There are some Notre Dame football seasons when the scheduling gods (i.e. Savvy Jack Swarbrick and co.) decline to bestow very good opening games upon us as fans. Whether it’s Temple or Rice or Nevada or South Florida, oftentimes the first game of the Fighting Irish football season is either a boring blowout or a disastrous letdown.
Sometimes, though, the scheduling gods give us something magical. This year, as with last season, they’ve generously offered unto the fans a match-up between two programs of the bluest of blood, squaring off in prime time on Sunday night in the state that football built.
Whether it was Earl Campbell, Ricky Williams, and Vince Young tearing defenses to shreds in Austin, or Joe Montana, Tim Brown, and Rocket Ismail earning immortality in South Bend, the Texas and Notre Dame football programs enjoy histories jam-packed with All-Americans, championships, Heismans, and awesome names (looking at you, Major Applewhite and Michael Stonebreaker).
So let’s prepare for Sunday night’s 7:30 pm ET kickoff by taking a solid look at both teams and what they’re bringing to the table this weekend.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Texas Defense
When the Fighting Irish have the ball early in the game, coach Brian Kelly is absolutely going to try to establish the run. With an experienced and huge offensive line that includes a couple preseason All-Americans on the left side (LT Mike McGlinchey, LG Quenton Nelson) and a stable of strong, fast, experienced running backs, the Irish look to be in good position to do just that against the Longhorns.
Senior Tarean Folston returns after tearing his ACL against Texas last season, and with a career average of 5.2 yards per carry and reports that he looks as good as ever, he’s expected to have a fantastic senior season.
Sophomore Josh Adams is a co-starter at running back, and rightfully so after his Notre Dame freshman record 835 yards in 2015. With a 6’1”, 220-pound frame and incredible breakaway speed, he adds a lightning component to Folston’s agile bowling ball thunder, giving the Irish an impressive 1-2 punch to whom they can hand the ball.
Add in the ND QBs’ running ability with Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer both expected to play and both very effective running the ball, and the Irish couldn’t look more ready to just eviscerate their opponent.
The Texas defense has other ideas, though, and their proposed resistance to the Irish’s powerful rushing onslaught will certainly be led by sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson, an athletic freak who has both the size and the sideline-to-sideline speed to run Irish ball carriers down all over the field.
Jefferson enjoyed a very strong freshman season (2nd on the team in tackles with 61, to go along with 2.5 sacks and a scoop-and-score TD) and looks poised to dominate in 2016. He’s joined by another very good linebacker and fellow sophomore, Anthony Wheeler, who after a solid freshman year (36 tackles) looks to pair with Jefferson to form an athletic, fast, and deadly combination.
The defensive line for Texas has some experienced veterans who will be butting heads with that Irish offensive line, but their reserve depth is limited to a lot of young, still-green players. Junior Poona Ford (another great name) and senior Paul Boyette Jr. will be a two-headed monster in the middle at defensive tackle, and along with sophomore Chris Nelson, are hoping to hold the point of attack and wreak some havoc in the middle of the field.
Elsewhere on the line, senior Bryce Cottrell, redshirt junior Naashon Hughes, and sophomore Charles Omenihu are players to watch at defensive end. The play of those three will be very important in terms of containing the read option and getting pressure on Kizer and Zaire when they drop back to pass.
The Notre Dame passing game should be interesting to see, as the Irish will certainly have the QB firepower and pass protection to enable a successful passing attack to complement the running game. However, the ND receivers are, essentially, Torii Hunter Jr. (363 yards, 2 TD in 2015) and a whole bunch of unknowns. Sophomores Equanimeous St. Brown and CJ Sanders will start alongside Hunter, and both bring unique skills to the table (St. Brown is long and has great hands, while Sanders is incredibly fast and shifty).
However, neither has proven anything yet on offense, and the rest of the receiving depth (sophomore Miles Boykin, freshman Kevin Stepherson, junior Corey Holmes, etc.) is equally inexperienced and unproven, albeit also possessing lots of raw talent.
At tight end, Notre Dame will be without presumed starter Alizé Jones, who was suspended for the season due to academic struggles. In his stead, senior Durham Smythe and junior Nic Weishar will play, and while both look dependable and competent, neither will provide the athletic mismatch Jones would have with his size, speed, and hands.
Texas’ pass defense appears to be a strong point, featuring a couple rangy, athletic cornerbacks in sophomores Davante Davis (35 tackles, 1 INT, 7 pass break-ups in 2015) and Holton Hill (49 tackles, 4 pass break-ups, 1 INT returned for a TD).
Senior Dylan Haines returns at safety after leading the team in interceptions with 5 in 2015 (and had 47 tackles), so Kizer/Zaire will definitely need to know where he is at all times. Sophomore PJ Locke could be another player to watch at the nickelback position.
If the Texas secondary is able to keep the young ND receiving corps in check, Charlie Strong’s defense may be able to sell out a little more against the run in order to counteract the Irish’s powerful line and backfield. Considering the Irish’s defensive questions and the Longhorns’ offensive playmakers and how that match-up could go, this game might be decided when Notre Dame has the ball, especially considering the Irish’s poor recent efficiency in the red zone. How they move the ball near the end zone could be the deciding factor Sunday night.
Texas Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
The miserable Texas Longhorns offense that Irish fans saw in September of 2015 is a distant memory at this point. Head coach Charlie Strong brought in a new offensive coordinator, Sterlin Gilbert, from Tulsa this past offseason. Gilbert hails from the Art Briles tree of coaching discipleship, running an up-tempo offense focused on keeping the defense on the field, out of breath, and unable to adjust on the fly.
At Tulsa, Gilbert’s unit was 14th in the country in total offense (502.8 yards per game), 25th in scoring (35.9 points per game), and 11th in passing offense (329.5 yards per game). Even against the less-talented defenses in the AAC, those numbers are incredibly impressive for a coordinator working with Tulsa-level talent.
Gilbert brings that offense and those impressive accomplishments, then, to Texas, where Strong hopes his defensive coaching ability can combine with Gilbert’s offensive mind to enable all of that Lone Star State talent to begin dominating the Big 12 again.
What Gilbert will have to work with includes a quarterback “controversy,” if you will, as senior Tyrone Swoopes and freshman Shane Buechele have been battling for the starting job and Strong refuses to name a starter ahead of time as both QBs will likely see the field during the game.
Swoopes has had a rough career, but has shown serious potential in the rushing aspect of the offense, rushing for 6.1 yards per carry last year en route to scoring 12 touchdowns. Buechele, meanwhile, comes in as a highly-regarded freshman who can also run with it, but likely really excels when throwing the ball in comparison to Swoopes. Here’s a 6-minute video of his spring game highlights!!!!
Whether they start a true freshman under the lights against Notre Dame, or a senior who got dominated by this same opponent a year ago (7/22, 93 yards), the Longhorns’ quarterback will have a lot of talent around him in Gilbert’s revamped offense this weekend.
That talent all starts at running back, where Texas boasts two big, strong backs who both possess the ability to turn on the jets and take a routine run up the middle to the house. D’onta Foreman (681 yards, 5 TDs in 2015) and Chris Warren III (470 yards, 4 TD) are both very dangerous, powerful runners who will look to give the Irish defense fits.
Also, did someone say speed? Freshman receiver Devin Duvernay comes in as a heralded speedster who originally committed to Baylor and who will bring an immediate impact to the offense in terms of big-play, game-breaking ability.
Mix in sophomore receiver John Burt (also very, very fast - had 457 yards and 2 TDs as a freshman in 2015), senior tight end Caleb Bluiett (167 yards and 2 TD), and a host of other receivers with all the right measurables but no proven production yet, and Swoopes/Buechele will have a lot to work with on Sunday, at least theoretically.
So looking at all of the skill position talent Texas has, and the two different QBs they’ll likely be tossing out there, how will Brian VanGorder’s Notre Dame defense measure up? VanGorder’s squad was not very impressive last season (38th in total defense, 34th in scoring) despite having at least one 2016 NFL Draft pick at each level (Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Keivarae Russell).
So how will VanGorder replace 7 total starters and field the defense that Notre Dame needs to be a College Football Playoff contender?
That improvement has to be led by the defensive line, a group for the Irish that has plenty of talent and experience at the top level of the depth chart. Senior captain Isaac Rochell leads the group as a big, powerful defensive end who hasn’t gotten nearly enough credit for his production in this defense (63 tackles with 7.5 for a loss in 2015).
He’ll be joined by senior Jarron Jones (40 tackles and 7.5 for a loss in his last healthy season, 2014) and sophomore Jerry Tillery at defensive tackle, along with junior Andrew Trumbetti at the other end spot. Junior Daniel Cage will provide more size and strength in the middle rotating in with Tillery, junior Jay Hayes will see time spelling Trumbetti, and a host of young players will be brought in to provide a rush on passing downs - look for freshman Daelin Hayes to be key in that regard.
The Texas offensive line has been hit by the injury bug a bit (although their general health is expected to be okay by Sunday), and so if the Irish intend on slowing down Foreman and Warren and Swoopes/Buechele, it will be the responsibility of the defensive line to hold the point of attack and get a push. If they can do so, it will allow fast, sure-tackling starting linebackers Greer Martini, Nyles Morgan, and James Onwualu to fill the gaps and chase down the ball carrier.
Morgan will be especially interesting to watch, as he’s a major upgrade from last year at middle linebacker in terms of raw talent and athleticism, but was never able to unseat Joe Schmidt in 2015. All reports have been that he has been fantastic in camp and is getting everything right in terms of making reads, so here’s to hoping Nyles has a breakout season starting on Sunday night.
If the Longhorns come out passing in Gilbert’s up-tempo offense, it could get dicey for the Irish. ND is breaking in two new starting safeties in junior Drue Tranquill and 6th-year senior Avery Sebastian, and both much more closely fit the profile of run-stopping safeties than ball-hawking coverage guys.
The Irish will start two very good cover corners in senior Cole Luke and sophomore Shaun Crawford, but with limited help over the top, a talented freshman like Buechele could complete a couple sizable passes early and gain the confidence he needs to unleash hell on the back end of the Notre Dame defense. If that’s the case, true freshman Devin Studstill may be substituted for Sebastian in an attempt to get a faster player and better playmaker onto the field.
Looking at all of this, it will be key for the Notre Dame defense to play disciplined and not give up big plays, especially early on. If they do allow some chunk plays, it will only give the youthful Longhorns offense confidence and allow them to really get comfortable running Gilbert’s system.
Knowing the kind of talent Texas has at the skill positions, it may very well come down to the Irish front line against a mildly depleted Longhorn offensive line. And also knowing VanGorder’s defense as Irish fans do, it’s likely that Texas will be able to move the ball fairly well and score some points. It will really just depend how easily those points come in determining if Gilbert’s offense can hang with Brian Kelly’s.
My Personal Prediction
Looking at all of this, I really think this will be a very good football game. Notre Dame has more experienced talent across the board, but this isn’t the scared, sloppy Texas team of the 2015 season opener. The young guys have gotten some experience, even more top-flight talent has been brought in (including on the coaching staff), and playing at home under the lights is always a solid motivator for a football team - especially one craving redemption after an embarrassing defeat.
With all of that being said, I think Notre Dame’s running game will allow them to control the clock a bit and keep Gilbert’s up-tempo offense off the field. This will help keep the Irish defense a little fresher in the Texas summer heat, and minimize the opportunities the Longhorns have to expose ND safeties over the top.
If the Irish receivers and Notre Dame run defense show up, and if Kizer/Zaire play as well as we all know they’re capable of playing, I think Notre Dame wins this one by a touchdown and a field goal despite a fantastic, confidence-building fight put up by Texas.
Prediction: Notre Dame 41, Texas 31
But since I’m just an amateur, I’m probably going to be wrong about at least half of this.
So, I encourage and implore you to comment on this article and sound off on your own predictions for the game. It’s gonna be a fun one for sure, so let’s start discussing why.