Notre Dame Fighting Irish

5 storylines to watch in Notre Dame’s opener

SOUTH BEND, IN - APRIL 22: Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush (7) in action during the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Blue-Gold Spring Game on April 22, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)
Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

Notre Dame hopes its reshaped roster and revamped coaching staff wake up some echoes that might already have been stirred with Notre Dame Stadium’s renovation work. The Irish also need to get head coach Brian Kelly off the hot seat.

Notre Dame suffered its first losing season under Kelly at 4-8 in his seventh year. The new look for 2017 includes players who have worked out under new strength coach Matt Balis and two new coordinators, offensive coordinator Chip Long and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

Here are five storylines to follow for the Irish when they kick off at noon ET Saturday against Temple.

No rankings
Notre Dame opens the season unranked for the first time since 2012, but maybe the sun will shine rather than an ominous dark cloud hanging over the game.

The Irish began 2012 in Dublin, beating Navy 50-10. They finished the regular season 12-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation.

Yes, the year ended with an ugly loss to Alabama in the Bowl Championship Series national championship game, but the larger point is Kelly’s third team proved the Irish can still contend for national titles.

In the 2017 preseason Associated Press writers poll, the Irish earned 65 points to stand among others at No. 28. In the USA Today coaches poll, they are equal to a tie for No. 29 with 49 points.

Temple was shut out of the AP poll, but received eight points in USA Today to equal to a tie for No. 46.

No Irish drama
It’s been a quiet fall camp for the Irish. What a relief from recent seasons and, more specifically, August 2016.

No one has been arrested (knock on the wood bleachers that have been replaced by renovation and sold as souvenirs). No need to reshuffle, like replacing a dismissed 5-star troubled veteran (Max Redfield) with a true freshman (Devin Studstill). That was part of the drama a year ago when six players were arrested in separate incidents two weeks before the season opener.

Maybe the serene camp means the program makeover talk from January through fall camp is more than talk. Kelly warned his players the depth chart would be determined by work ethic and practice habits rather than entitlement. Chemistry is built on trusting teammates to sacrifice for the team.

“I know everybody has a similar press conference and talks about how excited they are, but our team is ready to play,” said Kelly in a media session. “I don’t know that I’ve had many press conferences where I said, ‘Give me the team right now; we’d like to play today.’ ”

A look at the depth chart revealed Kelly has been true to his word. Sophomore Kevin Stepherson is the team’s second-leading returning receiver, but he’s not listed on the depth chart. Stepherson has been in the doghouse over his work ethic. Kelly said he hasn’t decided Stepherson’s playing status for the opener.

The starting wide receivers listed on the depth chart are junior Equanimeous St. Brown, graduate transfer Cam Smith and at the third spot either graduate transfer Freddy Canteen or redshirt sophomore Chris Finke. St. Brown led the Irish in receptions last year with 58 catches for 961 yards and nine touchdowns.

No quarterback controversy
The Irish exited spring drills with redshirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush the designated starter. Nothing happened in camp to alter the faith the coaches have in the 6-foot-1, 228-pound dual-threat talent making his first career start.

“There’s going to be a little bit of adversity each and every week, but he’s got such a great mindset,” Kelly said. “He’s going to be able to handle things quite well. He does a good job of putting something aside and moving on. He doesn’t dwell on a mistake and let it affect the next play, because he’s going to have that happen to him.”

Last season was marred by the tug-and-pull at quarterback between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire.
Kizer won the job, but he declared early and is now slated to start the Cleveland Browns opener.

Zaire was frustrated by his backup status and left for Florida as a graduate transfer. He’s listed third as an “OR” on the Gators depth chart as one of three quarterbacks: redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, redshirt junior Luke Del Rio and Zaire.

Who, who are the Owls?
Temple posted back-to-back 10-4 seasons in the last two years under Matt Rhule, but he has moved on to Baylor. Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins takes over as the fourth coach since 2010, which was Al Golden’s final year before leaving for Miami.

There are only 10 returning starters from a team that won games with disruptive defense to set up an opportunistic offense. Only four of the defensive starters return; on offense, one of four quarterbacks will make his first career start.

Of the four, none have any experience. Redshirt junior Frank Nutile was 0-for-2 in three games and redshirt freshman Logan Marchi was 2-for-6 in two games before he was shut down to preserve his redshirt. The other two candidates are redshirt freshman Anthony Russo and true freshman Todd Centeio.

Interior defense test
A Notre Dame defense that was soft on the interior last year faces an early test against running back Ryquell Armstead, who gained 919 yards on 156 carries last year. The 5-11, 205-pound junior averaged 5.9 yards a carry and led Temple with 14 rushing touchdowns.

But even if the Irish slow down Armstead, is it a true test? Notre Dame can open the game loading the box against a team without an experienced quarterback. If it works early and the Irish gain a lead, Temple will have to play catch-up.

Kelly expressed optimism his D-linemen are stronger from Balis’ conditioning program. Junior nose guard Jerry Tillery (6-6, 306) is a returning starter. Redshirt junior Jonathan Bonner (6-3, 291) has earned the start beside them.

The depth chart lists two true freshmen as the backups: nose guard Kurt Hinsh (6-1, 298) and defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.

The Irish also debut a 4-2-5 scheme under Elko, whose Wake Forest defenses were known for playing above their recruiting talent level. They hoped to start Navy transfer Alohi Gilman, but his request for immediate eligibility was denied by the NCAA. Notre Dame is considering an appeal.

Following Tom Shanahan’s FanRag Sports stories on Twitter @shanny4055


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