SOUTH BEND, Indiana — Notre Dame football begins its regular season eight days from now, when the Irish host Rice on Aug. 30.
It feels as if preseason camp has flown by. After Friday’s afternoon practice to finish out the week, the Irish will turn their attention to the Owls and the upcoming season.
Notre Dame held media day Tuesday on campus, prompting a flood of activity. Notre Dame’s home, road and Shamrock Series uniforms were released, and Irish head coach Brian Kelly provided an in-depth season preview in his press conference.
Let’s get to the highlights.
Team Moves on Amid Academic Investigation
Friday marks the one-week checkpoint after news broke last Friday of the academic investigation that has resulted in four players—wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams and linebacker Kendall Moore—being held out of practice and competition.
And in the one week since the initial frenzy, not much has changed.
No surprise, but DaVaris Daniels, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams weren't at #NotreDame practice today.— JJ Stankevitz (@JJStankevitz) August 19, 2014
Kelly did say he has spoken to the four players, but he did not have any “clarity” to provide on a timetable.
So Notre Dame remains in limbo for the time being, and Kelly has maintained he doesn’t expect to have the quartet against Rice. So how will Notre Dame respond?
“Sometimes, I think the coaches get more worked up about it than the players,” Kelly said of being without the foursome. “Players have such resolve. They're young guys. They get over it. They move on.”
It doesn’t feel like the indefinite loss of the four teammates will affect the mentality of the remaining squad. The biggest effect, of course, is the loss of on-field production.
At cornerback, graduate student Cody Riggs will assume the top role, and sophomores Cole Luke and Devin Butler follow on the depth chart. Kelly said Riggs has been “more than advertised for us,” and the Irish will certainly need that to continue to lessen the impact of losing Russell.
Kelly says Cody Riggs has been a leader and “accountable” for #NotreDame this camp. “He’s a darn good corner for us."— Blue and Gold News (@BGInews) August 19, 2014
With Daniels out of the mix for the time being, junior Chris Brown and sophomores Corey Robinson and Will Fuller will likely get the most work on the outside. There’s vast potential in the receiving corps to go along with the inexperience. Expect at least one of the unproven options to have a much-improved season.
#NotreDame DE Sheldon Day on Isaac Rochell: “When he goes in the weight room, whatever you put on the rack, he’s throwing it up."— Rachel Terlep (@eTruth_Irish) August 19, 2014
Sophomore Isaac Rochell has filled in for Williams as the strong-side defensive end. Players and coaches alike have raved about Rochell’s strength—junior Sheldon Day compared Rochell to former Irish defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt in that sense. The sophomore, however, will need to develop into a consistent option, especially with a true freshman, Andrew Trumbetti, starting opposite him. The defensive line is one of the biggest question marks of the Irish roster.
Starting Units Coming into Focus
Kelly has not announced a full depth chart, but the head coach did discuss some specific position battles and roles.
The offensive line has remained in flux throughout fall camp, but Kelly was ready to name the rotation, although he did say it remains subject to change. For now, the line features, from left to right, junior Ronnie Stanley, senior Matt Hegarty, senior Nick Martin, graduate student Christian Lombard and sophomore Steve Elmer. Sophomore Mike McGlinchey (tackle) and senior Conor Hanratty (guard) will be first off the bench, per Kelly.
It’s important for Notre Dame to finalize the starters along the line, as comfort and chemistry are key at the position. The line still figures to have some growing pains with new starters at new positions, but the ranks feature talent and versatility. It would be surprising if the offensive line was a major issue in 2014.
What is surprising is the rapid ascension of sophomore James Onwualu. As a true freshman wide receiver, he tallied two receptions for 34 yards while making an impact on special teams. The Saint Paul, Minnesota, native then switched to safety in the spring and quickly started working as the “Sam” outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme.
Now, Onwualu has been spotted with the first-team defense in each of Notre Dame’s last two practices open to the media, and Kelly confirmed he has risen up the depth chart.
“He cares so much,” Kelly said of Onwualu. “I mean, he's got so much pride that he spends hours just mastering his craft. He will not take a minute off if he doesn't know what to do. So that's what makes that kid a special player.”
It’s natural to be skeptical of Onwualu’s ability on game day, but Kelly pointed out Onwualu has begun with a strong knowledge base thanks to his brief time at safety. As an outside linebacker, if Onwualu can focus on just reading and reacting, he could perform well in the new role.
Youth and Tempo
So much is new and different when it comes to the 2014 Irish. From two new coordinators to new styles of play on both sides of the ball to loads of new faces, the Irish will be different this season.
Kelly made that clear even all the way back in January when he introduced VanGorder and discussed the offense with coordinator Mike Denbrock. Now, the unveiling is almost here.
“We have a lot of inexperienced players playing for us this year, and they'll get that opportunity playing the toughest schedule in the country,” Kelly said. “We will grow up quickly.
“We'll play faster on offense, we'll play faster on defense, and we'll all together be excited to watch this football team play and grow as the season progresses.”
It will be an exciting team to watch. The offense wants to push the tempo. The defense wants to be aggressive and dictate how the opposing offense plays. Young, athletic players are eager to make contributions.
But with these changes comes a heaping portion of uncertainty. How quickly will the young players develop? Will the defense be continually burned by its attacking mentality? And, of course, how will the academic investigation end up? When will there be a decision?
There are a lot of big-picture questions surrounding the Irish, making it difficult to pin down expectations for the season. We’ll stick to our most recent predictions for the Irish and peg them as an 8-4 team. Of course, a few breaks in the team's favor—players cleared to return or some growing pains bypassed—and Notre Dame might make a push for nine or 10 wins. For now, however, this looks like an entertaining, young and inexperienced team.
Start the countdown. Football is right around the corner.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco on Twitter.