TO: By the time late-October 2012 rolled around, Golson was one of Notre Dames 5-6 best players on a team dominated by defensive stars and future first-and second-round draft picks (he wasn't close to that status in the weeks prior). Since, Golson's main areas for improvement is between the ears, he understands not only the playbook, but why plays are being run. It's something Tommy Rees possessed -- just without Golson's arm and feet as physical weapons.
Golson's about 12 pounds bigger than the last time the teams met in 2012 and he's a more patient quarterback. He wasn't inaccurate before, but he would sometimes miss the easy throw due to poor mechanics or lack of attention to detail. Now he's considered a team leader, and honestly, if he's not great on Saturday night, Notre Dame won't beat Michigan. He is, however, by any reasonable measure, one of the team's three best football players, and likely its best at this point in the season.
2. A lot of skill position talent from Notre Dame is now gone and on NFL rosters. At wide receiver and knowing the recent trend of productive tight ends for the Irish, who emerges at both of those spots for Brian Kelly?
TO: Senior Ben Koyack is Notre Dame's next NFL Draft pick at tight end, but to be blunt, he's likely No. 6 in a six-player, 10-season list that includes names such as Fasano, Carlson, Rudolph, Eifert, Niklas, and (pending) Koyack.
Koyack has been a strong overall player since Notre Dame lost to Oklahoma to conclude September last fall (he played well, the Irish did not). He's a solid mid-range weapon, can get down the seam, and has evolved from being a legitimately poor blocker as recently as last year's Michigan/Michigan State games in early/mid September, to that being a strong point in his game.
Notre Dame's best receiver DaVaris Daniels remains suspended on suspicion of academic dishonesty. In his stead is a lack of experience, but impressive speed: sophomore Will Fuller can run by any cornerback in the nation -- provided he can beat their press coverage. As fast and one year older is Chris Brown. Neither has a resume to speak of, but wide receiver isn't a major area of concern for the Irish. There are five that will rotate including a pair of slot receivers of disparate size, Amir Carlisle and C.J. Prosise, plus 6'5" target Corey Robinson, though he's playing with a pin in his broken right hand and will be 14 days removed from surgery on game night.
3. Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston both received the bulk of the carries at running back in the win over Rice Saturday. Is this expected to continue moving forward and what makes the combination of the two a difficult duo to defend?
TO: Irish fans hope so, because most believe senior captain Cam McDaniel has a ceiling that the younger pair does not. Rest assured, McDaniel will be heavily involved because he's reliable, is the best of the trio in pass protection, and is the best developed receiver (route-running, hands, concepts, etc.)
Look for Notre Dame to pass to their running backs far more this week than they did in the opener (or did last season).
All three runners are in the 5'9" 210-pound range. Folston is easily the most elusive while Bryant is a combination of power and quick, north-south movements. The trio will combine for 35+ carries in a win or fewer than 30 carries in a loss -- thats' the tell-tale stat of the Kelly era in South Bend.
4. Defensively, a lot of losses along the defensive line from a year ago, how has Notre Dame gone about replacing guys like Stephen Tuitt and Louis Nix, not to mention the adjustment with new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder?
TO: Junior Sheldon Day is far and away the line's best player, but it's VanGorder that holds the key for this game and most on the Irish schedule. The key to his NFL scheme is using the talent on hand -- all of it. Against Rice, 74 percent of Notre Dame's plays were run from the nickel or dime sets.
Against Michigan and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, that seems unlikely. It's up to VanGorder to mix and match a youth-filled front around Day to win on first down and allow the nickel to enter the fray. One player to watch is junior nose guard Jarron Jones. If Michigan can control the 6'5" 315-pounder, it'll be a long day for the Irish defense as it's hard to run nickel and dime facing 2nd and 4. Additionally, sophomore Isaac Rochell is the line's best future player, but he was forced into full-time action earlier than expected due to the suspension of senior Ishaq Williams.
5. In the wake of the academic scandal and the suspensions that followed, what players have been forced into a far bigger role than they had once anticipated and up until this point, how have they fared?
TO: Two of the suspended five, Kendall Moore and Eilar Hardy, weren't regular contributors other than special teams, though with recent attrition at safety, Hardy might have played a bigger role Saturday night. (He started twice last season.)
Rochell replaced Williams as noted above. He could have been a player that surpassed Williams by season's end, but Notre Dame needed Williams to contribute 35-40 snaps per game over the 12-game slate. The Irish might miss Williams more vs. a team such as Arizona State or USC in November when inevitable injury attrition hits the defensive front. (Or of course if Rochell goes down Saturday night.)
Cole Luke starts at cornerback for Keivarae Russell. Luke was one of Notre Dame's most impressive players Saturday against Rice, but the Owls can't throw the ball against any defense with a pulse, so Luke, a true sophomore, faces his biggest test Saturday night. (Florida transfer Cody Riggs, a 5th-year senior grad student, appears to be rock-solid on the other side. He's a 26-game SEC starter.)
The key to Russell's departure is two-fold: He was their best player in the secondary, and he allowed Riggs to play the nickel, a spot in which Riggs excelled at Florida. The nickel role now goes to safety Matthias Farley, who did not play well in the Big House last September, or throughout 2013 after a breakout effort in 2012. (Russell was awful in Ann Arbor last season, but improved greatly thereafter to the point he was considered a third-team All-American by Phil Steele entering the season.)
The receivers discussed in Question #3 replaced Daniels. That's the unit that could absorb a loss without much fall-off over a three-month slate of games, but I offered long ago that Notre Dame would need Daniels' veteran presence under the lights vs. the Wolverines (Daniels was on academic probation in the spring and was not enrolled as a result), and now it appears he won't be back.
I think the deep Michigan secondary has an advantage Saturday night against a green group of receivers from South Bend, one Golson must erase with his playmaking skills if the Irish are to win.