As the 2015 college football season gets underway this week, expectations are high in South Bend as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish look poised to bounce back from a 7-5 season a year ago. Last year, the Irish looked strong in the first half of the season, starting out 6-0 were ranked in the top five. After that it all went south. The Irish struggled in the second half of the season, going 1-5 in their last six games. Quarterback Everett Golson faltered down the stretch with key turnovers late in games that cost the Irish. The Irish defense, that started out the year in the top 10 in the country in defensive efficiency, gave up nearly 350 yards through the air over those final six games of the season, and also gave up nearly 200 yards a game. The Irish did end the season on a good note however, defeating LSU in the Music City Bowl to end the year. Now in 2015, Notre Dame brings back a talented array of starters on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. They are once again ranked in the top 25 to begin the year, coming in at number 11 in the AP poll. With the number of returning starters coming back and a schedule that plays in the favor of the Irish, Notre Dame looks to correct last season’s mistakes and make 2015 a special year in South Bend.
Since the start of spring practice, everyone in South Bend has been talking about the quarterback position. It would be a tough competition all throughout the spring and into fall camp, at least that’s what everybody was thinking. Would it be Everett Golson or would it be Malik Zaire? That all took a different course when Everett Golson announced he would be transferring to Florida State to finish his college career. With Golson gone, the offense will be relying on the arm and legs of Malik Zaire to carry the Irish into 2015. Zaire provided glimpses of potential as a backup last season. Zaire played phenomenally in the final regular season game vs USC, and in the Music City Bowl vs LSU. Against the Tigers, Zaire rushed 22 times for 96 yards and a touchdown. He also threw the ball well, completing 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and one touchdown. Quarterback competitions have been standard under head coach Brian Kelly, but with the certainty this season at the position, that should be a plus for the Irish heading into this season. Malik Zaire has the ball in his hands and it’s his team to lead in 2015.
What is very helpful this season for Malik Zaire is that he will have the offensive line to allow him to stay upright and give him time in the pocket to throw the ball. It will also help the running backs out to give them the holes they will need to run through. With left tackle Ronnie Stanley back along with three other starters from the Music City Bowl last season, the Irish have the muscle up front to keep Zaire clean and keep the running game strong. Captain Nick Martin returns back at center and is now healthy after missing most of last season with a knee injury. Tackle Mike McGlinchey and guard Steve Elmer round out the line’s right side while on the other side of the line, Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars are battling for the left guard spot.
The wide receiving this year could be one of the best in the history of the program. Junior Will Fuller returns after coming on strong last season, and showing that he is a legitimate deep threat down field. Last season, Fuller had 76 catches for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns. He will be the leader of the receivers for the Irish and has a lot of NFL scouts paying close attention to him. Chris Brown returns for his senior season as wide receiver. Brown has the speed to get the outside or play slot alongside Fuller. He had 39 receptions for 548 yards and three touchdowns. The story of spring ball with the wide receivers was C.J. Prosise, the converted running back turned receiver was the standout during spring ball and is expected to be a standout during this season as well. Last season, Prosise lead the team in yards per catch with 17.8. He has 29 catches last season for 515 yards and two touchdowns. Rounding out the wide receivers is junior, Cory Robinson. Robinson is the son of former NBA center and hall of famer, David Robinson. He is a versatile wide receiver who could see more starting time this season. He had 40 receptions last season for 539 yards and 5 touchdowns. With athleticism, versatility and speed down the field, look for quarterback Malik Zaire to have some big plays downfield with this group of wide receivers in 2015.
The running back position for the Irish is led by junior, Tarean Folston. Folston struggled early last season but found his groove at the midway point, finishing the season with 889 rushing yards and finished second on the team with 6 rushing touchdowns. Folston also caught 18 passes last season for 190 yards and one touchdown. He is expected to shoulder the load of the running game this season after back up running back Greg Bryant was suspended for a violation of team rules. The Irish are expected to have a stronger emphasis on the running game this season than they have in past seasons. Folston will have to be the guy to carry the Irish on the ground.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Irish are looking to have an improved secondary after last season’s dismal debut in Brian VanGorder’s complex NFL scheme. It started poorly before last season even began, when top cornerback KeiVarae Russell was suspended during an academic misconduct investigation. It got worse when starting safety Austin Collingsworth got hurt in the final practice before the opener, and never returned to full health and missed the whole season. During the midway point of last season, safeties Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield were pulled from the line up in November, as the defensive production that had been strong early in the season just collapsed. Now, in 2015 Shumate and Redfield have been given another chance to prove their worth and hope to improve the Irish secondary. In a four game skid last season against Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville, and USC, Notre Dame allowed 178 points. Three years ago, when the Irish made their run to the BCS title game, they had only allowed 124 points all season. The secondary of the Irish must improve from last season if they want to be serious contenders towards the end of the season.
The bright spot for Notre Dame heading into the season is that the entire front seven returns. Star linebacker Jaylon Smith is on a lot of NFL Scouts big boards heading into this season. He is set to start at inside linebacker this season. Smith led the Irish last season in tackles with 112. The middle linebacker spot is a little more questionable this season, because the Irish have some depth at the position with Nyles Morgan, Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace. Schmidt was sidelined by a season ending injury last season against Navy and Morgan struggled at times during the season at the spot filling in for Schmidt. Morgan has the athletic ability to play middle linebacker, but the questions come in due to his lack of experience because he is just a sophomore. The defensive line that was ravaged by injures last season is close to healthy with its reinforcements much improved. Defensive tackle Sheldon Day will lead this group. Another NFL recruit, Day has the lateral quickness and he breaks down well in space to avoid opponents. Day had just one sack last season, and he must improve on that total this season for the Irish defense to become effective. Defensive end Issac Rochell is one of the most improved players for the Irish. Still young as a sophomore he has a lot of potential to become a great end for the Irish defense. He is a solid run stuffer, and had 2 sacks last season to go along with 39 tackles. He started all 13 games last season. The Irish look to have an improved defense this season and avoid any second half collapses or key injuries. If the defense can stay on pace this season and injury free it could be a very good year for Notre Dame.
For the Irish special teams, the biggest loss for them is kicker, Kyle Brindza. He was the do it all for the Irish. He handled field goals, kickoffs and punts and left Notre Dame with a dozen school records. Despite struggling in November, he made his last kick of his Notre Dame career worthwhile when kicked the game winning field goal to beat LSU in the Music City Bowl. The Irish staff doesn’t want one specialist to handle all three jobs this season. Incoming freshman Justin Yoon will kick field goals after making an impression in the Under Armour All American game in January. Redshirt freshman Tyler Newsome will take over the punting duties this season. The most interesting spot for the special teams this season could come at holder. For now its backup quarterback DeShone Kizer who has the holding duties but that could change as the season goes on.
Notre Dame’s schedule this season looks very different than in years past. For the first time in 99 years, the Irish won’t play a Big Ten Team. When Notre Dame signed the deal with the ACC it ended the rivalries with Michigan and Michigan State for the time being. The schedule this season is short on big names, but it’s not a walk in the park for Notre Dame. The Irish open up in primetime against Texas, but then the schedule gets tougher with challenges from ACC runner up Georgia Tech and then a trip to Death Valley to take on Clemson. Also, the game against Navy is always a trap game for the Irish. They also have rival USC at home this season and the Irish take their annual trip to the Shamrock Series game. This season it is at Fenway Park to play Boston College, and then they play Stanford at the end of the season.
If all goes well this season for Notre Dame, it could be a special year in South Bend. With this much talent on both sides of the ball, Notre Dame should be able to find a way to make it to the College Football Playoffs.