Who, and What, to Watch?

Your weekly pre-game points of interest to monitor as Notre Dame opens its home slate against Nevada.

1 – The Second Quarter: Win or lose the previous week, it’s not hard for football players to be fired up or to focus for their home opener. And in the wake of defeat, it’s not difficult to be hell-bent on a better effort when they line up for the opening kickoff, or initial offensive possession, or when the defense first takes the field.

But what about when the dust settles, and the projected and expected 14-0, or 21-3 lead materializes vs. a weaker foe?

We’ll know all we need to about Notre Dame’s short week of rest, recovery, and preparation when the final second quarter gun sounds, because if 28-point underdog Nevada is to make a game of it today, it’ll be due to a strong second quarter and momentum carrying over early into the second stanza.

“When does a fan get over it,” said head coach Brian Kelly of a disheartening defeat? “Wednesday? Thursday? Our guys have to get back to work. We get 24 hours to kind of think about it, watch the film, grade it and then we move on.”

Easier said than done.

2 – Back to Basics: Was Notre Dame’s best defensive talent on the field Sunday night in Austin? Were those players put in the best position possible to succeed? Answering those questions were among Kelly’s chief charge this week, notably on the defensive side of scrimmage.

“We have to say, ‘Okay, what can these guys do and what can't they do?’” said Kelly of his defense’s failures against Texas. “Let's maximize what their strengths are. Instead of saying, ‘Hey, we love this, we want to do this, we want to do that.’ We can't do those things in certain situations. So knowing our personnel, moving forward and accentuating things defensively that they do well.”

Sometimes what should go without saying must indeed by said.

3 – No Time Like the Present?  How much hitting (of each other) is too much?

Houston head coach Tom Herman noted over the summer that his Cougars had “1,300 tackle-to-the-ground reps” last spring. That was in 12 practices. And Hermann intimated that ratio would not change during Houston’s 25-plus August practices leading up to a Week One battle against No. 3 Oklahoma.

In other words, they hit. A lot. Physicality is Hermann’s calling card.

In case you missed the weekend’s biggest upset, Houston limited the playoff participant Sooners to 70 rushing yards, 2.7 yards per carry, and looked all-the-world to be the more aggressive – and frankly, tougher and better --- football team.

Under Kelly, Notre Dame often chooses the tactic of less hitting of each other with a greater emphasis on tackling technique. It must be asked: Did that widely employed (throughout modern football) tactic impede their tackling efforts in Austin?

“In everything that we do, we expect from week one to week two to see big improvements,” said Kelly when asked about his team’s shoddy tackling Sunday night. “You're going through camp and there's not a lot of live tackling. You're trying to tackle as much as you can on objects that are not 250 pounds running at you (as were Texas’ running backs and quarterback Tyrone Swoopes).”

“So we'll spend more time on tackling, but we expect that the tackling will get better and better as our guys settle into it defensively.

4 – Opportunity Knocks: Whether concussed senior captain Torii Hunter starts or sits Saturday should be immaterial. It’s incumbent upon Kelly and the offensive brain trust to bring along Notre Dame’s youth-filled receiving corps, and enhancing the working relationship with starting quarterback DeShone Kizer is Job 1.

“They were pretty good in camp,” said Kelly of the receivers noting that passing game inefficiencies might have been partly due to issues in timing and protections. “(The quarterbacks) have a pretty good rapport with Corey Holmes. They know where he’s going to be, he’s been in the program the longest.

“Miles (Boykin) at the W is a big-bodied receiver and so a lot of his routes are less complicated from a passing game standpoint. KJ (Stepherson) is probably the one where the most work needs to continue to occur.”

A junior, Holmes will play in his fourth career collegiate contest Saturday. It will be the second for Boykin and Stepherson, plus freshman Chase Claypool. If Hunter is unable to go, true freshman Javon McKinley is expected to make his collegiate debut.

Sophomores Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders shined in the Lone Star State, but today’s contest marks just the second career start for both after the two played extensively on special teams last fall.

5 – A Strength…And a Weakness? One week after defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s curious choice to feature Nickel personnel (3 defensive linemen, 3 linebackers, and 5 defensive backs) vs. Texas’s power rushing attack, Notre Dame is expected to employ a preponderance of its base defense (4-3-4…or basically, adding a bigger body to the front) Saturday vs. Nevada…and likely the following week against No. 12 Michigan State.

That means Nickel Shaun Crawford will shift from playing near the line of scrimmage against a slot receiver (or tight end) back to the left cornerback position he won in camp – one that was shredded by Longhorns speedster John Burt Sunday night as classmate Nick Coleman performed in Crawford’s stead.

Look for the Irish cornerbacks to shine – not only Saturday, but throughout 2016, as Crawford and Cole Luke represent two of the 10 best players on the current roster.

But what of the Irish safeties?

Freshmen Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott will be forced to learn on the fly. Recently concussed sixth-year senior Avery Sebastian must play the challenging position after a career ravaged by injury. Benched Sunday, junior Drue Tranquill re-takes the field on the back end after a pair of knee surgeries over the last 22 months.

Will youth rise to the fore? Will the freshmen and upperclassmen form a pair of tandems? 1-2 punches at both free and strong safety? If you’re looking for the game-within-the game Saturday in South Bend, focus your attention on Notre Dame’s last line of defense, where progress must be made after a rough debut. 

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