BCS preview: Notre Dame's title shot finally comes into focus

977051.png

BCS preview: Notre Dame's title shot finally comes into focus

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Braxston Cave grew up a rabid Notre Dame fan, describing himself as the kind of guy who would throw his remote at the TV when things weren't going right for the Irish. The center was born two years after Notre Dame won its last National Championship, and was too young to remember the brushes with history of the early 1990's.

Cave is like every other member of Notre Dame nation. He's been waiting for this shot at a championship his whole life. Only on Monday, he'll get to have a hand in it.

"I don't think I can put that into words," Cave said. "Been waiting a long time. Not just Notre Dame, but the entire Notre Dame nation, the South Bend community, it'd be huge."

This Notre Dame team wasn't supposed to have a chance to win the school's ninth title. Nobody saw this opportunity coming, from the school's athletic director to its starting quarterback.

But here the Irish sit, one win away from the kind of glory that's eluded the program for the last quarter century. The last time this team won a title, it was Tony Rice taking snaps with the weight of Notre Dame nation on his shoulder.

"A championship for Notre Dame means you bring home the tradition," Rice said. "It's one of those things that it's hard to do, and being in an elite group of people that's done that -- shoot, you could say you did it."

For a program that lost its compass after Lou Holtz left, a win would mark a return to the "glory days," so to speak. While most Notre Dame players -- save team historian Louis Nix -- aren't aware of the specifics of their school's football past, there's a desire among these players to "get Notre Dame back to where it belongs."

That's a line that's been uttered by plenty of players over the last few weeks. Beat Alabama on Monday, and that goal will be accomplished. A win would solidify this group of players -- some hailing from the Charlie Weis era, others from Brian Kelly's early years -- as one of the best in school history.

"When you're a champion at other schools, you're a champion," Manti Te'o opined, "but when you're a champion at Notre Dame, you become a legend."

Will experience matter?

Notre Dame may have a history of championships, but not a single player on its roster was alive for the team's last title. Plenty of these players have seen pressure in high school along with a handful of games with Notre Dame. None of them have seen pressure like the BCS Championship.

For Alabama, Monday will mark the team's third appearance in a BCS Championship game in the last four years. Offensive lineman Barrett Jones played in the first two, which saw Alabama beat Texas in Pasadena and LSU in New Orleans.

"I think that's probably a little overplayed to be honest," Jones said of the experience factor. "I think certainly if it helps at all its probably from a preparation standpoint. The coaching staff has a very good idea on the best way of how to prepare with a long layoff. As far as the actual experience, once you get there, its about who plays a better game, not even who the better team is, just who plays a better game. I think thats a little overdone.

But having past championship games upon which to draw certainly won't hurt Alabama, especially if Notre Dame starts playing tight. For Notre Dame to win, they can't be overwhelmed by the moment -- which is something that's not of much concern for Alabama.

How Alabama could win

The Tide have advantages on offense and special teams over Notre Dame, while there are arguments to be made in favor of both Notre Dame and Alabama's defense as being superior.

If there's an Achilles' heel for Notre Dame, it's special teams. Even if the Irish defense shuts down running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, it may not matter if Alabama starts flipping the field through good punt or kickoff returns. It's much easier for those two backs -- and quarterback A.J. McCarron, too -- to lead Alabama to points on a 50-yard field than a 75 or 80-yard one.

For Alabama, the formula is simple: Create holes for Lacy and Yeldon and strike early. If Alabama sets the tone early with a dominant first-quarter drive, the floodgates could very well open. And if that happens, the game may be decided in the first 15 minutes.

"If you're going to play in the National Championship, you'd better start fast," Te'o said. "It's not, OK, you guys, we've got to start fast -- it's a must, especially since we're going up against a team that's really, really good."

The Jones-Nix matchup is the key to Monday's trench battle. If Jones can't handle Nix on his own, Alabama may have to double-team him, leaving Prince Shembo or Stephon Tuitt with better opportunities to get to McCarron in the backfield. Plus, if Alabama can't handle Nix, it probably means Notre Dame's doing a good job stopping the run, too.

If those holes aren't plugged up, though, Notre Dame's defense will be in trouble.

"People were talking about how do you bring down Lacy, how do you bring down those backs. You don't," Kelly said. "If there's big holes, I don't know about you guys, we ain't tackling them. We're not going to get them on the ground."

Defensively, Alabama's goal is to turn quarterback Everett Golson into a one-dimensional quarterback. If Alabama is successful in those efforts, he'll be forced to take on the Tide's secondary without the option to scramble.

"That's when he gets slowed down," safety Vinnie Sunseri explained. "He's a great athlete, a great quarterback when he's able to be mobile and get out of the pocket. If you can keep him in the pocket, that really limits him."

Another point, too: With so much time to prepare, Alabama is going to throw plenty of blitzes at Golson he's never seen on film. While Golson showed plenty of poise in the latter half of the season, if he's getting drilled or failing to check out of plays thanks to blitz packages he's totally unfamiliar with, the redshirt freshman very well could get rattled. Last time that happened, Golson threw two interceptions and was yanked in the second quarter against Michigan.

How Notre Dame could win

First and foremost, Notre Dame has to throw the initial haymaker. Cierre Wood did it against Oklahoma, gouging the Sooners' defense for a 62-yard touchdown in the first quarter.

"That takes the air out of you, when a guy splits your defense and runs for a touchdown like that coming out of the backfield, no doubt about it," Alabama defensive end Damion Square said.

Texas A&M got out to a 20-0 first-quarter lead in its upset win over Alabama in November. Notre Dame doesn't need that level of success, but a lead after 15 minutes would do wonders for the team's confidence.

From there, if Notre Dame's offense is to have any success, it'll be because Wood and Theo Riddick are able to carve out some solid gains on the ground. That way, even if Alabama contains Golson in the pocket, he'll at least have the threat of play action to throw off the Tide's secondary.

That's something far easier said than done, though.

"They don't get moved," Riddick said of Alabama's defensive line. "That's a huge problem if you can't move the front four and create holes. You just cannot become one-dimensional against this team."

Notre Dame isn't likely to win this game in a blowout. But one thing working in the team's favor is all the close games that turned into wins throughout the 2012 season -- and that creates a we've-been-here-before mentality. It's not like Alabama hasn't won close games, either (see wins vs. LSU and Georgia) but Notre Dame is more battle-tested, even if those battles were often fought against lesser competition.

If Notre Dame can stay within striking distance, they may be in good shape for a late knockdown. Coming back from a two-touchdown deficit may have worked against Pittsburgh, but chances are it won't against Alabama.

"I don't know if we're good enough to beat Alabama," offensive coordinator Chuck Martin explained, "but if we're good enough to beat Alabama, I think our kids have shown that they're a pretty resilient bunch, and they're pretty battle tested whether it be home or away."

So that's the formula: Run the ball, keep it close on defense and see if Golson can make a big play or two to turn things in Notre Dame's favor.

If Notre Dame can do that, as Nix said, "it could be a game for the ages."

Notre Dame unit preview: Searching for the next go-to WR

Notre Dame unit preview: Searching for the next go-to WR

With the start of Notre Dame preseason camp approaching fast, we’re looking at what to expect from each unit that’ll take the field in primetime Sept. 4 against Texas at Darrell K. Royal Stadium. 

Depth Chart

W (Boundary)

1. Torii Hunter Jr. (Redshirt junior)
2A. Miles Boykin (Redshirt freshman)
2B. Alize Jones (Sophomore)
3. Chase Claypool (Freshman)

Z (Slot)

1A. C.J. Sanders (Sophomore)
1B. Corey Holmes (Redshirt sophomore)
2. Torii Hunter Jr. (Redshirt junior)

X (Field)

1. Equanimeous St. Brown (Sophomore)
2A. Torii Hunter Jr. (Redshirt junior)
2B. Kevin Stepherson (Freshman)
3. Javon McKinley (Freshman)

Hunter has the ability to play all three receiver positions, which is why he’s listed as the “backup” at the Z and X. He’ll probably take most of his reps, though, at the W, where Corey Robinson was in line to play before he retired due to suffering multiple concussions. 

Despite only catching 28 passes for 363 yards last year, Hunter is Notre Dame’s leading returning receiver, which is more a nod to the production lost from Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle. But Hunter took command of Notre Dame’s wide receivers during spring practice — despite barely getting any sleep due to his football, baseball and academic workload — and emerged as an offensive leader in March and April. 

Outside of Hunter, there’s plenty of young, untapped potential in this group. Coach Brian Kelly has raved about St. Brown from the day he set foot on campus, and Notre Dame believes his combination of blazing speed and good size (6-foot-4, 205) will make his a dynamic receiving threat as soon as this fall. Sanders flashed his playmaking ability by returning a kick and a punt for a touchdown last year, though surgery on his hip flexor knocked him out of spring practice and could slow him during preseason camp. 

Holmes and Stepherson both impressed at times during spring practice, too, and are set up to carve out roles in the Irish offense. And Jones is the wild card here — he worked a bit at the W during spring practice and his athletic 6-foot-4, 240 pound frame could create some matchup nightmares if he slides over from tight end. 

Biggest question: Who becomes DeShone Kizer/Malik Zaire’s go-to target?

Fuller became a get-out-of-jail free card almost immediately for Kizer last year, with that 39-yard game-winning heave at Virginia sparking a rock-solid season for the new Irish quarterback. Brown, too, used his savvy skills to make some big catches, like his touchdown at Fenway Park against Boston College. 

But with both of those guys gone, Kizer or Zaire will need to figure out who that reliable pass-catcher is. The good news is Notre Dame has had one every year of the Kelly era, from Michael Floyd to Tyler Eifert to T.J. Jones to Fuller. 

Hunter is the most experienced one of the bunch, though St. Brown or Jones could very well emerge as that guy, too. But given Notre Dame’s track record, wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock deserves the benefit of the doubt here. 

Youthful impact

McKinley and Claypool both were four-star members of Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class. There are some questions about whether or not Claypool, who was listed at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds on signing day, could someday move to tight end, but for now, he’ll get a shot as a receiver, probably on the boundary. 

Stepherson, a three-star recruit, was roundly praised by coaches and teammates for how quickly he picked up the Irish route concepts and offense during spring practice, and his ability to catch the ball at a full sprint over the middle makes him a candidate to contribute as a freshman. 

Notre Dame hasn’t shied away form playing freshmen receivers in the past, and without much experience in this group, there could be opportunities for all three first-year players to get on the field this fall. 

They said it

“There’s a lot to be gained from playing baseball, but you have to be a special individual, especially at this level. I think the gains are competitiveness, discipline and the maturity that he shows and his ability to handle it.” — Brian Kelly on Torii Hunter Jr., who was drafted and signed by the Los Angeles Angels this summer

Notre Dame unit preview: Is Alize Jones primed for a breakout at tight end?

Notre Dame unit preview: Is Alize Jones primed for a breakout at tight end?

With the start of Notre Dame preseason camp approaching fast, we’re looking at what to expect from each unit that’ll take the field in primetime Sept. 4 against Texas at Darrell K. Royal Stadium. 

Depth Chart

1A. Durham Smythe (Redshirt junior)
1B. Alize Jones (Sophomore)
2A. Tyler Luatua (Junior)
2B. Nic Weishar (Redshirt sophomore)
3. Jacob Matuska (Redshirt junior)

Smythe’s Week 2 injury against Virginia thinned this group quite a bit last year. As a group, Notre Dame’s tight ends only totaled 20 receptions for 233 yards and one touchdown (which came when Smythe scored on a fake field goal against Virginia). 

But with Smythe healthy, Jones feeling more comfortable and a dearth of experience at receiver, Scott Booker’s group should be relied on more in Notre Dame’s passing game this fall. The return of Luatua, who was welcomed back to the team this summer after initially deciding to transfer prior to spring practice, will help Notre Dame’s running efforts behind the physical 255-pound California native. 

Weishar could develop into a factor, too, as he enters his third year in the program. The Marist alum has solid receiving skills that could play well this fall, especially in the red zone. 

Biggest question: Is Alize Jones ready to break out? 

Jones accounted for most of Notre Dame’s tight end production last year (13 catches and 190 yards) but wasn’t satisfied with his first year on campus. It was an eye-opening experience for him: “I didn’t take enough time and I don’t think I took it too serious last year,” Jones said during spring practice. 

But even through some of that first-year turbulence, Jones showed glimpses of the outstanding athleticism and receiving skills that made him a sought-after recruit out of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas. His 45-yard catch in the fourth quarter against Temple set up DeShone Kizer’s game-winning toss to Will Fuller, and he also had a 37-yard reception against UMass an a 35-yarder against USC. 

Whether Jones stays at tight end is another question. Notre Dame tried him out at its “W” receiver position this spring, and if he winds up sticking there, he could follow the Devin Funchess-like career arc plenty of Notre Dame fans prophesied when he signed with the Irish in February of 2015. But however the 6-foot-4, 240 pound Jones is used, he’s primed to develop into a key part of Notre Dame’s offense this fall. 

Youthful impact

Notre Dame didn’t sign a tight end in its 2016 recruiting class, but has two highly-touted players verbally committed to its class of 2017. Both Brock Wright (Cypress, Texas) and Cole Kmet (Arlington Heights, Ill.) are rated by Rivals as four-star recruits. 

They said it

“I know what it’s like to play Clemson and Ohio State and teams like that, playing against elite guys. Now going into my sophomore year, I’ve already done it. It’s just getting comfortable with everything, which I am. So I really feel like all the pieces are coming together.” — Alize Jones

Notre Dame unit preview: Tarean Folston, Josh Adams a strong 1-2 punch at RB

Notre Dame unit preview: Tarean Folston, Josh Adams a strong 1-2 punch at RB

With the start of Notre Dame preseason camp approaching fast, we’re looking at what to expect from each unit that’ll take the field in primetime Sept. 4 against Texas at Darrell K. Royal Stadium. Today: The running backs. 

Depth Chart

1A. Tarean Folston (Redshirt junior)
1B. Josh Adams (Sophomore)
2. Dexter Williams (Sophomore)
3A. Justin Brent (Junior)
3B. Deon McIntosh (Freshman)
3C. Tony Jones (Freshman)

In Adams and Folston, Notre Dame should have a dynamic 1-2 punch out of its backfield this fall. Adams broke Autry Denson’s freshman rushing record with 838 yards last year. The lightly-recruited Pennsylvania native showed excellent speed, vision and running back instincts — the latter of which were even more apparent in comparison to those of greenhorn back C.J. Prosise, who nonetheless rushed for over 1,000 yards last year. 

Folston suffered a torn ACL on his third carry of the season against Texas, which robbed him on a chance to build on his 889-yard sophomore season. He developed into a well-rounded running back in 2014, answering Brian Kelly’s challenge to improve his pass protection skills and catching 18 passes out of the backfield that year. 

While Adams and Folston are clearly atop the depth chart, Williams impressed coaches during the spring not so much for his burst and agility, but for his ability to grind out an extra yard or two after contact in the trenches. Kelly said Williams could be utilized as a short-yardage back this fall, though the former four-star recruit should have a few opportunities to showcase his explosive playmaking skills, too. 

Biggest question: Can Tarean Folston improve off 2013 and 2014?

Folston was the first offensive player to go down with a serious injury last year (defensive lineman Jarron Jones and defensive back Shaun Crawford both were hurt during preseason camp) and only had three carries for 19 yards. It wasn’t in the least bit the kind of season Folston hoped for.

The Cocoa, Fla. native thought a big 2015 season could vault him into NFL Draft consideration following his junior season. After putting together solid freshman and sophomore campaigns, Folston’s hope was to cement himself as Notre Dame’s feature running back and be a big part of a successful offense. 

Those efforts were delayed a year when Folston blew up his knee trying to bounce outside against Texas. The fact that Folston even participated in spring practice — even though he wore a non-contact jersey during March and April — was a positive sign, and Notre Dame expects him to be 100 percent for the start of preseason camp. If Folston can finally build off his first two seasons, it’ll provide a nice boost to the Irish offense, even if it’s a year behind schedule. 

Youthful impact

Jones and McIntosh were both rated as three-star recruits by Rivals coming from Bradenton and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., respectively. Ideally, Notre Dame won’t have to force either into action with three players ahead of them on the depth chart, but given the attrition that happened at this position last year, Jones and McIntosh aren’t guaranteed to redshirt this fall. 

The most important thing either player can do to get on the field quickly is pick up Notre Dame’s pass protection responsibilities. That’s a big part of why Adams, not the more highly touted Williams, played as a freshman in 2015. 

They said it

“Just going into practice with that appreciation — not saying I never had it, but you know, day in and day out knowing that I’m getting the opportunity to do what I love and not sitting at a table rehabbing just watching or on the sideline, freezing, just watching.” — Tarean Folston on returning to practice during the spring