Every college football team is optimistic at this time of the year. Everyone is 0-0. It’s an even slate. By next Tuesday though, half the teams in the country will already have a notch in the loss column and will have no margin for error the rest of the season. As Notre Dame prepares to kick off its 2015 season against Texas, it’s hard to imagine they will be one of those teams because this year’s Fighting Irish are built to win NOW.
Much has been written about all of the talent and depth that Notre Dame has returning this year. Brian Kelly and his staff have raved about how this is the deepest and fastest unit they have assembled in Kelly’s six seasons in command of the Notre Dame program. It’s not just the talent and depth that have Notre Dame built to win in 2015 though – its the intangibles that look like they have aligned well for the Irish.
Let’s start off with the talent though because it is undeniably there for Notre Dame and without talent all of the intangibles in the world won’t do you any good with the bullets start flying during the regular season.
When Texas comes into town for a primetime showdown with the Irish on Saturday night, Notre Dame will boost arguably one of the best offensive lines, wide receiving corps, linebacker corps, and secondaries in all of college football. Yes, the Irish have elite talent within each group.
Offensive line? Ronnie Stanley could have been a 1st round pick but came back for a senior season. Nick Martin, fully healthy, is playing himself into high draft status as well. Steve Elmer will be a 3rd year starter. Mike McGlinchey showed his promise against LSU. Quenton Nelson is the lone first time starter and considering he was a 5-star recruit, that’s a great situation to be in. Throw in the fact that the depth chart will not be dependent on freshmen to fill in if needed and the Irish have a playoff worthy offensive line.
At linebacker, the return of both Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace give Notre Dame elite talent at linebacker for the first time in years when combined with All-American Jaylon Smith. Throw in a bulked up James Onwualu and sophomore Nyles Morgan and the Irish have depth and talent at linebacker. Notre Dame has enough talent at linebacker that 4-star early enrollee Tevon Coney might have a hard time seeing the field in the base defense. That’s a great situation for the Irish to be in.
Wide receiver? Do I even need to explain? Will Fuller, Chris Brown, Corey Robinson, Amir Carlisle, and Torii Hunter are all dynamic. Toss in freshman Equanimeous St Brown who was one of the stars of training camp and firecracker frosh CJ Sanders and Notre Dame has height, speed, size, and athleticism like it has never had at the position. They have receivers who can blow the roof off a defense, make tough catches in traffic, and sky over defenders in the redzone. What secondary in the country could potentially stop both Robinson and Brown near the goal line? Not many.
Keivarae Russell’s return combined with Cole Luke’s continued development give Notre Dame lock down corners in the mold of Bobby Taylor and Tom Carter. If Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate are even close to as good has been advertised throughout camp, passing yards will be tough to come back for opposing defenses.
Depth at running back is still obviously a concern following Greg Bryant’s departure and Jarron Jones’ season ending injury turned a strength into a question mark, but barring any additional serious injury on the defensive line and the Irish should be in good shape with Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell anchoring the line.
The quarterback position still remains a question mark with first year starter Malik Zaire as well, but as we’ve learned in recent college football history, an experienced signal caller is not required to win a title. See Jameis Winston, Cardale Jones, and Cam Newton just in the last five years. Zaire is going to have to prove he can beat teams with his arm for Notre Dame to really make some noise this year, but he has the talent to do so.
So the talent is there. Notre Dame had a lot of talent last year too though and the Irish stumbled to an 8-5 finish. What makes this year’s squad different though is the leadership and swagger this team has.
In 2014, Notre Dame simply didn’t have many dynamic leaders. There were a bunch of lead by example type of players, but not too many take charge leaders. Quarterback Everett Golson for instance looked completely lost on the sidelines when things unraveled last year and when your quarterback looks lost, who is your offense going to follow? You need your quarterback to be the guy rallying the troops when things are down, not the guy the head coach needs to calm down.
In 2015, Notre Dame has a set of captains that bring more leadership than the 2014 squad benefited from. Both Nick Martin and Sheldon Day return as starters with a much better understanding of what it takes to be a leader. Joe Schmidt is the epitome of a leader and is the heart and sole of the Notre Dame defense. Jaylon Smith is the superstar who plays with the fire and passion you need in a leader. It is also extremely beneficial when your best player is also one of your leaders. Matthias Farley is the elder statesmen of the group.
Aside from the leadership of the actual captains, Notre Dame as a whole is an older and more mature team. Watch any of the practice video and you get the sense that this team has some swagger to it. A year ago, Notre Dame seemed more surprised than anything when they made a play on defense. This year, this team expects to make plays.
And why shouldn’t they? Notre Dame has All-American caliber players at every level of the defense. Both Keivarae Russell and Cole Luke have All-American talent. Max Redfield earned some pre-season All-American love too. Jaylon Smith is on everyone’s All-American radar. Day earned some All-American press and his linemate, Isaac Rochell, has the talent to play his way into consideration as well.
The Notre Dame defense in 2012 expected to make plays and shut down opposing offenses. The 2015 unit has as much, if not more talent and you get the sense that they have that same edge to them if you watched any player interviews this summer.
Think it’s crazy to say the 2015 has more talent? Consider a front 7 of Louis Nix, Stephon Tuiit, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese, Prince Shembo, and Manti Te’o vs. Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell, Andrew Trumbetti, Jerry Tillery, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, and James Onwaulu. The 2012 squad gets the nod along the line, but the linebackers in 2015 are head and shoulders more talented and athletic. The front 7 this year is also much deeper with key reserves like Jarrett Grace, Nyles Morgan, Daniel Cage, Romeo Okwara (who is like a co-starter), and Coney.
In the secondary, the 2012 Irish featured Bennett Jackson, Keivarae Russell, Zeke Motta, and Matthias Farley. In the 2015 defense, Farley is not even the nickel back while the starting four consists of Redfield, Shumate, Luke, and Russell. Advantage? 2015 hands down.
What made the 2012 team special though was all of the leadership it featured. Zack Martin, KLM, Te’o, Motta, Braxston Cave, and Theo Riddick all helped build the identity of that 2012 team. In 2015, Notre Dame has those same type of leaders but now they have much more star power than they did three years when Manti Te’o was really the only superstar of the group.
Winning a championship or making a playoff run takes a lot more than talent, swagger, and leadership. All of the cards have to fall right – especially on the injury front where the Irish were ravaged a year ago – so a lot can happen between now and the end of the season. As Notre Dame gets prepared to start the season this weekend though, it’s hard to look at this team and not think that a playoff run is not only possible… but maybe even probable.