Carson: New, returning starters will forge Notre Dame’s identity
Alex Carson | Friday, April 15, 2016
Notre Dame returns just four offensive and five defensive starters from its 10-2 team a season ago.
There’s no Will Fuller or C.J. Prosise; no Ronnie Stanley or Sheldon Day; no Jaylon Smith or KeiVarae Russell.
Yet when the Irish kick off their 2016 campaign in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 4, the goal will be the same as it was last year: a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Welcome back to perennial relevance, Notre Dame football.
Now, Irish fans shouldn’t necessarily expect to see their team at the Fiesta Bowl or Peach Bowl — this year’s playoff semifinals — this season, but that doesn’t mean it’s exactly outside the realm of possibility. There’s still loads of talent on this team, and new pieces that could fit together even better than the ones did a season ago.
Of course, we know what Notre Dame’s getting at running back this year. Sure, Prosise departed for the NFL Draft, but the return of senior Tarean Folston means the Irish won’t be downgrading in the backfield. Without Fuller, Chris Brown or Amir Carlisle, the receiving corps is weakened, but it should still be a solid group, anchored by senior Torii Hunter Jr. And even though the offensive line lost three starters this offseason, it’s hard to see that unit being much of an issue for senior Malik Zaire or junior DeShone Kizer — whichever one wins the quarterback competition.
Despite losing seven starters, the Notre Dame offense will be fine.
But if the Irish are going to get to the playoff, it’s going be on the shoulders of the defense. That’s not to say the unit needs to be great like the 2012 one was — this season’s offense should be much better than that team’s was — but it can’t be as poor as it was at times a season ago.
For me, that starts at middle linebacker, squarely on the shoulders of junior Nyles Morgan.
During his first two years at Notre Dame, it’s no secret that Morgan struggled. He’s barely seen the field at his preferred position — Joe Schmidt had a lot to do with that — but when he did, the impact he made wasn’t always a positive one; just recall his block in the back penalty five yards behind a punt return at Stanford.
The major concern was whether or not Morgan could adapt to the complex nature of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme. But by all accounts — head coach Brian Kelly’s the most important — that hasn’t been a struggle for the Crete, Illinois native this spring.
“He’s gotten our defense lined up effortlessly,” Kelly said. “There’s been great communication, and he’s played extremely well. A lot of it is how hard he works at the game. It’s really important to him. His first two years here helped him immensely in terms of learning the defense.”
For the first time at Notre Dame, Morgan is the undisputed guy at his position. If he can take the “quarterback of the defense” role and thrive in it, we might finally see that high-pressure defense VanGorder’s arrival in 2014 promised.
Like Folston’s on the other side of the ball, graduate student defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ return from injury should help lessen the blow of losing Day, while there’s a lot of promise throughout the secondary.
Notre Dame has experienced a lot of turnover heading into 2016 — though Irish fans will hope the turnovers disappear — and that means there’s a fresh start for this team headed into the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. It’s tough to see how it’s all going to come together for this squad, and at this point, that’s quite fine. Early challenges at Texas on Sept. 4 and against Michigan State on Sept. 17 mean it’ll need to find its identity pretty early on, but it’s not too hard to see how everything could gel perfectly, or horribly, for this unit.
At the end of the day, the 2015 squad got as far as that group of players was going to. They were good — really good — but not great.
There’s not too much evidence yet on the 2016 squad. And as daunting as that notion might be, there’s certainly a chance this group thrives together.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.