Notre Dame Football: 7 Things to Watch for the Fighting Irish vs. Temple
Notre Dame has rarely shied away from marquee openers over its 125-year history of playing football. This year, however, is a different story.
Temple, under new head coach Matt Rhule, makes its first pilgrimage to Notre Dame Stadium Saturday to open the Irish's season.
The Owls finished 4-7 a year ago in the final year of the Big East and now transition to the American Athletic Conference, a mix of the remaining Big East schools and newcomers from Conference USA. New starting quarterback Connor Reilly was the holder last season, while nine-game starter Chris Coyer has moved to H-back.
The Irish are favored at most gambling locales by around 30 points, the largest point spread for a Notre Dame game since USC was a 32-point favorite in 2008. Despite the expected lack of competitiveness, there is plenty to be learned Saturday afternoon about how the 2013 Irish will ultimately look over the course of the next 14 weeks.
Here are seven areas on which to focus as you're watching Saturday's season opener.
Note: Quotes obtained courtesy of UND.com.
The New Man in the Middle
Yes, three-year starting center Braxston Cave is gone.
If fall camp is any indication, however, the Irish won't miss a beat. Junior Nick Martin won the starting job coming out of the spring and has earned the praise of head coach Brian Kelly for how he has taken hold of the position.
"[H]e went against Louis Nix every day, one of the best if not the best nose guard in the country and has done very well, I would say that the progress that he's made in such a very short period of time has been really impressive for me."
Martin will not only be surrounded by two guards in Chris Watt and Christian Lombard who have combined to make 39 career starts, but also older brother Zack, the Irish's starting left tackle. Will Notre Dame be able to run effectively as it did in 2012? If Martin plays on Saturdays like he has on the practice field, that shouldn't be an issue.
Any Happy Returns
Notre Dame's punt return average in 2012 rivaled Bluto Blutarsky's grade point average (that's 0.0 for you non-Animal House fans). Senior wide receiver TJ Jones is the next man through a revolving door of punt returners that has included Theo Riddick, John Goodman, Michael Floyd and Davonte Neal over the past two seasons.
"[Jones] really wants to do this job," Kelly said. "I think you have to have that want and desire and belief that you can be really good at it. I think second, we've really looked at a number of areas within our special teams where we can help him in returns. We did an extensive off season study."
Jones is, at a minimum, reliable. He may not break any touchdowns, but he should at least help the Irish climb up the rankings from their No. 116 finish a year ago.
Like Blutarsky, there's nowhere to go but up.
Who's No. 3?
Jones and junior Davaris Daniels, two of the few bright spots from the BCS Championship Game loss to Alabama, are firmly established as the team's top two receivers. Behind them, however, the picture isn't quite so clear.
Chris Brown seemed to be the most likely candidate to be the third receiver, but Kelly didn't exactly rave about the sophomore earlier this week.
"I thought it was just okay," Kelly said of Brown's offseason. "We expect a little bit more consistency from Chris. He's got great talent. He really worked hard this summer. I was really pleased with his summer work. He put on weight. He got to the level that we wanted him physically. Now we want to see a consistency out of him."
Early-enrolling freshman Corey Robinson has impressed, as has classmate James Onwualu. The slot receiver position remains up for grabs, which means two-tight end sets should again be commonplace, even without Tyler Eifert.
New Kids on the Block
Notre Dame signed one of the best classes in its history last February, and the coaching staff will now begin to reap the fruits of their labor. Jaylon Smith is set to become the first linebacker to start the season opener as a true freshman since Kory Minor in 1995.
"I think he's done pretty well," Kelly said of his prized linebacker. "You know, I don't know that there were many times where we had to remind him that, hey, you have to work for it. But he had to work for it. He's been great, and he's put himself in a position now to do some great things."
Robinson should see the field Saturday, as will running back Greg Bryant.
Other freshmen listed on Notre Dame's official depth chart are Onuwalu, cornerback Cole Luke, offensive linemen Hunter Bivin and Steve Elmer and defensive end Isaac Rochell.
At the Break of Day (and Nix and Tuitt)
Notre Dame may have the best starting defensive line in college football with ends Sheldon Day and Stephon Tuitt and nose guard Louis Nix. Behind that terrific trio, however, are remnants of transfers, injuries and lost recruits.
The Irish are dangerously thin at perhaps the most important position group there is.
"Well, I think right now Kona [Schwenke] has some flexibility where he could play some four and five technique for us," Kelly said. "So I think you've got some flexibility. We think Tyler Stockton can come in and get some plays for us. You could obviously put that math together and figure that third rotation could be Tyler Stockton with Kona playing a little bit, as well."
Tony Springmann was lost for the year earlier this month due to knee surgery. Eddie Vanderdoes, of course, never enrolled after signing with the Irish in February. Schwenke and Stockton are serviceable but not as every-down players. Rochell and sophomore Jarron Jones have the most upside, but neither has played a college snap.
Notre Dame is still primarily a spread offense operating out of the shotgun, but the Irish will unveil a new wrinkle this week: the pistol offense. The alignment has the quarterback lined up in front of the running back(s) but still not under center.
Kelly believes it will help Notre Dame's between-the-tackles running game.
"How much we use the pistol will be determined really for us in terms of game plan week to week," Kelly said. "We just think it's another piece that we can use to get some downhill runs. I don't think we've turned into a pistol offense. We're still a shotgun offense that will operate similar to what we have in the past."
The "father" of the Pistol offense, retired Nevada coach Chris Ault, came to Notre Dame this offseason for a coaches' clinic. When and how often the Irish will use it Saturday remains a mystery, but quarterback Tommy Rees has proven throughout his Fighting Irish tenure that he can grasp a complicated offense.
The consensus for well over a year now was that junior Jarrett Grace would be the ultimate successor to Manti Te'o at inside linebacker. It was even thought at one time that senior Carlo Calabrese may not be brought back for a fifth year.
However, Grace now finds himself a backup to Calabrese and Dan Fox, although Kelly downplayed the significance of listed starters.
“That’s a fluid situation with all those guys playing in there and getting reps,” Kelly said earlier this month of the two inside linebacker positions. “Fox, Calabrese, Grace, all of them. It won’t be a two-person rotation. That’s three right now and who knows, it could be four.”
Grace will still see plenty of snaps, but his placement on the depth chart doesn't jive with where things at the position seemed to stand coming out of spring practice.
Keep an eye on the rotation between the three inside linebackers. It should give the clearest indication of where Grace is currently in his development.