After a week of rest and rare mid-September bye, Notre Dame will play its third consecutive prime time contest Saturday, leaving the state of Indiana for the first time this season for a matchup with Syracuse at the New Meadowlands (East Rutherford, N.J.). Below is a scouting report of the 3-0 Irish.
The Irish employ a no-huddle, zone-read offense triggered by quarterback Everett Golson, joined by a trio of running backs rotating throughout the contest. Notre Dame's tight end rarely leaves the field, but for the first time since the conclusion of the 2011 season, head coach Brian Kelly regularly uses three wide receivers rather than his two tight end, or "12 package," that featured a pair of first and second-round NFL Draft picks, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas.
Golson and Kelly have pushed the pace on a limited basis this season (it was expected to be a full-throttle approach for the first time during Kelly's tenure in South Bend), often checking the initial play at scrimmage. The offense attacks vertically in the passing game, augmenting that with a dedication to a not-yet-effective rushing attack that nonetheless affords Golson effective play-action opportunity.
Golson has been Notre Dame's best player by a wide margin this season. He's the best passer at the program since Jimmy Clausen ripped off 28 touchdowns against just four interceptions in 2009, and the best dual-threat triggerman for the Irish since Jarious Jackson graduated in 1999.
More quick than he is fast, Golson has hurt defenses with his feet, mostly as a scrambler where he's scored four rushing touchdowns including three that were not designed runs. His zone-read acumen remains a work in progress, but Golson's passing skills are approaching an elite level. He hasn't thrown an interception this season (he threw just six as a 12-game starter in 2012), and has dented defenses for seven touchdowns through three games including three from long range.
The aforementioned running back trio includes senior co-captain Cam McDaniel, plus the sophomore pair of Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. Bryant appears the most gifted of the three with Folston not far behind. The staff trusts McDaniel, Notre Dame's leading rusher last season, in both pass protection and his grasp of the entire Irish offense. He's the best blocker of the threesome and though not as dynamic after the catch, runs the best routes. To date, however, Notre Dame's running backs have been relegated to middle screens and a few check down throws as part of the passing attack.
As a unit, the overall production has been surprisingly low, but that appears a direct result of an offensive line that has struggled to date (much to Kelly's surprise). A 2013 redshirt, Bryant's combination of compact power and speed will result in a breakout game sooner rather than later. Both Folston and McDaniel have 100-yard outings to their credit from the 2013 campaign.
DaVaris Daniels entered camp as the team's top receiver, both in terms of NFL talent and proven production. He's one of five players yet to play this season, suspended by the university as they await individual hearings on suspicion of academic dishonesty.
In his stead are a quintet of targets led by sophomore speedster Will Fuller. What he lacks as a perimeter blocker he makes up for in consistent separation and playmaking ability downfield. Fuller has hit for touchdowns of 75, 24, and 6 yards through three games, leading the team with 19 receptions. His efforts were augmented in two opening wins by senior Amir Carlisle, a former USC transfer that moved from running back to slot receiver. Carlisle had a breakout game against Michigan, catching two touchdowns to go with a trio of downfield grabs. Carlisle though suffered a sprained MCL against Purdue and is unlikely to be at full strength (or to play) against the Orange.
Carlisle splits time in the slot with former safety C.J. Prosise, an athlete 20 yards per catch albeit on just six grabs this season. Also rounding into form is sophomore Corey Robinson, a six-foot-five downfield target that has played through a broken right hand suffered at the end of August. Robinson has made a big play in each game to date and possesses the best pair of hands at the program since Golden Tate, 2009.
Also in the mix is junior Chris Brown, the player Kelly tabbed as the unit's best during August. One of the team's fastest players, Brown has been inconsistent through three; with Daniels and now Carlisle out, he'll need to make more of an impact.
Senior tight end Ben Koyack is solid, and will likely earn and NFL paycheck, but he's not on the level of a decade-long string of predecessors Niklas, Eifert, Rudolph, Carlson, and Fasano. He rarely comes off the field as the position's backups either redshirt- or true freshmen.
One newcomer could join the fray Saturday night: redshirt-freshman wide receiver Torii Hunter, Jr., a former four-star prospect that was held from game day action in 2013 while recovering from a broken femur. (He was Notre Dame's Scout Team Player of the Year.) Expected to contribute from the outset this season, Hunter missed most of fall camp with a torn groin. He's purportedly back in action and with injuries/suspensions at the position, should make his debut vs. the Orange.
At present, Notre Dame does not have a true go-to receiver, but the unit is blessed with athletic depth -- all of them can run.
In the Trenches
Thought to be the offense's strength entering the season, Notre Dame's offensive line has struggled to date, enough that the unit could see either a new starter at right tackle (and as a result, at one guard spot), or a shift two players to different starting positions.
Junior left tackle Ronnie Stanley is the best player -- he's been solid if unspectacular this season in his efforts to replace all-time program great Zack Martin, a first-round selection of the Dallas Cowboys and record-setting 52-game starter in South Bend.
Senior center Nick Martin remains a bit rusty after tearing his PCL late last season, as does 5th-year senior guard Christian Lombard, who's 2013 season was truncated by back surgery. He subsequently missed most of spring ball with a broken wrist, and sat out last week against Purdue due to a high ankle sprain that he played through against Michigan one game prior. A co-captain and vocal leader, Martin was better last season as a rookie starter (though he had ample experience) than he's been to date this fall.
Lombard could move to right tackle where sophomore Steve Elmer has struggled in pass protection. Elmer would then move to guard where he showed promise as a true freshman starter late last season. Another option would be the debut start of redshirt-freshman right tackle Mike McGlinchey, a decision that would keep Lombard at right guard and likely bump starting left guard Conor Hanratty from the lineup in favor of Elmer. (The two would doubtless rotate in this scenario.)
Overall, the line is deeper than at any point in the Kelly era, with 14 players possessing an aggregate 54 recruiting stars per Scout.com and seven players starting more than two games in their Irish careers. But they've yet to play up to that billing, this after the unit was outstanding during an injury-riddled 2013 campaign.
The Irish defense has converted to a base 4-3 front with heavy NFL principles installed by first-year coordinator, Brian VanGorder. Zone blitz's, pre-snap movement, and multiple substitution packages are the new order after four seasons of a more basic Cover 2, fundamental approach utilized by former coordinator Bob Diaco who shifted between a 3-4 and 4-3 front with the use of his "Cat" linebacker.
In the Trenches
The Irish defensive front has been the squad's most pleasant surprise to date. Pegged as the team's definitive weakness heading into 2014, the group has held foes to just 2.9 yards per carry while not yet allowing a rushing touchdown.
Defensive tackles Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones have been outstanding with Day regularly drawing (and beating) double teams from which Jones benefits. Day has been an impact player since debuting as the first lineman off the bench for the rock-solid Irish defense of 2012 while Jones, his junior classmate, was a member of the Notre Dame scout team just 11 months ago. At 6'5" 315 pounds, he's just begun to scratch the surface.
Fifth-year senior Justin Utupo and true freshman Daniel Cage will spell Day and Jones, respectively. Both Day and Jones receive moments of respite when the Irish employ a rotation up front in nickel and dime sets, though Day would never leave the field in a crucial situation.
A three-man rotation occupies the edge, with strong side defensive end Isaac Rochell on one end and up-and-coming Romeo Okwara on the other. Okwara had a breakout game last week, finishing with 11 tackles against Purdue. He has a tackle-for-loss in each contest this season, his first as a full-time defensive lineman.
Okwara is backed by true freshman Andrew Trumbetti who missed last week's contest with a concussion/neck/chest injury. He played regularly prior and is expected back this week. Rochell is also backed by a true freshman, Grant Blankenship, though the latter appeared on a limited basis against the Boilers. Senior Ishaq Williams was slated to start over Rochell but is one of the infamous pending suspended Irishmen still awaiting adjudication of a academic dishonesty hearing.
The dime package brings freshman rush end Kolin Hill into the fold. After being withheld from action against Rice, Hill has been a regular in the offensive backfield over the last two games, recording two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. His natural pass-rushing ability is obvious though he's unlikely to play in the base defense.
The Back Seven
The Irish regularly employ nickel personnel in their 4-3 front. That is, either safety Matthias Farley or former wide receiver James Onwualu occupy the strong side linebacker spot. The Irish are much faster this season but have yet to face a dedicated rushing attack that could challenge this defensive tactic. (Farley is a shade over 200, Onwualu under 220 in his first season as a defender.)
Notre Dame's inside linebackers are outstanding, with weak side sophomore Jaylon Smith a potential All-America selection this season and, should he stay through his senior season, a likely Butkus Award winner. He's still adjusting to a move inside (weak side 4-3) but has rarely shown that to the masses. Smith teams with former walk-on Joe Schmidt who's developed into a better-than-solid middle linebacker on a Top 20 level defense. At six-feet, 230 pounds, Schmidt's major test will be when a team chooses to run at him for 25-30 snaps in a contest.
Smith and Schmidt have not yet left the field in a pressure situation. Both are backed by true freshmen. The Farley/Onwualu combo has senior Ben Councell (six-feet-four, 255 pounds) to aid them against power running teams but Councell, a decent athlete for his size/weight, tore his MCL last November and has as a result only played on special teams this fall.
Notre Dame's secondary has been far better through three games that it was last season, despite the loss of its perceived top player, junior cornerback Keivarae Russell, to pre-season (ever-pending) suspension. In his stead has stepped 5th-year senior transfer Cody Riggs, unequivocally one of the team's five best player through three games, and sophomore Cole Luke -- who hasn't yielded anything of consequence on the right side. Luke was Russell's backup prior to the latter's suspension.
5th-year senior strong safety and team co-captain Austin Collinsworth has yet to play this season after injuring his right knee two days prior to the opener. He's expected back against the Orange which means surging junior Elijah Shumate could see his recent progress stunted. Shumate was awful in the opener but responded with a top tier effort one week later in the team's shutout of Michigan. His free safety running mate Max Redfield is the unit's best athlete. Redfield was ejected for targeting on Sept. 13 against Purdue (first half, so he's already served his mandated one half suspension). Like Shumate, Redfield was great against Michigan -- the pair combined for 20 tackles and two interceptions, plus a remarkable amount of trash talk.
Backup safety Eilar Hardy is one of the suspended five and junior backup Nicky Baratti was lost last week to shoulder surgery. True safety Drue Tranquill received his chance last week as a result (Redfield was ejected) and fared well. Tranquill is the team's dime linebacker and has proven quite effective in that role, both as a blitzer and quarterback spy on third down. The defense needs him in the dime, not as a regular safety.
Senior Kyle Brindza is the team's placekicker, punter and kickoff specialist and ranks among the best in the nation at the latter -- it's surprising when he doesn't put a kickoff through the back of the end zone. Brindza has never missed a fourth quarter or overtime kick when the Irish needed it (17 for 17). He does suffer the occasional mid-range lapse, a reality that will preclude him from winning the Lou Groza award he openly covets.
Starting kick returner Amir Carlisle is expected to miss the game with a sprained MCL, suffered Sept. 13 vs. Purdue. His backup is Greg Bryant, the team's most talented running back. Senior Cam McDaniel is the team's second deep-back, usually the lead returner's protector/lead blocker. Riggs returns punts with Bryant the backup there as well. Both have fared well this fall after four seasons of hilarity produced by the punt return unit -- it was easily the least effective in college football over that span, perhaps in the history of the sport for a four-year period.
I projected the Irish to start 4-0, then run into trouble against eight straight foes that were either better (Florida State), just as good (Stanford, USC), or highly capable (the rest) of taking them out on any given Saturday. The 3-0 start is thus not a surprise, but the defense has been far better than expected and Golson appears capable of finishing the season as one of the nation's five best quarterbacks.
And they've done it short-handed to date. While Williams would help with defensive line depth, and Hardy could aid a safety group hit by attrition, it's the pair of Russell and Daniels that matter most. If either are reinstated, Notre Dame could make a legitimate run at an 11-1 regular season finish. They're two of the team's six best players.