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

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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."

How walk-on Rob Regan became a secret weapon for Notre Dame

How walk-on Rob Regan became a secret weapon for Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — How does a walk-on safety have a Notre Dame game ball despite never actually appearing in a game?

On the surface, that sophomore Rob Regan received that family heirloom last October after Notre Dame’s win over Navy may seem weird given he didn’t play a snap that day. But to everybody who sees the work Regan puts in at the LaBar Practice Complex, especially during weeks in which Notre Dame prepares to face an opponent that runs the triple option, it’s anything but strange. 

“There’s no question about it,” defensive end Isaac Rochell said. “He deserved it.”

“I personally don’t know who we would’ve given it to besides him,” cornerback Cole Luke added. “If we didn’t have Robby, we definitely wouldn’t have been as prepared as we were.”

For Rochell, Luke and the rest of the Irish defense, Regan’s work as Notre Dame’s scout team — er, “Swag Team” — quarterback during triple option preparation was an important key to solving the antiquated-yet-confounding offense. It’s an attack Notre Dame faces more than most other Power Five schools with Navy on the schedule every year, but heading into last season, coach Brian Kelly & Co. had to double down on their efforts to stop it.

Notre Dame’s defense didn’t put up much resistance against Navy in 2013 (34 points, 5.3 yards per play) and 2014 (39 points, 5.9 yards per play), and with Georgia Tech joining the Mids on the schedule last year, fixing those triple option defensive issues was a paramount concern. Army is on the schedule in 2016, too, so for the second consecutive year Notre Dame will face two triple option offenses.

Former defensive coach Bob Elliott moved off the field into a special assistant role, with one of his chief tasks being to figure out a way to better defend the triple option. But the decision of Regan, who successfully ran a triple option offense at Hinsdale South High School in the Chicago area, to walk on to the team turned out to be a huge boost to those efforts.

In the past, Notre Dame’s scout team quarterback for triple option weeks wasn’t a natural at running it and had to read each play off a card. That lack of fluidity not only meant fewer reps for the Irish defense, but the quality of them was way off what they’d face from Keenan Reynolds or whoever the opposing quarterback on Saturday would be.

Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said those sub-optimal triple option looks in practice are relatively common across college football, which makes sense — it’s not an offense used much at the college level. So having someone on your roster who ran in in high school can be a boon to preparing to face it.

Regan doesn’t have to read off a card because he knows the offense so well. And that means more plays and a look closer to what Notre Dame sees in games.

“It changes everything,” Kelly said.

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Of course, the scout team work can’t completely replicate game action — Notre Dame doesn’t do nearly as much cut blocking in practice as it’ll see in games from option offenses, given the injury risk involved. And guys like Navy’s Reynolds and Tago Smith, Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas and Army’s Ahmad Bradshaw run the option faster than Regan can in practice, too.

But Regan still gives Notre Dame as good an option look as it could ask for on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

“You can sit and practice against Navy out here and your scout team can do a good job, but it can’t touch what that look like at game time,” defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. “They’re exceptional at it, it’s happening so fast. But the faster we can get it, the closer we can move it to it, the better.”

Regan doesn’t shy away from absorbing hard hits too, which helps Notre Dame’s defense play faster in practice. Former Irish linebacker Jarrett Grace marveled at how Regan was able to take so much physical punishment during practice — “I don’t know if it’s extra ice, if it’s shaking up the Space Jam water to get jacked up out there,” he said — while junior linebacker Nyles Morgan said earlier this month Regan’s role is “one of the toughest jobs I’ve ever seen."

“I like giving hits and taking hits,” Regan said. “I’m a physical guy — when I’m running the ball, I’d rather run him over than juking him out.

“I enjoyed it. It definitely took a toll on my body, but I was glad to be able to contribute to those wins.”

Regan initially played wide receiver for Hinsdale South, but was moved to quarterback two games into his junior year. Hinsdale South went 5-4 his junior year, then went 9-3 and reached IHSA 6A quarterfinals in Regan’s senior year. Regan rushed for 18 touchdowns and averaged 5.6 yards per carry in 2014.

“He’s a football kid,” Hinsdale South coach Mike Barry said. “(He) grew up playing football, has football smarts. We refer to guys as instinctual at times — he’s one of those type of players where he just has a feel for the game."

Regan was thinking about attending high-caliber academic institutions like Penn, Princeton, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Chicago before Notre Dame came along. Kelly was in the Chicago suburbs to scout four-star Hinsdale South defensive end Joshua King — who went on to commit to Michigan State — and was pitched on Regan by Barry.

Once Notre Dame came into the picture (Regan, as you’d guess from that above list of colleges he was considering, had the grades to get in) it was an easy choice for him to head to South Bend. The combination of academics, football, location and faith made Notre Dame “the best fit for me,” Regan, who’s studying chemical engineering, said.

“(He’s) somebody that recognizes that, first of all, what a degree from Notre Dame is going to do for him, and somebody that’s got a lot of pride in playing team sports,” Kelly said. “He loves to play team sports. He knows that he’s got value.”

Regan’s ultimate goal is to get into a game before his time at Notre Dame is up — he’s hoping to get on a special teams unit, make a difference there and hope to get in a game at safety.

But he’s already been recognized by coaches with an honor only a handful of others received in 2015. Notre Dame held Georgia Tech to 22 points — 15 of which came in garbage time — and Navy to 24 points, totals that represent the kind of improvements made by the Irish in defending the option.

And Regan, the 6-foot-2, 200 pound walk-on, played a major part in those improvements. Even if he didn’t play.

“It was awesome,” Regan said of receiving the Navy game ball. “I never expected that I would be recognized like that. It wasn’t just me, it was the whole Swag Team, but I guess I was kind of the leader of that team. It meant a lot that coach Kelly took the time to recognize our hard work.”

And as for the game ball, which is in a case back home in Darien, Ill.?

“It might be a hand-me down for a couple generations,” Regan said with a smile.

Notre Dame sees a role for high-impact freshman Daelin Hayes

Notre Dame sees a role for high-impact freshman Daelin Hayes

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian VanGorder doesn’t want to give away the game plan, but it’s clear the third-year Irish defensive coordinator is going to find a way to get freshman defensive end Daelin Hayes on the field this fall. 

Hayes, a 6-foot-3, 250 pound former five-star recruit from Belleville, Mich., showed during August camp an impressive burst toward the quarterback — something Notre Dame’s defense has lacked since VanGorder took over in 2014. For example: During a full-contact 11-on-11 portion of one of Notre Dame’s practices open to the media earlier this month, Hayes rocketed into the backfield and sacked DeShone Kizer. 

“If you just looked at traits,” VanGorder said, “he’s got the trait.”

VanGorder was quick to point out Hayes still has plenty to learn as an all-around football player. But with Notre Dame able to do more with sub packages this year — they can thank Shawn Crawford’s health for that — Hayes is in a position to rush the quarterback as part of a third-down blitz. 

Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said the plan for Hayes is to get him in on those passing down blitz packages, and then slowly see if he can handle a higher workload on first or second down (for now, Hayes is behind hand-in-the-ground weakside defensive ends Jay Hayes and Andrew Trumbetti on the depth chart). 

“I think just his ability to change direction and his explosiveness gives him a little bit of an edge that way,” Gilmore said. “We’ve got a few guys that can do it but he’s a special talent that way.”

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Gilmore admitted Hayes is still “a little bit behind strength-wise” after undergoing shoulder surgery in December. That procedure knocked out Hayes, who enrolled early, for spring practice and conditioning earlier this year, but Gilmore added that he’s “naturally strong” and doesn’t expect strength to be a problem as the season goes on. 

Gilmore, too, said Hayes has gone about his introduction to college life in a mature way that’ll help him see the field immediately. 

“I think he approached it differently than most freshmen,” Gilmore said. “I think he’s on track and going to play for us. He’s a freshman that’s got a great skillset, he’s a special kid that way and how fast that he can learn the defense and take it at a high speed once the bullets start flying, if he can do it will be the real issue. But athletically, he’s ready to play.”

Cementing coaches’ feelings about Hayes being ready to play: Brian Kelly said earlier this month that while Hayes has worked with the No. 1 Irish defense — which means going against left tackle stalwart Mike McGlinchey — he’s “faring quite well.” That may be the most promising soundbite about Hayes given how good Notre Dame’s redshirt junior left tackle and captain is. 

In typical football coach paranoia, VanGorder bristled a bit when asked if Hayes was going to begin as a sub-package pass rusher and eased into more standard down plays: “Is this for someone’s scouting report?” he asked. 

But no matter how coy VanGorder wants to be, it's clear Hayes is in a position to contribute to a defense in need of playmakers this fall. 

“I think we’ll find something for him to do,” VanGorder said. 

Podcast: How will Notre Dame's leadership look in 2016?

Podcast: How will Notre Dame's leadership look in 2016?

Leadership is one of those nebulous, unquantifiable things that can be overrated, but does have an impact on a college football team. To wit: Notre Dame survived last year's deluge of injuries not only because it could plug in talented players for Malik Zaire, Tarean Folston, Jarron Jones, etc., but also because it had strong leadership from captains Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, Joe Schmidt, Jaylon Smith and Matthias Farley, as well as a number of other veterans. 

Notre Dame doesn't have that same depth of leadership in 2016 with so many upperclassmen gone from last year's roster. But beyond captains Torii Hunter Jr., Mike McGlinchey, Isaac Rochell and James Onwualu, what kind of leadership does Brian Kelly & Co. have at their disposal?

Mike Monaco and I discussed that question on the Still Independent Podcast, plus offered our takes on Notre Dame's advanced stat projections and former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's penchant for cake analogies: