by John Vannie
It wasn’t the longest offseason in Notre Dame history – it just seemed like it. After eight months of setbacks both on and off the gridiron, Notre Dame hopes to rekindle the magic that helped produce a 12-0 regular season in 2012. The Irish will ease into this campaign by hosting the Temple Owls in the first-ever meeting between these schools. Temple is coming off a 4-7 effort last year, and will showcase a first time head coach in Matt Rhule, a revamped pro-style offense, and a first time starter at quarterback in Connor Reilly. The game will be nationally televised by NBC starting at 3:30 PM Eastern.
Saturday cannot arrive soon enough for Notre Dame fans, who are starved for success after effectively enduring an 0-12 record thus far in 2013. The tone for this virtual losing streak was set by a very real defeat and followed by an avalanche of negative developments:
1. The 42-14 thumping by Alabama in the National Championship Game
2. The poor timing and execution of Coach Brian Kelly’s flirtation with the Philadelphia Eagles
3. The real and imaginary problems encountered by Manti Te’o
4. The transfer of wide receivers DaVonte Neal and Justin Ferguson
5. Gunnar Kiel’s decision to leave the program prior to spring practice
6. The awkward defection of a highly touted defensive line recruit, Eddie Vanderdoes
7. Everett Golson’s suspension from the University for the Fall semester
8. The season-ending injury to projected starting safety Nicky Baratti
9. The loss of key reserve defensive lineman Tony Springmann to a knee injury
10. Starting linebacker Danny Spond’s medical issues leading to his retirement as a player
11. The recent change of heart by verbally committed running back Elijah Hood
12. The untimely death of Coach Tony Alford’s brother, Aaron.
Okay, enough about the past. Based on the above, one has to wonder whether Notre Dame will unleash its frustrations and ring up a triple digit score against the Owls. It probably won’t happen, but it could.
The focus of Irish players and coaches during fall camp has been to find answers to the handful of question marks that still remained among a very talented depth chart. The chief concerns were the right side of the offensive line, a starter at safety alongside Mattias Farley, and Spond’s replacement at outside linebacker. For now, Christian Lombard will move from right tackle to guard, making room for Ronnie Stanley on the outside. Austin Collinsworth has emerged from the pack at safety over Ejijah Shumate and highly regarded freshman Max Redfield, while elite incoming recruit Jaylon Smith will lead a two-man platoon that includes Ben Councell at outside linebacker.
The offense is anchored by veteran tackle Zack Martin and running mate guard Chris Watt on the left side. The receivers and backs represent an embarrassment of riches, with a level of speed, versatility and depth not seen on campus in two decades. The trigger man for this vast array of weaponry is quarterback Tommy Rees, whose physical limitations have been discussed ad nauseum but his toughness is often unnoticed. The truth of the matter, however, is that this offense can go as far as Rees can take it. The question is whether the absence of the deep ball in the passing game and the quarterback’s ability to run the ball effectively will prove to be fatal limitations against quality opponents. The only certainty is that we won’t learn the answer on Saturday.
The team recently elected three captains for the 2013 season: cornerback Bennett Jackson, wide receiver and punt returner T.J. Jones, and offensive tackle Zack Martin.
Temple enters the season with a young roster, having lost several key players to graduation. Rhule had been an assistant there for six years before spending the 2012 season as the New York Giants’ assistant offensive line coach, and returned in December as the Owls’ head coach. He named Reilly, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior, as his starting quarterback in the first step toward a return to the balanced, pro-style offense favored by his mentor Al Golden through 2010 season. Steve Addazio, who instituted a run-heavy attack at Temple in 2011-12, is now at Boston College.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. TEMPLE’S DEFENSE
The overall objective during the offseason was to get bigger and stronger up front, and the Irish have done that. The line is also stocked with at least two capable options at every position, which is an improvement from last year and a testament to solid recruiting efforts. Nick Martin has won the competition at center, and Lombard will team with Stanley on the right side. A recent injury derailed the starting bid of guard Conor Hanratty, who now stands in reserve. Line coach Harry Hiestand now has several mix and match options, but it is interesting to note that the second team tackles are both freshman – Steve Elmer (right) and Hunter Bivin (left). Both should see action this week.
George Atkinson III has performed well enough to earn the start at running back, but the buzz this summer has centered around Amir Carlisle, an elusive and versatile back who should get more than a few touches. Tough and reliable Cam McDaniel will also see action, and Irish fans will hope to see a glimpse of freshman phenoms Greg Bryant and Taurean Folston. Both are still in learning mode but might make larger contributions later in the season.
Notre Dame enjoys a distinct size advantage in the matchup with Temple’s front seven. The Owls run a basic 4-3 alignment and have talent on the inside with seniors Levi Brown and Kamal Johnson. The ends are very undersized, although Sean Daniels is highly regarded as a pass rusher. The linebackers are active but also small by major college standards, averaging 6’1” and 225 pounds. Tyler Matakevich lead the team with 101 tackles as a freshman weak side backer and Big East rookie of the Year in 2012. Middle man Nate Smith, who will share time this year with freshman Jarred Alwan, was next with 75.
The matchup between Notre Dame’s talented wide receiver corps and Temple’s weak secondary is an area for Rees and Kelly to exploit. Senior T.J. Jones leads a deep group that includes DaVaris Daniels, Chris Brown and freshman Corey Robinson. Daniels is poised for a breakout season after missing a chunk of games in 2012, and Robinson has an excellent pair of hands to go with his 6’5” frame. The default alignment will be three receivers and a single back, so Jones may frequently line up as a slot receiver with starters Brown and Daniels split wide. The next group includes veteran Daniel Smith, freshman James Onwualu and C. J. Prosise. Meanwhile, the Owls have only one experienced corner in Anthony Robey, and there is an even greater concern at safety.
Although Tyler Eifert has moved on to the NFL, the Irish have three quality tight ends in Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack and Alex Welch. Koyack in particular has elevated his stature and performance from last season. All three of these players are larger than the linebackers and defensive ends they will be asked to block, so the line should be able to control the edge on sweeps and runs off tackle to enable substantial gains. The power running game should work best against Temple’s defense, which pursues laterally much better than it stands up to a frontal assault. We will likely see a few runs out of the pistol formation, which is designed to get the back through the line more quickly and create a numbers advantage at the point of attack. Although Rees does not have the ideal skillset for this approach, it should be noted that 37 year-old Peyton Manning has been running it extensively in Denver this preseason.
TEMPLE’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The Owls had virtually no aerial attack last season, as evidenced by a paltry ten touchdown passes. Last season’s quarterback Chris Coyer is now an H-Back, while the second leading receiver, tight end Cody Booth, is the 2013 starting left tackle. Reilly will target Jalen Fitzpatrick, the team’s best receiver (and tallest starter at 5’11”). The team hoped to get some production out of 6’5” Deon Miller, a talented yet inconsistent and oft-injured receiver, but he did not make the two-deep this week.
The Owls were also hoping to have sixth year center Sean Boyle available for this contest to stabilize an inexperienced offensive line, but he too is unable to play. Sophomore Kyle Friend moves over from guard to take his place, and last year’s left tackle Zach Hooks moves to the right side. This group will have its hands full with arguably the best front line in college football, consisting of Louis Nix III, Sheldon Day and Stephon Tuitt. If Reilly is unable to remain upright throughout this contest, Temple will send Clinton “Juice” Granger into the huddle. Granger started two games at the end of last season but Reilly is the more accurate passer.
The running back position will be handled by committee. Montel Harris, who is familiar to Irish fans because he played for Boston College before transferring to Temple, ran for over 1000 yards last fall. His departure leaves Kenny Harper and Zaire Williams as the two most likely candidates this year. Neither were among the team’s top five rushers in 2012.
Although Notre Dame moves forward without linebackers Te’o and Spond, there is excellent depth on the outside and experience on the inside with Carlo Calabrese, Jarret Grace and Dan Fox. Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams at the Cat (short side) position represent a formidable one-two punch, while the freakishly talented Smith will generate a lot of attention from fans at the Dog (wide side) now that he is penciled in as the starter.
The secondary should be strong as cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell progress from first year starters in 2012 to solid veterans. Senior Lo Wood, back from a leg injury that sidelined him last year, and impressive freshman Cole Luke add quality depth. Farley, an active and physical player, has one safety spot nailed down while Collinsworth will start along side. Shumate, Redfield and Eilar Hardy should also see action.
Temple is obviously going to struggle against the Irish starting defense, and it may actually be more fun to watch the reserves slug it out during the second half.
Coach Kelly has maintained that special teams could not be a strong focus in his program until his roster had the depth necessary to stock these units with quality players. That day has finally arrived. T.J. Jones has volunteered for punt return duty, and he intends to make a difference here. Fans can also expect to see a number of true freshmen on the return and cover teams as they get their feet wet with game action. Atkinson remains the kickoff return man, with McDaniel next in line.
When asked about the freshmen getting playing time this week and beyond, Kelly replied, “Well, I think we like to get our freshmen in on special teams early on and get them acclimated, especially those guys that we plan on or have a vision towards playing. So I think you could probably get an eye towards what our intentions are based upon those guys you see on special teams on Saturday.”
Kyle Brindza has won the punting competition, and he will also share the place kicking duties with veteran Nick Tausch to lighten his overall workload. Brindza was strictly a kicker last year and became a reliable piece in Notre Dame’s successful victory march. He may handle long field goals and kickoffs this season while Tausch manages things from close range.
The Owls will replace graduated field goal kicker Brandon McManus with incoming freshman Jim Cooper. Junior Paul Layton will serve as the punter and take on the kickoff duty. Fitzpatrick serves as the return man for both punts and kickoffs. Temple’s coverage teams were very effective in 2012, limiting opponents to 17 yards on kick returns and five yards on punts. Although the Owls won’t provide a severe test for the Irish in all aspects of the game, perhaps we’ll be able to gauge the progress made in the return area by measuring what Jones and Atkinson can accomplish against reasonably competent cover units.
A Notre Dame victory in this contest is a virtual certainty, but success will be measured more in terms of the quality of play and execution. Turnovers and missed assignments on offense will draw the ire of the coaching staff, while unfilled gaps and blown coverages on defense will not be well received. Kelly has stressed the importance of getting Rees off to a good start, so look for him to remain in the game for extended reps even after the outcome is no longer in doubt. Other positions will be subject to more liberal substitution, and depth chart adjustments for week two may be made depending on how certain players perform in game situations.
Temple has several unknowns given its new coach, schemes and quarterback, but they do not have the size or depth to compete with the Irish for a full sixty minutes. This matchup is not an ideal one for Rhule in his debut, but fortunately for him and the Owls things will get easier going forward.
Here are a few questions on the mind of Notre Dame fans as this new season unfolds:
Will the Irish offense run at a quicker pace or will we see endless and mind-numbing sight adjustments, audibles, shifts and wasted timeouts as the play clock winds down to zero?
Which freshman will stand out during the game?
Will the second teamers on the defensive line play well enough to alleviate depth concerns?
Can Notre Dame’s inside linebackers replace the productivity of Manti Te’o?
Will the Irish special teams demonstrate discernible improvement?
Which running back will make the strongest case for more playing time?
Will Notre Dame convert touchdowns from its red zone opportunities, or will we watch in horror as endless fade passes crash to the turf?
Can Dan Hicks help Irish fans get over the loss of Tom Hammond?
An element that is impossible to accurately gauge at this stage of the season is team chemistry, which was extraordinary last year and played a crucial role in the 12-0 run to the championship game. Perhaps the offseason hardships and mishaps will galvanize this team in a similar fashion, but the infusion of talent from the freshman class combined with a significant number of returning veterans are very valuable ingredients toward another very successful campaign.
The Irish will win on Saturday by a comfortable margin, but the real measure of this team will be in how they arrive at the final score. The preference is to start fast and settle the issue in the first 20 minutes, get several second and third teamers into the action, and coast in the fourth quarter. That beats the frustration of a sluggish start littered with penalties, mental errors and overall inconsistent play. While the first two opening games under Brian Kelly in 2010 and 2011 were not very impressive, he got it right last season with a new starting quarterback in a crisply played romp over Navy. Look for more of the same on Saturday.
NOTRE DAME 52 TEMPLE 7