Irish Illustrated caught up with Chip Brown from Horns Digest on the Scout.com network for insight into Texas and the test that awaits Notre Dame on Sunday night in Austin. Does Charlie Strong have the horses to match up with Brian Kelly after last season’s blowout in South Bend?
Pete Sampson: This might be the first time I’ve ever opened a Q&A about Notre Dame’s next opponent with the offensive line, but three starters are banged up. How big a deal is the status of center Zach Shackelford, left guard Patrick Vahe and right tackle Tristan Nickelson?
Chip Brown: I think Shackelford is a little further behind than Vahe and Nickelson, in terms of he had the high ankle sprain. He’s gonna have to fight through more to get back for this weekend. I think Vahe and Nickelson will both be able to play at a high level despite what most consider to be just minor sprains. And really, Nickelson might have lost his starting job to Brandon Hodges. Shackelford is by far the most serious one and we’re talking about a true freshman there.
PS: How is it possible that the best-case scenario for Texas on the offensive line is starting a true freshman at center? That’s insane to me.
CB: How is that, right? That’s how bad offensive line recruiting has been. They have not had an offensive lineman drafted since 2008 (Notre Dame has had seven, including two first-rounders). You talk to NFL scouts and they’re just like, are you kidding me?
As for Shackelford, the coaches think he’s going to be really good. They think he’s smart, crafty, nasty. He got into it with some tougher guys on the defensive line in spring practice, started scraps. He’s gonna finish you. He’s gonna slap the back of your helmet when no one is looking. He’s one of those guys that gets under your skin. His teammates love that. Can he handle Jerry Tillery? I have no idea.
PS: Shane Buechele and Tyrone Swoopes at quarterback. How is this going to work? Who starts? Can Charlie Strong really rotate?
CB: I think Charlie is justifiably concerned about just how big the atmosphere is gonna be. Is Shane Buechele different and he comes in, walks out there and acts like nothing is going on? Well, Charlie said that the freshmen are going to think they’re OK when the game starts, but they’re not. They’re not going to just be OK. My sense is that you have Swoopes start, see how the Notre Dame defense is playing it, let Buechele watch from the sidelines. When Buechele has a picture of it all, then bring him in and see how he handles it. The ideal is he just takes over from there and becomes the guy.
PS: What is the crowd going to be like if Swoopes starts?
CB: If Swoopes is announced as starter I’ve had people tell me they’ll give up their tickets. Charlie is being smart not saying anything. Here’s how I see it. There’s no downside to announcing Buechele as the starter now. And there’s no upside to announcing Swoopes as the starter now. Rightly or wrongly, people see Swoopes as representing the pain of the last six years. Buechele is the new offense. But this offense does play to Swoopes’ strengths, the quick tempo. And as Charlie has said, Tyrone has a lot more playmakers around him now than he did last year. He’s got two all-Big 12 offensive linemen. He’s got two running backs who averaged 7.2 yards per carry and 6.6 yards per carry. He’s got fast receivers. Of course, Buechele has all that available too.
PS: With new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s system that’s built on the Baylor approach, how much do you think will really be ready for the opener?
CB: This offense is really simple and based on the quarterback reading the box, nothing else. Box heavy or box light? It will change at the snap, so the quarterback has to see it getting heavy or getting light. If it’s getting heavy, pull and throw. If it’s getting light, hand it off. Then do it again as fast as you can.
Buechele was way ahead in this during spring ball and Gilbert has said that it clicks at different times for different quarterbacks. Some guys get it at 500 reps. Some guys get it at 5,000 reps. Clearly it clicked for Swoopes later considering he’s a senior. But he’s the bigger, stronger guy and you can trust him more in this environment. Texas did beat OU last year. He started the Baylor game too. People talk about that 56 percent completion rate, his 6-and-8 record as a starter, that mediocre TD-to-INT ratio. But there’s more than that to him. That stuff just gets in fans’ heads and gets stuck there.
PS: To me, Notre Dame’s biggest weaknesses are defensive line depth, safety play and wide receiver experience. Not sure if Texas is built to exploit the first two, but what about the Longhorn secondary? Good enough to let the front seven stack the line and get after it?
CB: It should be. To me, that’s because cornerbacks Holton Hill and Davante Davis moved into the lineup at mid-season and played really well, getting better as the year continued. The coaches think these guys are special. Davis might be the best NFL prospect on the roster. I don’t think they’re going to have any trouble handling pressure this year.
Last season defensive coordinator Vance Bedford was hesitant to sent guys because I don’t think he thought the defense could handle it. I think Texas will have a better pass rush this year off the edge, starting with Charles Omenihu a defensive end. Last year he was 232 pounds and now he’s closer to 262. On the other side, I like what Breckyn Hager can bring at the Fox end, sort of the weak side pass rushing spot. He’s the son of UT’s all-time leading tackler, Britt Hager. Really good first step. And then freshman Malcolm Roach is interesting too. The coaches like him as lot as a pass rusher.
PS: Beyond the obvious picks like Malik Jefferson and the TBD quarterback, which players will most determine the chances for Texas on Sunday night?
CB: Quarterback is just so huge. You have to have the threat of the deep ball and you have to connect 1-on-1 to force the defense to really decide. Notre Dame is going to come after Texas, that’s what Brian VanGorder does. Texas has to make them pay for that. If they can’t, it’s a long night. To me, the quarterbacks and outside receivers will have the most influence on whether Texas wins the game or not. Defensively, I expect Texas to give up a lot and the game to get into the 34-31 range. Texas has the speed at receiver to set the tone. The running backs are very good here. But if the quarterback wets his pants, it doesn’t mater.
PS: A lot more intrigue about this game this year than last year, when it felt like a forgone conclusion that Notre Dame would win. Justified?
CB: It should be justified. Texas should be able to run the ball. If they can, this is a game into the fourth quarter. If they can’t get anything going on offense, Notre Dame will smash them. Notre Dame has two proven products at quarterback. Texas is still looking for one.
PS: Not sure how much of a tone last year really set for Texas considering the Oklahoma and Baylor games, but do you get the sense it will be more telling this time, whether that’s good or bad?
CB: Yes. And I think it did set the tone last year in some ways. Notre Dame converted some third-and-longs on their opening drive and Texas struggled there for the rest of the year. I asked Bedford about third down defense, how much of that was mental. He said it’s 90 percent mental for a defense on third down. Texas just didn’t have it there. There was an “uh oh” factor with third down right away because of Notre Dame. This year they have to have confidence that third down can be a money down for them.
PS: Lastly, for Notre Dame fans hitting Austin for the first time, what’s the must-see, must-do stuff?
CB: If they can, get out to Lake Travis, go to The Oasis there. It’s a great view, great location. It’s about a 20-minue drive from downtown and it’s just beautiful. Downtown, there’s all kinds of live music. Sixth Street is the place to be. There’s a dividing point there, Congress Avenue. To the east of Congress, that’s “Dirty 6th” where the college kids hang out. The west side of that is more grown up. Great music. Check out the Continental Club, there’s some great and amazing history of music there. You never know who’s going to jump on stage. There’s just so much great live music here.