everett Golson was, so I'm interested to see how the passing game changes under Zaire.
Where Zaire sets himself apart is his physicality in the running game and his amazing leadership. I'm pretty sure he could talk most of these guys into running into a burning building just to get some Torchy's Tacos (please, anyone, send me Torchy's Tacos). The versions of the Notre Dame season that end with the Irish in the playoff all have a heavy dose of Malik Zaire willing his team to victory.
4. Which skill-position player on offense should the Longhorns be most afraid of breaking off a big, game-changing play or two this weekend?
PB: There is a TON of talent across the skill positions for the Irish, so this is a tough one for me to answer. As far as a jaw-dropping "did he just do that" type play, I think freshman tight end Aliz'e Jones is the No. 1 candidate to do something that makes you think he's not as human as the rest of us.
As far as a breakaway score, or making something out of nothing, I would expect CJ Prosise to make a big play on a jet sweep or screen pass at some point on Saturday.
5. Texas head coach Charlie Strong said that he would blitz the Longhorns every time if he was the opposing defensive coordinator going against a team with two true freshmen starting along the offensive line. Is that the strategy that you expect Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to adopt on Saturday and what are some of his favorite blitzes?
PB: Its BVG, so yes. Blitzes will be coming early and often from everywhere on the field. He really likes using his nickelback in blitzes, and we have shown in camp the desire to put KeiVarae Russell (our most dynamic corner) in the slot to cause the quarterback some pain. He will run very complex zone blitzes, and it's not uncommon to see defensive tackle Sheldon Day in coverage. BVG will give everything he can to the Texas offensive line.
(Good example here.)
6. The Irish return a ton of starts from a defense that started out strong last year and then faltered down the stretch for a number of reasons. Is this group going to build on last year's early-season success or are there concerns that better health and more experience won't solve those late-season struggles?
PB: There's definitely concerns, particularly against uptempo and option offenses (we face both GT and Navy this year). Brian VanGorder's scheme is extremely complicated from all accounts, so hopefully another year will prove to be advantageous for the defense. The biggest concern comes in that it is so complicated that only one year extra isn't enough.
I will be interested to see the amount that ND substitutes and plays packages/situations this weekend. I would expect this to be way down against an uptempo team as Texas appears to be this season, but we have no idea what we will actually see until it happens on Saturday.
7. How do Notre Dame fans feel about this contest and the trip to Austin that looms next season. And what should Texas fans expect when they arrive in South Bend? Are the Fighting Irish faithful more like Ohio State fans or more like Nebraska fans?
PB: Very excited about this, I am trying all I can to convince my wife to let me start planning the trip to Austin now. Two great programs, and there's a ton of respect from both fanbases it seems like. You can ask your neighbors to the north about how they thought the hospitality was when they were here. I'd say we're great hosts, and very happy to have y'all here. (Did I y'all correctly?)
For those of you making the trip, I would suggest checking out the Word of Life mural (Touchdown Jesus), the Main Building, the Grotto, and the Basilica on campus. Just off campus, if you enjoy a beverage or two, I suggest heading to Between the Buns for a Papa Smurf, and possibly heading to the Linebacker Lounge if you like bad music and sticky feet.