2015 record: 10-3
Notre Dame enters 2016 at No. 10, its highest preseason AP ranking in 10 years. But it’s been 23 years since the Irish posted consecutive 10-win seasons. Will they break that streak this year, with a talented quarterback duo and what should be another strong offensive line? The schedule certainly seems to break favorably for Notre Dame, but there are several questions that need answers if the Irish hope to build off their 2016 success and crash the College Football Playoff picture.
Three storylines to watch:
So, about those QBs ...
Coach Brian Kelly will play both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire in Week 1 against Texas. How? We don’t know. Why? Because both players have been phenomenal in camp. Kelly has said that when he looks around for playmakers in practice, he keeps coming back to both of his QBs. And both have been in the fire before, so teammates have faith in them. Still, finding the right packages and offensive chemistry with two signal-callers with similar skill sets is certainly tricky, especially since this offense, and this team, will likely be much more quarterback-driven than in recent seasons. That would make the opener a must-watch even if the opponent wasn’t Texas, under the lights. Now? That game might set the tone for the season, at least for the two guys under center.
Can the defense put it together?
Notre Dame had three defensive players drafted off the 2015 squad and saw another four sign with NFL teams. And that doesn’t include middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, who was the team MVP in 2014 and exhausted his eligibility last season. Players have repeatedly said this month that they have a much better understanding of the defense in Year 3 under coordinator Brian VanGorder. But are the right personnel in place? Isaac Rochell, James Onwualu and Cole Luke are good starting points. And Nyles Morgan and Shaun Crawford look the part in camp. But Notre Dame will need much more from some young faces in order to take the next step on that side of the ball.
Can the young guys come along quickly?
Back to the QBs: This is a QB-driven offense because there are so few experienced pass-catchers. The player with the most returning starts at receiver, Onwualu, is now a captain at linebacker. The only other pass-catcher with any experience is another captain, Torii Hunter Jr. The loss of tight end Alize Jones (academics) hurts. Defensively, the Irish are tasked with likely having to start a true freshman at free safety in Devin Studstill after senior Max Redfield got kicked off the team. Does a senior starter getting booted two weeks before the season speak to larger issues? That might be a stretch, but Kelly did talk plenty about leadership earlier in camp, and that will be more crucial now than ever before, especially with so many young faces at receiver and in the secondary.