As the 2016 college football season begins this Sunday for Notre Dame, the expectations around South Bend are high as the Irish come into 2016 as the 10th ranked team in the country. But it still seems there are more questions surrounding the team this season than at this time last year. Last season, the Irish had higher expectations than in years past because of the talent they had on both sides of the ball. Many thought last season’s Notre Dame squad would compete, and be in, the four team playoff at season’s end. Notre Dame showed much promise as the season went on, even with the adversity and hampering injuries to key players. Notre Dame finished 2015 with a record of 10-3. Not bad when looking at it on paper, but it’s the what could have been scenarios that Irish fans will always remember about last season. It was the heartbreaking loss in the middle of a rainstorm in Clemson that came down to a missed 2 point conversion for the Irish. Then, the last game of the season at Stanford that will haunt Irish fans for years to come. Notre Dame scored a touchdown with 30 seconds to go to take a 36-35 lead over Stanford. It seemed that Notre Dame was about to win at Stanford and sneak into the College Football Playoff. However, it was not meant to be as Stanford came back and hit a 48 yard field goal as time expired to defeat Notre Dame 38-36 and knock the Irish out of the playoff and, instead, into the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. The season ended on a somber note as Ohio State had its way with Notre Dame from start to finish. The Buckeyes defeated Notre Dame 44-28. Notre Dame looks to rebound in 2016 with a better season than in 2015.
As tough as the 2015 season ending was for the Irish, it provided some glimmers of hope for 2016. Not many thought the Irish would recover after losing starting quarterback Malik Zaire in just the second game of the season at Virginia to a broken ankle. But that’s when redshirt sophomore DeShone Kizer came into the national spotlight. Under Kizer, the Irish went 9-3 and he helped lead Notre Dame and keep the Irish in the playoff mix all season. Kizer was a mixture of size and speed and he compiled up 2,884 yards passing and 21 touchdown passes and also ran for 540 yards and 10 touchdowns. Before going down with his broken ankle at Virginia, Malik Zaire looked very strong in his opening game for the Irish against Texas at Notre Dame Stadium. He completed 19 of 22 passes for 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Now that Malik Zaire has returned to full strength for 2016, it begs the question, who will start at quarterback for Notre Dame this season? That question was answered by Coach Brian Kelly. He believes a two quarterback system can work and he is going to try and prove that during their very first game of the season at Texas. Both Kizer and Zaire will get their chances to shine during the season opener in Austin against the Longhorns. The quarterback situation has been up for debate ever since last season ended. The Irish and the rest of the nation will get to see what both quarterbacks are capable of on Sunday night against Texas. This could be, once again, a long debate that could range on all season on who should truly be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame.
The Irish running game should be in good hands this season with senior, veteran running back Tarean Folston and sophomore running back Josh Adams. Folston looks to bounce back in his final season with Notre Dame, as last season was cut short in only his third carry of the opener against Texas where he suffered a torn ACL and was out for the season. Josh Adams took over and he did his job very well, running for a Notre Dame freshman record with 835 rushing yards, a 7.1 yards per carry average and 6 touchdowns including the longest run in Notre Dame Stadium history, a 98 yard touchdown run against Wake Forest. With a healthy Folston and Adams, the Notre Dame ground game looks to be at full peak during the 2016 season.
To get the ground game going, Notre Dame will need big production from the big guys up front. The Irish will have good experience on the offensive line this season. The left side of the line will include senior left tackle, Mike McGlinchey and left guard junior, Quenton Nelson. At center is Junior Sam Mustipher. Rounding out the right side of the Irish line is senior right guard Colin McGovern and junior right tackle, Alex Bars. Due to the sheer size of the offensive line this season, which averages a height of 6’5 and an average weight of 315 pounds, it should come to no surprise as to why Notre Dame could have a strong ground attack this season. Size certainly is not the only reason Notre Dame will have success on offense, but the size of the line-up does matter. The size and power of the offensive line allows Notre Dame’s offensive staff to build around the schemes it wants. It allows the Irish to have a more physical and downhill ground attack.
Notre Dame’s wide receiving core will be very different this season. Gone to the NFL is star wide receiver Will Fuller, who will go down as one of the best receivers in program history. Had Fuller stayed for his senior season, he most certainly would have broken most the wide receiving records at Notre Dame including yards and touchdowns which is still held by Michael Floyd. Fuller accounted for 1,145 yards and 13 touchdowns. Losing the main weapon on offense will be a big role to fill for the next line of incoming receivers for the Irish. This season, Irish fans will see the receiving core consist of Torii Hunter Jr, the main receiving threat who returns for his junior season and a pair of sophomores who will get their chance to make their mark in their early Notre Dame careers after not seeing much playing time last season. Last season Hunter Jr caught 28 passes for 363 yards and 2 touchdowns. He is the lone returning receiver to the team this season with senior Cory Robinson having to cut his football career short due to concussions. New to the starting wide receiver core are a pair of youngsters who will help the Irish on offense this season. Miles Boykin will be getting his first taste of playing time in a Notre Dame uniform after spending his freshman season on the scout team. The other sophomore who will see more playing time this season is Equanimeous St. Brown. He played in seven games last season as a reserve receiver and on special teams. Caught one pass for 8 yards and also blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown. Boykin and St. Brown give the Irish size on the outside as Hunter will be in the slot.
The Irish defense will look to rebuild as 6 key starters from last season are now gone and the Irish must find a way to cope with those losses to regain strength in its defense. It won’t be easy for Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to find players who will be able to match the caliber of players like linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt or the defensive ends Sheldon Day and Romero Okwara, and losing two key players in the secondary in KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate. The Irish defense strength this season will come up front. The returning veteran leader of this group is veteran defensive end Issac Rochell. Other returners include promising pass rusher Andrew Trumbetti, nose tackle Jerron Jones, and highly touted defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. The Irish have improved very significantly under Brian Kelly is in developing defensive line depth. How that talent will stack up this season remains to be seen. The Irish had a mixture of success last season, they were terrific on third down situations but when it came down to the red zone, the defense struggled mightily. The secondary boasts little experience beyond cornerback Cole Luke who had a better sophomore season two years ago than junior season last year. James Onwualu replaces Joe Schmidt as the brains of the defense at Sam linebacker. Highly regarded linebacker Nyles Morgan finally gets his chance to shine after having not started at linebacker the past 2 seasons. One side of corner has veteran Cole Luke and the other consists of Shaun Crawford who missed the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL. Safety Drew Tranquill looks to finally be a full contributor in the secondary after having missed the past two seasons with torn ACL tears in both knees.
The Irish boast a very good one two punch at kicker and punter. Sophomore kicker Justin Yoon converted on all of his extra points as a true freshman and connected on 15 of 17 field goals during the season. Sophomore Tyler Newsome was a consistent punter in 2015, averaging 44.5 yards per punt. The Irish should have no problem with their special teams unit this season.
The Irish look to take a step even further in 2016 as they try to avenge last season’s close calls and avoid the heartbreaking losses and turn the corner and head into the College Football Playoff. The Irish have many questions heading into 2016 but they look to answer them as the season goes on in a positive way. With a favorable schedule, the Irish look to take advantage and find a way to get 11 or 12 wins in to have a chance to be in the College Football Playoff at the end of the season.