"As a whole, we're a fundamentalist developmental group," Diaco offered. "We really don't believe that it's ‘The Call.' We believe it's the fundamentals and how the players play…It really is not about the call, it's about the player executing."
While Daniels' out-of-pocket performance will receive the lion's share of kudos or blame pending Saturday's outcome, his efforts and the matchup issues he presents aren't the only of note when the Bulls and Irish knock heads in the season-opener.
Crist, Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray vs. SS Jon LejisteThe Irish offense suffered just 20 sacks last season, but a whopping 16 occurred with Dayne Crist under center. Included in that total were four separate contests in which Crist was dropped three times by enemy pass rush. That's not all on Crist, but it's not solely the fault of his offensive line, either.
Kelly lauded Crist's ability to buy time and extend plays with his feet in August. He did the same last pre-season. Straight-line fast, strong, and willing, Crist must still prove elusive in the pocket; it's an innate skill set far different than downfield mobility.
Aiding Crist in that cause is junior running back Cierre Wood. The second-year competitor stated that he's much-improved in pass protection and running backs coach Tim Hinton and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar echoed those comments. He'll need to be vs. the Bulls and a troublesome safety Jon Lejiste.
Lejiste adds a playmaking presence as a delayed pass rusher, tying for a team-best four sacks (and 7.5 tackles-for-loss) last season, with three forced fumbles. (Of note: Among Notre Dame's seven players that have forced a collegiate fumble, only Kapron Lewis-Moore has more than one in his career.)
Confusion in blitz pickup/pass protection has famously plagued both Gray (vs. Michigan State in ‘09) and Wood (vs. Stanford and throughout last year). Both should be assignment-ready as veterans entering Saturday's contest…execution of that assignment remains in question.
Manti Te'o and Prince Shembo vs. TE Evan LandiThe Irish All-America junior ‘backer will stuff the run Saturday; likely to the tune of double-digit tackles. He'll annihilate the Bulls' screen game just as he did for the bulk of 13 contests last season.
But Te'o and new drop linebacker Prince Shembo will be targeted by the Bulls in the short and mid-range passing game, and the B.J. Daniels to Evan Landi combination appears advantageous for the visitors vs. both aggressive Irish hit men.
Landi was a split end last season, catching three touchdowns in 28 receptions. Now 6'3" 225 pounds, he won't be able to handle Te'o or the rest of the Irish ‘backers as in in-line blocking tight end, but a detached Landi (much like the Irish use Tyler Eifert) will pose occasional problems for Diaco's defense, especially if his safety trio is otherwise occupied in coverage.
USC targeted Te'o for a successful fourth-down conversion pass to tight end Rhett Ellison on its final drive last fall; man-to-man coverage appears to be the lone major weakness remaining for the true junior star to overcome. Shembo is getting his first action in the vexing position of DOG (drop) LB, one that requires as much of a mental as physical edge on each snap. Landi could have the edge over both in space.
Diaco's sound scheme will mitigate the damage, but Evan Landi in the short seams, crossing routes, and in the flats is a player to watch early as South Florida attempts to sustain drives.
Irish OL vs. LBs Sam Barrington and DeDe LattimoreLikely the best tandem in the Big East, middle linebacker Sam Barrington and weak side linebacker DeDe Lattimore will be the best pair of linebackers Notre Dame faces in the season's first three weeks (if not into November vs. Maryland and Boston College).
It's unlikely the Irish will be able to pound the football consistently vs. a rugged South Florida rush defense (ranked 22nd nationally last fall), but junior running back Cierre Wood can damage the Bulls at the second level – that is if the Notre Dame front line can execute move blocks in space vs. the Barrington/Lattimore pairing.
When healthy, and allowed to release at the snap, right tackle Taylor Dever fared well in seek-and-find missions vs. opposing linebackers last year. His bookend on the left side Zack Martin, and center Braxston Cave both excelled in this regard for the bulk of 2010. But Notre Dame's 2010 guard tandem occasionally struggled, with departed Chris Stewart often overmatched in space and senior Trevor Robinson surprisingly inconsistent.
Stewart's 2011 replacement Chris Watt is known for physical play, but head coach Brian Kelly noted, the young mauler still has a penchant for the "swing and miss." He and Robinson, purportedly much improved after re-shaping his body for the second time in 15 months, will be key factors in turning gains of three-to-four yards into big hitters at the second level – after which the elusive Cierre Wood could do serious damage in space.
Robinson is the Irisheyes.com dark horse candidate to rank as the team's most improved player this fall. Round 1 to that end is Saturday during his on-field meetings with a pair of brutish Bulls.
Note: A column detailing three matchups vs. the Bulls that appear to favor the Irish is forthcoming.