by John Vannie
Notre Dame opens the 2011 football season amid a wave of optimism and high expectations in Brian Kelly’s second year as head coach. The Irish finished strong in 2010 with victories over Miami and arch rival USC, and return most of their key players. The visitors from South Florida are coached by Skip Holtz, who is also in his second season with the Bulls and is 80-55 in his career. The Bulls are coming off an 8-5 campaign and are widely regarded as the team to beat in the Big East Conference this year.
Quarterback Dayne Crist has recovered from a serious knee injury last October to reclaim the starting job from sophomore Tommy Rees after an intense competition. Crist will target senior wide receiver Michael Floyd, who evoked a sigh of relief from Irish fans when he elected to return for his final season. The offensive line is a solid unit that came together in the second half of last season. Four experienced starters are joined by guard Chris Watt, who saw considerable action in 2010. Junior Cierre Wood remains the lead running back, while senior Jonas Gray will share some of the workload.
While the offense is both experienced and talented, it is Notre Dame’s defense that has generated considerable enthusiasm. An exceptional group of freshmen will bolster the front seven to give the Irish a combination of size, speed and depth that has not been seen in South Bend in a very long time. Senior ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore are backed by freshmen Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch in the Irish 3-4 alignment, while junior Manti Te’o anchors the linebacking corps. Free safety Harrison Smith is back for his final season after a breakout campaign in 2011.
South Florida boasts speed and athleticism on both sides of the ball, and the Bulls expect to be improved in Year 2 of the Holtz regime despite the loss of several linemen and offensive skill position players. They will rely heavily on talented quarterback B.J. Daniels, who will not have to learn a new offensive system for the first time in his college career. The defense is strong at linebacker and in the secondary, while nose tackle Cory Grissom anchors a four man front that will include three new starters.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. SOUTH FLORIDA’S DEFENSE
The Irish are expected to test the revamped South Florida defensive line by running the ball early and often. The battle between Grissom and Irish center Braxton Cave will be interesting to watch, but Notre Dame should be able to run right at ends Ryne Giddins (260 lbs) and Patrick Hampton (240 lbs). Other than Julius Forte, who is primarily a pass rush specialist, the Bulls do not have much depth up front to withstand a sustained ground attack. Giddins is a highly regarded prospect who will apply pressure on passing downs.
Middle linebacker Sam Barrington and weak side veteran DeDe Lattimore are above average players, and a solid secondary returns cornerback Quenton Washington and both safeties. JaQuez Jenkins is a valuable reserve who can play either corner or safety and typically serves as the nickel back. South Florida is sure to focus on Floyd in the passing game, but Notre Dame has other options. Tight end Tyler Eifert is an emerging star with good downfield speed, while wide receivers Theo Riddick and T.J. Jones are looking to stay healthy and realize their potential.
Crist will probably refrain from running the ball on designed plays, but Kelly has the option of inserting a dual threat quarterback into the game for a change of pace. Sophomore Andrew Hendrix impressed in the spring while freshman Everett Golson is pure lightning in a bottle. It will be interesting to see if either is called upon in this contest and throughout the season. Hendrix displayed a powerful style while Golson is freakishly elusive, but both can throw the ball as well as run it.
The plan for Notre Dame should be to keep the Bulls’ defense off balance while steadily wearing them down. The Irish may elect to employ the no-huddle variant or change quarterbacks for a series or two, but an emphasis on the run should pay dividends as the game moves into the second half. Notre Dame’s improved defense should afford Kelly plenty of options in his play calling without the need to take undue risks.
SOUTH FLORIDA’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The Bulls were primarily a running team in 2010, as evidenced by their 60/40 split between the run and the pass. Demetrius Murray is listed as the starting tailback, but Holtz has imported Darrell Scott, a highly regarded transfer from Colorado, to share the load. Daniels was the team’s third leading rusher last season and will run by design as well as under duress. The offensive line is set on the left side with tackle Mark Popek and center Chaz Hine leading the way, but Danous Estenor and Quinterrius Eatmon are new starters on the right.
Notre Dame’s talent and depth up front should neutralize a more traditional ground game, so scenes like this one probably won’t occur for the Bulls.
The challenge will be to contain Daniels. The Irish have added speed at linebacker with new starters Prince Shembo and Dan Fox joining Te’o and veteran Darius Fleming. Backups Steve Filer, Danny Spond and Carlo Calabrese can fill in without losing a beat.
When Daniels drops back to pass, his only proven receiver is 6’3” Evan Landi. Other options include Joel Miller and Terrence Mitchell, who are quick enough to be dangerous in the open field. The Bulls may also employ wideouts A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin, who are returning from major injuries that kept them on the sideline all last season. Love is a sixth year senior who has overcome a pair of torn ACLs during his career. The tight end position in this offense is typically employed as a blocker, as the entire group combined for only seven receptions last season.
Daniels was a 58% passer in 2010 and was often inconsistent. Despite the presence of speed in the Bull’s lineup, the number of new personnel on offense makes it unlikely that Holtz’ passing game will be functioning smoothly at this stage of the season. Notre Dame’s corners are not exceptionally fast, but Gary Gray and Robert Blanton are capable veterans who can cover and tackle. The Irish have numerous pass rushers to keep pressure on Daniels, and this may lead to turnovers. Much depends on the ability of Daniels to create positive plays, but Notre Dame should be prepared if Golson has been running the scout team in practice all week.
The Irish have the athletes to excel in kick and punt coverage this season, but the team is still searching for a dynamic return man. Riddick will be featured in this role with Bennett Jackson or possibly a freshman getting a chance. Former walk-on David Ruffer returns as the place kicker following an extraordinary 2010 season and junior Ben Turk continues as the punter. Kickoffs will be handled by freshman Kyle Brindza, whose powerful leg is evident when he manages to hit the ball solidly.
South Florida has a dangerous return man in Lindsay Lamar, who was named the Big East Special Teams Player of the Year last season. While the Bulls’ offense is not likely to march up and down the field against the Irish, Lamar provides big play potential. Reliable place kicker Maikon Bonani was 17 for 21 on field goals last year with a long of 47 yards, and Chris Veron beat out incumbent Justin Brockhaus-Kann for the punting job.
Notre Dame’s depth and experience along each line appears to be a significant advantage. The Irish have proven back-ups in all areas except wide receiver, offensive tackle and cornerback, while South Florida is still struggling to find an answer if any starter goes down. Such a comparison on paper is less predictive in an opening game where injuries and fatigue are not factors, so the Bulls can pull off an upset if the Irish are sloppy on offense and Daniels makes big plays when it matters most.
While Daniels must play exceptionally well for the Bulls to win, the key for Notre Dame is to shift pressure away from Crist. If the defense and running game operate as expected, Crist can manage the Irish offense without the weight of the world on his shoulders. Crist will once again play in a live game for the first time since the previous October, but the familiar faces among his supporting cast should help ease any anxiety.
Here are a few questions that will have a bearing on the outcome:
Will Crist be poised or jittery in the pocket?
Can the Bulls run the ball against the Irish?
Will Kelly mix up the tempo or alternate quarterbacks?
Can the Irish contain Lamar on special teams?
Will Notre Dame’s defensive pressure force Daniels into mistakes?
How good are the new players in the Irish defensive rotation?
Will the Irish offensive line dominate or struggle in the running game?
South Florida is a quality opponent with a fair amount of ability and toughness. Their style would be more problematic for recent Notre Dame teams that favored finesse and scheme over physicality, and also lacked the defensive speed to contain the edge. Those deficiencies should not be evident in this year’s Irish, who appear to have no major weaknesses. Expect Notre Dame to pull away after a tight first half and a few anxious moments later on, but a blowout victory does not seem likely.
NOTRE DAME 27 SOUTH FLORIDA 16