Thanks to Patrick Sullivan for answering some questions about Sunday’s match up between the Texas Longhorns and Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
BON: Notre Dame lost a number of big-time contributors from last season, including star wide receiver Will Fuller and all-world linebacker Jaylon Smith. Then some attrition happened in the offseason with the losses of wide receiver Corey Robinson, tight end Alize Jones, safety Max Redfield, and cornerback Devin Butler. Has head coach Brian Kelly recruited enough talent to effectively make up for all those losses?
OFD: That's the million-dollar question for the Irish this season. Just via the draft the Irish lost starters at receiver (2), running back (1), offensive line (2), cornerback (1), linebacker (1), and defensive line (1), not to mention graduating senior starters at safety (1), middle linebacker (1), and defensive end (1) and the above attrition you mentioned, which takes away starters from tight end (1), safety (1), and guard (1 - Steve Elmer retired from football to pursue a promising career in politics). That's 14 starter-level players lost since last year, so there are a lot of spots to fill.
Looking at all of those positions, it's definitely a mixed bag in terms of the depth Brian Kelly has recruited to replace those contributors. Wide receiver is a huge question mark, as Torii Hunter Jr. is the only guy who really provided any production at the position last season. However, there's plenty of potential there, including sophomores Equanimeous St. Brown (one of the best names in football) and C.J. Sanders (fun fact - he acted in the movie Ray as the child version of Ray Charles), who are expected to start alongside Hunter.
None of those guys are the vertical threat that Fuller is, but they, along with other players expected to contribute like big sophomore target Miles Boykin and speedy freshman Kevin Stepherson, give DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire plenty of talented guys to whom they can throw the ball. At tight end, Jones looked like a guy who was going to explode in his second season at Tight End U, but now much less-heralded TEs Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar will be holding down the fort there. Both are fine tight ends but definitely don't create the mismatches that an athlete like Jones would have brought to the table.
On the defensive side of the ball, replacing Jaylon Smith is next to impossible — I'm sure Texas fans can relate if they imagine giving Malik Jefferson another two years to develop and then taking him away from the squad. But with the departure of Smith and MLB Joe Schmidt, the linebacker corps gets younger and the middle linebacker position gets faster with junior Nyles Morgan finally grabbing the reins alongside Greer Martini, who looks to get the majority of the reps at Smith's old position. Meanwhile, the defensive line actually looks pretty stout despite losing Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara, with the return of DT Jarron Jones (injured all of 2015 regular season) and the leadership of senior Isaac Rochell.
Cornerback has good depth, albeit young and inexperienced, but safety is certainly going to be a problem with two new starters, one being sixth-year senior Avery Sebastian taking over Redfield's spot for the season opener. Redfield was just beginning to learn the intricacies of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's defense heading into his senior season, so Sebastian, who came in as an experienced but not athletically-stellar graduate transfer from Cal in 2015, is bound to make some mistakes alongside junior Drue Tranquill, who is fantastic against the run but admittedly slow and unproven in coverage. True freshman Devin Studstill will likely play a great deal at safety as well, but as promising as he is, there will likely be at least a few freshman moments for the newcomer this season.
BON: Like the 'Horns, the Fighting Irish are planning on playing two quarterback next Sunday. How is the team responding to that after Malik Zaire expressed some frustration with the arrangement and is that the best strategy, in your opinion, or does one quarterback give the team a better chance of winning?
OFD: I think everyone was expecting the decision to divide the locker room and really hurt the team, but from all reports Kizer and Zaire are still both competing at extremely high levels in practice and there hasn't been any word that it's negatively affecting the offense. Both QBs expressed frustration with the decision, but both have shown to be very tough competitors (physically and mentally) who put their team and winning first, so I don't think it will affect how they play, other than that switching QBs in and out might hinder their ability to get into that rhythm that comes with the territory of playing various series in a row.
In terms of strategy, I actually really like the decision. Are there many examples of coaches doing this, let alone succeeding at a championship-contending level while doing so? Nope. But most teams that "have two QBs and therefore have none" (or however that saying goes) don't have two QBs that would start for roughly 90% of teams in the country. I think Kizer is the better passer but is still great with his feet, and Zaire is the superior runner but can definitely also sling it.
Combining the two will keep defenses on their toes, and I have a feeling adding Zaire's running ability will really help ND improve in their red zone offense, which I can generously say was sub-par last year. I'm definitely excited to see how Kelly works both players into the offensive game plan and how the two of them respond to it.
BON: Texas head coach Charlie Strong is worried about how things go in the trenches with Notre Dame returning several starters along the offensive and defensive lines. How do you see that battle playing out and which players should Longhorns fans worry about and focusing on during the game?
OFD: Notre Dame is going to run left, and run left often. LT Mike McGlinchey takes over for top-10 NFL Draft pick Ronnie Stanley, and likely won't miss a beat considering his athleticism and a run-blocking ability that actually surpasses Stanley's. LG Quenton Nelson, like McGlinchey, has been named to a few preseason All-American teams and is considered one of the best guards in the country because of his size, tenacity, and footwork. Those two, along with a whole stable of super-talented behemoths that offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has brought in over the past four years, will definitely spell trouble for the Texas defensive front.
On the flip side, Notre Dame's starting defensive line is also pretty strong, although not nearly as talented or deep as the offensive front. Seniors Rochell and Jones are big, strong guys who are excellent in stopping the run and holding the point of attack, and young guys like Jerry Tillery, Jay Hayes, and Daniel Cage are big, athletic kids who are only getting better. The group doesn't have much talent waiting in the wings, though, and there might not be anyone who will provide much of a pass rush this season, unless someone like freshman Daelin Hayes is able to come in and immediately contribute that spark off the edge.
Overall, the two lines are definitely strong points for the Irish, but with a lack of a pass rush and limited depth on the ND defensive front, the Texas offensive line has a good chance of being able to give their QBs plenty of time to throw the ball and beat a young Irish secondary through the air. The Texas defensive line, though, probably won't enjoy the same success.
4) With a secondary depleted by some of that aforementioned attrition, is that an area where you could see the Irish struggle at all? Which players would you target if you were Texas offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert?
The secondary is certainly a group that could struggle, and if I were Gilbert I'd attack the back end and go after the safeties. Studstill looks like he's going to be a great safety for the next few years, but as a true freshman in VanGorder's system in his first game on the road in Austin, he won't make every right decision and stands to get burnt a time or two.
Between that and Sebastian and Tranquill's similar lack of speed or proven coverage ability, it just makes sense to go after those guys over the top, especially considering the potential depth behind the three of them are almost exclusively freshmen.
5) The spread for the game is now -3 1/2. Does that sound fair to you and how do you see this game playing out? Is there any chance that Notre Dame runs away with this one for a second year in a row?
Because this game is on the road and the Irish lost so much from last season, I think the spread is pretty fair. Texas is desperate to prove themselves and get a good start to a critical season for Charlie Strong's program, so I expect them to come out much more focused and execute much better than they did in the 2015 opener in South Bend.
With that being said, if this game is going to turn into a blowout, it's going to be at the expense of the Longhorns. I could easily see the ND running game asserting its dominance early, with Tarean Folston and Josh Adams and the two-headed Kizer-Zaire monster following that mammoth offensive line up and down the field to the delight of Irish fans.
If VanGorder's defense stays disciplined and prevents big plays, I think Notre Dame runs away with it. The weapons they have on offense are really that talented, and if Texas can't keep up, they could be in for a very rough night.