The young defense must contain quarterback Driphus Jackson.
Like most of Notre Dame’s young front seven, Jackson doesn’t have much starting experience.
Jackson played a reserve role in 2013, backing up since-graduated Taylor McHargue. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Jackson is slightly stockier than Everett Golson and just as dangerous on the ground.
Most of Jackson’s success last year came when he was scrambling or tossing short passes, and Rice coaches have been working to make him more of a deep threat. However, he could be without star receiver Jordan Taylor, whose foot injury leaves him questionable for Saturday.
Among Notre Dame’s front seven, only defensive tackle Sheldon Day and linebacker Jaylon Smith have started more than one game. If the front seven can keep Jackson from bursting upfield, they can force him into uncomfortable throws against unproven receivers.
“There are going to be times where we're going to be gnashing our teeth a little bit, but they're very athletic,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “And that's okay when you know you've got some very good athletes over there.”
Everett Golson must be in control of his emotions.
Saturday will mark Golson’s first game action since Jan. 7, 2013.
That’s 600 days of answering questions about his suspension and re-acclimation, 600 days since playing in front of a full crowd at a real game, 600 days since he’s last taken a hit.
“I think once he starts to get comfortable playing the game at fast pace, then we just call the game like we normally would,” Kelly said of Golson.
That start is imperative. Though Rice is one of the tamer opponents on Notre Dame’s schedule, the Owls have kept 22 of their last 23 opponents scoreless on their opening drive.
The Owls field a senior-laced secondary led by second-team All-Conference USA cornerback Bryce Callahan. Callahan has 11 career interceptions and 25 pass career pass breakups.
With that in mind, Golson will likely turn to running backs Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant to beat Rice on the ground.
The absence of the five suspended players must not be felt.
Notre Dame opens the season without three starters (cornerback KeiVarae Russell, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels and defensive end Ishaq Williams) and two reserves (linebacker Kendall Moore and safety Eilar Hardy), who are at the center of Notre Dame’s academic fraud investigation, which concluded Thursday.
With those five players out indefinitely, Notre Dame needs to show right away that they can win without them.
The starters’ replacements have varying degrees of experience. Sophomore receiver Corey Robinson has three career starts, sophomore cornerback Cole Luke has no starts but played in all 13 games and defensive end Andrew Trumbetti is a true freshman.
How quickly these three catch up to speed will be crucial to Notre Dame’s success going forward since the schedule only gets harder. If they’re struggling against Rice, they’ll struggle against Michigan.
If these three can keep from getting caught up in the moment, Notre Dame will be in good shape.