Defense will decide Notre Dame's 2016 season
The Fighting Irish were 30 seconds away from a trip to the College Football Playoff last season. Instead, a defense that had been shaky all year long yielded 45 yards in 24 seconds before Stanford sent them to the Fiesta Bowl with a 45-yard field goal. It was a tough way to send off seven players who ended up in the first four rounds of the 2016 NFL draft, but Notre Dame now has the even tougher task of replacing that talent. How will they fill those roster holes and will they have enough to once again be in the playoff picture? Let’s take a look.
All the headlines at Notre Dame revolve around the quarterback position and the battle being waged between junior DeShone Kizer and senior Malik Zaire. Unlike many quarterback competitions around the country, Brian Kelly really can’t go wrong here. Zaire was off to a scintillating start before breaking his ankle against Virginia and put up the second-highest grade of any quarterback in the country the first week of the season. Kizer, however, didn’t miss much of a beat in his absence. He would finish the season as the 26th-highest graded quarterback in the Power-5 and had the 18th-best deep accuracy percentage in the FBS. However, there were certainly some worrisome aspects to his play. Kizer had four negatively-graded games on the year and they just so happened to coincide with the four-best defenses they faced (Clemson, Temple, Boston College, and Ohio State). Purely from a grading standpoint, the arrow should be tilted at Zaire as he has a +13.5 overall grade on 223 career snaps while Kizer has a +14.0 grade on 776 snaps.
The larger question marks from a performance standpoint revolve around the other offensive units. C.J. Prosise was a revelation with his play at running back, but now they are back to senior Tarean Folston and sophomore Josh Adams. When Folston started back in 2014, he didn’t have anywhere near the elusiveness that Prosise did last year (47.0 vs 74.7 elusive rating), but with another year of development under his belt the Irish should be in good hands.
However, it’s unclear if the run blocking in front of them will be as good as it was last year, when it ranked No. 11 overall in the nation. Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin were both among the top-15 at their positions in the Power-5. After switching senior Mike McGlinchey to left tackle in the spring, expect the left side of the line to be just as dominant as it was before. McGlinchey actually graded out higher than Stanley a year ago, especially as a run blocker, and junior left guard Quenton Nelson has the fifth-highest run blocking grade of any returning guard in the Power-5. The likely replacements at center (Sam Mustipher), right guard (Hunter Bivin), and right tackle (Alex Bars) took 244 combined snaps a year ago yet only Mustipher graded negatively (-0.6).
That brings us to the position group that saw by far the most snaps lost from a year ago — wide receiver. 2,152 snaps from last year’s unit and four of the top five receivers on the roster are now gone after the unexpected retirement of Corey Robinson. Senior Torii Hunter Jr. is the only player who saw meaningful snaps a year ago (348) and could be due for a big step forward. He had the fifth-highest overall grade among receivers with under 400 snaps in 2015 (+7.8).
If Brian Kelly has proven anything at this point, it’s that he can usually work around talent deficiencies on offense. Not so much on defense, though. Even with sizable losses at every level of the defense, there is reason to think that the 2016 squad may be more talented than the 2015 version. The most glaring difference should be seen along the defensive line. Last season, it was Sheldon Day or nothing as far as pass rushing goes and it forced defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to blitz recklessly. Graduate senior defensive tackle Jarron Jones returns after missing a year due to injury and actually out-graded Day by a considerable margin back in 2014 (+15.7 vs +5.5). Junior Daniel Cage could be one of the better run-stuffing nose tackles in the country before all is said and done after posting the 18th-highest run defense grade among sophomores last year in only 267 snaps.
Unfortunately pressure off the edge is still an issue. Senior Isaac Rochell has the body of an interior player and it shows with his speed off the edge where he could only manage a lackluster 34 hurries on 394 pass rushes a year ago (Joey Bosa had 70 on only 348 rushes for comparison). Junior Andrew Trumbetti will likely see the bulk of the snaps across from Rochell, but he graded negatively versus both run and pass on 391 snaps a year ago.
Improvement is imminent at the linebacker corps as well. Jaylon Smith was a transcendent talent and a top 10 linebacker a year ago, but Joe Schmidt was the exact opposite and graded out in the bottom 10. If they can simply get consistent solid play from all three linebacker positions, it will be a serious upgrade. The man slated to take over for Schmidt is junior Nyles Morgan. He last saw playing time as a true freshman and clearly wasn’t ready to be thrust into action as he ran around like a chicken with his head cutoff far too often en route to a -21.1 grade in 384 snaps that season. Any uptick in playing time for playing time for senior James Onwualu will be a good thing as well. He had a +10.8 overall grade in 516 snaps last year as a strongside linebacker and should figure to see the field more this year.
Finally, we turn our eye to the secondary which has always been a bit bereft of playmakers in the Brian Kelly era. Senior Cole Luke and junior Nick Watkins figure to be the starters at corner with sophomore Nick Coleman starting in the slot while senior Max Redfield and junior Drue Tranquill are likely to get the call at safety. The name to keep an eye on here is Luke. He looked poised for big things after a sophomore season in which he had a +7.2 coverage grade and allowed a quarterback rating of 60.5 on his targets. Those numbers went the wrong way last year with a -2.2 coverage grade and a 87.7 passer rating against. If he can bounce back, he should easily be able to outproduce KeiVarae Russell as the team’s No. 1 cornerback.
Ultimately, the fate of Notre Dame’s season will rest in the hands of the defense. They will yet again have one of the best offensive lines in the country along with a quarterback that could legitimately end up in the Heisman race no matter who wins the competition. On the other side of the ball, there are so many unknown quantities heading into the season that they’ll need to see some serious development from young guys to expect to compete for a national championship. In the end, the best thing the Irish might have going for them is their schedule. They face only one team — Stanford– currently ranked in PFF’s preseason top 25.