All eyes will be on Everett Golson Saturday morning, as the sophomore quarterback makes his collegiate debut against Navy at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. But he won't be the only one on Notre Dame playing his first game at the NCAA level.
Most, if not all of, Notre Dame's young group of wide receivers -- Davonte Neal, Chris Brown, Justin Ferguson and Da'Varis Daniels -- should see playing time. Tight end Troy Niklas, who played as a linebacker last year, could make his debut on the offensive side of the ball. And true freshman KeiVarae Russell, who came to Notre Dame as a running back, will start at cornerback.
"It can all be decided and look perfect in practice, and when the lights go on -- we all know from being around this game that, when the lights go on, kids react differently," offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said, referencing Notre Dame's quarterbacks earlier in August. "Some kids play better than they ever play, and some kids play worse."
Golson's performance will carry the most weight. While coach Brian Kelly and his coaching staff would like to stick with the same quarterback from Week 1 through bowl season, a change does exist as a possibility. But Kelly sounded like he'll be a little more patient with Golson than he was last year with Dayne Crist, who was yanked after two quarters in Notre Dame's season-opening loss to South Florida.
"Let's make it clear, (Golson) will make mistakes," Kelly said. "I think if we really look carefully at the mistakes that we made (last year), they were turnovers in the red zone. They were turnovers in the end zone, they were heightened within the game. He's going to make some mistakes, and we know that and we are going to have to obviously try to overcome those. But it's those poor decisions that we have to eradicate."
Defensively, Navy may be a good team for Golson and the Irish offense to open his college career against. The Midshipmen lost three of their top cornerbacks and a trio of defensive ends from their 2011 squad, which struggled on defense to begin with. Pressure often begets mistakes, and if Golson can stay poised, Kelly expects him to succeed.
"Our entire offensive staff feels as though he's disciplined in his approach, that he understands the routine of the quarterback position that he's going to minimize the mistakes," Kelly said. "He's shown that over the past month. If he's not out of character on Saturday, I will safely say he will do a very good job of taking care of the football."
For Russell, the Navy matchup could be even more favorable. The Midshipmen only attempted 135 passes in 12 games last season, and their leading receiver won't play Saturday. Comparatively, perhaps it's a positive for Russell's confidence to be introduced to college football against an option offense that rarely throws the ball.
"Yeah, that's one way to look at it," Kelly said with a wry grin. "But if you're not disciplined, the ball goes over your head like that.
"We think he's got the ability to do the job against Navy, a different job than it will be against Purdue, but we think he's got that ability to do the job. I don't want to say pick your poison, but they are so different in terms of the roles that he's going to be asked to be performing. We would not put him in this position if we didn't think he would perform this role."
That's not to say Russell won't be tested -- it just might come in a different form. Navy's option can drive defenses mad, and often times it's like a 99-mile-per-hour fastball in baseball: You know what's coming, but that doesn't mean you'll succeed against it.
"Thats the challenge, you know what theyre going to do," linebacker Manti Te'o said. "They know that you know. You always have to stay disciplined, keep your eyes on your key, keep your eyes on your guy and take care of your responsibility. When somebody doesnt do their responsibility, they get out of their fit, they lose their eyes, thats when big things happen for Navy."
One thing that Notre Dame players didn't expect to be an issue -- at least, before they left for Dublin on Wednesday -- was the time-zone change. An 8 a.m. (CST) kickoff is three hours before the usual early-kickoff start time of 11 a.m., but Irish captain Zack Martin didn't expect a few messed up internal clocks to hinder Notre Dame's chances.
"I know that the coaches will do a great job letting us rest," Martin said on Tuesday. "Like coach Kelly said and like weve all said, if we cant get up for our opener, were in the wrong business."