Blue and Gold Illustrated

Preseason 2016

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

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98 PRESEASON 2016 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED N o t h i n g i n f o o t b a l l prompts more conver- sation or scrutiny than a debate about intense quar- terback competition on a team and who should be the starter. So when Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly announced on Aug. 17 that both junior De- Shone Kizer and senior Malik Zaire would play in the sea- son opener at Texas Sept. 4, it might have come across to many as wishy-washy. Kelly this summer told Blue & Gold Illustrated in its 160-page full glossy 2016 Football Preview that he was not looking for- ward to having to make this tough choice. "I'm going to have to decide on one of them, and somebody is going to be pissed off," Kelly said on June 9. "That's how I'm getting myself ready for it." I couldn't help but think of the famous exchange in 1952 between Republican vice-president nominee Richard Nixon and esteemed GOP presidential nominee General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Accusations against Nixon came out that he had improp- erly kept a "secret" fund, so he asked Eisenhower whether he had his back and what his fate was on the party ticket after he was about to address it publicly. After Eisenhower hemmed and hawed on whether to keep him, Nixon laid it on the line: "General, there comes a time in matters like this when you've either got to s--- or get off the pot." Eisenhower contended that it would take several days to gauge public reaction, but eventually he did keep Nixon for both his terms. En- visioning Kelly playing both QBs all year is a little more difficult. Overlooked in Kelly's statement was that he was speaking specifically only to the Texas game and would gauge his own reaction from there. "We'll see what happens the next week against Nevada," Kelly said. Even at Texas, one quarterback might end up receiving the lion's share of snaps, while another might make a token appearance here or there. Possibly it could be situational. By the second game, middle or end of the season, one individual might emerge as the linchpin, and all the preseason chatter will be deemed overblown and/or inconsequential. Probably more telling of Notre Dame's 2016 fate will be the perfor- mance of the defense under third- year coordinator Brian VanGorder. The third year is when Fighting Irish head coaches have traditionally been gauged on whether they possess the right stuff to lead Notre Dame for many more years, and Kelly passed that test when in year three his team finished 12-1, losing in the BCS Na- tional Championship Game. That also happened to be Bob Di- aco's third season as the defensive coordinator after a sketchy first two years, and the unit appeared to be a mess — especially in the secondary, never mind losing pass-rush sensa- tion Aaron Lynch to transfer and line- backer Darius Fleming to the NFL. That new defensive backfield not only graduated its first-round safety (Harrison Smith), but by the first quarter of the third game fifth-year se- nior safety Jamoris Slaughter suffered a season-ending injury. All three top cornerbacks from the previous year — Robert Blanton, Gary Gray and Lo Wood — also were gone. Somehow, though, Diaco and the Irish staff pieced to- gether a dominant overall unit that spearheaded the 12-0 regular season. Freshman Kei- Varae Russell, a running back recruit, joined former wide re- ceiver Bennett Jackson as first- time starters at cornerback. Sophomore Matthias Farley, redshirted as a freshman wide receiver, emerged at one safety, while senior Zeke Motta be- came a consistent force after an up-and-down first three years. The scheme was elementary and basic, but effective. Now, also in year three, Van- Gorder has similar reconstruc- tion on the back end. He has a mainstay in senior cornerback Cole Luke, and then numerous question marks while relying on extremely inexperienced figures. How much the back end of the defense can be maximized will go a long way again toward determining how out front Notre Dame can be. Four years ago, Notre Dame pulled off a rare feat in recruiting: It signed a five-star prospect at each of the posi- tion groups on defense with Eddie Vanderdoes along the line, Jaylon Smith at linebacker and Max Redfield patrolling the back end. Just wait until they are all seniors by 2016! For various reasons, none is with the program anymore (or even joined, in the case of Vanderdoes), which can provide an alibi for continued frustra- tion or inconsistency on that side of the ball. Notre Dame demonstrated in 2012 that huge setbacks on defense or us- ing a second quarterback at times with Tommy Rees in place of Everett Golson — this year's QB situation is much stronger overall — don't have to dash expectations of top-10 or even championship caliber play if you are developing into a football "program," not just another football team. ✦ Defensive Upgrade Must Trump QB Debate THE FIFTH QUARTER LOU SOMOGYI Senior Editor Lou Somogyi has been at Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 1985. He can be reached at Third-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder faces a pivotal cam- paign with a lot of youth on the back end. BY BILL PANZICA

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