Blue and Gold Illustrated

Preseason 2016

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 21 of 99

22 PRESEASON 2016 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY BRYAN DRISKELL N otre Dame's undefeated 2012 regular season served notice that under head coach Brian Kelly, the Irish were once again capable of being a title contender. Kelly and his staff used the momen- tum from that season to bring in his best recruiting class — ranked No. 3 by Rivals — one that was capable of returning the Irish to that pinnacle. Notre Dame got close last season, fin- ishing five points shy of another un- defeated season and a trip to the four- team College Football Playoff. Unfortunately, the class has been decimated by early departures, trans- fers, career-ending injuries and off-the- field issues. Wide receiver Will Fuller and line- backer Jaylon Smith were selected within the first 34 picks of the 2016 NFL Draft. Wide receiver Corey Robinson, whose 65 career catches easily would have been the most of any returning player, saw his football days end be- cause of concussion problems. In ad- dition, 30-game starter Steve Elmer de- cided to retire from football so he could pursue career opportunities outside of the game. The latest blow came Aug. 21, when former five-star safety Max Redfield was kicked off the team following his arrest less than 48 hours earlier. Notre Dame returns only 13 play- ers from that 2013 haul, but if it is go- ing to be a playoff team this fall, the senior class still will have to serve as the foundation. DIFFERENCE MAKERS Legitimate championship contend- ers need star players, and last season's College Football Playoff made that clear. Alabama had Heisman Trophy winning running back Derrick Henry and a total of five All-Americans. Runner-up Clemson had five All- Americans of its own, while Oklahoma had four and Michigan State three. Three of the top four Heisman Trophy finalists were on playoff teams. Notre Dame's senior class has sev- eral candidates who could become genuine difference makers. Left tackle Mike McGlinchey is the prime candi- date, having been named to a number of preseason All-America lists. The 2015 campaign was his first as a starter, and McGlinchey quickly de- veloped into one of the nation's top blockers. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the top right tackle in the coun- try and graded him out higher than teammate Ronnie Stanley, who went on to become the No. 6 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. McGlinchey will now man the graduated Stanley's left tackle spot, where he will team with junior left guard Quenton Nelson to form one of the best one-two blocking combi- nations in the country. If he plays as expected, McGlinchey could finish the season as arguably the top tackle in the country. Notre Dame will build its offense around the ground attack, and having McGlinchey and Nelson next to each other should give the Irish a powerful left side. When KeiVarae Russell was sus- pended prior to the 2014 season, then- sophomore cornerback Cole Luke quickly stepped into a starting role. He responded with an outstanding season, finishing with a team-high 15 passes defended, the most by a Notre Dame player since future NFL star Dave Waymer in 1978. Luke was not as productive last sea- son, finishing the year with just seven passes defended. The Chandler, Ariz., native took his game to another level during the spring, and he's been domi- nant throughout fall camp. Talent has never been an issue for Luke, which his production in 2015 against a schedule that contained six receivers now in the NFL shows. What he has done this spring is play with the assuredness and aggressiveness needed to be one of the nation's top cornerbacks. If Luke can carry this attitude into games, his impact as a coverage cor- nerback will likely force defenses to throw away from his side. This will allow defensive coordinator Brian Van- Gorder to adjust his own coverages ac- cordingly, which makes everyone else around Luke better. No player in the class has as much uncertainty surrounding him heading into the season as does quarterback Malik Zaire. He has only three career starts, but he has made quite the im- pression in those Irish victories. His first career start was in Notre Dame's 31-28 bowl win over LSU in which he completed 12 of 15 passes and rushed for 96 yards. His second career start resulted in a 38-3 victory over Texas in which Zaire threw for 313 yards while connecting on 19 of 22 attempts. An ankle injury in his third start — a 34-27 win at Virginia — opened the door for then-sophomore DeShone Kizer to step into the spotlight. Kizer went on to throw for 2,884 yards and account for 31 touchdowns. Zaire is now in the third quarterback competition of his career, and has been declared too good by Kelly to not be deemed at least the co-starter. Should he win the competition, Zaire's tremendous arm strength, dy- namic playmaking ability and leader- ship will give him the opportunity to develop into an elite quarterback at the college level. READY TO LEAD The senior class will have to set the tone on a less experienced roster than in 2015, especially on defense. If Notre Dame is going to make a serious run at a title, the defense must make dra- matic improvements over the unit that ranked 58th in the country according to the Fremeau Efficiency Index. Notre Dame's biggest upgrade must come in the run game, where it has allowed 173.4 yards per game the last two seasons. That starts up front, where lineman Isaac Rochell will be counted on heavily to set the end. THE FOUNDATION Despite its personnel losses, Notre Dame will rely heavily on its senior class Cornerback Cole Luke has started all 26 games and racked up a team-best 22 passes defended (six interceptions and 16 passes broken up) the past two seasons. PHOTO BY ANDREW IVINS

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of Blue and Gold Illustrated - Preseason 2016