Last season opened up under the lights in South Bend with Tarean Folston tearing his knee very early against Texas. Thrusting a pair of unproven running backs into the spotlight didn't matter to Notre Dame as the Irish rode a brutally efficient performance from quarterback Malik Zaire to an easy win over the Longhorns.
For 2016 our own Malik may not even be starting the game against Texas but the Horns have a Malik of their own who is about to explode onto the college football scene.
Starters Returning: 7/11
Key Losses: DE Shiro Davis, DT Desmond Jackson, LB Peter Jinkens, CB Duke Thomas
Key Returnees: DE Naashon Hughes, DE Bryce Cottrell, DT Hassan Ridgeway, DT Paul Boyette, LB Malik Jefferson, CB Holton Hill, CB John Bonney, CB Davante Davis, S Dylan Haines, S Jason Hall, S P.J. Locke
FEI Defense Rank: 23
S&P Defense Rank: 66
S&P Rush Rank: 78
S&P Pass Rank: 20
Turnovers Forced: 25
Charlie Strong's forte has always been playing good defense and the majority of his problems since arriving in Austin have been on the other side of the ball. Be that as it may, the Horns took a step backwards on defense in his second year.
The first thing that jumps out is the discrepancy between the FEI and S&P total defense rankings. A difference of 43 spots is truly puzzling. FEI kind of liked the Horns' defense but S&P thought Texas was 31 spots worse than the Fighting Irish defense. Which stat most correlates with Texas' real performance?
What matters more for our discussion today is that Texas was Top 11 in both categories in 2014 and took a sizable step backwards last year. They gave up at least 30 points in half their games. Yards per play allowed went up nearly a full yard. The rushing average surrendered went up from 3.89 to 4.51 per carry. Third down conversions spiked by nearly 9% and Texas allowed 11 more passing touchdowns.
Was this just a temporary blip on the way to sustained improvement? How much of the problems on defense can be laid at the feet of an inept offense? If the offense doesn't get appreciably better can Texas expect the defense to carry the team to greater heights?
The Old Guard
Strong inherited a few elite college defenders in 2014, including front seven disruption-makers Malcolm Brown and Jordan Hicks. Having to replace those players certainly didn't go swimmingly last season.
The defensive line especially is a position for Texas where they are still using many of Mack Brown's old recruits and hasn't transitioned to Strong's guys. Ridgeway, Boyette, and Cottrell are all 5th-year seniors while Hughes is a redshirt junior. They're all solid players (combined 30 tackles for loss in 2015) who will need to bring the bulk of the leadership and veteran presence to an otherwise young defense.
Options behind those players may be limited, especially in the opener. Junior tackle Poona Ford (6 TFL) has been a good player so far. The Horns would really like for redshirt sophomore Derick Roberson, formerly a high 4-star and the highest rated D-linemen on the team, to break out but he's missed another spring with concussion issues following an off-season car accident.
Being disruptive is key but Texas also needs to become more stout against the run. Last season, they allowed opponents to rush for at least 200 yards in 8 out of their 12 games. That stat might be a little misleading as opponents knew they could control the ball and not fear the Texas offense but remember the rushing average went up, too.
If the defensive line can't keep offenses off their young back 7 it could be another long year for the team.
It's Jefferson's World Now
Speaking of youth there may be no better young defender in the game than Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson. The 2014 high school Butkus Award winner enrolled early at Texas last January and finished 2nd on the team with 61 tackles. He also totaled 7 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 3 pass breakups, and 6 quarterback hurries. Not bad for about 9 full game's work--he missed nearly 3 games worth of snaps with injury.
For his effort Jefferson was named a freshman All-American, the Big 12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year, and honorable mention All-Big 12.
Even in his first game Jefferson caused problems for Notre Dame.
With all apologies to other candidates, Jefferson has the potential to be the best linebacker in the country as a true sophomore. He shares similar characteristics and playing-style to Jaylon Smith. For Texas it's not a matter of how good Jefferson will be but rather how good others around him can develop while he's on the field.
The Horns like Anthony Wheeler and Breckyn Hager at linebacker--both also being true sophomores. In the secondary, Hill, Davis, Bonney, and Locke each have starting experience and are all sophomores in eligibility. Another true sophomore, DeShon Elliott, is battling for a starting spot at safety. Most of these players were thrown into the fire last year and should come into 2016 with a lot more confidence. But youth is youth.
If they can come close to the confidence exhibited by Malik Jefferson good times are ahead.
It's safe to say that if things don't work out for Charlie Strong at Texas it'll be the fault of his offense. Still, the Horns need improvement on defense and could really use this side of the ball becoming a dominant force for the team.
I expect a much better defensive performance than what Texas displayed in South Bend last year. The Irish piled up 527 yards and 7.03 yards per play with a quarterback making his first home start. In fact, I'd estimate roughly 74.3% of the reason why some believe Malik Zaire will win the quarterback competition is because of what he flashed against Texas last year. Zaire only ended up with 26 passes in all of 2015 before his injury but he went 19 of 22 for 313 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Horns.
The Texas defense should be pretty good. Not great, but one of the better units the Irish will face in 2016. With this game on the road, who knows how much a quality defense could stall a Notre Dame offense replacing 6 starters? A situation at halftime where the Irish have only scored 10 points wouldn't surprise me. If Charlie Strong finds a lot of success in 2016 it's likely due to this defense really blossoming.