It’s upon us — this weekend, months of anticipation, old game replays, and depth chart hypotheses will evaporate and give us sixty minutes of live, action-packed Texas Longhorns football, as the ‘Horns prepare to host the 10th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
I get chills thinking about it.
Sunday has the potential to be the most energetic crowd at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium since the West Virginia Mountaineers visited Austin back in 2012, which sent the crowd into a burnt orange frenzy unseen since Colt McCoy was slinging the football.
While plenty of storylines can be formulated before this tilt of college football titans, the game will eventually be determined by outstanding individual performances. Here are five non-quarterback players from both teams that will make an impact, for better or worse, on Sunday.
Dylan Haines (Safety)
Dylan Haines has given plenty of information for media members to write and talk about this offseason. A fan favorite to blame for poor defensive play, the senior from Lago Vista has fought back against his critics, telling media he’s unfairly stereotyped as a white athlete and fans just want to see him fail, so he can be replaced by younger players.
Well, now it’s time to see if Haines will back up his confident talk.
On Sunday, Haines and the rest of the defensive backfield will face the potent quarterback combination of Malik Zaire and Deshon Kizer, who combined for the eighth-ranked passing offense in college football last season according to S&P+ offensive efficiency rankings.
In last season’s opener, Zaire carved up the Texas passing defense, throwing for 313 yards on nineteen completions. The Texas secondary will need a far better performance this season if it expects to top the Irish, and it all starts with Haines.
The most reliable player on the back end according to defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, Haines acts as the quarterback of the secondary by lining players up and calling coverages.
“He can get aligned properly. He helps some of these young guys get aligned the right way,” Bedford said this week. “He’s kind of that piece of the puzzle. He’s in the right place at the right time a lot of the time.”
In addition to his leadership role and help in pass coverage, Haines is also expected to help in run support as well. With such a versatile, important role, it’s crucial that he’s at his best on Sunday.
D’Onta Foreman/Chris Warren (Running Back)
Yes, I cheated picking two players at the same time here, but when discussing the most important players to watch for, it’s hard not to pick both of the Smash Brothers. In offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s new offense, there’s going to be a heavy emphasis on giving the ball to Warren and Foreman, and I expect we’ll see a heavy dose of both against the Irish.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the coaching staff intends to split the carries, but the Longhorns are lucky to have two elite level backs ready to enter the game at any time. In such a tough game, I believe the two will need to combine for more than 160 yards if the Longhorns expect to win, barring an out of his mind performance by either Tyrone Swoopes or Shane Buechele.
This season, the offense will go as far as Warren and Foreman can take them. After seeing what both are capable of, I’m excited to see a full season where both are featured running backs.
Zach Shackelford (Center)
Assuming he’s at full health, the early enrollee from Belton will make his first start on Sunday against Notre Dame. It’s unusual for a player like Shackelford, the 1,075 ranked player in the country according to 247 Sports Composite, to start a season opener, but the Longhorns were forced to throw him into the fire after presumed starter Jake Raulerson departed during the offseason.
It’ll be intriguing to see how the freshman handles going against a tough, physical defensive front for the Irish. Will he be rattled and make crucial mistakes? As long as he’s serviceable, Texas should be in good shape since he’s lined up next to two experienced, talented guards in Kent Perkins and Patrick Vahe. If the Longhorns want to establish the ground game and give their quarterbacks time to throw the football, Shackelford will need to mature quickly.
Paul Boyette (Defensive Tackle)
The anchor of the defensive line, Paul Boyette is going to have his hands full on Sunday when he goes against one of the nation’s top offensive lines. Although the fifth-year senior has played in thirty games, he’s only started six of those. This season, he’s going to be asked to be the top dog at an extremely young position for the Longhorns where only three players have received snaps during a college football game.
The Notre Dame offense is going to try to run the ball down the middle of the Texas defense behind its talented line, something they had a lot of success doing last year. If the defense wants to ensure this is a competitive game, Boyette and the other defensive tackles are going need to step up, plug holes, and not let the Irish control the line of scrimmage for the entire game.
During his time on the Forty Acres, Boyette has shown flashes of becoming a very solid player. This year, however, is the time where the ‘Horns desperately need him to put it all together.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Torii Hunter Jr. (Wide Receiver)
The Irish lost its top four wide receivers from last season due to graduation, injuries (Corey Robinson), and the NFL Draft. So, where exactly does all this production go? Notre Dame hopes it’ll be to their new No. 1 wideout, Torii Hunter Jr. The son of MLB All-Star Torii Hunter, Torii Jr. has impressed during fall camp, and the Notre Dame coaches are confident he can lead the Irish receiving corps.
Notre Dame has two very talented quarterbacks at the helm, so all they really need are receivers to step up. Last season, Hunter only caught 28 passes for 363 yards, so his role should increase exponentially. I’m interested to see if Hunter has the athleticism and skill to become a true number one receiver in the Irish offense. He’ll be battling two of the Big 12’s top cornerbacks in Holton Hill and Davante Davis, so he’s in for a difficult first test.
Isaac Rochell (Defensive End)
Rochell is one of the most disruptive players on the Irish defense. In 2015, he recorded the most tackles on the defense line, finishing the season with 63. Prior to 2016, he was named to the watch lists for the Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player) and Bednarik Award (best defensive player).
Along with the accolades, Rochell is simply a physical beast who is a hard task for any offensive lineman. Look for defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to move the senior around on the defensive line to maximize match ups against a young Texas offensive front. While he doesn’t have the explosive sack numbers of a normal defensive end (he had one last season), Rochell is a dominant player against the run and is integral to the Irish rush defense. I also would expect his sack numbers to increase this season during his senior campaign. Perhaps Notre Dame’s most talented player on defense, the Longhorns will need to key on Isaac Rochell.
Avery Sebastian (Safety)
Following the dismissal of Max Redfield just a short time ago, senior Avery Sebastian moved into the starting lineup alongside Drue Tranquill. After spending most of his career at California, the sixth year senior transferred to Notre Dame last fall, but suffered a season-ending injury during the season opener against Texas. Luckily for Sebastian, he fell into a starting job this season.
However, Sebastian is just another guy with little starting experience in the Irish secondary. In addition to Redfield, the Irish also lost cornerbacks Nick Watkins (injury), Devin Butler (injury/suspension), and Keivarae Russell (NFL Draft), as well as starting safety Elijah Shumate (graduation). This secondary is also young, with five underclassmen listed on the two deep chart.
In other words, the Irish have no idea what to expect out of its secondary. If Texas were to exploit one area on the field, it would be Notre Dame’s defensive backfield. Sebasitian, like Dylan Haines for the Longhorns, is going to be asked to do a lot, and I want to see how he reacts after filling in the starting role. Will the Longhorns test him over the top early to see if they can exploit him? Since the Longhorns have multiple vertical threats, it’s certainly a possibility. Let’s see if Sebastian rises to the occasion.
Quenton Nelson/McGlinchey (Left Guard/Left Tackle)
Probably the most talented offensive line duo in the country, junior Quenton Nelson and senior Mike McGlinchey are a a big reason why Notre Dame is considered to have the best offensive line in the country. If both enter the NFL Draft, they will both be early-round picks.
This weekend is going to be a battle in the trenches with both teams attempting to exert their will on the other. On offense for the Irish, Nelson and McGlinchey are going to a play a huge role in that. Don’t be surprised if the Irish run the ball to the left side repeatedly against the Longhorns because it’s hard to match this bruising combo. In pass protection, the two upperclassmen are also outstanding, and whoever is playing quarterback for the Irish should never have to worry about his blind side. I’m curious to see if the Longhorns can find a way to confuse this outstanding tandem, or will they bulldoze the Texas defensive line all game.
With so many talented players and so much hype surrounding the game, Sunday is going to be fun for a multitude of reasons. Get excited fans, football is back.