If you guys haven’t heard, the Notre Dame football team has a game this Sunday against some little up-and-coming program in Austin, Texas.
For your educational benefit, I decided to get the Longhorn perspective on this one, asking Wescott Eberts of Burnt Orange Nation some important questions to uncover five things you need to know about Texas heading into the Irish’s season opener. Here’s what I’ve gleaned.
1. The Longhorn defensive front has young talent, but the veterans need to take the next step (and stay healthy)
Question I asked: Notre Dame's offensive line, running backs, and QBs have them ready to run for a lot of yards this season. How does the Texas front seven/rush defense measure up?
Wescott: Last season, head coach Charlie Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford made some strategic decisions to protect the also young and inexperienced secondary and concede some yardage on the ground in favor of reducing long passing plays. This season, Texas is in a better position to be more aggressive with the defensive front, as the front seven -- more often the front six given the number of spread teams that the 'Horns face -- has some solid spots and there is plenty of talent there, but the problem is that much of it is inexperienced, particularly at the critical defensive tackle position.
Texas left the spring with only three scholarship players at the position and none of them are obvious All-Conference players. Signing five defensive tackles in the 2016 class was huge, but it's still a lot to ask more than one or two of those guys to give 10 or 15 snaps a game. So there is a lot of pressure on senior Paul Boyette, junior Poona Ford, and sophomore Chris Nelson to stay healthy and play at a high level.
At defensive end, senior Bryce Cottrell on the strong side is probably a little bit underrated and is getting pushed by sophomore Charles Omenihu, who flashed in the spring game and has a lot of upside at 6'6 and 254 pounds. Junior Naashon Hughes is the starter at the hybrid Fox position and got stronger over the summer to improve at the pure defensive end aspects of the position like anchoring against the run and demonstrating some pass-rushing moves.
The name to know at linebacker is a guy that Fighting Irish fans probably remember -- Malik Jefferson, the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. The sophomore is at his best crashing down off the backside or ranging sideline to sideline and needs to show some growth defeating blocks in the middle. Next to him will be another sophomore, Anthony Wheeler, another excellent athlete the coaches expect to show big strides this season.
In sum, the group has plenty of talent, as one might expect at a program like Texas. The problem is that the older players still need to improve and there's so little margin for error at defensive tackle.
2. It’s still unclear who will start at QB for Texas on Sunday, but both options bring something to the table
Question I asked: All the talk about ND's QB battle has obscured Texas' battle a bit - who will be under center for the Longhorns and what do you expect to see from them?
Wescott: Well, Strong and offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert have been unwilling to name a starter despite the fact that they said they were planning on doing so at some point in fall camp. When August started, it looked like freshman Shane Buechele was going to be the starter and had virtually sewn up the job, but for whatever reason, that didn't happen.
He's extremely poised, knows the offense, and is highly accurate with good touch. He's also a true freshman and probably generously listed at 6'1” and 191 pounds, so there are some concerns there.
The senior, Tyrone Swoopes, has been a disappointment for fans even though he has cycled through offensive coordinator and was always a raw prospect to begin with who didn't receive his needed redshirt season. Teammates say his accuracy is better this fall and he has a cannon for an arm. What he truly brings to the table is a physical presence in the running game at 6'4” and 254 pounds. In fact, his role in the so-called 18-Wheeler package last season gave him a lot of confidence as a downhill runner and I think that added dimension to the Texas offense -- as well as his experience -- will result in him getting the nod on Sunday.
3. John Burt is ready to break out and the Irish need to contain him
Question I asked: Give me your X-factor player for Texas and what Irish fans should know about him.
Wescott: I'm going to go with sophomore wide receiver John Burt here because Texas needs to create more explosive plays in the passing game and Burt is the first guy that the quarterbacks will look for regardless of who is starting. One of two freshmen to earn an invite to the NCAA Championships in the 110-meter hurdles, Burt is an explosive athlete who improved his speed during the spring in addition to working on the subtle elements of his route-running ability. Notre Dame has talent at cornerback, but Burt has earned his place as one of the fastest players in college football and looks poised for a big-time season.
4. Texas has the dangerous combination of speed, speed, and even more speed on offense
Question I asked: Any really explosive skill players that should have the Irish worried because of their playmaking ability?
Wescott: Besides Burt, the wide receiver that the Fighting Irish should worry about is freshman Devin Duvernay, a player who attempted to sign with Baylor but never had his NLI sent in by the school, for unknown reasons. Ranked as the No. 4 wide receiver in the country, Duvernay ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at a Nike event and is built like a running back at 5'11 and 195 pounds. Other than pure, raw speed, though, Duvernay also has a remarkable ability to make cuts without losing speed, so he'll be a threat to take it the distance every time he touches the ball in college and will figure into the rotation as soon as the season opener.
Notre Dame should also be worried about the two-headed monster at running back -- junior D'Onta Foreman and sophomore Chris Warren, who have earned the moniker of the Smash Brothers. Both players had touchdown runs of more than 90 yards last season. Both go 240 pounds or more and have the breakaway speed to run away from defenders, as they proved last season.
5. The Longhorns’ skill positions are stacked, but they have a few problems in the trenches
Question I asked: What are your strongest and weakest position groups, and why?
Wescott: Cornerback is a strong, deep position for Texas with two potential All-Conference players in sophomores Davante Davis and Holton Hill, both tall, rangy, physical players at their positions. There's plenty of depth behind them, as there is at safety, too. Wide receiver and running back also have plenty of depth and talent, as mentioned briefly above.
In terms of weak position groups, the Longhorns have been dealing with some ankle injuries along the offensive line, so there is some definite ligament weakness there with three starters, with what appears to be a high ankle sprain for freshman center Zach Shackelford the largest concern. It's also relatively young -- there is one senior starter, but otherwise the most talented and most effective players in the group are both sophomores.
And then there's defensive tackle, for reasons already discussed.
Bonus: Texas fans have no idea what to expect, but are excited to see what happens
Question I asked: Anything else ND fans might not know about the Longhorns team/coach/program/fans but definitely should going into Sunday's game?
Wescott: There's been a lot of discussion about improved team chemistry, in part because of Strong installing more games in the players' lounge that resulted in the group spending a lot more time together and breaking down some barriers, but it remains to be seen whether that is typical offseason rhetoric.
The take here is that Texas has improved in that area. There's no question that the 'Horns also have more talent and a much more coherent offensive scheme. But despite all of that, there are enough question marks and a deep enough history of inconsistency dating back multiple years that it's hard to know how this team will come out and play on Sunday.
Any result, from a stunning upset like the wins over Baylor and Oklahoma last year to a stunning blowout like the ones that Notre Dame and TCU handed Texas last season are possible outcomes. The latter seems much more likely than the former, but I think I can speak for a lot of Longhorns fans and perhaps even for Strong and his staff in saying that I have no earthly idea how things will play out on Sunday.
Hopefully, the proceedings will be entertaining. At this point, it's hard to ask for more than that with any degree of confidence.