Notre Dame opens camp Saturday at Culver Military Academy for the third straight year. Coming off a 10-3 season in which the three losses came to the nation’s second-, third- and fourth-ranked teams, expectations are high once again for the Irish as they enter coach Brian Kelly’s seventh season in South Bend.
The Irish will practice at Culver for five straight days, before returning to campus Aug. 11. Friday, Kelly will meet the media, and here is a look at the biggest questions facing his squad, which is No. 9 in the preseason USA Today Amway coaches poll, entering 2016:
1. What happens with the QBs? Notre Dame is confident it can win with either DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire, but the biggest issue is how to handle one talented signal-caller being relegated to backup duty. We saw some of this last season with Ohio State, which never really seemed to find an offensive identity that could carry it throughout 2015. Kelly, to his credit, seems to be planting the seeds to combat this potential problem already, telling "The Jim Rome Show" last week: “Look, it would be great if whoever took the job over played so well that he’s going to be a Heisman contender. If that doesn’t happen, I can see both of them eventually playing, because you’re going to need two quarterbacks in college football. It just seems that that’s the way it’s been over the last few years in college football: You need two, and we’ve got two really good ones, so my expectation is both of them are going to have to be ready to play.”
Important to note: Needing two — and having two ready to play — is not the same as declaring two will rotate snaps this season.
2. Will the defense improve? In short: It better. Look, it’s never a good sign when, before camp even opens, the biggest (non-QB) question fans have is whether the defense will be able to stop anyone. When it mattered most last season, the unit didn’t — and that was with three guys who just got drafted and four more who signed with NFL clubs. There will be plenty of new faces this season, and while we know what to expect from Isaac Rochell, James Onwualu and Cole Luke, the success of this unit will come down to the growth of relatively untested guys such as Nyles Morgan, Devin Studstill and Shaun Crawford. Can the new guys get up to speed? That has been the biggest question facing coordinator Brian VanGorder and his NFL scheme as he enters Year 3, although this year’s schedule shouldn’t offer as many challenges as last year’s did.
3. Who’s next in line to be a leader? Notre Dame lost a pair of two-time captains (Nick Martin and Sheldon Day). It lost locker-room leaders (Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley). It lost Jaylon Smith. Now? Rochell is probably as close to a lock for a defensive captaincy as there is, with Onwualu and Luke having chances, too. Mike McGlinchey figures to be a go-to voice on the offensive side, along with maybe one of the QBs. But if you look at the two best teams of the Kelly era — 2012 and 2015 — both were anchored by a group of returning stars who, in many cases, put off the NFL and were champing at the bit to be in positions of leadership. You knew Manti Te’o was going to captain the Irish in 2012. You knew Day and several others would in 2015. With all due respect to those on this roster, things are far less certain in that regard this season. (Sidenote: Kelly's last quarterback to be a season captain? Tony Pike in 2009. And Cincinnati picked captains after the season then, too.)
4. Who will the QB(s) throw to? It was a quiet offseason until Wednesday, when news broke that Alize Jones would not play this season, with the tight end alluding to academic issues. This is no small hit to an Irish offense that returns little experience in the receiving game besides Torii Hunter Jr., who has 35 career catches for 428 yards and three touchdowns. Notre Dame’s other returning receivers and tight ends: Nine career catches, 52 yards, one touchdown. Jones also figured to play outside more after the summer retirement of Corey Robinson (concussion), so the Irish will need some of their young receivers — looking at you, Corey Holmes, Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin and Kevin Stepherson — to make leaps this season. Fortunately for the Irish, they do have plenty in the tight end department with the returns of Durham Smythe, Nic Weishar and, after a near-transfer to BYU, Tyler Luatua.