The Fighting Irish return only eight starters, but coach Brian Kelly’s team shouldn’t be dismissed as a playoff contender. Two talented quarterbacks – DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire – will battle for the starting job, and Tarean Folston returns at running back after missing nearly all of last season due to injury. Finding a No. 1 receiver to replace Will Fuller and restocking the line are the biggest concerns on offense. The defense suffered key losses at each level, but tackle Jarron Jones is back after missing 2015 due to injury. Despite the personnel turnover and concerns on both sides of the ball, a favorable schedule should allow Notre Dame the opportunity to push for 10 wins in 2016.
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Previewing Notre Dame’s Offense
Brian Kelly’s most productive Notre Dame offenses have come in the last two seasons — averaging 33.5 points over the last 26 games — and the Irish should boast another explosive unit in ’16. It will help if Kelly can piece together a quality offensive line and turn a talented but unproven receiving corps into one as productive as when Will Fuller was slicing through opposing secondaries with ease.
The challenge at quarterback is to maximize two capable starters — DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire — with one football. Kizer led the Irish to nine of 10 victories and a Fiesta Bowl berth after starter Zaire was sidelined from the second game on with a broken ankle.
The running game should be in good hands with veteran Tarean Folston and Josh Adams; the latter set Notre Dame single-season rookie marks with 835 yards rushing and a 7.1-yard average.
Torii Hunter Jr., son of the baseball standout, is the top pass-receiving threat. A pack of youngsters, led by Equanimeous St. Brown and Miles Boykin, give the Irish great length at wideout. The top NFL prospect on the offensive side of the ball may be sophomore receiver Alizé Jones, although guard Quenton Nelson deserves to be in the discussion.
Previewing Notre Dame’s Defense
, which includes an in-depth look at Notre Dame, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
It’s difficult to imagine the defensive improving in the third year of coordinator Brian VanGorder’s reign with the loss of linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, tackle Sheldon Day, end Romeo Okwara, cornerback KeiVarae Russell and strong safety Elijah Shumate.
The strength of this unit, though, is up front. Veteran end Isaac Rochell is the anchor with promising pass rusher Andrew Trumbetti, experienced nose tackle Jarron Jones, and highly touted tackle Jerry Tillery. Where the Irish have improved significantly under Kelly is in developing defensive line depth, although how the talent stacks up among the nation’s elite remains to be seen. The Irish were great on third down last year but horrific in the red zone.
The back seven boasts little experience beyond cornerback Cole Luke, who had a better sophomore than junior season. James Onwualu replaces Joe Schmidt as the brains of the operation at Sam linebacker, albeit on the outside rather than inside. Highly regarded Nyles Morgan’s opportunity finally has arrived at Mike linebacker. The defense’s versatility hinges partly on the health of cornerback Shaun Crawford, a potential stalwart who missed the entire ’15 season with a torn ACL. Drue Tranquill, now with two ACL tears on his résumé, is a key contributor as a box safety.
Previewing Notre Dame’s Specialists
Few teams in the country boast a better one-two punch at kicker-punter than Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome. Yoon converted 15-of-17 field goals as a true freshman while Newsome, also with three years of eligibility remaining, averaged 44.5 yards per punt as a redshirt freshman.
Now in his seventh season — making him the longest-tenured Irish head coach since Lou Holtz (1986-96) — Kelly is signed through the 2021 season. The program is on very solid footing. The overall depth is improved, as evidenced by Notre Dame’s ability to win 10 games despite an onslaught of frontline injuries in ’15. It remains to be seen, however, if the Irish can develop into a consistent New Year’s Six/College Football Playoff program. The key is on the defensive side of the football now that Kelly seems to have found his groove with the offense. Unless the Irish make significant strides on defense, Notre Dame will hover around the fringe of the nation’s elite with an occasional burst into the lead pack. On the surface, the schedule looks forgiving enough for the Irish to achieve another double-digit victory season, but only if the defense shows significant improvement.