Football season is almost upon us. Brian Kelly will meet the media to kick off Notre Dame’s 2016 preseason preparations on Friday, and the team’s first practice is Saturday in Culver, Ind. Here are five storylines to keep an eye on over the next month as the Irish work toward their season opener Sept. 4 at Texas.
1. Who’s the QB?
Obviously, this is the storyline that’ll dominate talk about Notre Dame until a starter is named, likely sometime on or after Aug. 19 (the team's 13th practice and midway point to the Texas game). DeShone Kizer probably has an edge over Maik Zaire, however slight, given his greater experience (11 starts vs. three starts) and larger volume of work. Kizer completed 211 of 335 passes (63 percent) for 2,884 yards and 21 touchdowns with 10 interceptions and also rushed 134 times for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns; Zaire is 47-for-75 (62.6 percent) for 694 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions and also rushed 52 times for 290 yards with two touchdowns in his career. Zaire has the potential to be the perfect quarterback for Kelly’s system, but Kizer already showed he can be that ideal offensive fit. So who’s the choice? Ultimately, it’ll probably be difficult for coaches to pick against Kizer, but that doesn’t mean Zaire can’t win the job. He just might have more of an uphill climb to it.
2. Who emerges as team leaders?
The losses of Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin, Chris Brown, Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell will hurt from a production standpoint, but each of those players were also key leaders on 2015’s Fiesta Bowl-berthing team. These kind of leadership vacuums happen from time to time in college football, but that doesn’t mean they’re always easy to fill. Seniors like Torii Hunter Jr., Durham Smythe, Mike McGlinchey, Isaac Rochell, James Onwualu and Cole Luke are natural fits to develop as team leaders, as well as Kizer/Zaire, Tarean Folston, Jarron Jones, Nyles Morgan and Max Redfield, among others. The process of sorting out Notre Dame’s leadership began during spring practice, and the team's leaders separated themselves over the summer. Preseason camp will cement who slides into those leadership roles vacated by last year's seniors.
3. Who steps up on defense?
Notre Dame’s defense ranked 35th in S&P+ last year and allowed 5.57 yards per play (64th in FBS), and that was with NFL draft picks on every unit in Day, Smith and Russell. So where does Brian VanGorder’s group go without any of last year’s star power? Rochell, Onwualu and Luke are known quantities, but for this defense to be successful, it’ll need a number of players to live up to their potential. Morgan, Jerry Tillery, Daelin Hayes, Te’von Coney, Shaun Crawford, Max Redfield — the spotlight will be on those guys, and their collective success or failure (which is dependent on them and Keith Gilmore, Mike Elston, Todd Lyght and VanGorder) will go a long way toward determining how good a defense the Irish will have this year.
4. Who fills the void left by Will Fuller and Chris Brown?
Fuller and Brown combined for 110 receptions (46 percent of the team total), 1,855 yards (55 percent of the team total) and 18 receiving touchdowns (72 percent of the team total) last year, and neither is back this fall. With Amir Carlisle (32 receptions, 355 yards, one touchdown), C.J. Prosise (26 receptions, 308 yards, one touchdown) and Corey Robinson (16 receptions, 200 yards, one touchdown) also gone, a number of pass-catchers who haven’t been tested will be thrust into significant roles in the Irish offense. Hunter Jr. — Notre Dame’s leading returning receiver with 28 receptions, 363 yards and two touchdowns last year — took command of his wide receiver unit during spring practice, and Alize Jones looks like a decent bet to see an increase in targets either as a receiver or tight end (UPDATE: Jones will not play for Notre Dame in 2016). Guys like Smythe, Equanimeous St. Brown, Corey Holmes, C.J. Sanders, Miles Boykin and Kevin Stepherson will have an opportunity to carve out significant roles in Notre Dame’s passing game, too. Wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock has consistently developed productive players over the last few years, so while there’s some uncertainty here, there should also be plenty of optimism.
5. Can Notre Dame stay healthy?
Even before the 2015 season — which saw a slew of players suffer serious injuries — Notre Dame lost nose guard Jarron Jones and defensive back Shaun Crawford to what were initially ruled season-ending injuries (Jones returned for a handful of snaps in the Fiesta Bowl). The Irish were able to withstand most of their injury-related losses last season — mostly on offense — thanks to the outstanding depth developed by the team’s coaching staff. Ideally, though, that won’t be a question this fall. Yes, depth is always important, but if Notre Dame is able to come out of August practice without many significant injuries — besides cornerback Devin Butler’s foot, which he re-fractured earlier in the summer — it’ll be a positive development after last year’s massive, across-the-board two-deep attrition.