NOTRE DAME — New season, new uniforms, new FieldTurf, new defense.
The Fighting Irish kick off the 2014 football season against reigning Conference USA champion Rice Saturday, Aug. 30, at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame will roll out both a more aggressive defense and a more up-tempo offense for public viewing Saturday. The success of both hinges on how quickly Everett Golson can re-acclimate to the game and how fundamentally sound the young defensive front look.
“I think like everybody else, you want to get off to a good start," head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. ”Fundamentals are important. You want to stay away from costly turnovers and sloppy football. You want to know that all the work that you put in his paying off a little bit, that we’ve put in since January. We have to have good quarterback play. Right? We want to see a progression there. And some confidence for some young players on defense.”
In their own words
“(Rice was) innovative offensively last year,” Kelly said. “I thought that they were very difficult to defend offensively last year, very creative. If you put too much emphasis in stopping their run game, (Jordan) Taylor, the receiver was outstanding so they had good balance offensively. I thought they were just well-coached from an offensive standpoint.”
"They’re a gritty bunch of guys. They can run the football. They won 10 games last year — we can’t take them lightly,” said Notre Dame senior safety Austin Collinsworth.
Rice DT Christian Covington on ND QB Everett Golson: "We're preparing for him like we did for Johnny Manziel. He's that type of player."
Primed to shine: Notre Dame’s loaded stable of running backs is headed by captain Cam McDaniel and supplemented by sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant.
Rice lost its top two pass rushers from last year but returns first-team All-Conference USA defensive tackle Christian Covington. Beyond Covington, though, the Owl front line is wholly unproven. Expect Notre Dame to run the ball early and often.
Though all three are listed as first-teamers on the depth chart, McDaniel, a senior and a captain, will likely get the start.
But with a heavy focus on the ground game, expect Folston to bring more of his magic from 2013 and for Bryant to finally get his chance in the sun.
Keep an eye on: Jarron Jones, Notre Dame’s 6-5½, 315-pound junior nose tackle. Jones has the body of a veteran, but he’s only started one game for the Irish.
He struggled to find a role on the defensive line early in his career, but when nose guard Louis Nix went down with an injury last season, Jones shined against BYU.
He’ll line up against a Rice offensive line that returns four players with starting experience. While Jones’ biggest challenges lie ahead in Michigan, Florida State and USC, coaches will get a good look at how he can perform against a veteran line.
Notre Dame is in trouble if... Rice grinds out the clock by churning up yardage on the ground.
The Owls thrived on the running game in 2013, finishing 17th in the nation in rushing yards a game (227 yards/game). Rice’s commitment to running the ball ranked them 12th in the nation in time of possession. Rice finished 2013 with at least 42 carries each game.
With top receiver Jordan Taylor likely out, the Owls will rely on its running backs even more.
The Owls’ best chance of winning is keeping Notre Dame’s unproven defense on the field and loaded offense off of it.
For all of Rice’s strengths, the Owls are 3-18 against major conference opponents since 2007. Those wins came against Purdue in 2011 and against Kansas in 2012 and 2013.
Golson shakes off the rust, the running back trio dominates on the ground and the debut of both the defense and its new cast of characters.