Opening Day Indicators

Not since 2008 has a Notre Dame football season and its home opener featured so many questions in need of answers. 

And though the 2014 Irish should prove far better than that rudderless '08 squad (7-6 after a 4-1 start), questions nonetheless abound regarding Saturday's contest against Rice

Among them:

1.) An up-tempo offensive attack is expected, but to what degree? Head coach Brian Kelly openly stated he prefers to vary his approach pending game matchups and situations. In other words, the Irish aren't likely to be the Oregon of the Midwest

2.) A quarterback-driven offense has long been desired by Kelly, but how much can he let his senior triggerman Everett Golson take control 21 months removed from his last snap? Expect Golson to be given more rein as time passes -- that time might not arrive in early September.

3.) The team's wide receivers and running backs collectively rank as the most talented and deepest of the post Bob Davie era -- but outside of senior captain Cam McDaniel, all are either not yet in their primes or unproven upperclassmen. 

4.) And the defense? Fast and athletic to be sure, but experienced and proven? Definitely not. Ready for prime time? We'll see. 

What to Watch

Presented first with the two universal desires for any season opener -- winning, and playing a relatively clean contest sans turnovers -- Kelly offered Thursday his following list of wishes for Week One.

"I think like everybody else you want to get off to a good start," Kelly began. "Fundamentals are important. You want to stay away from costly turnovers and sloppy football. You want to know that all the work that you put in his paying off a little bit, that we’ve put in since January. We have to have good quarterback play. Right? We want to see a progression there. And some confidence for some young players on defense. A win obviously, it’s gonna be a big day for us."

The inclusion of "confidence" is telling. This team could ride it through mid-October or die prior without it. Multiple true freshmen will contribute; the sophomore class is likely the program's best; and there are more than a handful of rookies or relative rookies among those expected to produce from the outset.

I have a healthy Baker's Dozen for Irish fans to monitor Saturday afternoon:

-- Golson: Self-explanatory. Golson's worst game in 2012 came against Michigan in South Bend. (And there's not a close second.) The senior leader needs to shake off the rust well before the Wolverines travel south.

-- FS Max Redfield: Much has been made about Redfield's need to turn his "crazy, crazy, crazy athleticism" (per Kelly) into on-field production. A sound day patrolling Notre Dame's back line would bode well for his much more difficult matchup next week.

-- RB Greg Bryant: Five carries for 26 yards won't be enough to satisfy the team's only uproven runner. Senior captain Cam McDaniel might have earned the initial start, and Bryant's classmate Tarean Folston has equity built up from November 2013, but Bryant needs to join the party from the outset. A difference-maker is necessary for the weeks that follow.

-- CB Cole Luke: Nothing would benefit the Irish secondary more than a fast start from KeiVarae Russell's replacement. A pick or third-down pass defended could work wonders for Luke before the Wolverines come calling on Sept. 6.

-- WR Chris Brown: The unit possesses a host of future stars among its ranks, but the most realistic "breakout" player for 2014 is the junior speedster Brown. With Corey Robinson limited by a broken hand, and DaVaris Daniels out indefinitely, Brown must bring a playmaking element to the perimeter. (Tight end Ben Koyack is likely to emerge as the chief chain-mover inside.)

-- MLB Joe Schmidt: There's a distinct difference between quarterbacking a defense in camp and tackling Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson in space. If Schmidt struggles with the latter, ensuing triggermen such as Devin Gardner, Kevin Hogan, and -- gasp -- Jameis Winston will have a field day with the Irish defense. Schmidt appeared up to the task in August and in a niche role last season -- The grind of the 2014 regular season is similar to neither.

-- RG Christian Lombard: Was beaten repeatedly to his inside shoulder during his seven-game starting stint in 2013. We believe now that was because the grizzled vet was playing through severe back pain, since surgically repaired. We'll find out Saturday, because Owls DT Christian Covington is capable of playing the role of wrecking ball on every snap.

-- Slot receiver Amir Carlisle -- Carlisle's game day confidence took a major hit last September when he coughed up the football in crunch time at Purdue. He was never the same. The senior transfer can't afford an early fumble or another dropped pass in his dual role as kick returner and starting slot receiver. (1A to C.J. Prosise's 1B.)

-- SDE Isaac Rochell -- Slated to backup Ishaq Williams prior to the latter's suspension, the talented sophomore from McDonough, GA has a chance to make Irish fans forget the enigmatic Williams -- if they haven't already. Rochell's bright future (he'll be a star in 2015) needs to arrive a touch earlier than planned.

-- Rush End Jhonny Williams -- The Irish defense needs a third-down pass rusher off the edge. Williams needs to experience major college football before next week -- multiple pocket pressures would be a good start for the raw freshman talent from nearby Berrien Springs (Mich.)

-- QB Malik Zaire -- Considering the health history of Kelly's read-option quarterbacks over the last decade, there's little doubt the redshirt-freshman Zaire will be called upon this season. His first brush with competitive action probably shouldn't be with the Irish backed up against their own goal facing a defense from Michigan, Stanford, or Florida State.

-- NT Jarron Jones: I expect the 6'5" 315-pounder to play his hardest against Michigan, Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State, Louisville, and USC. Not necessarily his best, but with maximum effort in each. If the latter is lacking Saturday in a season opener vs. a lesser foe, it's a bad sign.

-- Coverage and Return Units: Hidden yards WILL make the difference for a Notre Dame team guaranteed to play plenty "close and late" this fall. Kelly has infused these lineups with a healthy dose of starters (Cam McDaniel is on all four coverage/return teams). A newfound dedication should be apparent from the outset.

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