SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Every college football team heads into a new season with plenty of unknown factors, but this Notre Dame-Texas curtain-lifter Sunday night seems to have more questions than usual for both teams.
While one game won’t give us complete answers, after a long offseason, Sunday night will provide us the first pieces of data to answer these four questions:
1. How will the quarterbacks shake out — for both teams?
Brian Kelly isn’t tipping his hand and neither DeShone Kizer nor Malik Zaire knew what the plan would be for Sunday beyond knowing they’ll alternate in and out of the game based on feel and flow. Kelly said there could be some down and distance situations that force one or the other into the game, too, but isn’t sure (or wouldn't reveal) how that’ll work itself out.
The two-quarterback system is a high-risk, high-reward coaching decision. Kelly admitted in August it would’ve been easier to just pick a starter and stick with him, but the playmaking abilities of Kizer and Zaire were too great to keep one of them off the field. There isn’t a precedent for two quarterbacks playing and running the same offense (usually one is a runner and the other a passer), so how these super-talented deserving starters are used will be the biggest thing to watch Sunday.
Texas, too, isn’t revealing what it’s going to do between senior Tyrone Swoopes and freshman Shane Buechele. If one starts, the other will probably play, and Notre Dame players said not knowing who will take the Longhorns’ first snap doesn’t affect their preparation. And the quarterbacks are just one of the unknowns for Texas — this is a team short on experience but full of talent. All those former four- and five-star recruits peppering the Longhorns’ two-deep make them a potentially dangerous team, even if they didn't make a bowl game last year.
2. Who catches the ball?
Notre Dame has to replace 82 percent of its 2015 receptions, 87 percent of its receiving yards and 84 percent of its receiving touchdowns this fall. Outside of Torii Hunter Jr. (35 career catches), there isn’t much in the way of prior production at the disposal of Kizer and Zaire.
The best bets to rack up targets are Hunter and sophomore receivers Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders, along with tight ends Durham Smythe and/or Nic Weishar. But there are other names in the discussion, too, like redshirt sophomore Corey Holmes, redshirt freshman Miles Boykin and Chris Finke and freshman Kevin Stepherson.
Kelly considers Kizer and Zaire to be two of his five best playmakers, but they still need a few reliable targets. Chances are, someone or someones will emerge from this group — but we won’t have a good idea who until Sunday night.
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3. How does Avery Sebastian hold up?
Notre Dame is rolling with its defensive “grandpa” over true freshman Devin Studstill at free safety to start the Texas game, with the line of thinking that Sebastian will be solid with his assignments and communication in front of 100,000 people at Darrell K. Royal Stadium. But Sebastian is more of an in-the-box strong safety who perhaps doesn’t have the kind of mobility expected from a free safety.
The baseline for Notre Dame, though, is to keep an opposing offense in front of them — something they didn’t do last year or in 2014. If Sebastian and Drue Tranquill can do that, and give Studstill a soft landing at the college level, Notre Dame’s defense will have a better chance of holding up against Texas.
4. What will Notre Dame’s defense look like without last year’s playmakers?
Notre Dame’s defense saw generally mediocre results last year despite having big-time playmakers like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell and Romeo Okwara. Gone are veteran starters in Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield, and experienced depth guys in Matthias Farley and Jarrett Grace.
So it’s a fair question to ask how a defense that wasn’t consistently successful last year can improve without all those vitally important pieces.
The good news is that all of those players are being replaced by a host of former four-star recruits like Jay Hayes, Jerry Tillery, Nyles Morgan and Shaun Crawford. There’s plenty of talent in this unit, most of which is entering its second or third year in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s complex system. Maybe that combination of talent and experience will help improve things, as could the ability to consistently run a nickel package with Crawford healthy.
Texas’ offense, too, could provide a good opportunity to get off to a strong defensive start, with inexperience (and talent, of course) across the board and an offensive line that enters Sunday a bit banged up.