Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

Prister’s Thursday Thoughts

It was a mild surprise that Avery Sebastian got the call at safety over Devin Studstill. Yet for ND to be a complete defense, Studstill still must play an integral role.

SAFETY FIRST

Although it wasn’t a shock that Brian Kelly named sixth-year senior Avery Sebastian Notre Dame’s starting safety opposite Drue Tranquill for the opener against Texas, it was – considering Studstill’s immediate impact in the spring – a turn of events following the dismissal of incumbent starting free safety Max Redfield from the program.

If you were pulling for Studstill to win the job, have no fear. He’ll see plenty of action against the Longhorns Sunday night in Austin and beyond.

Studstill stepped in for Redfield as the “starting” free safety in the spring and looked as if he might claim the spot heading into the fall. Then Redfield returned to full health – he was said to have a foot injury in the spring – and played at, to use Brian Kelly’s words, an “elite” level during the first two weeks of camp.

Studstill had hamstring issues in August, and thus, Sebastian gets the nod with Studstill expected to contribute against the Longhorns. With the strengths of Sebastian and Drue Tranquill in the box as opposed to the last line of defense, there will be plenty of instances in the Texas game in which at least one of them is crowding the line of scrimmage, making Studstill’s back-end defense extremely important.

Quite frankly, during the spring, it didn’t look at times as if Sebastian could play in Notre Dame’s defense this fall. He appeared too slow. He looked like a player who hadn’t fully overcome his injury woes from a year ago. (Note: So did Tranquill.)

Now it’s just about game day and Sebastian will get the nod. It makes sense and it’s a move that should hold up against Texas because of the Longhorns’ erratic Tyrone Swoopes at quarterback with a true freshman, Shane Buechele, mixed in.

The Irish will need Sebastian, who is a load against the run, helping in the box against the likes of 250-pound Chris Warren and 235-pound D’Onta Freeman, who will be leading the Longhorns’ rushing attack. New Texas offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert will employ a fast-paced attack, ala North Carolina 2014, and that’s a scary proposition with a pair of safeties that likely can’t crack a 4.6 in the 40.

Over the long haul, the Irish desperately need Studstill’s athleticism and ball skills in the lineup. The hunch here is that the rookie plays an integral role against the Longhorns, even though Sebastian starts.

DEPTH CHART DEALINGS

In addition to the Sebastian over Studstill call, there were no huge surprises on the depth chart. A few others to ponder…

• Andrew Trumbetti: The junior defensive end was very good in the Fiesta Bowl and then underwhelming during spring drills, which opened the door for red-shirt sophomore Jay Hayes, who took the No. 1 spot and carried it into August.

A high ankle sprain put Hayes behind in August. Trumbetti – who has battled the propensity to allow negative plays to fester – has a chance to secure what many thought would automatically be his position with the departure of Romeo Okwara.

A healthy Hayes is clearly stouter against the run. But this sure would be a nice rags-to-riches story if Trumbetti could realize the potential that defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder believes he has. (Note: Freshman Daelin Hayes also looks like he could be a favorable matchup against Texas left tackle Connor Williams.)

• Julian Love: Listed as the No. 2 cornerback behind Cole Luke, which means Love either plays in a sub package or doesn’t get on the field as long as Luke is healthy. Yet Love landed a spot on the two-deep ahead of sophomore Ashton White, who remained eligible to play, according to Brian Kelly, while awaiting a final say from the University.

We certainly saw Love making plays during the four open practices, so this is no shock. Our first evaluation of Donte Vaughn was very positive, and with his length, we thought he might emerge.

But Love had a very strong senior season of high school, showing significant improvement over his junior season, and has continued to build upon his assets in August. He clearly has been a player on the rise before and after his arrival at Notre Dame.

• Jamir Jones: The younger brother of Jarron impressed Brian Kelly during camp as a quick study and a guy who can put pressure on the quarterback off the edge. It still remains to be seen if Jones will really play an integral role in passing situations. But his August emergence is a pleasant surprise.

• Jalen Elliott: In light of the Redfield dismissal, the freshman safety has moved from a No. 3 to a No. 2 role. The more difficult read is how the safeties will be aligned. Elliott is listed behind Drue Tranquill with Studstill backing up Sebastian. The fact is Studstill and Elliott are more true free safeties while Tranquill and Sebastian clearly are better strong safeties.

• Te’von Coney: One of the arrestees from the weekend of merriment is listed behind Nyles Morgan at Mike linebacker after splitting time with Greer Martini and Asmar Bilal at the Will. Mike is generally considered the hardest position to play along the front seven in terms of learning the system and getting teammates aligned. Still think if something were to happen to Morgan, Martini would slide to Mike and Coney/Bilal would share the Will. Listing Coney at Mike is probably a way of balancing the depth chart as opposed to a true representation of who would play where in a game situation.

QUARTERBACK EVALUATION

As Irish Illustrated editor Pete Sampson recently pointed out, if Malik Zaire remained healthy last season, he’d likely be a captain of the 2016 team and mentioned for a truly standout fourth and final season of eligibility.

But Zaire didn’t stay healthy, isn’t a captain and is, at best, a co-starter heading into the Texas game.

I would argue the notion, however, that with Zaire, the Irish also would have gone 10-2 during the regular season. Maybe they would have; maybe they would have lost to Virginia without DeShone Kizer’s heroics.

Zaire would have had to be really good to have matched Kizer’s late-game highlights from ’15.

• Kizer’s 39-yard touchdown pass to Will Fuller with 12 seconds remaining proved to be the game-winner against Virginia. Kizer, although shaky at first, led the eight-play, 80-yard drive.

• Kizer capped 64- and 32-yard touchdown drives to pull within two points of Clemson when he scored on a three-yard run and found Torii Hunter, Jr. for a touchdown with seven seconds remaining.

• Trailing 31-24 to USC, Kizer led a nine-play, 90-yard touchdown drive and a seven-play, 91-yard drive (capped by a 10-yard scoring toss to Corey Robinson) to rally the Irish to a 10-point win over the Trojans.

• Kizer helped march the Irish 75 yards on six plays, sealing the game-winning drive with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Fuller with 2:09 remaining.

• Trailing by six at Stanford in the regular-season finale, the Irish took over at their own 12 with 6:48 left. Fifteen plays, 88 yards and 6:18 later, it was Kizer who willed his way into the end zone from two yards out to put the Irish up by one.

Would Zaire have been able to do the same things Kizer did? Quite possibly. Maybe the Irish wouldn’t have needed a come-from-behind, game-winning drive as frequently if Zaire were in the lineup.

The fact is the Irish have two dynamic quarterbacks – one that has proven himself repeatedly and one who spearheaded the upset victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl and led the blowout victory against a sub-.500 Texas team.

If both play to their capabilities in ’16, this will be one wild ride. There’s a very realistic possibility that the Irish have two of the top 10 quarterbacks in the country.

OF POWER GAMES, WILDCARDS AND ‘SEASON-RUINERS’

Notre Dame’s 12-game 2016 regular-season schedule can be broken down into three categories:

• Battles against heavyweights and/or rivals;
• Games versus teams that could pull the upset, but would make Notre Dame upwardly mobile with wins;
• Contests with opponents to which the Irish simply cannot afford to lose.

Let’s start with the “season-ruiners,” or games in which the Irish simply cannot afford to lose it they want to make a playoff-bid run. There are five such games on the ’16 slate: Game 1 at Texas, Game 2 Nevada, Game 5 Syracuse (MetLife Stadium), Game 9 Navy (Jacksonville), and Game 10 Army (San Antonio).

Texas is, on paper, the most difficult of those five games and one that the Irish could lose if they don’t bring their A game in the season-opener. The fact the Irish a) defeated the Longhorns by 35 points a year ago and b) Texas was a 5-7 team in ’15 puts this game in the season-ruiner category as opposed to the wildcard games.

A loss to Texas would require 11 straight wins to make the playoffs. That would mean a sweep of Michigan State, Stanford and USC, which is a Notre Dame rarity (see below).

There are four wildcard games, all of which are ACC opponents – Game 4 Duke, Game 6 N.C. State, Game 8 Miami and Game 11 Virginia Tech. Only N.C. State is on the road – Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh – where the Wolfpack have lost 11 times in three years under head coach Dave Doeren. But the Wolfpack have talent, particularly on defense.

The other three are in Notre Dame Stadium, where the Irish were 6-0 a year ago. And yet Duke has won 27 games the last three years, including 13 out of 16 on the road. Miami under former Georgia head coach Mark Richt and Virginia Tech under fast-rising Justin Fuente clearly are teams expecting an eight- or nine-win season.

If you want to go to the playoffs, or, for that matter, a New Year’s Day bowl again, you better win two out of three of the power games (see below), and win not only the “must wins,” but sweep the wildcards.

The power games are: Game 3 Michigan State, Game 7 Stanford, and Game 12 at USC.

Michigan State, which has lost three of four to Brian Kelly with the only win coming on the “Little Giants” fake field goal in ‘10, has won 36 games the last three seasons.

Stanford has won 54 games the last five seasons, including victories over the Irish in five of the last seven clashes.

USC has lost four of the last six to Notre Dame with the Irish winning two of the last three in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Once again, however, the Trojans have a ton of talent. Let’s see if head coach Clay Helton is, in fact, the guy to lead USC back to prominence.

For the record, Notre Dame has played Michigan State, Stanford and USC in the same season 17 times in the last 20 years. The Irish have swept all three just once – 2012 – when they played for the national title.

LOOKING OUT FOR NO. 1

Candidates to wear the No. 1 in the opener against Texas: RB-Tarean Folston (25), WR-Torii Hunter, Jr. (16), TE-Durham Smythe (80), DE-Isaac Rochell (90), LB-James Onwualu (17), CB-Cole Luke (36), S-Drue Tranquill (23).

Question: What if the recipient of the honor doesn’t want to change numbers? Obviously, an offensive lineman can’t wear the No. 1, nor would any of them want to/dare to. Harry Hiestand probably wouldn’t allow it, even if the rules for offensive linemen did.

AGAINST ALL ODDS

•  Under 43½ Boston College vs. Georgia Tech (Dublin)
• Kansas State +14 ½ at Stanford
• Mississippi +4½ vs. Florida State (Orlando)


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