Notre Dame Football: 4 Things Irish Need to Know About Rice
SOUTH BEND, Indiana — There’s a palpable buzz in the air as Notre Dame football gets set for its season opener Saturday against Rice.
There’s the excitement of a new season, the uncertainty of an academic investigation, the unknown of a new defensive coordinator and new defensive starters and, of course, the return of quarterback Everett Golson. Rightly so, these topics have dominated much of the discussion throughout the preseason and during the first few days of game week.
Little has been said about Rice. The Owls are fresh off a 10-win season and their first-ever Conference USA title.
But what more do Irish fans need to know about Saturday’s opponent?
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christian Covington Is a Handful
Redshirt junior defensive tackle Christian Covington will be a marked man Saturday. Covington notched 59 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and four sacks en route to all-conference first-team honors in 2013.
Now, heading into 2014, Covington has drawn some attention as a third-team preseason All-American, according to Phil Steele. The 6’3”, 300-pounder will be the top priority for Notre Dame’s offensive line. Irish head coach Brian Kelly described Covington as a very active, physical presence and said he’ll be “one of the better players that we play against all year.”
“Covington can play against the best in the country, very disruptive, can pass rush, very good against the run,” Kelly added.
Notre Dame’s offensive line was strong in 2013—allowing the second-fewest sacks in the country (eight)—despite dealing with a host of injuries down the stretch. But there are new starters, as well as returning starters in new positions, along the line.
Only center Nick Martin and right guard Christian Lombard are returning to the same position at which they started in 2013, and both Martin and Lombard missed games at the end of the season due to injuries. Ronnie Stanley shifted to left tackle, Steve Elmer is now at right tackle, and left guard Matt Hegarty is in his first season as a full-time starter. The Irish must gel quickly Saturday or else Covington could cause problems in the backfield.
The Offense Will Have a New Look
Rice rode a strong offense—405.6 yards per game and 29.6 points per game—to good success in 2013, but there are new faces in key places for the Owls this season.
Most notably, Taylor McHargue is no longer under center. Last season, the veteran quarterback became just the third Owl in program history to eclipse 7,000 yards of total offense.
Now, redshirt junior Driphus Jackson takes over. Jackson presents a dual-threat, but he may not have the passing acumen of McHargue. Of his 85 career pass attempts, Jackson has only completed 52 percent.
Running backs Jowan Davis and Darik Dillard will aim to duplicate the production of Charles Ross, who scampered for 1,280 yards in 2013.
Even on the sideline, Rice is integrating co-offensive coordinators—quarterbacks coach Larry Edmondson and receivers coach Billy Lynch—to handle the role previously held by John Reagan, who left for Kansas in December.
It all adds up to unfamiliarity for the Owls. And with Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder preaching an aggressive, attacking mentality, might the Irish try to jump out early on Rice and create pressure, looking to force these newcomers into rushed decisions?
There Is Experience in the Secondary
Of Rice’s four starting defensive backs, two are seniors (safety Julius White and cornerback Malcolm Hill) and two are redshirt seniors (cornerback Bryce Callahan and safety Gabe Baker).
Callahan is the headliner of the group. He is tied for third among returning FBS players with 11 career interceptions and has made 30 career starts. Meanwhile, White and Hill have combined to make 50 starts during their careers, and Baker has logged six himself.
Kelly lauded Rice’s secondary and also noted the Owls’ inclination to play some man coverage on the perimeter. Rice boasts an aggressive defense, one that finished 30th in total defense and 42nd in scoring defense a season ago.
It’ll be Notre Dame’s young receivers going up against those veteran defensive backs. But if the Owls do opt for their fair share of man coverage, the advantage may go to the Irish. Junior Chris Brown and sophomore Will Fuller, in particular, possess great speed, and only one of Rice’s starting defensive backs is over 6’, meaning sophomore Corey Robinson can use his 6’4.5” frame to go to work.
Jordan Taylor Would Be a Huge Loss
Redshirt senior Jordan Taylor is battling a sore left foot and is questionable for Saturday’s game, according to Joseph Duarte of The Houston Chronicle.
Taylor has tallied 55 and 57 receptions, respectively, in each of the past two seasons, upping his career total to 121, which places him sixth on the all-time receptions list at Rice. Taylor very well could end his career as the No. 2 pass-catcher in program history behind two-time All-American Jarett Dillard.
Rice w/o WR Jordan Taylor would be a big loss. Taylor had 55 catches for 848 yards and 8 TDs. Foot has his questionable— Joseph Duarte (@Chronicle_Owls) August 25, 2014
If WR Jordan Taylor (foot) unavailable for Notre Dame, Zach Wright would fill spot along with other WRs Dennis Parks and Mario Hull— Joseph Duarte (@Chronicle_Owls) August 25, 2014
If Taylor is a no-go, the list of questions gets longer for the Owls offensively. Rice could be forced to lean more heavily on its ground attack. If that’s the case, the Irish need to be ready. There are a host of unproven entities in Notre Dame’s front seven. Holding the point of attack and defending the run will be crucial.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.