Who, and What, To Watch: Bowl Preparations

A handful of questions and options for Irish fans to monitor as Notre Dame begins preparations for LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl.

1.) Sheldon Day Must Play: Irish head coach Brian Kelly offered of Day, the team's best football player in 2014 but one sidelined over the last two games with a sprained knee, "we're hopeful Sheldon would be back as well."

With Day in good health, Notre Dame's defensive interior boasts an All-America caliber player, one that allows a host of reserves, including 5th-year senior Justin Utupo and freshmen Daniel Cage, Jay Hayes, and Jacob Matuska, the requisite sideline respite each needs to be effective over the course of four quarters.

In short, Day makes the players around him better, from his fellow interior combatants, to defensive ends Isaac Rochell, Andrew Trumbetti, and Romeo Okwara, to inside 'backers Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini, and Jaylon Smith.

Defensive line coach Mike Elston's front is already without starting nose tackle Jarron Jones (foot surgery) and could be limited in its use of Cage (knee sprain), Hayes (ankle sprain), and Matuska (brachial plexus). With Day at (close to) full strength, the "bit players" don't have to play lead roles.

With Day, the group has a fighting chance inside, which allows the back seven to operate at peak efficiency, i.e., limit big plays, stay ahead of the chains and thus use defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's preferred blitz packages on third down.

If Day plays, Notre Dame can upset LSU. (The point spread hasn't been released, but expect Notre Dame to be underdogs of approximately 8.5 points.)

If Day doesn't play, may God have mercy on their souls, because LSU's running game will not.

2.) Play 'Em Both, Coach: Kelly announced Sunday night that Bowl Prep 2014 would be about open competition and improving the football team. If that's the case, both quarterbacks, starter Everett Golson and backup Malik Zaire, should play key roles against the Tigers.

Golson is a far better passer than Zaire, but LSU's pass efficiency defense ranks first nationally. Zaire, conversely, has shown to be a much better runner -- but a true run-first threat (at this point in his career), even one that can hit receivers downfield, would be quickly negated by the athletic Tigers defense.

Keeping the Tigers 15th-ranked third-down defense off balance is crucial. If LSU dictates down-and-distance to Notre Dame's offense, the Irish won't approach the 30 necessary points it will take to win this game.

If Kelly can't figure out a way to adequately utilize two talented, disparate quarterbacks in a one-game scenario, with three weeks of preparation, that's his fault. In other words, maybe the competition -- closed since August by his own admission -- should have been present as Golson's penchant for the turnover presented at the end of September.

December 2014 kick starts 2015 for Notre Dame's football program. In-game competition between the two will show Kelly more than innocuous spring practice sessions ever could.

3.) For once, the game might matter more -- or at least as much: The inconvenient reality of bowl games for traveling fans is that, in a non-championship setting, head football coaches generally use the extra practice time to begin evaluations for the ensuing season. A win is the goal, but the team isn't prepared for three weeks to that end.

That will be the case again for Notre Dame entering the Music City Bowl, but considering a four-game losing streak, and considering the potential impact of a win over a perennial SEC contender in LSU, should this one-off contest be treated as a "Major Bowl" by Kelly and his staff?

It didn't matter that Notre Dame beat Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl last December. It didn't matter that they lost to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl to conclude 2011. And it was largely irrelevant, other than to Notre Dame fans, players, and coaches, that the Irish topped Miami to end Kelly's initial season at the helm, 2010. (Though that doubtless felt good.)

But a win over LSU -- a recent two-time national champion and national runner-up; a perennial Top 10 contender and member of the almighty SEC West -- could resonate.

"Momentum" won't carry over onto the field in 2015. But this youth-filled Notre Dame team lacks confidence. A win over LSU would embolden the troops and resonate nationally throughout January.

4.) Could Max Redfield effect the linebackers' alignment? Kelly noted last night that they "think" sophomore safety Max Redfield will be back for the Music City Bowl. (Redfield suffered a broken rib in the team's 49-14 humiliation in Los Angeles on Nov. 29.) Asked if they're certain enough of Redfield's status that nickel Matthias Farley would not be a practice session contingency at the depleted safety position, Kelly offered, "I think (Matthias) Farley's going to have to take a little bit of rep work at safety and get some work back there as well just in case Max can't answer the bell. We're hopeful that he can. We think that he can, but we're obviously very thin there. So it's important that we get some work back there with Matthias as well."

(Without Redfield, Notre Dame has two scholarship safeties, plus the former safety Farley, for its last line of defense.)

The use of Farley at safety during practice -- there's no chance Redfield is ready to hit in full pads at the outset of December practice sessions -- opens the door for defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to get a head start on his 2015 linebacker preparations. That is, move Jaylon Smith to SLB (the position Farley often occupies in tandem with James Onwualu) and allow Nyles Morgan to work at middle linebacker with fellow freshman Greer Martini in Smith's will linebacker role. (Martini worked the will spot throughout the season.)

The threesome gives Notre Dame its best (current) chance to combat LSU's run-heavy attack led by five-star freshman Leonard Fournette. It's also a potential preview of what VanGorder's unit could look like next August, with likely 5th-year senior Joe Schmidt in the middle and Morgan and Martini battling for the will linebacker spot -- a move that would allow Smith to play the open side of the formation, in space, where he boasts All-American ability.

5.) Greg Bryant: If the redshirt-freshman doesn't play a major role in support of classmate and starting running back Tarean Folston, the Irish offense deserves what it gets, and it will reflect in the final score. Bryant is one of the unit's three most talented playmakers (Will Fuller, Folston, Bryant). It shouldn't be difficult to find a role that fits a runner with his athletic gifts.


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