Head to Head: Texas vs. Notre Dame
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, September 4, 2015
Malik Zaire is getting quite the test for his start at Notre Dame Stadium. Texas features an unusual 3-3-5 defensive formation that is more than capable of keeping up with the spread offense that worked so well for the Irish against LSU at the end of last season.
The Longhorns return plenty of depth from last season’s secondary, with both safeties and one cornerback returning with significant game experience. Last year, Texas finished 11th in the country in passing yards allowed, and head coach Charlie Strong has always had a reputation for his defensively strong teams.
On the receiving end, the Irish return one of the deepest corps in the nation, with legitimate threats throughout their first six receivers. However, head coach Brian Kelly has said Zaire is not quite at the level of “unconscious” efficency, which means it will take time for him to develop chemistry with his receivers.
With the suspension, then departure, of Greg Bryant this summer, who owns the Notre Dame backfield became more obvious than ever: Tarean Folston. The junor already looked to have the starting job locked up after spring practice, but he will now be expected to shoulder an even larger load, especially as Malik Zaire adjusts to his newly secured starting job in the early-going.
Folston will have some help though, in the form of converted-receiver senior C.J. Prosise. Prosise impressed Brian Kelly in the spring and is back at full speed after a minor injury during fall camp, so he should see the field in a variety of ways Saturday.
Texas, on the other hand, returns about half its starting depth from last season, and even then was hardly intimdating, allowing opponents to rush for 164.3 yards per game. The 3-3-5 defense will also leave the Longhorns vulnerable at the line of scrimmage.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH OFFENSIVE COACHING
The most intriguing part of Notre Dame’s offensive coaching is that Kelly has not publicly revealed who will call the plays. Although Kelly will have final say, it could be him, assistant head coach Mike Denbrock or offensive coordinator Mike Sanford on Saturday.
Sanford, for his part, was one of the hottest young offensive minds in college football when the Irish nabbed him this offseason. His creative mind, in conjunction with Kelly’s, should make the Irish fun to watch.
Still, Texas and coach Charlie Strong have a strong defense that will test the Irish early. The uncertainty of a play-caller makes this one a toss-up.
IRISH SPECIAL TEAMS
With the Kyle Brindza era in the past, the kicking game will now be manned by freshman Justin Yoon. One of the best prep kickers in the nation, Yoon should be another four-year starter for the Irish.
You never know if nerves will come into play, however — that’s why Yoon and sophomore punter Tyler Newsome are question marks for the Irish.
In the return game, Amir Carlisle and freshman C.J. Sanders have breakaway speed that could prove key. Carlisle returns after averaging 21.7 yards per kick return last year, while the shifty 5-foot-8 Sanders has pushed his way onto the depth chart.
Finally, backup quarterback DeShone Kizer will be the Notre Dame holder. Just the fact that that needs to be mentioned, after last year’s debacle, is enough to push this Texas’ way.
Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong only recently named junior Tyrone Swoopes as his starting quarterback, despite Swopes’s 12 starts last season. He has also been open about the possibility of backup freshman Jerrod Heard getting playing time against the Irish.
Swoopes showed flashes of potential last season, but ended on a sour note, throwing five interceptions in the final two games of the year while passing for one touchdown.
The Irish return almost all of last year’s secondary. That unit also welcomes back KeiVarae Russell, who should make Swoopes’s job all the more difficult. Last season, Notre Dame finished 75th in the nation in passing yards allowed. Expect that ranking to improve as Russell slots in nicely to replace Cody Riggs.
Texas’s receivers, on the other hand, are relatively inexperienced, as the Longhorns lost their top two receivers to graduation.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
Texas has one of its more intriguing offensive weapons back for another season, as senior Johnathan Gray enters his final year looking to finally break through and lead the Longhorn offense. After sharing duties with the now-departed Malcolm Brown, Gray will get the chance to be the undisputed first option and build upon his seven touchdowns last season.
He will go up against a stout Notre Dame front seven, although the Irish lost some of their punch (and depth) when Ishaq Williams’ suspension was upheld and tackle Jarron Jones was lost for the season due to a knee injury. Still, veteran run-stuffers Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell will get help clogging the middle from ultra-athletic linebacker Jaylon Smith.
Look for a back-and-forth battle in the trenches.
LONGHORNS OFFENSIVE COACHING
With Charlie Strong’s experience on defense, the Longhorns’ offensive creativity is left up to offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Wickline and assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson. Both struggled to coax the most out of an athletic quarterback last season. With Swoopes returning, time will tell if they finally tailored the system to him.
The Irish, on the other hand, should see a big jump from their defense under second-year coordinator Brian VanGorder. VanGorder’s complicated, NFL-style blitz schemes were tough for players to adapt to last year. The defense should have a much better understanding this year and can up the pressure on Swoopes.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
LONGHORNS SPECIAL TEAMS
Longhorns senior kicker Nick rose made headlines this summer when he hit an 80-yard field goal during workouts. The four-year starter has been reliable but not stellar for Texas, making 14 of 21 field goals with a long of 52 yards. He may make his mark in the game on kickoffs, where last year’s opponents only returned 15, fewest in the nation.
Punter is more of a question mark for the Longhorns, who added freshman Michael Dickson of Australia in June. Dickson was a last-second grab, having only punted for six months after playing Australian rules football, since Mitchell Becker was less than stellar in the spring game.
Senior Daje Johnson will be the primary returner, but he is a bit of an enigma in that role — last year he had only four kickoff returns to his name.
On the other hand, Notre Dame put an added emphasis on special teams in fall camp, with as many as five seniors starting. Look for the experience of the Irish to win the day.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME